Missed Again: making space for partnership in the Typhoon Haiyan response

Humanitarian partnerships between national and international organisations are a long-established means of responding to humanitarian need. As long ago as 1994 the NGO/Red Cross Code of Conduct emphasised the importance of working collaboratively with national organisations, and in 2007 the Principles of Partnership outlined best practice in humanitarian partnership working. Given the considerable support that exists for humanitarian partnership it is disappointing that as recently as 2012, in her preface to ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs lamented the ‘lack of inclusion of non-traditional actors such as National Disaster Management Authorities and southern NGOs… which undermined the effectiveness of many operations’.

With its focus on national actors, this study focuses on the vexed question of humanitarian partnership and seeks to provide evidence, in real time, of how far partnership working happened in the response to Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) in the Philippines, and its effectiveness.

Despite efforts made to include local and national actors in the Haiyan response it remained largely internationally led, coordinated and implemented. While the scale of the disaster outstripped the capacity of government and NNGOs to adequately respond, more could have been done to build capacity in advance of the Typhoon to prepare for and strengthen partnership for response. Six months after Haiyan struck, the international humanitarian system was still struggling with the task of responsibly handing over the leadership and coordination of the recovery response to the government. At the same time, INGOs were starting the process of handing over large operational programmes to NNGOs. The lack of adequate support to assist the Philippines to prepare for large-scale disasters and the lack of willingness to entrust a greater share of the response to national organisations has played an important role in the perceived need to ‘scale-up to scale-down’ – shorthand for a further influx of international capacity to build national capacity in key institutions in order to permit these handovers. The findings of the study suggest that this is true across all aspects of the response – leadership, coordination and implementation. There are widespread fears within civil society that one of the implications of such an internationalised response is that it is highly vulnerable as capacity is withdrawn.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Many of the findings of the study about the shortcomings of how international and national organisations work together in disasters in the Philippines echo similar findings documented after previous humanitarian responses in the country. However, one issue that stands out in the Haiyan response more than others (and was also a finding of the Missed opportunities study) is the challenge of taking partnership to scale, and it is this that sets an important and urgent agenda for the humanitarian community. Despite considerable experience of national-led humanitarian response in the Philippines and the significant capacity of civil society, the limited scale of humanitarian partnerships in the Haiyan response and the tendency of agencies that seek to balance direct delivery and partnership to prioritise the former over the latter suggest it may be necessary to moderate expectations of what scale of response can be achieved through humanitarian partnerships. Translated to the global context where human vulnerability is growing as the potential for larger and more frequent disasters increases, it is this aspect of humanitarian partnerships more than others that requires greater investigation and investment.