Typhoon aid slow to reach Philippines
By Carey L Biron
WASHINGTON - Even as Washington has mounted a strikingly robust response to the humanitarian crisis in the Philippines, the ongoing effort is highlighting important gaps in the United States' emergency relief capability - gaps that could start to be addressed through legislative reforms currently under debate in the US Congress.
Shortly after the November 8 landfall of a massive typhoon in the central Philippines, the US government announced that it would be providing an initial US$20 million in humanitarian assistance to survivors. A US military aircraft carrier and fleet of supply ships have also moved into the area, offering significant technical
capacity for rescuers and humanitarian groups.
According to USAID, the government's main foreign aid arm, half of that $20 million would go to getting food to communities devastated by Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda, as it's known in the Philippines). Yet while an initial 55 tonnes of food was to be immediately flown in from the United States, the bulk of this shipment - an additional 1,020 tonnes of rice - isn't slated to arrive by boat in the Philippines until the first week of December, according to a USAID factsheet.
That's despite the fact that this rice had been prepositioned in Sri Lanka, specifically to respond to emergencies of this type in Asia. The lag in delivery is the result of a peculiarity in US law, requiring that foreign food aid be grown primarily in the United States and transported primarily on US-flagged ships.
"What's happening in the Philippines should be a touchstone for members of Congress and the response that USAID has provided, in thinking about what is necessary in addressing natural disasters," Eric Munoz, a senior policy advisor with Oxfam America, a humanitarian group, told IPS.
"Congress runs the risk of ignoring the fact that good humanitarian response requires different tools than Congress has wanted to give USAID to run operations. Haiyan demonstrates the tools that USAID and aid groups need to run these operations, and this now needs to be taken care of [legislatively]."
For years, advocates have been pushing for changes that would allow for greater flexibility in responding to humanitarian crises by providing cash - which can be provided almost immediately and used for local procurement of food and other supplies - rather than "in kind" provisions, which have to be physically lugged to crisis zones.
Such changes have been stymied by special interests, however, despite government auditors having repeatedly warned that the process is highly inefficient, impacting most negatively on the communities US aid is trying to help.
USAID officials, too, have recognized the need for greater flexibility. According to a USAID fact sheet released Saturday, US funding is now helping the World Food Program to locally procure an additional 10,000 tonnes of rice.
"Of the $10 million the US has provided [for food aid], more than 75% was for local and regional procurement," Munoz says. "This clearly demonstrates that USAID thinks it sensible that the vast majority of current aid go towards local procurement."
Indeed, USAID has been able to tap a contingency fund to make much of this cash available. Yet doing so will now make a significant dent in that fund for the rest of the fiscal year, which began only last month.
"Because USAID is using this money now to buy locally, it will have far less money to use in Syria," Timi Gerson, advocacy director at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a development group, told IPS.
"A similar dynamic took place when the Syria conflict began and USAID was suddenly forced to choose between using these funds for Syria or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as you couldn't physically truck food supplies into either country. Once again, the situation in the Philippines is putting in stark relief why reform of this system is necessary."