Written by Olivia Wilkinson.

On 8 November 2013, super typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) made landfall over the Philippines, leaving a trail of death and destruction that altered the lives of those caught up in its wake. After the tragedy, a spirit of resilience was cultivated by the international humanitarian system that stressed the need to build back better against such harrowing circumstances. Yet, as this series of blogs has already attested, understandings of resilience remain vague and difficult to define against competing ideas of how to respond to climate disasters. By exploring the role of religion in disaster resilience to Typhoon Haiyan, this article aims to uncover some of the more nuanced ways in which people interpreted the disaster, their resilience to it, and the impacts on their resilience for the future.

… the methods used by humanitarian organisations can affect people’s resilience, both by building it up, but also cutting it down by requiring the bureaucratic management of forms and lines that are time consuming, without much recourse for beneficiaries to feel heard.

Much talk of resilience in the international humanitarian system is focused on technical responses to material needs rather than a more integrated understanding of the interwoven aspects of a person and community’s life that builds or detracts from their resilience. Indeed, Julian Reid’s proposition that resilience has been co-opted by a neo-liberal agenda to exonerate those in power from actually influencing change for the poor, and expecting the poor to subsume the impacts of the hazards that affect them, is one that appears more and more prescient when examining international humanitarian responses to natural disasters.  Clearly, the state of resilience, as a buzzword applied in international disaster responses, is suffering from a narrow focus and is structurally influenced by those in power delegating to those with least power.

In order to understand more about disaster resilience following Yolanda, and in collaboration with the Irish NGO Misean Cara, I conducted thirteen focus groups discussions with a total of 154 participants in 6 different locations that had been affected by the typhoon. These included the minorly affected areas of Minglanilla and Cebu City and some of the most affected areas such as Northern Cebu, Tanauan and Tacloban on the island of Leyte, and Marabut on the island of Samar. The focus groups included general discussion and also a participatory ranking exercise to gain some measure of what people prioritised for their resilience.

In terms of what they received in relief, participants valued shelter and cash activities from humanitarian organisations the most, stating these had most impacted their continued resilience. “Faith” was third. This included a relatively broad range of activities, from the tangible provision of bibles, rosary beads, and statues of saints (found in almost every household in the region), to the less tangible response of spiritual formation from local faith-based organisations. Spiritual formation broadly referred to activities to bolster moral support that included elements of faith such as organised prayer and biblical study.

While these activities would be largely derided by the international humanitarian community as analogous to proselytization and therefore in contradiction to the humanitarian principle of impartiality, this notion of spiritual formation was regularly brought up by participants. To build up their mental fortitude in the aftermath of the typhoon and with the influx of organisations from around the world, many expressed the need for encouragement. They valued the human connection that was represented by prayer, for example. This included prayer from non-Catholic organisations, such as Tzu Chi, a Buddhist organisation from Taiwan. Participants expressed an appreciation of this time for reflection and the values that were taught, but very clearly stated they would not convert and remained steadfast in their Catholicism.

A major caveat is that faith-based organisations were not held in special regard because of this. Participants disparaged any organisations that had not demonstrated a human connection and focused on organising through large-scale bureaucracy that manifested in people’s minds as standing in line for hours on end. Many faith-based organisations fell into this category, while non-faith-based organisations could demonstrate their human connection in other ways than prayer and equally be praised by the research participants. This ultimately demonstrates how the methods used by humanitarian organisations can affect people’s resilience, both by building it up, but also cutting it down by requiring the bureaucratic management of forms and lines that are time consuming, without much recourse for beneficiaries to feel heard.

The role of faith in resilience to typhoons was expressed in smaller unit terms, such as the individual situated in the family structure, and then in larger units, in terms of the local community as a whole. Individually, faith was about perseverance and allowing men and women to support their households and keep up with their responsibilities to others in the family, even while they were suffering. As a community, the concept of bayanihan was frequently mentioned, which is less religiously specific and more a cultural element of the barangay structure in the Philippines, in which community members are expected to come together to help each other. However, this idea of bayanihan was infused with reflections on faith, with research participants describing their faith as pushing them to service for others in the community. This demonstrates an interwoven community structure in which the religious institution of a local chapel brought community members together to support each other, who then in turn could support the community as a whole.

Ultimately, the findings of this research demonstrated two things. First, that people’s interpretation of their resilience was very much prefaced by their social and cultural interactions, showing that an overly material and technically focused approach would miss these aspects. Second, that the community did demonstrate inherent resilience emanating from their faith, but that this was not to say they should be cast aside to manage for themselves as they greatly appreciated some, if not all, of the efforts made by the international community to build their resilience, even around the support of the spiritual aspects of their lives. Humanitarian approaches that do not take these considerations into account in building disaster resilience will inevitably fall short of the full needs of communities in the Visayan region of the Philippines, and, indeed, in other regions struck by natural disasters across the globe.

Olivia Wilkinson is an independent researcher with expertise on religion and humanitarianism. Her PhD is from Trinity College Dublin and focused on the way secular actors responded to and engaged with the religions of affected people in the Typhoon Haiyan response. She tweets @OliviaWilk. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ project entitled Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. Image credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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