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This time we must all be Filipino

/ 11:09 PM November 29, 2013

Early this month, millions of Filipinos felt the catastrophic strength of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” What can I write in its aftermath that would help ease their agony? What can I possibly say that might lighten their load?

Following my visit to Tacloban City and surrounding areas, I know there are no words that will alleviate their suffering, no literary unction that will soothe their pain. I can’t pretend to understand the emptiness felt by someone who has lost a child, a parent, or a spouse to this disaster by making false comparisons to disappointments I have experienced. Dime-store analogies will never do justice to the enormity of this loss. The only thing I can say is that I know the Philippines can overcome this tragedy and will be stronger for the experience.


My life is inextricably entwined with this country. In many ways, I owe my family and my career to the Philippines. I first came here over 25 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. Newly graduated from college, I was ready to impart all of my “wisdom” to a community of artisanal fishermen, only to find that I had much more to learn from them than they from me. It was my first introduction to the Filipino spirit and to the notion of bayanihan. People who had very little didn’t think twice about sharing it. The community always came together to help someone with a sick family member, to support someone else whose boat was destroyed by a storm or to repair communal dikes in the rice fields.

The Philippines has since been my home for much of the time. My wife and our two amazing children are Filipino. While aware of the challenges faced by a burgeoning middle-income country, we marvel at the beauty of this place and still spend many weekends in the village where I first lived as a volunteer. I may not look it but, deep inside, my heart is here. Pilipino ang puso ko.


We have all seen how resilient this country is. Through war, typhoon, volcanic eruption, and earthquake, Filipinos persevere with a smile on their face and wonder if you’d like to eat, ready to share whatever they have. This is what will allow the country to overcome this tragedy—the optimism and generosity of its people.  But this time, we must all be Filipino. We must all share in that optimism and generosity.

In responding to this tragedy, the Philippines, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, must allow itself to be influenced by the better angels of its nature—bayanihan, pakikipagtulungan, pagpapatawad and pagkakaloob.

The rest of the world must accept the lessons from previous tragedies that we too often have stubbornly resisted. In a recent Washington Post piece, Vijaya Ramachandran and Owen Barder urge the world: “Let’s help the Philippines—but not like we helped Haiti.” They acknowledge that the immediate aftermath of disaster can bring out the best in the global community. But much remains to be learned from our response to disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, particularly concerning transparency and accountability. The Philippine government has made a strong push in this direction with the launch of FAiTH (the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub), an online portal of information on aid received in response to Yolanda.

Past experience shows that while responding to initial needs is often chaotic, study after study demonstrates that failing to support a strong national presence on the ground undermines the government’s ability to lead the reconstruction effort, long after emergency responders have departed. This begins with the relief phase being anchored by strong national coordination of both domestic and international efforts. In short, the entire international community—public, private and civil society—must support the government’s efforts to coordinate all phases of the response.

And what about concerned citizens? In an excellent piece in Slate, humanitarian worker Jessica Alexander urges the civically minded to “donate money—not teddy bears, not old shoes, not breast milk.”  Her basic premise is that we need to curb our instinct to donate things, and instead donate money to those organizations that can best determine what things are necessary on the ground. Not only does money travel faster and cost less to move, there is also less chance that it will end up unused.

Lastly, we should use the momentum created by this crisis to inject momentum into the fight against climate change. Naderev Saño, the Philippines’ chief representative at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference, pleaded with delegates at COP 19 on Nov. 11 to “stop this madness.”  There is significant scientific evidence that the worst storms are getting stronger and that storm surges are compounded by the rise in sea level. The global community should use this event as an impetus for concrete, immediate action to address climate change.

For its part, my institution—the Asian Development Bank—is committed to support the country in response, recovery and reconstruction.  We have released a $3-million grant and will soon release another $20-million grant and a $500-million loan to support reconstruction. These funds will help, but represent only a fraction of our commitment to the Philippines. Two-thirds of our staff—nearly 2,000 people—are Filipino, many with a direct connection to this tragedy. The rest are expatriates who have chosen Manila as a second home. Alongside our neighbors, thousands of us are contributing on a personal capacity to the ongoing efforts in the Visayas. We will do whatever is necessary to help get these communities back on their feet.


Now is not the time to point fingers or assess blame. Now is the time to work together—to encourage global bayanihan—to get assistance to those that really need it, and to do that in the context of understanding past failures and successes. Like my Filipino friends, I am an optimist at heart, and it is hard not to see a better future in the smiles I’ve seen on the children of Leyte, Samar and northern Cebu, children who have experienced more tragedy in their young lives than most of us do in a lifetime.

The Filipino spirit is stronger than this event—not only is it “waterproof,” it is pessimist-proof as well.

Stephen P. Groff is the Asian Development Bank’s vice president for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Follow him on Twitter at @spgroff.

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TAGS: bayanihan spirit, column, Filipinos, reconstruction, Stephen p. groff, typhoon `Yolanda
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