Bayanihan after Typhoon Haiyan: are we romanticising an indigenous coping strategy?

August 10, 2016
Yvonne Su and Ladylyn Lim Mangada
The Abas family in front of their devastated home in badly hit Tanauan, in Leyte.

Narratives of disasters are full of binaries – victim/survivor, vulnerability/resilience and devastation/recovery. Immediately after a disaster, there are stories of destruction and death. But as people start to recover, victims become survivors, and vulnerability exists alongside community and individual resilience. The Philippines – a country well-versed in this exercise and known for its vulnerability as well as its resilience – experienced Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda), the strongest storm to have made landfall in reported history, on 8 November 2013. Despite the high level of devastation, the overriding impression, from media coverage, government officials, NGO reports and general sentiment – was one of resilience. A report by the Philippines Humanitarian Country Team in August 2014 (nine months after the typhoon) noted:

“Self-recovery efforts by affected communities, combined with a scaling up of government-led interventions and effective national and international humanitarian efforts, have led to a significant reduction in the level of humanitarian needs … [and] many sectors are already well into the recovery phase on the ground.”

The common explanation for these early self-recovery efforts is the Filipino principle of bayanihan (collective cooperation), which is commonly evoked after major disasters by NGOs, governments and the media to demonstrate the resilience of the Filipino people. But what is the bayanihan spirit, and does this indigenous principle really serve to increase community resilience in the modern age? Drawing on fieldwork in the province of Leyte after Typhoon Haiyan, we argue that, while bayanihan was once a principle that was believed to be upheld by the whole community, its contemporary expression is often on a much smaller scale, from neighbour to neighbour, and only for a brief period during crises. Moreover, we argue that, despite its popular use after disasters, calling on communities to evoke bayanihan is often an inadequate answer to the need for collective action that commonly exists in post-disaster recovery. As such, we call for a more critical examination of the potential and limitations of bayanihan as a post-disaster coping mechanism in the Philippines. In addition, echoing the concerns of others, we caution against the romanticisation and over-reliance of bayanihan and other indigenous Filipino coping strategies as a source of post-disaster community resilience, particularly if doing so shifts the pressure away from government institutions with formal responsibilities.

Applying an indigenous principle in a modern world

A brief analysis of the literature on bayanihan and disaster recovery found varying definitions of bayanihan. In 1979, Gertrudes R. Ang defined bayanihan as ‘the ancient Filipino custom of group work’, arguing that it is ‘a system of mutual help and concern which has become the backbone of family and village life through the Philippines’. G. R. Ang, ‘The Bayanihan Spirit: Dead or Alive?’, Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, 7(1/2), 1979. This definition captures the heart of bayanihan, and it is from this basis that other definitions have evolved, with various differences in terms of scale and type of assistance.

The original idea of bayanihan refers to the Filipino tradition of helping families move their homes, where ‘[t]he able-bodied men would insert bamboo poles under the locally-made house in order to facilitate the task of lifting the entire house for relocation’. See M. L. G. Adviento and J. M. de Guzman, ‘Community Resilience during Typhoon Ondoy: The Case of Anteneoville’, Philippine Journal of Psychology, 43(1), 2010.  Thus, the origins of bayanihan lie in the collective sharing of labour within a community. This concept is very similar to the idea of barn-raising popular in eighteenth and nineteenth century rural North America. While more traditional conceptualisations are distinctly on the community scale, revolving around community action and community service, more contemporary definitions have a smaller scope, defining bayanihan as collective help, volunteerism and people simply helping each other. This examination of the definitions, combined with our findings in the field, led us to define bayanihan as ‘collective cooperation’, which provides versatility in terms of scale and form, in both more traditional as well as contemporary understandings and practices. This definition reflects the idea of indigenous knowledge as flexible and always evolving under changing conditions.

Bayanihan and Typhoon Haiyan

When Typhoon Haiyan was about to make landfall, President Benigno Aquino III called on all Filipinos to practice bayanihan, saying: ‘Alam nating walang bagyong maaaring magpaluhod sa Pilipino kung tayo’y magbabayanihan’ (‘No storm will make the Filipino get down on his knees as long as we help each other’). Bea Cupin, ‘Aquino: Yolanda “Serious Threat,” Don’t Take Chances’, Rappler, 7 November 2013. The prevalent use of the principle made it all the way to the White House in President Barack Obama’s reaction to Haiyan: ‘Michelle and I are deeply saddened by the loss of life and extensive damage done by Super Typhoon Yolanda. But I know the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people, and I am confident that the spirit of bayanihan will see you through this tragedy’. ‘Statement by the President on Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda’, 10 November 2013. Likewise, one local NGO involved in the response called for ‘a state of bayanihan not just a state of calamity’. ‘Breaking Barriers through Bayanihan: Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) Update as of Nov 19’, Gawad Kalinga. While such rallying cries for mutual assistance, from politicians and citizens alike, have the potential to galvanise people into action, in times of disaster this may not be adequate. In the 1960s, economist Mancur Olsen famously theorised that individuals may not contribute or cooperate because they can free-ride off the hard work of others and benefit from collective results without doing the work themselves (the collective action problem). In times of disaster, while it seems obvious to share limited resources, this mentality may only last a few days before it becomes apparent to some that reserving resources for themselves and their family is more beneficial than sharing them with others. As a result, social cohesion increases only in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

