Friday, December 6, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) - Some Reflections

Perhaps now with the passage of time since the Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it is known in the Philippines, has hit and caused such devastation, with the rush of emergency appeals for funds perhaps diminished and the trauma in that part of the world forgotten as we in the rest of the world move on with our lives, especially with the onset of the Christmas season, there might be some time for reflection on what this all means.

The pictures of devastation on the Philippines, particularly in what was once the thriving city, Tacloban, remind us of the power of nature and natural disasters. But, as I think back to other disasters of this kind, including the great earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, hurricane in Haiti in 2010, the flooding in Pakistan in 2011, the triple disaster in Japan in 2012, and now the recent tornado damage in Illinois, and its destruction of the town of Washington there, I realize that these images and the thoughts they bring to mind all start to blend. The recently released movie, All is Lost, with one man's fight against the ocean in a small disabled sailboat reminds us of the power of the seas and of storms far from land, and although it has nothing to do with what happened in the Philippines, it shows the same kind power of storm surges that swept away homes, trees and plants, people, and people's lives.

We see the images of destruction and despair, and were it not for the geography, they would look the same. But the faces, full of fear and uncertainty and sorrow, all seem to bear the same sense of the futility of it all, and the enormousness of the challenges that lie ahead.  Have we not all heard and seen in the United States, the frightened and panicked prayers of a man as he looks out his window at the oncoming tornado passing by his home, destroying everything in its way?  Then we forget, don't we, and move on with our lives?  Why? As I read reports from the Associated Press, my mind went back to the Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf coast of the United States in 2005 and the refuges in the New Orleans domed stadium.  As Kristen Gelineau of the AP reported:
Close your eyes and hold your breath, and you could imagine you are at a normal sports stadium.  You hear a ball bouncing and children's cheers echoing under the cavernous dome.
But, then, you open your eyes and you see the rain-soaked trashing littering every inch of ground.  You see a sign posted next to a dark stairwell warning people not to urinate or defecate there, but it is clear that the people have ignored the sign.  What makes this especially tragic was that people flocked into the Tacloban's astrodome at the urging of municipal officials who believed the roof would withstand the wind and rain.  And it did.  But, the arena flooded and many drowned and were trampled to death as others in their frenzy rush tried to get to the higher seats.

Days after the typhoon came ashore, decomposing bodies still lied along the roads, face down in the muddy puddles.  We are told that the odor of decaying bodies along the road and in a church that was supposed to be an evacuation center, made identification and moving the bodies to be buried in mass graves almost impossible, and prevented people from eating what little food could be made available.

Of course, part of the story we don't hear often and which is often obscure, is that Typhoon Haiyan also destroyed traditional, high-tech livelihoods.  The Associated Press reported from Tanauan, Philippines, twenty kilometers from Tacloban:
As Typhoon Haiyan tore across the eastern Philippines, coconut plantations older than the fathers of the men who tend them were smashed like matchsticks and call centers that field customer service gripes from around the world fell silent.  The storm that killed thousands also wrecked livelihoods in the worst hit regions, a blow that will ripple long after the disaster fades from attention.
The workload of call and data centers that are soaked in water and choked with debris has easily been diverted to other Philippine cities. Less simply is the choice faced by thousands of workers: uproot and separate from family or stay in Leyte province and wait perhaps a year for jobs to return.
The coconut palm is known in the Philippines as the "tree of life" because every part of it has a use, whether for roofing, floor cleaner or charcoal, white flesh to be eaten or processed into oil, and sap used for wine.  But, harvesting the coconuts is a rugged and hardscrabble way of life.  As a result, many have left farming behind and escaped to other jobs in outsourcing industries with call centers and data centers in air conditioned comfort.  Bosses from Manila order hard drives from thousands of damaged computers destroyed in the storm to protect the confidential data of clients from around the world.

