This is a joint post with Owen Barder.
The immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, such as the typhoon that devastated part of the Phillipines on Friday, can bring out the best of the global community. There will come a time to discuss how we can do more to prevent the environmental changes which make such events more likely, but the immediate priority is to get water, food, and shelter to people who urgently need it. The early signs are that governments and the public will again give generously to appeals for aid, reaffirming our sense of shared humanity. The challenge is to ensure that this generosity reaches the people who desperately need it. Regrettably, this is not the first natural disaster in modern times, nor will it be the last, and there is much that we can learn from the way that humanitarian and reconstruction efforts were organized in the days, weeks, and months following previous mega disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
We should not help the Philippines like we helped Haiti—we can, and must, help better. Lack of generosity is not the problem. Since the Haitian earthquake, almost $6 billion has been disbursed in official aid, in a country with a population of just under 10 million. On top of that, an estimated $3 billion has been donated to NGOs in private contributions. The United States pledged over $3 billion for relief and reconstruction. Yet almost four years after the quake, there is little to show for this: even the capital, Port-au-Prince, still does not have decent roads, running water, or reliable electricity. An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Haitians still live in the tents provided by relief agencies soon after the quake.
Nongovernmental organizations and private contractors have been the intermediate recipients of most of these funds. Many are based in the United States or in Europe. But despite the fact that these organizations are beneficiaries of public funds, there are few publicly available evaluations of services delivered, lives saved, or mistakes made. Most Haitians are disillusioned with the overall lack of progress, and with the lack of transparency and accountability that has accompanied the relief effort.
Vijaya’s efforts to discover how the money was spent (see Haiti: Where Has All the Money Gone) found it impossible to trace. For example, USAID disbursed $150 million to Chemonics, an international development company, but as recently as last May there was no public record of how that money was spent, what projects were implemented, or how many people were served. This lack of accountability and transparency means that few lessons can be learned. It also means that is almost impossible for the Haitian authorities to manage aid flows. Pierre Erold Etienne, Director-General of the Haitian Ministry of Finance noted that
We have only very little, overall information on aid.… We are required to be transparent. We publish the financial information relevant to the execution of our budget. All we ask is for the same transparency from our donor friends, which should help both us and them.
The scramble in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti was reminiscent of the problems experienced five years earlier in Indonesia following the tsunami, where a series of well-meaning but disjointed efforts led to bottlenecks in the distribution of desperately needed supplies. In Banda Aceh, there were reports of children developing the symptoms of measles after being vaccinated three times by three separate aid organizations.
The world can and must do better than this in the Philippines, and there is reason to be hopeful. There has been impressive progress in using information technology to improve disaster response, especially the vibrant crisis-mapping community. These advances will surely assist the effort in the Philippines in the coming weeks. But activists mappers alone cannot fix all the problems in the humanitarian system. The next step—one that should begin with the crisis in the Philippines—is for all humanitarian organizations and aid agencies to publish details of their planned and actual spending and activities, in real time, in an open, machine-readable format. This simple step would enable outside donors and intended beneficiaries to identify where activities overlap and where the gaps remain, and it would enable everyone to see where the money is going.
For starters, USAID, which is likely to be a major provider of aid to the Philippines, can do a much better job tracking expenditures. USAID is already required by law to report on the activities of its primary contractors. But the actual work is often done by subcontractors. They in turn are required to report project-level data to primary contractors, but that information is not publicly available. This should be easy to fix: USAID should announce that, starting with the Philippine relief and reconstruction effort, it will require all USAID contractors to disclose project-level data in a machine readable format in a timely fashion. This will not only help avoid overlaps and gaps in coverage in the short term but also make it possible to learn lessons about what worked for application in future disasters.
There are three international frameworks for sharing information about humanitarian response: the Financial Tracking System (FTS) of the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), and the European Disaster Response Information System (EDRIS). These standards are partly interoperable, and there are welcome efforts to ensure that they work closely together. The efforts to integrate these systems should be accelerated and given serious political backing; in the meantime all governments and humanitarian organizations should report all their activities, in detail and in real time, at least to the FTS, to enable humanitarian aid to have the biggest possible benefit.
The appalling events caused by Typhoon Haiyan could provide an impetus to the growing movement for a more transparent, effective, and better organized system for humanitarian relief and reconstruction. In the meantime, our thoughts are with the victims of these terrible events, and with the many brave humanitarian workers who will be working round the clock in the coming days and weeks to help them.