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A decade after powerful Typhoon Haiyan, reflections on how power affects recovery

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A decade after powerful Typhoon Haiyan, reflections on how power affects recovery

On 8 November 2013, super Typhoon Haiyan left a trail of destruction in the Philippines. The 10-year anniversary of this event provides an opportunity to reflect on research related to post-disaster recovery.

Heidi Tuhkanen / Published on 9 November 2023

Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, was a Category 5 storm that resulted in more than 5000 deaths and far more than 15 000 injured in Leyte Province, the worst hit region. I became familiar with the post-disaster situation in the Philippines in 2016 through my research at SEI, exploring recovery efforts in the region, in the joint context of disaster risk and development. My and my colleagues’ research focused specifically on the recovery of Tacloban City in Leyte Province, one of the hardest hit urban areas, and GMA Kapusa, one of Tacloban’s new villages where people from the coast were relocated.

A decade after Typhoon Haiyan landed, there remains an endless list of topics for recovery actors to reflect on for this 10-year anniversary. I would like to turn attention to how our research can better highlight power asymmetries as part of the root causes of inequities and vulnerability that are often reinforced through decision-making in the recovery process.

After the typhoon

Tacloban’s recovery planning was co-led by Tacloban’s city government and UN-Habitat. The cross-sectoral and multi-level planning resulted in the Tacloban Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Plan (TRRP), which was meant to focus on resilience and prioritize marginalized populations.

However, our research concluded that despite the transformational intentions of post-disaster recovery planning in Tacloban, as represented by the TRRP, the benefit of the outcomes for residents was thwarted by inadequate participation of residents in the phases of planning and implementation. Relocation was implemented in a way that separated residents from other members of their communities and moved residents to areas far from their coastal livelihoods, with inadequate infrastructure and services.

While some of these relocated communities moved to places safe from typhoons and storm surges, some still lack basic infrastructure, such as running water and incomplete housing a decade later. Other new communities only now have satisfactory conditions, after several years of issues with infrastructure and livelihoods.

Recovery requires engagement with displaced people, especially in the processes that seek to design solutions that meet their needs. Examples include engagement “in crafting master lists, distributing goods, and determining areas and arrangements for resettlement or relocation”. In Tacloban, would it have been beneficial to discuss post-disaster recovery options, including alternatives to relocation, with those affected by these decisions?

Recovery requires engagement with displaced people, especially in the processes that seek to design solutions that meet their needs.

While some residents preferred moving to safer areas, others prioritized the proximity to connections and livelihoods that coastal living allowed. Ladylyn Lim Mangada, a Fellow of the University of Philippines Resilience Institute, suggested that planning overlooked the opportunity for Tacloban to be a forerunner and rebuild resilient and innovative in-situ housing along the coast. A part of the relocated residents’ housing needs could also have been met through the use of vacant lots in existing neighbourhoods closer to the centre and more convenient for residents. A study suggested that this would have been acceptable to both residents in the existing communities, as well as those displaced. However, residents were not consulted about their needs.

Relocation aligned with local and national authorities’ pre-Haiyan plans to develop Tacloban North as an economic centre, as well as an area for social housing. Relocation, together with zoning that banned dwelling along a coastal zone, allowed the city to clear the informal settlements starting in 2019 to substitute more profitable real estate development near the centre.

Unequal responses

The recognition of the need for more participation and inclusion is not new. However, more recently, focus has been put on the quality and aims of participation, as well as the time and resource limitations that organizations face in prioritizing and planning engagement. In post-disaster recovery, these challenges are manifold.

The urgent need to return to a fully functioning society as quickly as possible is almost always compounded with the limited availability of resources. Locals – both officials and residents – may be difficult to reach due to displacement or personal recovery-related priorities. Leaders are pressured to move through participatory and careful planning processes quickly and “efficiently” in a top-down manner to keep processes moving. Yet decision-making should be based on the best possible knowledge available, despite the chaos inherent to this time period.

All of this held true for response and recovery post-Haiyan, especially concerning relocation plans. However, overlooking participation as a tool for improving the appropriateness and desirablility of outcomes can actually increase the inequitability of the results, continuing the cycle of risk creation and undermining development.

In contrast, in addition to increasing the likelihood that recovery measures meet residents’ needs, recovery-related engagement has the potential to empower previously marginalized actors. In recovery, this can diminish or avoid affected residents’ dependence on others for support and connected feelings of disempowerment and sense of dignity. Specifically, meaningful participation can raise participants’ critical consciousness of the larger context in which their recovery takes place, as well as provide them a space to practice and experience more equitable methods of interaction. Under the right circumstances, this can trigger further recovery and development-related actions, change relationships between actors holding different positions of power and even institutionalize more equitable relationships. The hope is that cumulatively these small shifts in power can be leveraged for further social change.

Equalization methods

Recovery process require a high level of collaboration between actors at many levels, including the residents whose lives are ultimately shaped by the interventions. So, what is needed for effective and meaningful participation within recovery?

Actually, this is difficult to say, as despite the continual call for participation and engagement over decades, the processes themselves are under-researched. This gap is not unique to the study of recovery or even disaster risk reduction. However, explicit consideration of power is needed to understand whether, how and why collaborations produce – or fail to produce – the desired outcomes. This thinking can be applied to participatory processes.

While we know that participatory methods – such as consultations, collaborative housing or community design processes – are carried out during recovery, less is known about the social processes and changes that take place within those engagement processes. Power is rarely used as an analytical lens.

In a recent scoping review aimed at starting to bridge this gap in recovery-related research, I identified how different aspects of participation interact with power. Based on my review, I argue for more explicit consideration of power in the planning and evaluation of participatory processes.

For example, the impact of power asymmetries in the recovery from Typhoon Haiyan is significant. In Tacloban, political rivalries between various levels of government delayed and determined the path of recovery. Power asymmetries also show up in the existing culture of patronage politics and clientelism that distort democracy and creates mistrust even within communities. Researchers documented the mistrust and fear of authorities and loss of assistance for speaking out about the inequitable distribution of benefits during the recovery process.

Power dynamics also play a role in the prioritization in decision-making processes of larger economic actors’ needs. For example, developers and business interests hoping to profit from initiatives in the “no dwell area” and in the new relocation areas of Tacloban North were prioritized over the needs of individual residents of informal settlements along the coast.

In my recent scoping review, I urge researchers to go deeper into the issues of power and participation in their recovery-related research. I recommend the following for researchers to consider: apply power-related frameworks as an analytical lens to increase the accountability of processes aiming for social change, clarify and unpack concepts such as empowerment, and view participation as a process in which the details about participant perspectives, context and mechanics can help us as researchers to understand whether and how these processes are working to fulfil their aims. From the beginning, I suggest researchers should build their projects to reflect heterogeneity of communities and inter-community relationships, including tensions and micro-conflicts.

As power can be a structural, and often hidden, barrier to more equitable social change, identifying and understanding it is a first step to creating more empowering processes that enable those affected by disasters to have a voice and play an active part in rebuilding their future.

Heidi is an SEI researcher and currently a PhD candidate in the Urban Environmental Policy research group at the University of Helsinki.

This perspective was written in consultation with SEI Affiliated Researcher Ladylyn Mangada.

Heidi Tuhkanen
Heidi Tuhkanen

Senior Expert (Green and Circular Economic Transformations Unit)

SEI Tallinn

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