The story is told that is so typical of the tragedy in Philippines about an elderly man, Rodolfo Suaya, a retired newspaper vendor.  Mr. Susaya is one of hundreds of survivors crowded into Redemptorist Parish Church in Tacloban which is now serving as shelter in the wake of this horrible typhoon.  Suffering from chronic asthma and unable to work, he can hardly bathe himself without help. He wonders out loud how he will be able to survive, and as IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis reported, he begins to cry: "I lost my wife and my daughter. How am I supposed to live?"

In one small city in the typhoon-battered area of the Philippines, a town hall has been turned into a field hospital where a 16-member team of volunteer surgeons from California-based Mammoth Medical Mission operate on survivors by flashlight, performing more than 100 surgeries in three days.  But, and a real big but, this makeshift clinic has not been resupplied with medicines and equipment, and the doctors say that there appears to be no concerted effort from government or international organizations to do so.  Without these supplies, these volunteer surgeons can do no more.  And throngs of desperate people wait outside amid the smell of rotting flesh and stagnant water.  Oh, by the way, these volunteer surgeons were on a five-day trip to Mexico when they were diverted to Tanauan.

The area is like a war zone, with people on the verge of anarchy and troops and police struggling to control the looting in the streets where bodies remain uncollected.  As the city lurches toward lawlessness, the surgeons expect to see different kinds of injuries.  We know that violence is often part of the epidemiology of a natural disaster.

Well, that is the outline of the basic story and situation in the Philippines.  For most of us, it is a long way away and does not seem to affect our lives, and so we move on.  Of course we hear of the competitive reports about which country is giving more to the relief and which countries and agencies seem to be slacking their duties.  But, we never hear of the source of those duties to come to the aid of countries suffering disaster.

Early reports reflected the care that the UN and various countries had for the Philippines and its people.  The United Nations "released" $25 million from the UN's emergency fund to provide emergency food and assistance, shelter materials, and the like.  The UN World Food Program will send more than 40 tons of high energy biscuits and work with Filipino government with logistics and emergency communications.  And of course, all of this is good.

The United States "pledged" $20 million in immediate aid and order the aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, to sail to the Philippines to provide assistance.  The U.S.Agency for International Development also deployed officials to Philippines to monitor the damage.

Britain deployed a Royal Navy warship with supplies and donated 10 million pounds (approximately $16 million) worth of humanitarian aid.  Britain also deployed Royal Air Force military transport aircraft to move the humanitarian aid and large equipment.

 Australia announced assistance of 10 million Australian dollars ($9.4 million US) and emergency medical teams as well as Australian NGOs for immediate life-saving assistance.

Japan will donate $10 million, and has sent a 25-member medical team to the Philippines.

Canada has promised to donate $5 million in support of humanitarian organizations and the government has pledged to match every dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities.

There was some international clucking of tongues at China's pledge of $200,000, which included $100,000 from the government and $100,000 from the Chinese Red Cross.  While one cannot assume that the Chinese Red Cross pledged the $100,000 independently as an independent NGO, the amount pledged is not insignificant, although it does reduce the total amount pledged by China that pales in comparison with other major industrial countries and the various agencies of the United Nations.  Perhaps this simply reflects consistency with the prevailing worldview of the Chinese belief system.

According to Washington Post columnist, Anne Applebaum, there are politics behind this apparent Chinese stinginess.  But, aren't there always politics behind how we respond to crises?  China recently made claims on Philippine territories, citing historical documents that date to the fifth century.  The Philippine government responded with anger and invited the U.S. Navy to reopen some bases it closed in the 1990s.  So, the U.S. generosity is not completely unexpected as it reflects the renewed warmth and military cooperation between Washington and Manila.

But these responses to Typhoon Haiyan and the superstorm crisis in the Philippines also reflects a different set of values and attitudes about power. Americans, like the Europeans, have long believed that strength and wealth entail responsibility.  As Applebaum points out, that is why two former U.S. presidents voluntarily coordinated the international response to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, even though there were no U.S. bases in Indonesia. Similarly, that is why Applebaum argues that massive amounts of aid went to 2005 earthquake victims of Kashmir even though relations between the U.S. and Pakistan were deteriorating at that time.

