Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

It’s been more than a week since Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda) devastated the central Philippines leaving cities, villages, fields, roads, people and coconut plantations destroyed in its wake. This is the 26th tropical storm to strike the islands this year – the worst since 1993. For days, the newscasts here in the US characterized the situation on the ground as chaotic.   News anchors (both US and British), by the way, have also mispronounced the name of Taclóban, the principal city.  For those who still don’t have it right, the stress is on the second, not the first syllable.

Videos have been filled with horror stories of looting and decomposed bodies lying in the open for days. Even reports of a Red Cross convoy held up by gunmen in this weapons-happy country are there for the downloading.        

The media coverage of the disaster in these United States has been substantial – hard-luck stories tend to bring out reporters in droves – yet unless another typhoon hits the ravaged area, these messages will all too likely trail off into a too soon forgotten black void.   The American public’s attention span is short and correspondents who cover disaster stories are expensive to maintain in remote areas for long.  But this one may last longer in the public eye than most given the extreme conditions, the logistical hurdles faced and the extent of the damage.   Moreover, Filipino-Americans are the second largest Asian-American ethnic group in the US according to the 2010 census with strong familial ties to their ancestral home and the US Navy clearly has effective public affairs teams on the ground.   

Yet how many more shots of the dead, sound bites of hard luck stories of survivors and destroyed buildings can there be to attract all but the most fervent viewers over the long run?  Once the relief efforts set in in earnest – which is now happening – only the tragic stories of underserved remote villages will linger on.  

Meanwhile, humanitarian relief was initially hampered by a prolonged logistical and environmental nightmare initially exacerbated by a Filipino government in which no one seemed to be in charge and apparently absent adequate long term planning at both local and national levels for the gale force winds and the 16 foot high wave tsunami.    Yet the country has a functioning government and plays host to various international relief organizations with long time offices in Manila. This has and will make a huge and positive difference in the days and months to come.       

The early arrival of the American military with its world class logistical superiority and its lengthy successful track record in international disaster relief– in particular the US Navy – coincided with the Filipino decision to send in its own troops to restore order in stricken villages and permitted the US Navy to take over air traffic command at Guiuan, the region’s second most important airfield.

The situation on the ground is stabilizing.  This is allowing civilian NGOs – international and domestic – to feed the hungry, care for the sick and injured, bury the dead, restore clean water and begin the next phase – the long term and costly rebuilding, repairing and resettling of hundreds of thousands of refugees whose lives and livelihoods have suddenly been torn asunder in one of the poorest areas of the Philippines.

The Philippine Red Cross, I understand, is the largest NGO in the country with relief workers in the afflicted areas since early on.  It is also headed by the capable Richard Gordon once mayor of the city of Olongapo in the 1990s at a critical time in the city’s history.  But many other international relief organizations are on the ground and donations of charity are gratefully accepted.  The aid comes from governments and individuals from around the world most notably the British, US, Japanese, Thai, French and Australians.  A recent Newshour report also showed packages of aid from Germany being off loaded for distribution and said that the Chinese have finally sent an emergency medical unit and a naval hospital ship. But let’s face it, the Chinese contribution and the country’s response could and should have been far better for a major power located next door.

As is the usual case in tragedies such as these, donations of money to reputable charities working in afflicted areas are far more helpful than goods.  Money travels faster and is more cost effective.  It also helps the local economy by allowing the relief organizations to purchase goods needed from local sources.       

US-Philippine relationship – lengthy and sometimes contentious

The Filipino-American relationship has been lengthy and sometimes contentious. The Philippines became America’s only colony at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War of 1898.  The island nation gained independence on July 4, 1946 after the US reconquered this devastated colony from the Japanese in World War II. The US reduced its military presence in fits and starts thereafter and the last US forces (the Navy) left the country in October 1992 although a tiny US military contingent has been working with the Filipino armed forces in anti-terrorist activities in Mindanao since 2001 – the country’s southernmost island long beset by struggles between the government and armed insurrectionist Muslim groups.  Meanwhile, a mutual US-Philippines defense treaty has remained in force for decades as has a generally harmonious relationship between the US Navy and the Philippines.

It’s the US Navy that is leading the US military relief efforts there now – from photo mapping remote areas through special P-3 flights so as to better target humanitarian aid to delivering bags of rice and other food stuffs to hungry villagers and townsfolk on the ground in coordination with Filipino military helicopter crews.      

The Big International Donors

The United Kingdom, in particular, but also Japan came quickly to the rescue.  In fact, the UK effort in terms of dollars (or pounds) far surpassed that of any other country. A recent graphic shows Australia at the top of the donor list.  The UK government’s pledge is substantial but British private sector charity funds are higher. This may, in part, be because the UK had a coordinated and well publicized early call for private donations – something which seems to have gone missing here in the US.  The private US recruitment effort seems to have focused on Fil-Am or Filipino-American communities – many of whose members regularly send remittances to families back home but will undoubtedly do more.    

Meanwhile, looking in from the outside, it’s been amazingly difficult to figure out which organizations need private contributions for their Philippine typhoon relief efforts and of those which ones can put them to the most effective use.

The US Embassy Manila and USAID Manila websites were slow off the mark.  The information posted was scanty and the two sites uncoordinated (as if they belonged to two different governments) when I checked them earlier last week. The USAID one was particularly irrelevant.  The Embassy website was better by Friday but still didn’t provide all the information I was looking for.  In short, in this era of instant communications I was unimpressed with what I found.  The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and an umbrella NGO humanitarian relief organization called Interaction are, I think, better sources for Americans wishing to help.

Newshour interviews with former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios and USAID Assistant Administrator for Humanitarian Relief Nancy Lindborg help explain well – the US government civilian relief efforts – the only significant descriptions I’ve seen thus far.  Their interviews are well worth watching (or reading the transcripts) but otherwise few Americans will really know how the US government spends its miniscule foreign humanitarian aid funds – less than .5 percent of the overall US budget if I’ve got the figures right.  As of Tuesday, the amount totaled  some $37 million – and likely counting. 


On the one hand, without the US Navy’s public affairs arm alive and in action we would not know that the US government was involved in these relief efforts at all.  At least one broadcast – clearly filmed with Navy public affairs assistance – showed USAID initials on crates and bags of rice being off-loaded by a US Navy flight crew into arms of hungry villagers.  But it’s still troubling to realize that most Americans have no idea how such a small portion of their taxes contribute to a major part of a massive public-private US civilian international relief effort. 

Yes, the US military is providing critical logistical support. 13,000 uniformed American military personnel have been “engaged in the relief effort so far and 3,000 more are enroute” according to the November 21, 2013 New York Times.  This doesn’t come cheap.  But this is a joint effort and it’s USAID that provides the food, medical and other supplies which are transported by the US military and distributed by the Philippine government, and international and Filipino charities.  Yet it’s the all but clueless American citizens whose tax dollars are being used to help those less fortunate than themselves.

The humanitarian aid is handled by the Philippine government and civilian aid workers in the Philippines through its own channels and private (or actually quasi-private) NGOs on the ground.  Such international efforts are often coordinated through the good offices of the United Nations (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs with UNICEF playing a crucial role) working with the Philippine government.     

But why do Americans know so little about how their tax dollars are spent? 

Or that so very little can do so much good and create such good will for the US abroad?   In 2004 the US provided some of the same kinds of humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the huge tsunami which devastated Aceh, Indonesia and the previously anti-American Indonesian population there made an about-face.

Why then is this country’s role in international humanitarian relief and the good it does abroad so underreported here at home?  Is it simply because positive stories aren’t news?  Or is it something more?  How can this picture be changed?