The money trail of disaster aid

Yolanda: The disaster that lingers still

WHEN IT became evident that Typhoon Ruby was going to slam through central Philippines in December last year, many began wondering what would happen to the thousands who were still homeless more than a year after Super Typhoon Yolanda rampaged through communities in the Visayas and robbed many families of their loved ones as well as their homes.

Indeed, although monies continue to pour in even now for the communities devastated by Yolanda, thousands who survived its fury are still living in temporary shelters; damaged government offices and school buildings remain unrepaired; and many of those who lost their means of livelihood are still struggling to find steady work.

In large part, this is because mobilizing the aid funds has been grossly inefficient, if also severely impaired by the massive devastation, leaving efforts stuck at the recovery stage instead of progressing toward rehabilitation.

That in turn, could be because far too many local government units have been unable to strategize and map out what they want to do next after Yolanda walloped their communities. At the same time, there has been a lack of coordination among aid organizations in the field, which has been complicated all the more by their apparent inability to operationalize plans and programs at the community level.

Graveyard School

Graveyard School. Fisherman’s Village Elementary School became a watery grave for more than 30 residents of Village 88 in Tacloban City when super typhoon Yolanda whipped up storm surges more than 15-foot high. The school was not designated as an official evacuation center according to village officials but people who feared that their homes would be looted refused to be evacuated to the Astrodome several kilometers away. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

These are just a few of the findings of PCIJ after a scrutiny of the Yolanda aid trail so far. Aside from looking at available data more closely, the Center interviewed representatives of recipient organizations and affected individuals and communities. In addition, PCIJ looked at the institutional arrangements behind the aid, identified key decision makers involved in the allocation, release, and use of Yolanda aid funds, and determined the extent by which all Yolanda humanitarian aid are recorded, publicly reported, and audited.

For sure the Yolanda humanitarian aid operation is of a magnitude that the country has never seen before. This may help explain why aid efforts in the Yolanda-struck areas lack order while previously set protocols and processes have often been set aside.

The Commission on Audit (COA) itself, in its assessment on disaster management practices in the Philippines, has observed, “Yolanda’s catastrophic destruction exposed once more the weaknesses and significant gaps in the country’s disaster response and management system.”

Complex, cost-intensive

The task of recovering from the destruction wrought by Typhoon Yolanda is complex. The financial cost alone in rebuilding the devastated areas is staggering: PhP167.9 billion, according to the government’s Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan (CRRP). Official and anecdotal data, however, indicate that finding funds is not a major obstacle in the Yolanda relief, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts. Rather, the problems lie largely in the planning, processing, and ultimate use of such resources.

The United Nations itself has monitored, through its Financial Tracking Service (FTS), a total of US$845 million (PhP37 billion) of Yolanda aid being raised and donated to the Philippines in the period between November 2013 and October 2014. Some 22 percent of this amount came from private individuals and organizations. The rest came from various donor-countries.

According to the UN, these donations were coursed through 120 operational relief agencies from within the UN system, the international components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and some international non-governmental organizations (INGO).

But there have also been other sources of Yolanda aid that lie outside the UN ambit. These include Philippine conglomerates that have been coursing aid money through their foundations, as well as foreign and local charity groups that have been donating directly to the affected communities.

“The initial emergency response was not perfect, but it was strong, delivering life-saving assistance to millions of survivors,” says Oxfam International, one of the global non-governmental organization (NGO) partners of the United Nations, in a report issued in time for the first year anniversary of the killer storm. Oxfam alone has raised US$64.5 million (about PhP2.88 billion) for Yolanda survivors. So far it has spent over US$40 million (about PhP1.78 billion) of that amount on its various humanitarian projects.

Work for all

Work for all. Children take turns filling their pails with water and taking it up a steep path in this transitional housing community managed by the International Organization for Migration in Village 101, New Kawayan, Tacloban City. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

International look, feel

So huge has been the global humanitarian response for Yolanda that the recovery and rehabilitation operations to this day have a glaringly international look and feel to them. Still present are hundreds of foreign aid workers from more than a dozen countries who had swooped down the stricken areas, established offices in the urban centers, and practically led the relief and rehabilitation efforts. Every day, dozens of brand new European-, Korean- and Japanese-made official vehicles of the different agencies crisscross highways and even barangay roads. Also hard to ignore are the tarpaulin banners announcing the projects various aid agencies are implementing in the area.