Except for its response to internal disasters, China does give development aid, but differently; not in response to tragedies or disasters, but to facilitate the export of raw materials to China.  So, Applebaum argues that China is not interested in generosity for its own sake.  Nor does it appear that Chinese billionaires believe that wealth brings obligations to care for the poor or victims of disasters.  Again, although not expressly stated in the report, this might reflect a certain anthropological worldview outlook of Chinese ideology.

Taiwan has pledged to send $200,000 in aid to help with the relief efforts.

However, it is not just national governments that have become involved in the rescue and relief operations in the Philippines.  The HSBC Group is donating over $1 million toward victims of the typhoon, and is activating a bank-wide drive to raise funds from employees globally.  The American Red Cross, World Vision, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Mercy Corps, Americares, International Rescue Committee, the Lutheran World Relief, the American Jewish World Service, and Samaritan's Purse are just a few of the major NGOs raising funds and engaged in emergency relief operations in the Philippines.  Doctors Without Borders has 15 members in Cebu city and will send an additional 50 people  in the next few days if it has not already done so.

My friend, Professor Dr. Rene Bekkers, of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam wrote a blog piece about research insights with regard to the Typhoon Haiyan relief donations.  This post was rich with source materials and links to academic papers and research done with respect to fundraising for disaster relief.

Although his blog addressed fundraising in Netherlands for international relief for the Typhoon Haiyan, it addressed the more general issue of giving to disaster relief campaigns, and provides some very useful insights.  For example, one of the conclusions from the research was that the amount raised for humanitarian aid depends on the number of fatalities, not on the number survivors who are affected by the disaster.  Another conclusion was that campaigns for victims of man-made disasters are less successful than those for natural disasters, and that campaigns organized in periods of fewer competing campaigns and campaigns which receive government support tend to be more successful.

One of the studies to which Dr. Bekkers referred was a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by David Stromberg,  "Natural Disasters, Economic Development, and Humanitarian Aid," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol 21.Number 3, Summer 2007.  Professor Stromberg begins with the obvious statement that natural disasters are one of the major problems facing humankind, and he begins his study of the period of 1980 to 2004 in which two million people were reported killed, and the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon.  see The Haiti Earthquake of 2010: Charity and Transformation,

Following Jean-Jacques Rousseau's analysis regarding that earthquake, responding to Voltaire's satirical reflection on the Lisbon earthquake and flooding, Stromberg distinguishes three factors contributing to a disaster: the triggering of the natural hazard event (such as an earthquake striking the Atlantic Ocean outside Portugal); the population exposed to that event (such as the 275,000 citizens of Lisbon); and the vulnerability population (higher for people in large seven-story buildings and churches).   What is also interesting is that the Lisbon earthquake was the first natural disaster in which the state accepted responsibility for emergency response and reconstruction.  As pointed out in one study by Russell Dynes in his 1999 paper on "The Dialogue Between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View," a possible explanation for the rapid and appropriate response is that Portugal was a relatively prosperous country at that time and the important political and economic structures were moving Portugal toward more economic and political institutional forms.

Although this paper is comprehensive, there were some conclusions pertinent to this consideration of the effects of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the world's response, particular the civil society sector.

First, high income countries face lower mortality rates from natural disasters than do lower income countries.  In part because they have the means for affording better measures to limit the effect of natural disasters.  After the disaster strikes, measures relating to bringing in medical care and food, and tending to mass evacuations can limit the negative consequences.  Since governments typically handle many of these measures, disasters may seem less severe in countries with effective and accountable governments.  Similarly, they are less severe in societies that are more democratic and have a free press.

Secondly, most victims of natural disasters live in low-income countries, with limited resources to mitigate the effects of such disasters.  As a result, emergency relief internationally from richer countries can play a key role in mitigating the effects of such disasters.  One of the problems is that disaster relief often favors high-profile emergencies at the expense of more invisible suffering far from media or political spotlight.  Similarly, disaster relief often favors disaster victims in countries with historical ties to donor countries, or that lie close to major donors.  This can also be important from a foreign policy or economic perspective.

