THE BLOG
07/05/2014 18:30 BST | Updated 07/07/2014 06:59 BST

Beyond Relief in the Philippines

At a makeshift boat building workshop amidst the rubble of what used to be a big stone house close to the waterside near Tacloban in the Philippines, my guide told me of his visit six months ago, just days after the typhoon struck. He was searching for the house owner who had trusted its sturdy walls, but whose body had still never been recovered. Now, there were about fifty local fisherman hard at work clearing land, repairing their old boats and building new improved fibre glass ones. Close by there were groups of women making and repairing nets.

The scene was typical of the progress made since November when thousands of people were killed and about 14 million had their lives turned upside down as they lost their homes, jobs, friends and family. In the initial aftermath of the typhoon, Oxfam distributed cash to help people meet their immediate needs. Now we are supporting recovery through projects like the one I visited in the boathouse.

Recovery does not mean restoring the typhoon-hit areas to the same state as before the typhoon stuck. To take the example of the boathouse, building so many new boats with traditional hardwood would aggravate deforestation and break the law. And with the carpentry and fibreglassing, fishermen are also learning new skills.

At another site along the coast, women are also learning carpentry skills to help repair boats and houses, so it is not only the men who have these new opportunities. I like the balance between restoring the old ways and challenging the longstanding constraints that keep people poor.

The government is also committed to the principle of 'building back better'. It is moving 200,000 people away from vulnerable areas to protect them from the next typhoon. But so far there are crucial pieces of the jigsaw is missing. Relocation is not only about houses it's also about jobs and transport. Some relocation sites are 15 kilometres away from people's homes and ways of earning a living, and transport is expensive. The people I talked to stressed the importance of being able to earn a living - anecdotal evidence backed by an Oxfam survey of more than 450 people being relocated that found it was their top priority.

If this process is not done well - everyone loses. Families are being forced to choose between safety and putting food on the table. Yet jobs do not feature in the government's relocation plans. It is an omission they need to fix urgently.

During my visit I went out in one of the first of the newly built motorised canoes, piloted by a fisherman who lost his house and a family member in the storm. He has never owned his own boat and has worked for others when they needed him. He helped build and is now a proud co-owner of this one.

We fish a mile offshore, but our catch is not good - barely enough to cover costs and feed a small family. Coastal reefs and fish stocks have been damaged by the storm and the waters overfished. So the Oxfam team are exploring the viability of building groups of fishermen owning bigger boats that can fish deeper waters where catches will be bigger, but where only the richer commercial operators can currently go.

Challenging the status quo is even more important to the coconut farmers, who are among the poorest people in the country and amongst the hardest hit by the typhoon. The coconut trees cannot be replanted until the land is cleared. Then they will take years to bear fruit. New trees alone will never be enough for small farmers to work their way out of poverty. They need support to be able to grow other crops to sell while they are waiting. They also need help to add value to their raw materials and to get a better deal in the market. They need strong allies to push the government for land reform that will give them greater security and rights.

Working with local organisations, Oxfam and other international agencies are playing a vital role in ensuring people's voices are heard. We now move beyond relief and deliver the large scale, long-term response needed to rebuild lives.