The long term effects of Typhoon Haiyan

On 07 November Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippine Islands at Guiuan. Packing winds of greater than 190 mph, the storm was the strongest typhoon to make landfall.  As I opened the New York Times on Monday November 11th, the pictures showed the destructive force of the storm: whole towns were leveled, trees flattened, and families displaced.

It’s now the 14th and the death toll continues to climb.  A Google search to update the numbers reveals another growing number:  the calls for donations to provide relief for Haiyan’s victims.  Money buys critically needed supplies of food, water, medicine, and tents to assist the displaced and suffering in the region.  With help from those with means, the people in the Philippines will be able to eat enough food, drink clean water, have adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities, and be able to begin the process of rebuilding. Those are the short term effects, but what will happen over the longer term?

First, the affected regions will be swamped with a second Typhoon—an influx of financial aid to assist in the rebuilding.  Second, two to three years from now the critics will point out that most of that aid money provided little that truly improved (literally aided) the lives of those affected.

Lessons from Haiti

How much money will actually make landfall?

We’ve seen this before, most recently in Haiti after the destructive earthquake of 2010. Aid money and western aid workers flowed into the country at an unprecedented pace.  Attempts to provide long term help and reconstruction suffered as the amount of capital outstripped the ability of local human capital to wisely direct that aid in ways that benefited Haitians over the long term.  Even the most well-meaning and competent organizations have struggled to make investments that bettered the lot of Haitians into the future.

How can we avoid the same mistakes this time around?  2 strategies come to mind:

1) focus aid and efforts on building self-reliance, and

2) invest resources in the types of capital that truly eliminate poverty.


First, let’s talk about self-reliance.  The mindset of self-reliance comes from three beliefs and attitudes:  the moral responsibility individuals feel to provide for their own well-being, the self-efficacy to do the things required to enhance well-being, and a long term view that directs and sequences action in ways the improve a person’s long term status.

Relief work, when done poorly, fills people’s stomachs but empties their stocks of self-reliance.  Providing food, water, and short term shelter are all worthy goals; however, aid providers often feel it’s their responsibility to make sure those they assist get fed, clothed, and sheltered.  This is particularly true in rebuilding houses, churches, schools, and other structures.  Well-meaning “field trips” drop in to a community and rebuild structures for people.  They build houses or schools and present them to people as gifts and testaments of their generosity.

What they fail to do is include the recipients in meaningful roles, other than as passive acceptors of the givers’ benevolence. The afflicted aren’t asked to help—and consequently take responsibility for—their own structures. They fail to learn many new skills that would help build a house as well as a career, such as carpentry, plumbing, or project management.  Little thought is given to the long-term ramifications of all the short term donor largesse.

The capital accounts

As I read about the recovery in Haiti, I learned that money had been provided to Haitian children to attend school.  I wondered how much had been spent to improve the teachers, their competence, confidence, or the tools with which they provided that education.  Developing human capital requires means paying attention to what goes on in the classroom, not merely making sure kids are there.

Similarly, money went to rebuild the physical infrastructure of the country, but little seems to have gone toward building the political and institutional infrastructure that energizes and sustains communities over the longer term.  Failure to do so led to this comment from George Ngwa in the Huffington Post:  “Haiti goes from one emergency to another. Every time it appears, we are making progress.  A disaster takes us back to zero—or minus.”  Institutional capital plays a vital role in improving lives over the long term.

Transparency International ranks The Philippines 105th out of 176 countries in its index of political and government corruption.  That puts the country in the bottom 1/4th of all countries ranked.   Haiti ranks 165th, in the bottom 7%.  While corruption doesn’t cause typhoons or earthquakes, corruption siphons aid in the short run and keeps people in poverty over the long term.  Why not dedicate some of the money bound for disaster relief to improving the political infrastructure damaged long before the typhoon struck?

So, as you pour your money, time, and energy into a very worthy cause—helping those suffering from Haiyan’s fury–please give some serious thought to where that money will go and how it will be spent.  Make sure your money provides long term advancement for the Philippines rather than merely short term relief.

What do you think? Have you witnessed instances where short term aid has discouraged long term progress?

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