According to the international disaster data tracking of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), net disbursements on emergency and distress relief during the period of 1995-2004 were approximately $4.6 billion per year in constant 2004 dollars.  A few donors supplied most of this aid with eleven countries providing 90 percent.  The United States was the largest donor accounting for approximately one third of the aid.  European countries as a group accounted for 57 percent of the funding.  There has been no tracking of data regarding individual donors giving through organizations such as the Red Cross, OXFAM, UNICEF, the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, and the like. Nevertheless, private individuals contributed 10 percent of the total relief funds to natural disasters over the period of 2000-2004 according to records of the Financial Tracking Service of the United Nations.

The real question that I am exploring here and elsewhere, and which is addressed in the Stromberg paper is: Why do countries provide disaster relief? Or maybe more specifically, why do we as a people, either collectively or individually, provide disaster relief?  As I pointed out above, some of it can be explained on the basis of politics.  So, donor countries may provide relief with an eye to their own country's economic and geostrategic political interests. Large disasters tend to destabilize governments.  As Strongberg wrote, private donations can probably be explained on humanitarian bases and motivations, and motive is certainly stressed in official guidelines for relief.  But, donors must be aware of the disaster or need in order to help, and so media spotlights may result in more donor relief. People may be moved by the suffering of those close by, both geographically and culturally.  But, why should they be moved at all?  Donor governments react more swiftly to disasters reported in the media.

Moreover, the news effect bias toward disasters that are newsworthy, in a journalistic sense, may prompt more giving.  Thus, earthquakes and volcanoes tend to be covered by news organizations more than are disasters relating to draughts or even some situations involving flooding.  Similarly, because of the prevalence of extensive news media, disasters in America and in Europe receive more media coverage that do similar disasters in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Further, colonial history plays a part, with those areas previously under certain colonial powers receiving more and more immediate aid for disasters than those that do not have a similar history.

I guess one other factor that plays into this, both at the individual level and at the governmental level of relief, is the distance and common language between the wealthy, important, major donors, and those in need as a result of the disaster.  Thus, for example, a group far from large donors are Asian countries without colonial ties, such as China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand.

But, the problem with so many of these analyses of giving, and the reporting of disasters, is that none of them provide any clear answer to the question raised by humanitarianism and why we should give to people in need at all, as opposed to giving to any other causes.

According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, naturalism is the view that holds that everything is "natural," that is, that everything that is, belongs to the world of "nature" and can be studied by the methods appropriate to "nature." Similarly, materialism holds the view that everything is made of matter, that is, consisting entirely of atoms, of tiny, absolutely hard, impenetrable, incomprehensible, invisible, and unaltered bits of "stuff."  If that is so, then there should not be any moral difference between the treatment of things, of animals, of our environment, and of people.

University of Oxford Professor, Dr. John Lennox, with doctorates in both science and mathematics, points out that scientists, like Carl Sagan, make it clear that their materialistic convictions are a priori, but admit that their materialism does not derive from science, and that their materialistic convictions consciously determine the nature of what they believe science to be. According to Harvard geneticist, Richard Lewontin, speaking for Carl Sagan's position,
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of a real struggle between science and the supernatural.  We take the side of science inspite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs . . . in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories because we have a prior commitment . . . materialism.  It is not that the methods are institutions of science and somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. 
Princeton University ethicist and professor Peter Singer, argues in his book, Practical Ethics, that most relevant ethical issues are those that confront us daily, such as the right to spend money on entertaining ourselves when we could use it to help people living in extreme poverty.  He asks, are we justified in treating animals as nothing more than machines producing flesh for us to eat? Should we drive a car thus emitting greenhouse gases that warm the planet

The issue hits us in the face, somewhat obliquely by a recent lawsuit filed in a court in the U.S. in which the it was argued that chimpanzees are cognitively similar to humans and therefore, deserve the same rights given to humans, i.e., Homo sapiens.  As the New York Times reported, "this is no stunt."  Instead, it is the culmination of a legal strategy that has been years in the making, namely, to change the common law status of "non-human animals" from "things" to "persons."  This is the exact point Peter Singer has been making in his writings for many years.

