Typhoon Daze

Can the blogosphere survive another set of random thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan?

1.  Check out any decent post-Armageddon flick. Try The Road.  Or for a classic, and one of the first great zombie flicks, try The Omega Man.  How do the heroes survive and feed their families?  It’s an old routine.  They help themselves.  No way Charlton Heston would do it if it were looting.  The guy was Moses and then President of the National Rifle Association.  That gives him more law and order cred than Wyatt Earp, Serpico and Judge Dredd combined.

I’m glad to see some journalists questioning the use of the term “looting”, as if bread for a child on Day Five without food were somehow akin to a burglar’s cartoon sack marked $$$. We can’t condone guys walking out of shops with plasma TVs. But without aid, without food, shelter, water or information on when/how it is coming, can we really equate this scavenging with acts of lawless criminality?  More importantly, can we base policy choices on it?  (hint hint, see below).

2. Ever watch news coverage of rioting or protests in your home town and have others call to see if you’re OK, when you were out having fun with friends?  Images of localized, small-scale disorder, demonstration, crime create a perception of the situation that is distorted well beyond reality.  More than that, we seem to imagine ourselves in those places and (a) feel the fear all those millions of people must be feeling then (b) cry out for somebody to put an end to it.

Note here the entry into the perception game of Western society’s own hyperbolized sense of security and risk (see e.g., my post on helmets for babies) and a view of the Global South as primitive bedlam-filled Bongo Bongo lands.  So my mother wants me to stay inside and lock the door when 200 protesters at Parliament toss stones, and she wants a soldier on every corner in Tacloban.

This distorted image matters.  Law and order are indisputably important.  But threats to law and order have a long history of provoking overreaction on the part of authorities, whether for political gain against enemies or simply to preserve face.  As is often the case, in these early stages of catastrophe response prioritization has to be spot on, and it has to place saving lives at the top. With heavy loss of airport capacity coupled with the necessity of an airborne aid armada, every flight counts.  Every cubic meter of cargo, every ton of supplies, every single landing slot has lives attached to it.  So what does it mean to fly in armoured personnel carriers and security forces?

Cue here a story of prisoners breaking out so we imagine the islands of the Philippines resemble the anarchy of life in a Mad Max movie, and are grateful for soldiers “retaking control” of the place. I am not at all against priority given to military relief capacity, I’m talking about the idea that life-saving assistance must be displaced to establish law and order (a particularly ironic conclusion where a primary driver of “crime” and “disorder” is the absence of aid). Perhaps it is necessary for aid to flow.  Perhaps it’s not, and aside from a few hot spots the impact quite minimal.  Hence the weight on figuring out to what extent is this real and to what extent is it misperception and a knee-jerk reaction to fears.

In Haiti, arguably, the world got that balance wrong.  Fears of looting or the descent into anarchy were exaggerated, decisions consequential (e.g., see here on WFP reports of looting being “overblown”, or this MSF denunciation of its surgical capacity circling overhead and then diverted to Santo Domingo while the US military landed planes full of troops). My experience is that disasters force communities to come together, that people are remarkably supportive of one another and fair. The people in Cebu and Samar are neighbours and families.   Social networks distribute relief with stunning efficiency and effectiveness and zero fanfare.

Of course there are criminal gangs.  Of course water distribution to thirsty people can resemble a scrum.  Experienced aid agencies deal with this all the time, delivering aid in war zones and in the midst of sectarian violence or everyday desperation.  We do it all the time because waiting for somebody to put an end to the war and violence is, well, absurd. Aid delivery in crisis will always be imperfect.  Nobody wants aid convoys getting attacked, but the risks are often manageable under far worse conditions than in the Philippines.  So unless the threat is substantial risk, establishing “law and order” to ensure the arrival of assistance may come with a heavier cost than benefit to those who are waiting for said assistance in frightened, rain-soaked desperation.

3. On the surface, the aid industry is treating the typhoon emergency as the second coming of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, with all the expectations of another once-in-a-decade event.  In other words, expectations of all-hands-on-deck to get aid to the millions of desperate Filipinos, of a large dose of the aid circus and calls for better coordination, and of a fundraising/branding extravaganza.   Certainly some of the destruction we have seen on our screens warrants such an investment in the emergency response.  But other factors instil us with an uneasy feeling:  the creeping signs that the worst of the destruction affects a large but not massive number of people coupled with a world that is no longer helplessly waiting for the NGO saviours to arrive – first, because the Philippines is not Haiti and second, because other actors, most notably the military, are now in the saviour business.  Will we succeed in being the stars of the show?  Tune in these coming weeks.


5 thoughts on “Typhoon Daze”

  1. from my facebook repost:

    This is really spot on. I worked in Haiti right after the earthquake and it’s a relief to hear someone else articulate the thoughts that have haunted me since then.

    My team saw this dynamic play out firsthand one week after the quake as teams of America’s best surgeons and doctors sat at the airport compound while people died in the streets because there wasn’t enough “security” to escort them. We saw that as the World Food Program took two weeks to start distributing food until they got adequate security in place. and we saw it when we had to negotiate with the 101st Airborne troops guarding the main hospital to bring a single patient into the compound.

    for what it’s worth, we worked for two weeks in tent cities without protection of any kind and never felt unsafe once.

    thanks for writing this

    1. Hey Jeff,

      I heard similar stories from Haiti. The answer isn’t easy. I tend to think that politicians and aid officials alike are afraid of the impact of any sort of incident on their reputations. Somehow it goes back to the way a few images can create such a distorted view of aid, meaning the risk is to have half the world believe that most aid caravans are being attacked and looted, or that the entire place is bedlam (so why care about it — e.g., Syria), or that it will be politically unhealthy for their careers if there is “disorder”.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. As always, thank you for pointing out perspectives and sharing insights that I would not see or have on my own.

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