Of course, it’s not as if the Philippine government has been doing nothing. Through the years, the government has adopted various approaches to disaster risk reduction and management. The latest has been the establishment of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) through Republic Act No. 10121. Enacted in 2010, the new law provided a “whole of society” approach to disaster management by expanding the membership of the Council to 44 government agencies, from the previous 19, and included various financial institutions, local government leagues, the private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) to the disaster management body.

Yet, COA says, “despite a solid and functioning disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) structure, the government’s response (to the Yolanda disaster) still came across as reactive and not proactive, insufficient, inefficient and for the most part, too slow.”

In fact, it was not the government but the survivors themselves who were the first responders to the disaster wrought by Yolanda. Stories abound how people shared with their neighbors what little food and water they could find during the first few days after the storm; how they cared for the injured, even strangers; and how they secured their communities from looters and other sociopaths.

“Help from the government came only almost a week after Yolanda hit and only in areas near the main roads and highways,” says University of the Philippines-Tacloban professor Amy Exconde. “Relief goods took two weeks to reach interior communities. In fact, in some barangays it took much longer, like about a month,”

Agonizing wait

For some survivors, the weeks of waiting for help to come were an agonizing experience. “Ang hirap talaga, hindi mo alam kung papaano ka babangon (It was so hard, you had no idea how you were supposed to recover),” says Ermita Biyo, a resident of Barangay Gigoso, Giporlos town, in Eastern Samar. It took three weeks after the killer storm battered this coastal barangay before relief reached the community. And one year on, most of its fishers are still without fishing boats and gear, while Ruby whipped through tents that some residents had taken to calling home (but fled from when news of the latest storm was issued).

To be fair, the government provided immediate relief assistance through its various departments and agencies. To guide the recovery and rebuilding of the Yolanda-affected areas, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) even drafted a strategic plan called “Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda – Build Back Better” (RAY) in late November 2013, just a few weeks after the storm struck. This plan became the basis for the immediate government interventions in the affected areas.

But RAY has become one instance where funding has come up short. Of the estimated US$8.2 billion (about PhP366.5 billion) needed for immediate relief and subsequent recovery and rehabilitation of the Yolanda-affected areas, the government can only commitUS$2.8 billion (about PhP125 billion) from its budget. Pledges from foreign donors were also not enough to bridge the gap; most foreign donors had opted to release their funds to their affiliated intergovernmental organizations and nongovernment organizations.

(Data from the government website Foreign Aid Transparency Hub or FAiTH show that some 63 countries and seven multilaterals had pledged a total of P73.3 billion (US$1.64B) for the Yolanda recovery effort. Of the total pledges, PhP45.1 billion were cash and P28.2 billion were non-cash. To date, however, the pledgers have released only a total of PhP17.2 billion, or about 23.5 percent. Of this amount, PhP1.19 billion in cash and PhP1.27 billion in non-cash were directly given to the government; the balance of PhP14.76 billion was channeled through NGOs and intergovernmental organizations.)

Waiting Still

Waiting Still. A child waits for his playmates in a transitional housing area in New Kawayan, Village 101 in Tacloban City. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

Level 3 Emergency

To complement RAY, the United Nation’s Humanitarian Country Team prepared a Strategic Response Plan (SRP) to “fill emergency gaps as identified by government and inter-agency assessments.”

Unlike RAY, funding for SRP has not been a problem. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has in place a mechanism to mobilize financial resources for humanitarian assistance. This mechanism is triggered by the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s declaration that a major disaster – called Level 3 emergency – such as the Yolanda calamity, has indeed occurred.

The mechanism is initially activated by Flash Appeals that are issued three to five days after the onset of the disaster. Funds raised from these Flash Appeals are used only for the most critical needs of the affected people in the next six months, such as food and water. For longer-term emergency response, such as shelter and livelihood, funds are raised through the Consolidated Appeals. Consolidated Appeals are issued after a more thorough post-disaster needs assessment, usually conducted about 30 days after the onset of the disaster.

