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Moment that mattered: Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines

Residents walk beside a large ship that was washed ashore by strong waves caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city, Leyte province central Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into six central Philippine islands on Friday leaving a wide swath of destruction and hundreds of people dead. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)


“As director of the UN Humanitarian Relief department I visited every major disaster area between 2007 and 2010 including Darfur, Haiti, Myanmar and Pakistan. Initial reports never give you a clear idea of how bad it’s going to be. On this occasion it turned out worse than feared. For aid organisations the key days are four and five, when the true scale of the devastation tends to be known; it’s also when journalists have arrived. It’s that shot of the reporter standing in front of the devastation that will make the public, and to some extent governments, pledge money.

The United Nations urgently needs that cash. It has a central emergency fund, so there is some money instantly available, but that barely lasts a second. There is a symbiosis between journalists and the aid agencies who need to get the story heard. It’s not a perfect relationship. The media tend to obsess over casualties but these figures aren’t so important to aid agencies – aid can’t help the dead. What’s more important is the number of people who remain affected. It’s important to avoid exaggerating the facts. Exaggeration is a curse, particularly in the immediate wake of a disaster when the facts aren’t clear but people demand news. You need to stick to facts otherwise people won’t believe the scale next time around.

Sadly some stories are more attractive to news media than others. Consider the way the Haiti earthquake and the floods in Pakistan – both of which happened in 2010 – were covered. The former killed an awful lot of people but affected two million; the latter killed far fewer people but 20 million were affected. Haiti got huge coverage while Pakistan received virtually none. This may be because earthquakes make for better TV than floods or it may be because people don’t appear to feel so much sympathy towards Pakistan. Also, Haiti was in January, when more people in the West are at home watching TV and thinking about self-improvement, while Pakistan happened in summer. People don’t want to think about flooding in August.

Several months on and things are getting better in the Philippines, but their needs are still substantial. Shelter is a long-term problem and it’s important that food aid doesn’t last too long or you risk damaging the local infrastructure – the livelihoods of the farmers, shops and the rest of the economy. If free food is available, people won’t pay for local produce, causing a chain reaction that can have devastating effects.

It’s all very well responding to events after they’ve happened – and we need to do that – but much can be done in terms of mitigation. You cannot prevent disasters, but you can reduce their impact with flood defences, earthquake-proof buildings and so on. Spending on prevention is better than spending after impact, but it’s less of a story and so it’s hard to get funding.

Aid workers can’t get emotionally involved. It’s like being a surgeon – you’re no use to the next patient if you’re grieving for the previous one. You need to be detached enough to determine what people actually need. The goal is to get people up on their own two feet as quickly as possible so you can move on to the next crisis. Because one thing’s certain – there’s always another one coming.”

John Holmes is director of the Ditchley Foundation and former United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination.   

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