Reflecting upon disaster humanitarianism and Typhoon Haiyan

Wednesday 13 Nov 2013 (edited 12 December 2013)

post-tsunami_pic3Today I was phone interviewed to the newspaper Keskisuomalainen (14 Nov 2013) and was asked to reflect upon the politics of disaster reconstruction in aftermath of natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and the earthquakes in December 2004 in Aceh where I first worked as an monitoring and evaluation advisor in 2006, and later have continued researching the politics of disaster humanitarianism.

Whilst waiting for the journalist to call me back, I had a chance to go down the memory line of how I got involved in the business of disaster humanitarianism in the first place, first as an disaster aid worker in India and Indonesia, and now later as a researcher who studies the aftermath of natural disasters and armed conflicts. And think of the connections that I have to Philippines and natural disasters.

I still clearly remember the day that changed my work trajectory at the UNDP’s Country Office in New Delhi: Friday January 26th in 2001, the 52nd Republic Day in India, and over two minutes long 7.7 Richter scale earthquake near Bhuj in Gujarat. Instead of conducting workshop on promoting community-based radio programmes with the local women’s organisation KMVS (Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan), the next ten months I would learn what does earthquake recovery process entail for an international organisation and its partner organisations. It was the KMVS staff, their volunteers and ordinary women members that taught the most important lessons of what a community-based disaster response would be about. Their decisiveness meant that me and my UNDP bureaucrat colleagues grew few grey hair as things did not always go as smoothly as were planned in air-conditioned offices. Through such encounters, however, were humbling to understand that no matter what you’ve gone through, no matter what you’ve lost, nobody can take away your dignity and right to voice your wishes, dreams and concerns.

Edit 12 Dec 2013: previous interview with the newspaper Keskisuomalainen on the 2001 Gujarat earthquake: Gujarat paikkailee yhä haavojaan (19 May 2001), Köyhyys on riski myös luonnonkatastrofeissa (19 May 2001), and Järistyksen lyömä Gujarat kituu kuivuudesta (23 May 2001).

Seven months into doing disaster bureaucratic work I enrolled to the community-based disaster preparedness course organised by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok and attended mostly by participants from various South and South East Asian disaster-prone areas, including the Philippines. Over the 12 days the trainers, all who came from the region, taught us the paradigm shift from technical and natural science oriented understanding of disasters to holistic and community-based ones that take as its starting point people’s existing capacities, rather than their vulnerabilities and inability to act.

It was with the guidance of trainers such as Rusty and Zoro that I learned from the numerous examples from the Philippines where disasters were not only seen as devastating, but also providing possibilities for changing the predominant ‘disaster mindset’ that focus on hazards and the disaster events (such as typhoons, floods, earthquakes), alleviate immediate sufferings through the image of “helpless victims” with rapid assessments conducted by external experts and provide distribution of aid without consulting the people that they intend to support.

Make no mistake about it. There are alternatives to this approach, although in the aftermath of the Typhoon Haiyan, dominant media coverage seems to suggest otherwise. Organisations, such as The Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP), has for years promoted alternative approach to natural hazards, aiming to shift the focus from the disaster events to root causes, vulnerabilities and capacities that people have, with the aim of reducing the negative impacts of disasters. Emphasising the need to work with disaster survivors with the dignity they deserve.

Recognising that although the disaster appears as a result of natural events, they are intimately product of the social, economic and political environment, where people live in adverse socio-economic situations that lead them to inhabit high-risk areas and engage in unsustainable and dangerous livelihoods. Poverty, inequitable distribution of resources, overexploitation of natural resources, privatization of government’s policies has turned social services into commodities in an open market, unequal participation in decision-making. These are just some of the aspects that organisations such as CDP suggest that the disaster focus should be put on, to really make it possible to learn from the natural events and their disastrous effects.

Rusty and Zoro and the CDP staff and volunteers, all the best in your revolutionary path!


Heijmans, Annelies & Victoria Lorna P.(2001) Citizenry-Based & Development-Oriented Disaster Response. Quezon City: Center for Disaster Preparedness.