Hidden Injuries of Humanitarian Relief

Source: Mon, 23 Feb 2015 04:45 PM
Tweet Recommend Google + LinkedIn Email

In this blogpost, Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong, discusses 'targeting', social divisiveness, and solidarity among recipients of international aid, based on findings from a recent project in the Philippines on common tools and services, Pamati Kita.

“We are thankful to humanitarians. As foreigners, they have no obligation to help us. Our government, yes–but them, no.”

This statement from a 42 year-old fish vendor in Tacloban is one we often heard in the past three months of consulting disaster-affected communities in over 20 barangays (the smallest administrative unit in the Philippines) in three cities recovering from Typhoon Haiyan. We found that people are generally grateful for relief assistance and livelihood projects from international agencies, in contrast to slower or inadequate government response. To this day, people speak fondly of the skill and compassion of foreign doctors who treated the wounded in the typhoon’s aftermath, just as they excitedly recall the names of agencies that handed out the best-tasting imported rice or the sturdiest cooking utensils.

However, beneath these expressions of gratitude and novel delight, our research reveals an undercurrent of criticism towards standard procedures in humanitarian practice. Of particular interest is the hidden resentment toward selective distribution of aid within local communities, known in humanitarian circles as ‘targeting’, a practice that results in new inequalities, triggers social divisiveness and envy, and–among the excluded–causes deep personal shame and anguish. 

Needs and Vulnerabilities

Operating within their own resource limitations and specific targets, humanitarian agencies employ a needs-based framework that prioritizes the most vulnerable families within an area. For example, families with five or more children, or with a person with a disability, are more likely to be included in a shelter kit distribution. Smaller-sized families, or families with relatives working overseas, are assumed to be better resourced and therefore less likely to receive aid.

Humanitarian agencies also develop programs targeting specific sectors, as in the case of Bantayan island, or geographic areas, as in that of Roxas City. On Bantayan, fisherfolk received plenty of livelihood assistance, incurring the envy of farmers and transport workers. In Roxas City, urban poor communities received no assistance as help was directed to rural communities. A focus group participant in Roxas told us about the sting she feels every time an aid worker waves at her from their massive trucks bearing relief intended for other people.

Disaster Divisiveness

Social divisiveness, especially at the level of the barangay, is one significant if not always apparent consequence of the selective distribution of aid. The intimacy of the neighborhood intensifies the pain of post-disaster inequalities. Neighbors with houses sheathed in plastic 14 months after the disaster envy those whose shanties fare relatively better with their new iron roofs donated by generous, if selective, humanitarians.

The excluded feel resentful, if unsure who exactly they are angry at: the agency who defined the criteria, the barangay official who wrote the list, or their neighbor who now enjoys a better social standing post-Haiyan.

Cando, a tricycle driver in an urban poor community in Tacloban, shared with us his frustration at having been deliberately excluded from shelter kit distribution due to his small family size. “Look at my house–it’s like a pigsty! My neighbors are lucky. They get to live as human beings, while this—this is for pigs.”

In his community, where shanties display identical wooden walls and shiny white iron roofs, his house sticks out, looking askew and incomplete. His walls are sheets of corrugated iron tied together with a plastic tarpaulin as a makeshift roof, making the interiors as hot as an oven under the punishing sun.

Status Anxiety in the Filipino Village

Our respondents’ experiences suggest that differentiated humanitarian relief within small communities sparks status anxiety. Intensified by traditional Filipino village relations where neighbors are regarded as extended family and people’s sense of dignity (pagkatao) is defined by their status in the community, status differences marked by small luxuries hit hard on the have-nots. Those excluded from livelihood project income borrow money from relatives and incur debt in efforts to keep up with neighbors’ vegetable gardens and Christmas lanterns.

Research on humanitarian technologies finds that feedback channels such as SMS hotlines are used in some places to squeal on neighbors perceived to be undeserving of humanitarian aid. Some agencies use this feedback to correct their future distribution lists. This would lead the newly excluded to conduct a “witch hunt” to try and figure out which neighbor had ratted them out to the agencies, setting off paranoia within friendship groups.

Because neighbors size up each other’s access to humanitarian relief, some strategically withdraw from the community, keeping their relief stories secret so as to avoid incurring the envy of their friends.

In other communities, we found that affected peoples organize among themselves and negotiate with humanitarians and barangay officials to eschew lists and instead redistribute evenly to all residents, even if it meant that each family received fewer relief goods.

Resentment toward targeting practices was common across communities we visited, though articulated by women more than men, as women were actively involved with keeping track of relief distribution while their husbands were in more regular employment.

Seeking Solidarity

What we find is that being excluded from humanitarian aid creates more than just an economic burden of having to find alternative means to secure shelter or a source of livelihood. It also leaves a deep emotional imprint in people that may manifest as shame and jealousy in neighborly interactions. While humanitarians aim to serve the needs of the most vulnerable, each community is irreversibly transformed as their actions cause new material inequalities that are lived and felt in everyday life.

Although need has traditionally been the “north star” that guides humanitarian activities, our study finds that in the case of Typhoon Haiyan, this value conflicts with other indicators of good performance, such as a community’s increased sense of solidarity in the wake of humanitarian projects.

Our research finds that although humanitarians learned early on that many communities express a preference for agency distributions where “everyone gets a little something”, many agencies were unable to act on this feedback due to personnel turnover onground and also the high pressure to meet targets committed to their donors. The question we intend to further explore further is how much harm has been caused by this failure to listen to local sentiments.

In discussing hidden injuries of humanitarian relief, this article foregrounds the need for better understanding of local concerns when engaging with affected communities. Communities’ wellbeing after disasters depends not only on addressing material needs of their most vulnerable members, but on cultivating affected peoples’ social connections with neighbors, village, and the wider world

Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong is Lecturer at the University of Leicester (UK) and researcher for the Pamati Kita joint project of Plan International, World Vision, and the International Organization for Migration, which aims to enhance humanitarian agencies’ accountability to affected peoples (AAP) through the provision of common services, and includes a research component to learn from humanitarian agencies’ experiences of promoting AAP in their response to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines. Jonathan leads the Consulting Communities team of Jaime Manuel Flores and Pamela Combinido.They have done fieldwork with affected communities in Tacloban, Bantayan, and Roxas City from December 2014 to February 2015. The learning and research component of the Pamati Kita project is led by Margie Buchanan-Smith and advised by Alex Jacobs of Plan International. Final reports from the project will be available from June 2015. For more information, please get in touch with Jonathan, Margie and Alex.

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of the CDAC Network. For more information see our Acceptable Use Policy.

About the CDAC Network

The CDAC Network is a growing platform of more than 30 humanitarian, media development, social innovation, technology, and telecommunication organisations, dedicated to saving lives and making aid more effective through communication, information exchange and community engagement.

Our Members

Newsletter Signup

Communication is Aid

Latest Tweets