The tech aid workers of Typhoon Yolanda

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The M/V Eva Jocelyn memorial marker in Tacloban. Filipino aid workers are featured in the book “The Filipino Aid Workers of Typhoon Yolanda,” four years after the typhoon made landfall in Eastern Visayas. Photo by GERIC CRUZ

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), one of the strongest storms the world has seen, hit land in 2013, countless individuals — from the media to rescue teams — described Filipinos with one word: resilient. When stories are shared and anecdotes are regaled, the Filipinos’ ability to rebuild is often attributed to our resilience; to our capacity to smile, to make a joke, and to carry on despite extremely difficult circumstances.

Partnered with this resilience are, of course, the many organizations, governments, and groups that set aside biases in order to be of assistance. Often, international aid is applauded, but what falls by the wayside is the local aid worker in Eastern Visayas who does the grunt work. And there are many of them.

This lack of conversation about the work and struggles of local aid workers is what the book “The Filipino Aid Workers of Typhoon Yolanda” aims to highlight. Jonathan Ong, project lead of the book and a professor of communication in University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says that during Haiyan, a lot of humanitarian agencies piloted new disaster-response innovations (such as community feedback hotlines and mapping technologies), which depended on local aid workers who know how to speak the local language and are immersed in local communities.

“[The local aid workers] are often the unsung heroes of disaster response. We often would imagine the expat aid worker, flying in, and parachuting in the disaster zone. And so the local worker who does the everyday task of encoding, of translating, of going to the communities, and serving, we wanted to interview them,” he says in an interview with CNN Philippines Life.

Y Cover 2.jpg The lack of conversation about the work and struggles of local aid workers assisting international humanitarian agencies is what the book “The Filipino Aid Workers of Typhoon Yolanda” aims to highlight. Screenshot from THE FILIPINO AID WORKERS OF TYPHOON YOLANDA/PDF

Eight interviews with local aid workers — who worked for agencies focusing on technological efforts in response to Yolanda — make up this book, a project funded by the British Council’s Newton Tech4Dev Network, which is a coalition of scholars who carry out research on technologies in developing countries.

Ong, who is also part of the network, says that through this project, they not only want for Filipinos far-removed from conflicts or disasters to better understand the workers’ struggles, but also for the whole humanitarian sector to start a conversation about how to better empower these workers.

“Some had more challenges and some were better supported. Some had more dramatic and emotional stories. Parang ‘yung iba sa kanila also experienced house damage themselves, from Haiyan. So the same time they were helping people through their work, they were also helping themselves,” Ong says.

JOHN VERGEL BRIONES%2c formerly IOM (1).jpg “I decided to apply to one of the many NGOs offering short-term employment in the city. Thankfully, my skillset allowed me the opportunity to work as a Communications with Communities Assistant for the International Organization for Migration,” says John Vergel Briones, one of the local aid workers featured in "The Filipino Aid Workers of Typhoon Yolanda." Photo by GERIC CRUZ

John Vergel Briones, one of the aid workers featured, was a full time content writer and social media manager for US-based companies. But when Yolanda hit, he lost basic necessities, including his livelihood. He initially decided to leave the country for Saudi Arabia, but also needed temporary work while waiting for his visa.  

“I decided to apply to one of the many NGOs offering short-term employment in the city. Thankfully, my skillset allowed me the opportunity to work as a Communications with Communities Assistant for the International Organization for Migration,” he says in the book.

“When we talk to policy makers at the global level, the emphasis is usually on what's trendy, on what's buzzworthy, on what is new. Talking about the plight of local workers is usually tricky, it’s usually uncomfortable." — Jonathan Ong

Another aid worker, Jerby Santo, was in Cambodia when Yolanda partially destroyed their home. He went back to Tacloban to help his family, as well as lead recovery projects in the region. After a while, he came across an international NGO who was looking for someone to manage a technological initiative, but the project also had a short-term contract.  

In the book, he shares: “When we were introduced to the initiative, everyone of us in the team was like, ‘Wow this is a good project but only up to February?’ There was a feeling of exasperation because the project would not last long. Sometimes when I see innovations that have short shelf life, I ask, why did we have to start this initiative in the first place?”

JERBY SANTO%2c formerly International Office for Migration (1).jpg Jerby Santo, another aid worker, was in Cambodia when Typhoon Yolanda partially destroyed their home. He went back to the Philippines to lead recovery projects, and eventually worked with the International Organization for Migration. Photo by GERIC CRUZ

Short-term employment is common for local aid workers. “Among the aid workers, siguro isa o dalawa lang ‘yung parang mas long-term na mga one year ‘yung contract dahil nga sila na ‘yung team leader,” Ong explains.

As most of these work is based on funding, Ong also shares that there’s a wage gap between expat workers and local workers, one that international organizations often take for granted. He says that agencies should consider giving workers long term contracts rather than short term ones, so the local workers could be properly supported, especially when learning new technologies.

“[The workers] have no assurance that they would have jobs after 6 months, and so how can they be invested to empower the disaster-affected people when they themselves are so disempowered in the organization?” Ong says.

Aivon Guanco, an aid worker for a local organization supported by World Vision, recalls her first international humanitarian experience in the book, saying that she felt overwhelmed as “other countries seemed very experienced and outspoken.” But she also shares that she learned a lot from working with expats, enabling her to flex her interpersonal and communication skills. “Not everyone has good stories about expats, but I consider myself truly blessed to have learned from the humanitarian workers I worked with,” she says.

AIVON GUANCO World Vision Philippines (1).jpg Working with World Vision Philippines, Aivon Cuanco was able to get her first international humanitarian experience, although she mentions in the book that she felt overwhelmed as "other countries seemed very experienced and outspoken." Photo by GERIC CRUZ

A story like that of Guanco, which recalls the positive highlights of working with international workers, is easier to digest when talking about experiences during a disaster, especially since the clamor of the public is to focus on the good that is being done rather than the things that need to be reformed. But Ong asserts that it is nevertheless important to spark dialogues about the struggles of these local workers, and how these realities can be improved.

“When we talk to policy makers at the global level, the emphasis is usually on what's trendy, on what's buzzworthy, on what is new. Talking about the plight of local workers is usually tricky, it’s usually uncomfortable,” he says. “Having people's biases and those traditional norms of expat versus local, those have been unquestioned for so long.”

Perhaps, resilience can only take us so far.

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“The Filipino Aid Workers in Typhoon Yolanda” is available for download at the Newton Tech4Dev Network website.