In the meantime, the Philippine government has continued to engage the local non-government sector, particularly the private conglomerates through their various foundations, to help in the rehabilitation work under RAY. It divided the 171 Yolanda-affected cities and municipalities into 24 “areas of development” and convinced conglomerates to adopt specific areas by acting as “development sponsors” involved in the implementation of the areas’ rehabilitation and recovery plan. Through this strategy, the government hopes to align the private sector’s Yolanda projects with its own priority plans.

A number of foreign and local private institutions with substantial private funds, however, have been monitored to be working directly and independently with the affected communities, municipalities, and cities. These include big local foundations and NGOs; their projects are outside the government’s RAY and the UN OCHA’s SRP.

Inefficient, redundant process

While these initiatives are laudable, they have made coordination more complicated and difficult. At times, they have also made project implementation inefficient.

In Barangay 88, Tacloban City, for instance, several NGOs went directly to the survivors to distribute boats, without coordinating first with city or barangay officials. “They ended up giving boats to those who were tricycle drivers before the typhoon, not fishermen,” Barangay 88 chair Emelita Montalba tells PCIJ. Some residents of her barangay, she says, even received three fishing boats each from three different NGOs.

Other barangays tell similar tales. “Sa aming barangay, ang tawag namin sa mga bangka ay solar panel kasi nakabilad lang sa araw (In our barangay, we call the boats solar panels because they just lie under the sun),” Jun Castillo, chairperson of the Tacloban Urban Fisherfolk Association said in a press conference in Tacloban City earlier this month. “Hindi na nagagamit kasi isa lang ang kayang ilayag na bangka ng bawat mangingisda. Ngunit marami sa amin ang nakatanggap ng dalawa o tatlong bangka, ang iba apat pa nga (We don’t really use them because each fisher can use only one boat really. But many of us received two or three boats. Some even received four).”

Yet in Barangay Sto Niño, Quinapondan, Samar, 31 fishers share five boats provided them by the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM). Members of the Sto. Niño Fisherfolk Association, they take turns using the boats.

Bago mag-Yolanda halos lahat kami ay may tig-iisang bangka (Before Yolanda, almost all of us had a boat each),” says Orly Tabungar, the association president. “Ngayon pinaghahatian namin ang lima, iniiskedyul ang paggamit (Now we share five among ourselves, we just schedule when we’d use them).”

Lack of coordination

The glaring imbalance in the distribution of the fishing boats may be due to the lack of coordination among humanitarian organizations. Duplication, even mismatched interventions, had happened in other Yolanda-affected areas before. Notably, the post-Yolanda aid efforts involved not just distribution of boats, but also the construction of day-care and health centers, schools, and permanent shelters as well as provision of livelihoods.

Both local and international NGOs had conducted post-disaster needs assessments in areas where they intended to implement programs and projects. Yet apparently, most of these assessments failed to provide the NGOs with a more holistic understanding of the needs of the people.

As it is, some community workers are not too happy over the trend among aid agencies to distribute boats as livelihood support to coastal communities.

“It’s worrisome that the livelihood intervention of many NGOs is too focused on fishing,” says Fr. Cesar Aculan, director for social action of the Diocese of Calbayog, the implementing unit of Catholic charity Caritas for Samar. “Yolanda has already destroyed marine resources, and now your assistance consisting of a lot of boats would likely lead to overfishing. It doesn’t seem to be a match.”

Fortunately for Calbayog, the Social Action Center (SAC) there has decided to put a moratorium on the distribution of boats and instead focus on aquaculture and seaweed farming for its livelihood projects.

The same approach is being done by PRRM. “Included in our livelihood program are workshops on how to protect coastal resources,” says Charlie Razo, PRRM’s Field Coordinator in Eastern Samar. “Included are workshops on how to cultivate mangroves and establishing marine protected areas.”

Unlike many NGOs, too, both SAC and PRRM require that the beneficiaries of their livelihoodprojects be formally organized first and duly registered with any government regulatory body to ensure sustainability.

