Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines

The scaremongering is undermining delivery of supplies

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Adam Dean / Panos for TIME

Displaced people effected by Typhoon Haiyan queue in the rain for the first aid delivery at a displacement camp in Tacloban, Philippines on November 14, 2013.

In the Philippines, reports make it seem like it is déjà vu all over again. We hear that aid is not being shipped or distributed fast enough, that organizations are having trouble coordinating, and that looting is rampant and turning deadly.

If these memes seem familiar, it because they each appeared after Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake response in Haiti. It makes us ask: Why have domestic disaster responders and international humanitarians not fixed the system yet? What’s broken? Who’s to blame for the delays in aid delivery?

(MORE: Supertyphoon Haiyan: Escaping Tacloban)

When I talked with colleagues on the ground and friends who have worked in the Philippines, it became clear that these reports do not reflect the Philippines they know or the situation they are confronting. Worse, these reports are amplifying the problem. Here’s why:

After a disaster, there will always be delays in the delivery of aid. While planes and helicopters can arrive in 24 to 48 hours after the storm clears, massive deliveries can only arrive by ship, which can take several days to sail — longer if they have to sail around a massive storm. Worse, damaged ports may take weeks to fix. With severe damage like that in Tacloban, roads may be impassible for many days or weeks, making distribution of aid difficult.

For many families digging out from the storm, this delay is too long. Any stockpiles of food and water will have been washed away or shared. Having lost everything, most lack the resources to do more than subsist for a short while. Some might forage in damaged buildings. Most communities will pool resources and help one another survive.

When television crews race large cargo ships with airplanes and helicopters, the cameras will always win. Journalists will report on the gap between supply and demand. They will show the faces of people in need of Western largesse. They will turn isolated incidents of foraging and removal of goods from a truck or warehouse into a report on rampant looting.

Here is where the reports go very wrong. According to a friend who has worked in Haiti and the Philippines, “What happens when media talk up security issues is that aid agencies get worried about security of distributions, so they hold off until they have adequate security support. The velocity of distribution is dramatically slowed down. Scaremongering undermines the relief effort.” This dynamic happened in Haiti, and it’s happening here.

The people of the Philippines are at risk of a multitude of disasters every year: earthquakes, tsunami, cyclones, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. The whole nation — government ministries, private-sector companies, the diaspora and civil-society organizations — has learned a great deal about how to respond to a typhoon.

Ministries regularly preposition supplies and train disaster response across all levels of government. To ensure alignment with international agencies, legislators have integrated U.N. cluster coordination measures into national law. The private sector also plays an active role. After Typhoon Bopha, it built more than 75% of shelters. Civil-society groups are among the most active in the world and have global reach: 1 in 10 Filipinos live abroad, and they are sending money back home at staggering rates (predisaster, over 8.5% of national GDP came from remittances).

What is different with Supertyphoon Haiyan (called Yolanda in the Philippines) is the unexpected level of storm surge and flooding, combined with sustained winds that exceeded 196 m.p.h. (315 km/h) with gusts far higher. The government is struggling to reach communities hit by one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. Like the families I met in Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy, it seems that the water came in so fast that there was not time to flee, and the surge swelled well beyond what any city could survive. Six Filipino broadcasters risked their lives to keep Aksyon Radyo Tacloban DYVL running in Tacloban so that their listeners would know what was happening with the storm. Water filled the radio station in 10 seconds. Only one of their bodies has been found.

(MORE: Hurricane Sandy: Is There a Point to Disaster Anniversaries?)

When journalists focus on looting and slow aid delivery, they miss the point. Information is aid. Their reports are part of weaving the fabric of a global Filipino community back together after a typhoon tore through their hometowns. By showing communities coming together, journalists can amplify the dynamics that save lives.

It is time to look at how effectively international organizations are supporting a normally well-oiled (but now struggling) domestic response capacity, not how international aid shipments are arriving late. It is time to ask why the cellular networks are not back and running, so that the diaspora can reunite with family and send money via mobile banking. It is time to make a request of financial institutions to reduce or eliminate their surcharges on sending money to the Philippines from anywhere in the world.

(MORE: The Big Problem With Disaster Planning)

When the crisis abates, it will also be time to ask if this operation is a first peek at the future of disaster response: when international aid gets criticized not for being late, but for needing to do more to help capable local responders, companies and communities get stuff done.

Correction: Western Union had already started to eliminate fees 2 days before this article’s publication and is expanding that program. Other companies also have implemented programs, including Ria and MoneyGram.

John Crowley is a research affiliate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He has been a consultant to U.N. agencies, U.S. government agencies, the World Bank, NATO and humanitarian NGOs. He tweets at @jcrowley. The views expressed are solely his own.