Responding to Typhoon Haiyan: the need to avoid 'saviour syndrome'

November 13, 2013
Sara Pantuliano, Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute
Filipinos in Tacloban, Philippines clear the streets after Typhoon Haiyan

It has been five days since the largest storm of the century – Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Yolanda – swept through the Philippines leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Only now are aid agencies beginning to get a clearer picture of the needs and the suffering in the 36 affected provinces.

The typhoon has stretched communities to breaking point, but international governments and aid agencies must resist ‘saviour syndrome’ – believing they can enter a disaster zone and bypass national structures in their efforts to support those in need.

When confronted with destruction on such a scale, the urge to help at any cost is understandable. But we need to learn lessons from past disasters and ensure that the Filipino authorities are firmly in charge of relief, recovery and rebuilding.

In previous disaster responses there has been a tendency for Governments and aid agencies to send in very expensive specialist teams or replicating coordination structures. These approaches are expensive and aren’t the most effective use of money to save lives.

Government and national structures are critical for response during disasters; supporting and working with them will ensure that the response is sustainable, especially when considering the immense level of devastation. It is vital that the government is able to lead the aid effort, as happened in Aceh after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. This combination of coordination and leadership will ensure the strongest possible response.

We also need to consider what appropriate support looks like. The fact that many agencies are receiving cash has been encouraging as it gives flexibility to respond better to actual needs – in the past goods have been donated which serve little practical purpose, such as unwanted clothes or medical supplies that may not be appropriate to the local context.

As the recovery effort gains momentum it will be important that international actors bear in mind the resilience and resourcefulness of the Filipino people. This is a country that is regularly affected by disasters caused by natural hazards, but the magnitude of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan would stretch any nation. After immediate needs subside, we should seek to support Filipinos to rebuild their lives, in their vision of the future, not ours.

This post originally appeared on the Overseas Development Institute website.


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