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Learning Lessons in the Philippines

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It is only three years since the world was shocked by Haiti's earthquake and Pakistan's terrible floods. In 2010 both governments and private donors responded with massive generosity. In the UK, the Disasters and Emergency Committee was inundated with donations worth more than £170million. International humanitarian aid shot up to US$20.2billion (£12billion) as the world attempted to cope with the year of two mega disasters.

By 2012, however, international humanitarian aid was down by more than 10%. UN appeals, were underfunded by almost 40 per cent - the highest figure for a decade.

Fast forward to now - or at least to the day before Typhoon Haiyan devastated so much of the Philippines. We were already heading for the end of a year in which Syria had become the worst refugee crisis for two decades - since the terrible days of the Rwanda genocide. Not to mention the millions who suffer in other countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world's most protracted 'megacrisis' in every sense except the media coverage that still shamefully eludes it. And it remains a crisis for the thousands and thousands of Congolese facing violence irrespective of the rebel M23s defeat earlier this month.

So in this year of multiple megadisasters, will the world scale up its humanitarian aid to respond to the Philippines, Syria, Congo and the countless other different crises? Or will it in 2013 fail the test it passed three years ago? Of course there must be massive and swift aid to the Philippines - a fact the UK public has recognised with its extraordinary generosity - donating £35m in under a week of the appeal launching. But while governments and international donors have been swift to respond to the Philippines disaster, that and sufficient humanitarian aid elsewhere is the real test of global decency as 2013 draws to an end.

Of course, aid must not only be sufficient but effective, appropriate and accountable as well. That is why we ensure we have learned the lessons of Haiti, the Indian Ocean tsunami and too many other disasters in the past. The Haiti Humanitarian Assistance Evaluation, published last year, summed things up well. The humanitarian response had 'met, and in some cases, exceeded, the immediate needs of the affected areas. However... had Haitians been more involved from the on-set of the disaster, the strategies, policies and implementation of programs to support affected communities would have been better.'

It's painful to remember that the main evaluation after the tsunami, published in 2007, said something similar. The international aid, it said, 'was most effective when enabling, facilitating and supporting local actors.' And while much of the aid was good, 'there is a tremendous need to do better and support communities' own relief and recovery efforts, and... to invest much more in disaster risk reduction and preparedness' in the future.

On the one hand, that is exactly what Oxfam and many aid agencies have been doing, including in the Philippines. Shocked by the suffering caused by Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, Oxfam has been helping Filipino NGOs develop their Humanitarian Response Consortium, while remaining ready to respond to disasters like Haiyan beyond their capacity to cope with alone. Other DEC members have been doing the same - acutely aware that the challenge from such disasters is not just to respond to them, but to build people's resilience to future disasters as well. The overwhelming scale of Haiyan certainly does not mean that the Philippines government's work to improve its ability to prepare and respond has not been vital. It has.

On the other hand, the potential for aid donors and agencies to invest more in local organisations is still - around the world - woefully unrealised, a point made by a well-timed report, Missed Opportunities, last week.

Getting that right in the Philippines will be crucial. Few would dispute that the USS George Washington and such visible signs of international support are vital. But the real test for international action is whether it can support the local, and remember the long-term. Because, tragically, Haiyan is not going to be the last terrible disaster that the Philippines and an increasing number of countries are likely to face.

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