Building back better in the Philippines | ActionAid UK

“Build Back Better” is the mantra for the international humanitarian community for reconstruction work after disasters. It is a statement of intent to not only restore people’s lives to how they were before disaster struck but also to leave them better placed to withstand disaster in the future – more resilient, with new skills and better resourced.

Aid distribution in Palo in the Philippines.
Aid distribution in Palo in the Philippines.

In recent disasters “Building Back Better” has been too often a statement of intent, rather than an expression of reality. I am convinced, however, that it is an attainable and worthwhile goal that should motivate us to do better. For ActionAid, of course, the litmus test is whether such an aspiration makes a difference in poor people’s lives.

My recent visit to the Philippines to see the reconstruction work after Super Typhoon Haiyan greatly encouraged me, but also showed there is a long way to go. Large quantities of immediate relief – food, hygiene kits, seeds and tools – have been distributed and roads, electricity and phones have largely been restored.

But thousands of people remain in temporary shelter, schools lessons are taught under tarpaulins and coconut plantations – a vital mainstay of the local economy – will take years to restore. Many people also remain deeply traumatised, having lost loved ones and had their sense of security shattered.

The relief phase is largely at an end

Yet there are hopeful signs. The ‘relief phase’ is largely at an end, and can be considered a broad success, and all the focus is now on recovery. Wherever you go, in areas like Tacloban, there is the sound of sawing and hammering and reconstruction is gathering pace. ActionAid has helped reequip pre-schools, basic medical centres, provide materials for shelters and has ambitious plans for the next two year reconstruction phase.

One example of building back better was the establishment of local community gardens. These had already been planted with new crops and some were already being harvested. Such gardens provides a source of food and income and means, in the future, communities will no longer be reliant on one crop.

Michael, one young man I met, told me excitedly that they had wanted to implement this idea for years but they didn’t have the resources. Now it was up and running he said he would be happy to go to other areas, talk to them about it and so spread the learning.

Michael and his friends at an ActionAid-supported community garden.

A community training session with women’s groups was providing them with basic instructions as to how to build their houses to be stronger and better able to withstand the next Typhoon. It was not rocket science but it could be life-saving.

A poster used with local women on how to build better houses.

Better information will clearly be important in the future to help avoid loss of life. The biggest killer was the ‘storm surge’ – water rushed in sweeping all away and many people drowned. People were simply unprepared for this and many said they had heard talk of a storm surge but didn’t know what it was.

Disaster preparedness and risk reduction plans – understood and implemented at community level – can save many lives in the future if lessons are learnt from Typhoon Haiyan. Emergencies will happen but disasters, and particularly loss of life, can be significantly reduced and sometimes entirely avoided.

ActionAid’s response has reached around 70,000 people in six provinces. Basic relief has been delivered but the task ahead is to show that “building back better” is more than a slogan and can really transform affected communities.