Give and take

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

A dear friend of mine believes in identifying highlights each day and I was asked to name mine in my time in the Philippines. Without hesitation, it was the experience of responding to the needs of people affected by Typhoon Yolanda two years ago. Just weeks after I had presented my credentials as Ambassador, the UK launched one of its biggest and certainly the most distant humanitarian relief operation in recent history. For me the highlight was less about what I did but more about what I saw in people, both victims and helpers. Resilience, sharing of meagre resources and the true generosity of the human spirit shone through the depths of despair. These experiences are humbling and inspiring. In giving, people also take.

 One of many highlights was the wave of sympathy from the people of Britain. Private donations beat records when the Haiyan appeal topped P7 billion, which, as pledged by our Government, was matched by public funds. I have tried to understand the reason behind this overwhelming reaction and the best explanation I can give is that in the case of the Philippines, those in need spoke directly into our homes in Britain in our common language, English. I also believe that our nation wanted to give back the care and attention so many of us enjoy from Filipinos working in the UK.

Giving gets better when we take to heart lessons from the past. For Yolanda, our aid department, DFID, triggered its fast track response mechanism where established partners were able to mobilise resources knowing that the UK would cover the expense. The first cargo flight was booked two days before Yolanda made landfall. By using our own national emergency procedure, the Prime Minister’s Office took charge of the situation, asking us in Manila what we needed most and then ensuring immediate follow up with all actors present. That led to the despatch of ships, planes, helicopters, food, shelter and 1,400 personnel. Special measures were taken to offer protection to women and children who, so often, pay a heavier price as victims of disasters.

That is why we prioritised the provision of toilets and washing facilities. We expedited the construction of more durable yet easy to build dwellings. Accountability was built in from the start to ensure we had an audit trail of how UK funds were used.

Our approach to giving went beyond the immediate needs. We have been partners of PAGASA and the NDRRMC for many years. As a result, weather forecasting is now much better. The impact of heavy rain on the terrain is better understood. Our most recent project with DSWD and the World Food Programme, was the establishment of the automated pre-packing and warehousing of food supplies. This meant that food was delivered to those affected by Typhoon Lando far quicker than before. Much time is lost in sorting and repacking goods given by the public with good intentions but without the unforeseen impracticality in an emergency.

Giving at the time of urgent need is vital but just as important is taking the time to prepare. What began as exploratory question from me to my embassy team about our plans in case of a major earthquake turned into an international exercise in Manila. A year ago, our crisis management plan was somewhat generic and could not answer the basic questions of impact, evacuation sites and essential supplies. As we started to work on the issue, we realised we could not act alone.

We spoke to other diplomatic missions, businesses, local government authorities and experts. In April, with the coincidental but vivid lessons of the Nepal quake, a 40 strong British military group worked with the NDRRMC and other agencies on a table top exercise modelling the impact and response capability against a major earthquake. The results were salutary. The learnings were then put into practice for the drills organised by the Philippine government on 30 July. In our embassy, our staff have hard hats by their desks. We have set aside essential survival rations and we test our plans regularly.

For us, the give and take was not one sided. We understand better the way strong community and family bonds work in the Philippines. People do not just wait for help, they mobilise and get back on their feet. We have seen how small amounts of seed corn funding is turned into livelihoods by enterprising people, particularly women.

Large scale disasters can humble the biggest governments. We cannot always give enough. But we can take heed from experience. Leadership, drive and a well prepared framework for response together with coordination within government are essential.

 The goodness of humanity is truly a highlight. We give and we take.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador to the Philippines.)

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