Charlie Razo

Charlie Razo. An organizer of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Charlie Razo says that fisherfolk in Santo Niño village have availed themselves not only of fishing boats but also training to become protectors of coastal and marine resources. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

Imbalance in pace, shares

The imbalance, however, is not just perceptible in the matter of aid distribution. It is also very observable in the pace that the different Yolanda-devastated towns have recovered. This unevenness can even be discerned as one traverses the main roads of Leyte and Samar.

Before Ruby struck, some towns, like Salcedo in Eastern Samar, were doing very well in the implementation of their post-Yolanda recovery plan. The municipality’s monitoring report showed that it had completed reconstruction/repair of all school buildings, day-care centers, and health centers. It was about to complete the repair of the public market, municipal building, and other public infrastructures as well.

Construction of typhoon-resilient houses in permanent relocation sites was also on schedule. And according to Rey Padit, consultant to the municipal mayor, they were now looking at providing alternative sources of income to farmers and fishers who lost their livelihoods.

By comparison, other towns like Basey and Marabut, both in Western Samar, were apparently still struggling to recover from the devastation wrought by the killer typhoon. One year on, Yolanda’s aftermath was still discernible in the unrepaired houses and infrastructures along its main thoroughfares.

A key element in Salcedo’s success, according to Padit, was the full support given to the town by humanitarian organizations like the Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team (AMURT), an international NGO founded in India and its German NGO partner Kindernothilfe (KNH).

“We were lucky,” Padit tells PCIJ. “When AMURT and KNH arrived a day after Yolanda, they were asking for a municipal profile. We gave them not just the profile, but also complete information of what we needed for the relief and rehabilitation of our municipality – all printed up and placed in a folder.”

Obviously, though, it was not lady luck that made the two international NGOs decide to support Salcedo. More than likely, they were impressed by the way the municipality presented its proposal, which reflected the LGU’s capacity to plan and document its recovery program.

For Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Philippine representative, the different capacities of local government units are a major reason why some municipalities have recovered faster than others. “Some LGUs have more capacity than others,” she says. “In some LGUs, things are going very well and they are keeping up with the implementation. In some LGUs it’s much, much slower.”

She observes that “LGUs (that) are poor and at really disadvantaged areas with sort of limited resources both financially and otherwise” are finding it difficult to keep up with the recovery efforts.

Rey Padit

Rey Padit. The small town of Salcedo managed to put up permanent housing units for residents displaced by Yolanda, a year after the typhoon struck, with help from several international NGOs. Rey Padit, consultant to the mayor, says the city government now plans to provide alternative sources of livelihood for farmers and fishermen. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

Local capacity gaps

Ladylyn Lim-Mangada, political science professor at UP Tacloban, seems to agree. “The problem,” she says, “is that the LGUs are not prepared to [handle] the assistance from international nongovernmental organizations. The LGUs have failed to set guidelines for the various interventions being done by the humanitarian organizations at various levels.”

For example, she says, there has been a lack of guidance from municipal LGUs on the design of shelters or classrooms that needed to be rebuilt. At the barangay level, notes Lim-Mangada, there is also no uniform way of determining aid beneficiaries. “Some would rely on voters’ list while others do not even have lists,” she says. “Still others don’t even understand the concept of households on which to base the distribution of aid.”

World Vision Programs Director Sean Ng also says that the problem of unevenness in the recovery work lies with the lack of a “standard system” that may guide the LGUs in implementing recovery projects.

“Every LGU varies in the way they choose to implement [the projects] because there isn’t a standard system to do this,” Ng comments. “I mean, not yet. All have different ways and different advantages and disadvantages in different approaches.” — With research and reporting by Julius Mariveles, Charmaine P. Lirio, Rowena Caronan, Che de los Reyes, and Malou Mangahas, PCIJ, January 2015


Prof. Ladylyn Mangada. “Sometimes I call it ‘build back bitter’ instead of ‘build back better,’” says this political science professor of the University of the Philippines-Tacloban. Photo by Julius D. Mariveles



“Christian Aid funded this project/report as our contribution to the interest of the public’s right to know how the Yolanda funds are managed and used, and that the findings and recommendations are meant to feed into the policy discourse on Republic Act No. 10121 (The Philippine Risk Reduction and Management Plan of 2010) review and the Yolanda budget process.”