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Philippines has faced ‘one blow after another’ in disaster relief efforts

November 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Typhoon Haiyan is the Philippines' fifth natural disaster in a single year, only adding to the relief challenges facing that nation. For insight on why relief efforts appear to be delayed and how Americans can help, Judy Woodruff speaks to Andrew Natsios, former director at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on how the Philippines will have to navigate its massive humanitarian effort with the help of international aid agencies and governments, I’m joined by Andrew Natsios. He’s former director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration.

Andrew Natsios, thank you for talking with us.

Compared to other disasters you have seen, what is the challenge? How would you describe the challenge presented by what’s happened in the Philippines?

ANDREW NATSIOS, former U.S. Agency for International Development: Well, there are two things here.

One, this is one of the worst typhoons in history, so the damage is more severe. The second thing that they’re facing is the fact this is the fourth typhoon that’s hit the Philippines this year. So, this is one blow after after another. And then they had an earthquake a few weeks ago. This is not the first disaster, but the fifth disaster in one year.

The third problem is, there’s so much debris that it’s difficult for trucks to get through and aircraft to get through. The U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and USAID sent a team in before the typhoon struck so that they would be there as soon as the typhoon was over. And they started assessments within one hour after the storm subsided.

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PACOM, the U.S. Pacific Command, is working in a very coordinated way with USAID to send in logistical support for the effort. And AID and PACOM have worked together for 30 years on these sort of things and they do a very good job when they are left to get their work done and there is no political interference.

Sometimes in Washington people they get so impatient that they start immobilizing domestic agencies to get involved in the U.S. that really have no experience in disaster response. So, my urge for policy-makers would be, let AID and the U.S. military get their work done. They’re the ones in the field who know what’s going on. They should be making the decisions at the field level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, who is in charge in a situation like this? The Philippine government is clearly there, but as you pointed out they have been racked by — tested by one disaster after another in the last few weeks.

ANDREW NATSIOS: But they have a command structure that’s in place that can make decisions.

So, ultimately, it’s the Philippine government that’s in charge. In terms of the U.S. effort, there’s a provision of law that puts the USAID administrator — when I was USAID administrator for five years, I was the coordinator for U.S. government disaster response abroad. And we worked with the U.S. military that reports to AID in terms of the responses and work very cooperatively with them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What needs to happen in terms of order? Is it a matter of one agency focuses on water, another one on housing and another one on sanitation? I mean, how do — how do these agencies divide it up?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, there’s an internationally accepted system that’s been worked out over many years. We call them clusters.

Housing is a cluster. Water and sanitation is another cluster. Food and nutrition is another, emergency medical care and then reconstruction. And different U.N. agencies and different nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, specialize in certain areas.

And they all know what they’re assigned to do. Many of these NGOs had already had programs, long-term programs in the Philippines. They’re on the same wavelength as USAID and the U.N. agencies. UNOCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, is supposed to coordinate the international response. And they usually do, not always, a good job.

They were there very quickly along with USAID officers and the Philippine government. So, so far, from what I can tell, people are trying their best under different circumstances. But people’s expectations are so high. They want immediate assistance, when it takes time simply to move everything.

I know that, for example, planes were arriving this morning in Manila and one the regional cities nearby at 11:00 this morning, Philippine time, were the first shipments of shelter material, cooking equipment and health equipment as well. AID and the U.S. government have contributed $20 million this morning. That’s only the first tranche of assistance they will be providing, $10 million to the World Food Program to bring in emergency biscuits, protein biscuits, and rice to be brought in.

That’s being shipped now by the way of World Food Program, which is probably one of the most competent of all the U.N. agencies in terms of response. They usually do a very good job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, before we wrap up here, for people who are watching and who want to be helpful, what’s the best thing they can do?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, one thing not to do is don’t send used clothes or don’t send cans of good — food or pharmaceuticals out of their medicine chests.

They should contribute cash to their favorite NGO that works in the Philippines. And they find that out by going if they have an NGO, a nongovernmental organization, that they contribute to or through their church or their synagogue or their mosque that they give money through. I would suggest they go to InterAction, which is a consortium of 192 American NGOs.

And they usually list all of the NGOs that are working in a particular disaster. They can choose which ones they want and make a cash contribution, because it’s much easier to move money to the Philippines over the international banking system than it is to move commodities. It’s usually more expensive to move the commodities on a plane than it is — than the commodities are actually worth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Natsios with some helpful information, we thank you.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Thank you.