It's hot. You're standing in the sweltering sun and have been waiting in line for more than an hour for a relief packet, and you're not even sure what it contains. No one knows when staff from the aid agency managing the distribution are arriving. Patience is wearing thin. Tempers are beginning to flare. The feeling of helplessness in the aftermath of a disaster deepens...
This is a scenario that no humanitarian worker wants to imagine. But, one month after Typhoon Haiyan hit, I came across this situation during an assessment trip on the Philippines' Bantayan Island.
A small island located off the northwest coast of Cebu, Bantayan Island was hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in early November. Due to its location and the logistical challenges of transporting aid, it took time for people living on the island to receive relief goods following the storm.
Even one month after the typhoon, the situation in some villages remained dire. People did not have materials to repair or rebuild their houses. They worried about what would happen when they ran out of food from the most recent distribution. And many of their livelihoods had been destroyed by the winds that swept across the island.
After seeing the situation on Bantayan Island, I had to ask myself - As humanitarian aid workers, what can we do to ensure that those affected by a disaster like Typhoon Haiyan do not suffer more in the aftermath, particularly through our own efforts to reach those in need?
Over the past few months, education of aid workers in quality and accountability has become a crucial component of the humanitarian response in the Philippines. And it is not only improving the quality of current relief and recovery efforts but also building local capacity to better respond to future disasters that may affect the Philippines and the region.
Taking time to improve quality and accountability
In December and January, with support from fellow ACT Alliance member Church World Service Pakistan/Afghanistan, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) held 12 quality and accountability trainings for local and international aid workers in cities throughout typhoon-affected areas. The trainings reached nearly 200 people from 85 different agencies and organisations. Each session was tailored to those attending, depending on gaps in knowledge identified at training locations.
At every session, humanitarian aid workers arrived eager and ready to learn. While wanting to do all that they could to immediately help people affected by the storm, training participants also recognized the importance of taking time to ensure accountability to affected populations as they planned and executed their response projects.
In several key locations throughout affected areas, LWR has held sessions on use of Sphere minimum standards following a disaster, with an emphasis on contextualizing Sphere guidelines to the Philippines.
Through these training sessions, international and local humanitarian actors have had the opportunity to sit down and work together to identify ways to apply Sphere standards to the Typhoon Haiyan response. Sessions like these not only improve the humanitarian community's response to Haiyan but also better prepare humanitarian aid workers to respond to disasters that may strike in the future .
Familiarity with the Sphere principles and standards and understanding how to implement them can help humanitarian actors prevent distribution scenarios like the one I came across on Bantayan Island. In the rush to respond to needs, we must not forget that people have a right to life with dignity, to humanitarian assistance and to protection and security during a response.
Sphere also promotes affected communities' active participation in response planning rather than leaving them as helpless bystanders. Keeping these commitments in mind, we can design response projects that leave people with a sense of hope that they will recover rather than a feeling of despair or frustration at our actions.
Additionally, understanding and utilizing the Sphere Handbook creates a common language across humanitarian agencies that improves our coordination and cohesion. When humanitarian actors share information, we better understand the situation, learn from each others' experiences and more quickly adapt to the specific context in which we are working.
In addition to training on Sphere standards, LWR has held sessions on the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Standard with a focus on information sharing, establishing complaint response mechanisms, orientation on duty of care and team management as well as safety and security. LWR plans to hold five additional trainings for aid workers during February.
"People deserve this"
Education on quality and accountability is changing the way that both international and local agencies are responding to Typhoon Haiyan and reminding us of what is most important in an emergency response - the people affected.
Despite logistical constraints, bureaucracy and other challenges that can surface during humanitarian responses, aid workers in the Philippines are committed to improving relief and recovery efforts for those affected by disaster.
Putting affected populations at the center of a humanitarian response and helping them to maintain their dignity is our responsibility. As one training participant told me, the quality and accountability training sessions are "a beautiful reminder to humanitarian workers on what we are doing... People deserve this. The response is all about them."