Philippines to the World: Thanks for Haiyan Help

This article was originally published on January 29 by Dr. Rood of The Asia Foundation:

Photo Credit: Matt Grager Director of Development and Communications at Give2Asia

Photo Credit: Matt Grager Director of Development and Communications at Give2Asia

Super Typhoon Haiyan, “Yolanda” in the Philippines, drew intense international media attention, including a controversial visit by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The international community responded with generous assistance amounting to (including current pledges) almost a billion dollars.

Naturally, nations and their citizens respond to the dire humanitarian needs that are presented to them. But countries (and international organizations) are also angling for recognition of their efforts – humanitarian response workers wear t-shirts, relief goods are branded and marked with donor logos, and tarps and banners proclaim the presence of particular agencies. To be fair, it is important for backers of such agencies to be able to see a visible presence in areas where the need is greatest, and to have an idea of the impact efforts are having.

Nations also aspire to “soft power” influence through humanitarian assistance. Interestingly enough, in recent years the instrument of immediate relief is often the military. In the Philippines, domestically, the Secretary of Defense is co-chair of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Internationally, both the U.S. military and the Japanese Self-Defense Force (as well as others) have exercised with the Armed Forces of the Philippines on humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Thus, it is not surprising that well-publicized quick response by both nations involved military assets (ships, planes, service members).

U.S. analysts have expressed conviction that local opinions of America are improved by high-profile humanitarian assistance and disaster relief work, such as occurred in early 2005 in Aceh after the Boxing Day Tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. There has been considerable skepticism, though, about how widespread this effect is, with studies showing a very limited positive image impact from large amounts of American assistance in Pakistan after the earthquake in 2005 and the floods in 2011. This is attributed to a general distrust of U.S. motives in providing the assistance (given that the later time period included the killing of Osama bin Laden).

In the Philippines, as I have written before, the United States is generally viewed as a trusted ally, and so such suspicion is unlikely to act as a discount on gratitude. As part of ongoing analysis of public opinion and the super typhoon, the Social Weather Stations, the foremost nonprofit, nongovernmental data generation organization in the Philippines, asked over 1,500 randomly sampled citizens all over the country (not just in the typhoon-affected areas) to rank their trust in several countries.

We see in this graph that indeed the United States is the most trusted country, and in December 2013, that trust was at an all-time high in this time series that began in 1994. Clearly, there was a definite boost in trust the month after Haiyan struck and when disaster response efforts were underway.

We can see that positive response in the next two countries: Australia and Japan. Over the past 20 years, the two nations have been moving steadily upward in their trust ratings among Filipinos, so that in the last few years they have attained levels that previously were only reached by the United States. Australia is now pretty consistently the second-most trusted nation – perhaps riding on their expanded aid program. A research study in 2007 by The Asia Foundation found that one of the strongest factors in a positive image of Australia was knowledge of their aid program, particularly their support for education (which is very highly prized by Filipinos).

Inspecting the graph, though, we find that all the countries received a boost. Taiwan (whose personnel were among the first to arrive, since they are the closest) and Malaysia (often in the news because of their involvement in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) got boosts of the same magnitude as the U.S. and Australia.

Even China, widely derided for the initial small contribution of $100,000, received a boost in trust. To be fair, after some delay, the Chinese were able to send a specially built hospital ship that was badly needed given the number of injuries and damage to health care facilities.

So, perhaps the soundest conclusion to be drawn was that the Filipino citizenry was grateful to the entire world for the attention, concern, and assistance that it showed. Of course, the burst of aid is likely to be fleeting as world attention shifts to other crises. Already there are reports of aid falling short of what is needed. But in the meantime, the people of the Philippines are demonstrating that they recognize that the world cares, and that they are thankful.

This original article can be found at the Asia Foundation's website here

Dr. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at steven.rood@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.