In a purely naturalistic and materialistic worldview, none of these humanistic appeals for funds for disasters make much sense if there is no difference between animals and humans, or between inanimate objects, such as rocks and dirt and people.

Peter Singer, in his book, How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, addressed the question as to whether there was anything worth living for.  And Singer asks: Is there anything worth pursuing apart from money, love, and caring for one's one family?  But why should we care for our families anymore than we care for the pets, dog, cat, hamster, turtle, or fish?  Any discussion of these might present a certain religious flavor, but, according to Singer, many people may have uneasy feeling that they are missing out on something significant if religion is lacking and yet nothing seems to fill the place of religion.  Singer writes:
     The problem is that most people have only the vaguest idea of what it might be to lead an ethical life.  They understand ethics as a system of rules forbidding us to do things.  They do not grasp it as a basis for thinking about how we are to live.  They live largely self-interested lives, not because they are born selfish, but because the alternatives seem awkward, embarrassing, or just plain pointless. They cannot see any way of making an impact on the world, and if they could, why should they bother.  Short of undergoing a religious conversion, they see nothing to live for except the pursuit of their own material self-interest.
As Singer points out, he has been involved in a variety of causes with "strong ethical basis," which include: aid for developing nations, support for refugees, the legalization of voluntary euthanasia, wilderness preservation, and more general environmental concerns.  He continues,
There are people who are hungry, malnourished, lacking shelter, or basic health care; and there are voluntary organizations that raise money to help these people.  True, the problem is so big that one individual cannot make much impact on it; and no doubt some of the money will be swallowed up in administration, or will get stolen, or for some other reason will not reach the people who need it most. Despite these inevitable problems, the discrepancy between the wealth of the developed world and the poverty of the poorest people in developing countries is so great that if only a small fraction of what you give reaches the people who need it, that fraction will make a far greater difference to the people it reaches than the full amount you could make to your own life.  That you as an individual cannot make an impact on the entire problem seems scarcely relevant, since you can make an impact on the lives of particular families.  So will you get involved with one of these organizations?  Will you yourself give, not just spare change when a tin is rattled under your nose, but substantial amounts that will reduce your ability to live a luxurious lifestyle?
However, he never says why this is so, and in the next paragraph he proceeds to discuss consumer products that damage the ozone layer, contribute to greenhouse effect, destroy rainforests, or pollute rivers, and lakes.  And, how about, those products which are put in concentrated form into the eyes of conscious rabbits which are held immobilized in rows of restraining devices, and where there is testing of medicine and methods in such cruel ways on animals.  And, as he sets forth in his third edition of Practical Ethics, his passion now is about global warming and the environment.

What is missing in all of this are the common sense concerns that prompt us experience some deep sense of emotion when we see victims of Typhoon Haiyan crying and begging for help, and looting shops in desperation, just to survive.  Okay, nations may provide relief for geopolitical and economic reasons, or because of some common language, history, or geographical closeness. But, this does not adequately address the human dimension of a disaster or why we should care what happens in a far away land.

And although Stromberg may argue that private donations can "probably be explained" on humanitarian bases or motives, he does not say why that is so, nor does he justify why there should even be humanitarian bases or motives. Indeed what was lacking was any identification of the assumptions behind this claim.

Well, all of this is food for thought.  Maybe we can chew some more on it another time.


  1. Great thought-provoking post, Rollin. One would hope that governments would act on behalf of their people with a humanitarian response. That is idealistic I know, but the goal is to rise above politics etc. and really be human in our response to tragedies.

    It also seems strange that people donate more when there are more deaths as opposed to more people surviving, but who are in desperate need. However, that seems to be the way we rate disasters - in terms of lives lost rather than lives endangered or ruined.

    Thanks for sparking some reflection on my own part about what moves me to give.

  2. John, you are most kind. Really what I was trying to spark in a subtle and latent way was a theological reflection on anthropology, and why we might be moved in humanitarian ways to care for those who like us were also created in God's image. Just a thought.