Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan plead with military for water as they wait for an evacuation flight in the central Philippines on Nov. 14. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)
November 15, 2013

Vijaya Ramachandran is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Owen Barder is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Global Development in Europe. This essay is adapted from a post they wrote on the center’s blog.

The immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, such as the typhoon that devastated part of the Philippines on Nov. 8, can bring out the best in the global community. Already we are seeing the world’s governments and citizens responding generously to appeals for aid, reaffirming our shared humanity.

The challenge is to ensure that this generosity reaches the people who desperately need it. Relief and reconstruction efforts in the Philippines have much to learn from previous mega-disasters, including, most recently, the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010. We should help the Philippines — just not like we helped Haiti. We can, and must, help better.

Lack of generosity is typically not the problem. Since Haiti’s quake, almost $6 billion in official aid has been disbursed in a country with a population of just under 10 million. Large nongovernmental organizations and private contractors, mostly in the United States or Europe, have been the initial recipients of most of these funds. But there are few publicly available records of what they have done with the money, and almost four years after the quake there is little to show on the ground: Even the Haitian capital still lacks decent roads, running water and reliable electricity, and an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Haitians still live in tents.

Pierre Erold Etienne, director general of the Haitian Finance Ministry, put it clearly: “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.”

Problems arising from a lack of donor transparency are not unique to Haiti. About five years earlier, after a tsunami devastated coastal communities from Indonesia to India, well-meaning but disjointed aid efforts led to bottlenecks, gaps and duplication. The Red Cross reported that there were too many doctors but not enough midwives in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh province. Children became ill with the symptoms of measles after being vaccinated three times by three organizations, because the NGOs did not share records of which immunizations children had received. In India’s Tamil Nadu state, victims complained that they had all the cooking pots they could ever want, but needed shelter.

The international community can and must do better in the Philippines, and there is reason to be hopeful. The first crowdsourced map of the path of Typhoon Haiyan, compiled by volunteers around the world using publicly available data, was online less than 72 hours after the storm. In the days ahead, this open-source map can be used to track where people need help and what kind of help they need. But unless things change, some key data will be missing: official information from governments and private charities about their planned and actual responses.

Coordinating response plans can be very time-consuming, so it is understandable that it often takes second place to the urgency of getting help to people who need it. Transparency, on the other hand, does not require centralized coordination and would enable everyone to make smarter decisions, informed by the knowledge of what others are doing. Yet organizations that find the time to issue news releases and organize photo-ops do not seem to be able to spare the resources to post information about what exactly they are doing and where.

This could change fast, using platforms already in place. The Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is specifically designed for this role. The European Union has a compatible system, the European Disaster Response Information System, through which donors can exchange information with the FTS and one another. Both systems will soon be able to share data with the global standard for aid transparency — the International Aid Transparency Initiative. For humanitarian aid, the U.N. and E.U. systems are fully operational; the challenge is persuading leaders of relief and aid agencies to commit to using them.

The response to Typhoon Haiyan can and should be the first major relief effort in which all humanitarian organizations and aid agencies publish the details of their planned and actual spending and activities online, in real time, using a common format. This simple step would enable donors and the Philippine government to identify where activities overlap and where gaps remain, and would allow everyone who contributes to see where the money is going.

The United States, which has announced $20 million in typhoon relief, with more likely to follow, should be a leader in this effort. The U.S. Agency for International Development is already required to report publicly on the activities of its primary contractors. But the actual work is usually done by subcontractors, and USAID does not collect or publish information about what they do.

This is not hard to fix: USAID Administrator Raj Shah should announce that, starting with the Philippine relief and reconstruction effort, the agency will require all primary contractors to publicly disclose project-level data on their subcontractors’ activities in a timely fashion. This would not only help avoid overlaps and gaps in aid in the short term but would also make it possible to learn lessons about what worked — so we can do better in future disasters. American taxpayers should settle for nothing less.

Of course, national and global aid agencies are not the only purveyors of assistance; the far-flung Philippine diaspora will undoubtedly help the victims of Haiyan. Research by Dean Yang at the University of Michigan has shown that in previous disasters in the Philippines, increased remittances from Filipinos working abroad helped to make up for as much as 60 percent of economic losses. This is very good insurance; other developing countries thinking about disaster preparedness may want to consider following the Philippines’ example and actively support citizens’ efforts to temporarily work abroad.

One area where the Philippines has done less well is in the provision of secure identification, such as biometric IDs that are viable even if physical identification cards and supporting paperwork have been destroyed. Biometric ID, which uses new low-cost technology for iris scans, fingerprints and other unique traits, makes it possible to provide large numbers of poor people with proof of their identity. Research by our colleague Alan Gelb has shown that effective identification empowers the poor. It is crucial for the fair distribution of relief assistance, for government cash transfers and for the secure delivery of remittances.

A good example of ID success comes from an unexpected place: Pakistan. In July 2010, floods covered a fifth of the country and millions of families lost their homes, with housing damage alone estimated at $1.5 billion. Many people sought refuge in temporary camps and urgently needed assistance to rebuild their homes and farms. Pakistan was able to take advantage of a national biometric-identification database to identify displaced people and provide them with cards that could be used at banks and other points of service to receive cash payments to help them rebuild.

The first phase provided about $250 to each head of a flood-affected household, and a second phase brought the total to $1,250. The later phase is still being evaluated, but assessments of the first phase show that the payment mechanism succeeded; money reached the intended beneficiaries rather than being diverted. Recipients were easily able to withdraw their benefits, and most incurred only small travel costs to reach a location where they could get their cash.

Despite some difficulties with the process — for example, not all people had kept their information up to date in the national database — most wished to receive further transfers through the cards, and some also wanted to turn their relief card accounts into permanent bank accounts. About 85 percent of the initial grant was used for food, medicine, health care, clothing, shoes, reconstruction, tools and other investment goods. Beyond the flood response, Pakistan’s ID is now being used more widely to underpin the provision of social grants, such as programs for poor women.

The survivors of Haiyan have a lot to worry about in the days and months ahead, and the world is ready and willing to help. To make that aid effective, and to ensure that it reaches the people who need it, donors, starting with the United States, should commit to full and rapid transparency. Donors should also offer to support the Philippines in rolling out biometric ID, should the country want it. While it’s much better to put identification systems in place ahead of a disaster, India, which has implemented a massive program that has already identified half a billion people, has shown how quickly the technology can be rolled out.

We must think ahead. Haiyan will not be the last typhoon to strike; nor is the Philippines the only vulnerable country. The international community must embrace the technology available to strengthen disaster preparedness, resilience and aid.

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