Aid in hard places

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Have spent quite a few days this week watching the unfolding aid operation around Tacloban. When I first arrived in the the typhoon-affected area there was no more than a trickle of relief supplies coming in. Two American C-130s and three Philippine Air Force cargo planes were the only planes arriving. That trickle has grown all week, joined by other planes and most notably the arrival of an American carrier group offshore.

I have now left Tacloban for a stint in Cebu and have only now caught up with the criticism of the aid operation. I blog about why that is misplaced here:

Can there be a more difficult place to deliver aid? The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. Typhoon Haiyan is one of the most powerful storms ever to have hit land. And its unique combination of extreme low pressure, 200mph winds and quirk of geography that channeled its force through the Leyte Gulf meant no one could have predicted the 16ft sea surge that wrought such utter devastation in coastal regions.

 

In addition, Tacloban airport was a total wreck when I first arrived. It is still a mess. There are few facilities. Rubble and fallen trees remain a huge problem. There is next to no fuel in the town. Even if aid arrives, humanitarian workers have major problems moving it on, as this BBC Q&A on the subject spells out:

“It’s almost all in country – either in Manila or in Cebu, but it’s not here,” Sebastian Rhodes Stampa told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have a real challenge with logistics in terms of getting things out of here, into town, out of town, into the other areas. The reason for that essentially is that there are no trucks, the roads are all closed.”

John Crowley takes on the same issues in this piece on Time.com. But he also goes out of his way to criticise journalists for focusing on the negatives, and the impact that can have on the distribution of aid: 

When journalists focus on looting and slow aid delivery, they miss the point. Information is aid. Their reports are part of weaving the fabric of a global Filipino community back together after a typhoon tore through their hometowns. By showing communities coming together, journalists can amplify the dynamics that save lives.

Of course, this is a perennial debate for journos. To what extent are we detached observers and to what extent should we think about the impact our stories have?

You don’t need to be a frequent reader of this blog to know I think Crowley is talking bobbins. So long as we report freely, fairly and with our observations rooted in context – reflecting the way so many extended families are helping relatives cope, for example – we should not have to worry. We are not part of the aid industry’s PR machine


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