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Cordaid NL
Resilience The Philippines

Reinventing resilience after typhoon Haiyan

After typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November ’13, and set new international benchmarks for destruction, humanitarian worker James Morgan (30) went to Coron, in the eastern province of Palawan Together with indigenous communities he and the Cordaid team started an innovative adventure. They called it ‘resilient recovery’. After two years Cordaid’s Haiyan Resilient Recovery Program has come to a successful end. Morgan looks back: “We turned the humanitarian system upside down: locals were in charge, we only facilitated. And they bounced back just like bamboo, after utter devastation.”

In less than two years, 201 typhoon-proof houses were co-designed with villagers and built by them, just like community halls, rain retention systems and dozens of other community structures. People who had been controlled by middlemen and companies as far as they remembered, were schooled in management and bookkeeping and set up their own enterprises, determining their own prices and creating new market opportunities. Fishermen successfully took up vegetable farming, improving their diets as well as their income.

People who had been controlled by middlemen and companies as far as they remembered, were schooled in management and bookkeeping and set up their own enterprises.

And this was soon after Haiyan left over 6000 people dead, made 4.1 million homeless and affected 14 million. Set against this scale of destruction, the transformation of communities in Coron, and in the eastern part of Guiuan – the other municipality where Cordaid implemented its resilient recovery program – is all the more remarkable.

Boiling sea water

James Morgan, UK architect and Cordaid humanitarian worker, remembers his first boat trips to isolated island communities all too well. “We wanted to know what they needed to rebuild their communities and pick up their lives. The devastation was huge: damaged buildings, destroyed boats and, less visible, completely depressed local economies. There was this one community, hours away from the mainland; their fresh water wells had gone brackish after Haiyan. The sea was too stormy to go and fetch water; they even ran out of the small supplies of soft drinks and had started to boil seawater to survive. These communities on the fringes of society struggled with a series of life threatening problems, bad nutrition, bad sanitation and water situations, diarrhea, loss of income just to mention a few.”


James Morgan with the Cordaid team (photo: J.V. Briones)

It starts with humility

From the start the Cordaid team, comprising engineers and architects besides regular humanitarian workers, did needs and risk assessments in five barangays (municipalities) in Coron. Morgan: “Resilient recovery starts with humility. It means putting the community first, and not the logframe of a program you have in mind as a humanitarian organization. Our goal was to finance and facilitate a program that was set up, managed, owned and even implemented by the communities. So our first question was: what do you need? What are the gaps to become resilient, to deal not only with the typhoon but other causes of poverty as well?”

Resilient recovery starts with humility. It means putting the community first, and not the logframe of a program you have in mind as a humanitarian organization.

No more ‘beneficiaries’

The islanders came with literally hundreds of project ideas, discussed, assessed and turned these into community action plans in long and exciting sessions in the villages. Morgan: “The greatness was that our donors like SHO and Miss Universe (and in Guiuan, also Trocaire and Cafod), were ready to accept this flexibility and allowed us to fully adapt to what communities came up with and then to add to their capacities and resources. Working in communal unity, that’s what we did, or ‘bayanihan’, in the local language. These families weren’t considered ‘beneficiaries’, that’s a terrible word. They were extremely resourceful partners. We were funders and capacity builders; they came with the ideas, they did the implementation, they were the managers. We didn’t even have a logistics department, which is shocking to most humanitarian organizations. Not to us. We relied on the logistical resources and inventiveness of local communities. And it was just tremendous fun to see that it worked out so well.”

Taking control

With a better technical understanding of hazards and risks, with improved budgeting and management skills, and receiving micro budgets from Cordaid, some 1500 households spread over five communities in Coron venture into projects they had never dreamed of, let alone of managing these projects from A to Z. Used to struggling on or below the poverty line, these fishermen families, after some crash course capacity training and accompanied by a few architects and engineers, suddenly started transforming their own surroundings and taking control. Morgan: “Almost the entire communities were involved in the housing and infrastructure projects. They provided labor, managed project logistics and finances, men as well as women. In fact most of the treasurers of the micro-projects were women.”

We were funders and capacity builders; they came with the ideas, they did the implementation, they were the managers.

Typhoon-proof coco-lumber houses

All in all 201 coco-lumber houses were built, withstanding 250 kph winds, as well as five concrete buildings used as safe havens. Over 50 damaged communal infrastructures were built or rebuilt: from sea walls, boat docks, to health centers and schools. Some communities renovated or created new water sources, like innovative, low tech and cheap rain retention systems. Morgan: “We didn’t want to do a smattering of houses here and there. We focused our resources on a number of communities, giving them the full package. And it was the communities who pushed us towards infrastructure rather than just housing.”

Transforming power of farming

Those were only the mid-term solutions. Longer term livelihood projects improved household economies. Morgan: “Haiyan had severely damaged the fishing industry. So fishermen had to diversify their livelihood resources. By learning to grow vegetables they diversified their income. Over 60 of them are part time farmers today, which is a revolution. They sell crops and use them for their own sustenance. These communities were never interested in farming before. It has transformed and enlivened entire villages. Also women now do farming, while their husbands are out fishing. It gave new dimensions to rural lifestyle.”

Retail cooperatives

Value chain analysis laid bare just how firmly local economies were controlled by middlemen and just how much of the potential profits got lost. Morgan: “Villagers just never had had the capital nor the management or financial training to take control themselves.” Together with Cordaid they set up retail groups for commodities like fuel, rice and fish. They now buy, store and sell their own basic products at fair prices within their own communities, even forcing other businessmen to lower their prices. Some communities even went so far as to build their own storehouses that operate as local markets, completely run by the households themselves.

This man said: ‘After Haiyan, we saw the destruction and said it would take us 20 years to recover what we had lost’. Now it took them 2 years and they did it themselves.

Giving back pride

After two years, in December 2015, Cordaid’s Resilient Recovery program in Coron and Guiuan program was completed. It changed the lives and the future of thousands of families. Morgan: “It gave back pride to people and it taught me to be humble. I remember, at the hand-over speeches, this man said ‘After Haiyan, we saw the destruction and said it would take us 20 years to recover what we had lost’. Now it took them 2 years and they did it themselves.”