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Avoiding despair when disaster hits: aid, advocacy, action.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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When we are faced with large scale human suffering, like Typhoon Haiyan, we want to help.

Our desire to help is part of what is most beautiful about being human, our capacity for empathy and compassion. Helping is also one way of keeping despair at bay.

But what kind of help is most useful?

Here are some ideas for ways to help through aid, advocacy & action.

Aid: make a donation

There is one simple way that people who want to help can: donate money. Often donating money doesn’t feel as satisfying as doing something more proactive, but the reality of emergency humanitarian response work is that in the earliest stages – and to a significant extent, even beyond – financial donations are most effective.

Jessica Alexander, author of Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, wrote more in Slate this week on why it is more helpful (and less harmful) to send money, not second-hand goods or even new products.

Which organisations are best to give to?

Jessica’s advice on this is sound, so I’ll simply repeat it here:

Give money to organizations that have worked in the affected areas before the storm—they will be more likely to know and be able to navigate the local context and may be able to respond faster, as it won’t take them time to set up.

Give money to agencies that are able to articulate what the actual needs are and transparently tell you how they are responding.

Give money to agencies that are procuring items locally to help the rebuild the economy.

Give money to agencies that are working with the government to ensure that their response is aligned with the national response.

Give money to local organisations.

As Jessica also pointed out, the Philippines has a highly developed civil society and effective government. Although local capacity may have been overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, local efforts will recover and Philippine-based organizations will know the local needs and how best to respond.

Some good local organisations: Community and Family Services International + Philippine Red Cross

If you want to make a donation to an international organisation, here are a few lists to get you started (by and large the organisations on these lists fit Jessica’s criteria):

Donate to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (list via

How to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan (list via NBC)

And here are a few good options in New Zealand: Red Cross NZ & Oxfam NZ*

Action: get informed about natural disasters

Yeb Sano, Climate Change Commissioner for the Philippines wrote a very clear and concise article this week about the factors that come together to create a natural disaster as devastating as Typhoon Haiyan. His article is short, and accessible and worth reading in it’s entirety. But for those who prefer the very short version, he says:

[C]limate change will be a major factor in any weather-induced disaster. But like many other disasters, it is a deadly combination of various factors.

Some of those factors include:

1) People living in high-risk areas, not safe for human residences.

2) Environmental degradation through extractive activities (e.g. logging, mining, industrial monocrop plantations) lead to a domino effect.

3) People’s vulnerability as a result of difficult socio-economic conditions, lack of livelihoods, lack of emergency systems.

4) Poor governance, incompetent and corrupt leaders, poor land use planning, land tenure problems, inequality and perpetuation of power of the greedy few at the expense of the poor.

5) Climate change has resulted in a shift in the way the Philippine climate behaves with wide-ranging unpredictable impacts.

So, in Yeb Sano’s words, “It’s complicated. But yes, climate change is very much at play here. But it doesn’t mean we blame climate change altogether. Perhaps we can start looking at the mirror and find the answer there.”

Advocacy: support organisations working to change all 5 factors

Whether or not you donate to Oxfam for typhoon relief, you might also consider making an ongoing donation to help to fund their poverty, social justice and climate justice advocacy work. Oxfam is currently working globally to address the underlying factors that combine to create the devastating human impact of natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan.

On climate justice specifically, Oxfam says – and I agree – that wealthy nations (whose wealth was built at least partly on the back of the kind of ‘dirty technology’ we now know helped cause climate change) should help fund the work needed in developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Advocacy: climate change

As Naderev Saño chief negotiator of the Filipino delegation to UN climate talks, told the world last year:

Time is running out. Please, let this year be remembered as the year the world found the courage to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” (via The Guardian)

Here in New Zealand, the Green Party’s efforts to give voice to these concerns from the government and people of the Philippines were met with accusations of political grandstanding when we should be helping. It’s clear that there is an urgent and immediate need for humanitarian, financial and moral support to the Philippine AND it’s also clear that:

a) climate change plays some role in the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan; and

b) human action (and inaction) play a role in climate change; and

c) Western ‘developed’ nations are blocking progress in UN climate change negotiations (progress that could, among other things, deliver financial assistance to the countries being hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change, like the Philippines).

I have to agree with human rights and environmental lawyer David Tong when he says:

Climate change fuelled Haiyan. Sea surface temperatures around the Philippines were as much as two degrees above normal.  This is not the old normal.  It is the new abnormal. That’s the science.  That’s not up for debate here in Warsaw. And that is why it is not political to stand with the Philippines, but an act of basic human respect.

Action: tell your government you want a just result from the Warsaw talks

Governments are meeting in Warsaw over the next two weeks for the annual UN climate negotiations. This ritual has dragged on for years without conclusion, largely because the great powers have done so little. is putting together a message to UN delegates to increase ambition and action. You can add your message here and the team will deliver your messages to UN delegates gathered in Poland.

Advocacy: support ongoing advocacy for climate justice

The other organisation doing great work around climate justice, including here in the Pacific, is So you might also consider becoming an ongoing supporter of 350’s work.

Action: make small changes in your own life

Personal action, making changes in our own daily lives to help reduce the negative impact of our own choices and actions on others, is by no means the least or the last of the ways we can help. But it can feel very distant from the immediate needs of a suffering population at times like this, which is why it can be helpful to draw the path – from aid, to advocacy to personal action.

As I said in relation to another issue last week, the factors that lead to the devastating impact of natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan are widespread and pervasive, but they are not inevitable.




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One Response to "Avoiding despair when disaster hits: aid, advocacy, action."

  1. […] beyond.  Instead, increasingly  destructive weather events linked to climate change – like Typhoon Haiyan – bring the end of their respective world to thousands of people in a flash.  Doomsday, here […]

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