The collective action problem and the resultant incentive for people not to contribute to larger volunteer efforts was reflected in the responses from 11 focus groups conducted in three typhoon-affected municipalities in Leyte (Tacloban City, Palo and Tanauan) in 2014, as part of Project Yolanda. Project Yolanda is a research project being undertaken by the University of Nottingham (UK and China campuses) and the University of the Philippines (Diliman and Tacloban campuses). Approximately 150 people took part in the focus groups. When asked ‘How would you describe community/barangay participation and cohesion after Yolanda?’, different focus groups gave different answers. Six of the 11 groups reported initial cooperation right after the typhoon, before people reverted to prior behaviour. This is captured well by this quote from an elderly participant in Palo: ‘Cooperation in the community was at its best immediately after Super Typhoon Yolanda. We were more sympathetic with each other. But it was only for about a month. Once we were back to our feet, we turned to being more individualistic’. This sentiment was echoed by another participant in Palo, who said that ‘Immediately after Super Typhoon Yolanda, we helped each other. Now, it is to each his own’. One participant from Tacloban City felt that community relations actually got worse after Yolanda: ‘People became friends after Yolanda but when relief operations started, there were again squabbles. Attitudes and behaviour worsened. It was as if people did not learn from the Yolanda experience’.

Three focus groups from Tacloban City, Tanauan and Palo cited an increase in community cohesion, noting that there was ‘better participation and cooperation’ in the community, residents were ‘more helpful’ and interacted more with each other, and in general were ‘more organised’. Finally, two focus groups had purely negative views of community participation and cohesion after Yolanda. One participant in Tanauan said that ‘People in the barangay are back to being individualistic. Generally, they only show up if there is distribution of any assistance. Envy cannot be avoided’. Among the 11 focus groups, bayanihan was rarely mentioned.

The mixed responses from the focus groups echo the debate within the literature between what we call bayanihan optimists and bayanihan pessimists. Bayanihan optimists argue that bayanihan is a coping mechanism during times of disaster, helping to save lives and speeding up recovery within communities. Optimists cite positive examples of communities sharing their labour to quickly rebuild their homes, people completing sandbagging and rehabilitation tasks together, teamwork during difficult evacuations and the sharing of food and giving of small loans in post-disaster recovery. For bayanihan optimists, this collective process makes logical sense in the Philippines because many communities are poorer and have little access to physical resources, and so have to deploy their human resources, working together and sharing labour. Bayanihan pessimists argue that, while positive examples exist, there are many post-disaster situations where the bayanihan spirit is absent. For example, the mood in evacuation centres can be hostile and sometimes violent as people compete with each other for resources and assistance. This is similar to the stories of competition over relief goods shared by the focus group participants discussed above. Pessimists also present competing evidence that bayanihan is a logical response among poorer communities. A recent study on indigenous coping mechanisms in rural communities after Cyclone Parma in 2009 found that affected people only experienced bayanihan immediately after the disaster as the collective effort could not be sustained as competition for aid set in. The authors argue there are three reasons for this decline in the practice of bayanihan: the move away from subsistence farming towards integration into a modern economy, decreasing people’s dependence on their neighbours; increased migration and inter-marriage, promoting cultural practices other than bayanihan; and the replacement of traditional values with modern ones, causing some to see bayanihan as outdated. See D. Hilhorst et al., ‘Is Disaster “Normal” for Indigenous People? Indigenous Knowledge and Coping Practices’, Disaster Prevention and Management, 24(4), 2015.

Further research is needed to better understand the potential and limitations of indigenous coping mechanisms like bayanihan in post-disaster recovery. While the bayanihan spirit can play a large role, its significance and complexity must be better understood before it is uncritically promoted and celebrated after the next disaster to hit the Philippines. Future research could also explore the possible negative consequences of evoking bayanihan to ensure that self-recovery does not contribute to the evasion of governmental responsibility.

Yvonne Su is a PhD Candidate in Political Science and International Development at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Ladylyn Lim Mangada is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College in the Philippines.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not reflect the views of the Yolanda Project.


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