The “Great Bargain” for the Local Humanitarian

Jonathan Corpus Ong
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Pamela G. Combinido
De La Salle University

July 22, 2017

In spite of dramatic changes in the humanitarian sector including the rise of NGOs, increased professionalism and managerialism, and the increasing diversity of its workforce, the humanitarian archetype remains to be the “always already worldly, generically cosmopolitan, globally mobile figure operating from a position of relative strength and anonymous power vis a vis (“local,” “helpless”) aid recipients.

In our research, we move beyond this usual figure and look at the local Filipino techie aid workers who engage in creatively rewarding yet precarious project-based work post-typhoon Haiyan while they personally cope with the social and economic impact of a disaster that hit close to home.

In 2013, when typhoon Haiyan hit the central part of the Philippines and triggered a level 3 response from the UN, there was a rapid deployment of 450 international staff accompanied by a large-scale recruitment of local staff in order to fill in positions for programs on food, shelter, and livelihood. Agencies also began the “mass hiring” for project-based roles in communications, accountability, and information technology (IT) teams. Local techie aid roles ranged from managers, specialist computer programmers and geographers to lower-level encoders and surveyors.

Some of the local staff based in the disaster zones of Tacloban, Cebu, or Roxas City were disaster survivors who were able to seize rare opportunities to become employees of global aid agencies that would in ordinary times be rather rigid about staff having to possess the “right” qualifications.

“Before Yolanda, geographers either go to a few private companies who provide mapping licenses such as Geodata or teach in universities. That’s the only line of work you can do. Then Yolanda happened… It actually boomed the mapping industry. Yolanda, besides bringing so much damage to the country, it gave opportunity to level up fields in services in the Philippines” (Mark, 27, GIS specialist).

We have also met volunteer comms worker who collect, encode and categorize the everyday feedback they received through SMS and surveys. Some shared their personal crises dealt by the typhoon, such as roofs of their houses destroyed and family’s source of income wiped out.

Young people with parents who used to earn a living from fishing or driving local transport lost their boats or trisikads (non-motorized tricycles) and had no insurance money to cover damaged equipment. The price hike of basic goods in the disaster zone, called “Haiyan price” or “Yolanda price”, meant that they had to quickly find alternative livelihoods and ways of meeting their everyday basic needs.

There is Alyssa, a university dropout from Bantayan who was an on-call volunteer comms worker of an international agency and whose family’s main source of income was devastated by tyohoon Haiyan. As the eldest in the family, I had to help my family when we lost our fishing boats. There was no question for me to quit school first so I could earn an allowance as an encoder ”

While grateful for the professional opportunities that the disaster and its global intervention presented, local aid workers were quick to realize that their tech projects are highly intense and improvisational, requiring quick turnarounds of outputs and donor reports.

“Come to think of it, addressing a community’s most pressing concerns for food or water does not require mapping software. We could have just used Excel, why did we need a new platform?” (Michael, 34, specialist platform encoder and operator)

Compounding the challenge were organizational hierarchies that positioned local techie aid workers as “second class citizens” compared to fellow Filipino program officer peers and expat consultants and specialists. This meant that professional mobility within techie aid work is hindered by various structural constraints and intraorgnizational constraints.

“These program people appear to be supportive when in fact they really hated us,” said Justine, 27, comms office. “It seems that we become the bad guys just for letting them know about complaints.”

Occupying the role of “bearer of bad news”, Justine is worried that their managers would “shoot the messenger”. As a manager on a short-term contract work, Justine is understandably anxious about the prospects of her contract renewal and so sometimes made compromises with how she “sweetened up” the presentation of critical feedback on projects following Filipino relational norms of pakikisama (getting along with others/group solidarity).

Some techie aid workers particularly the volunteer officers and specialist computer programmers felt this “second class citizen” status more intensely. They likened themselves to having to be on good behavior so they could be rehired on another contract. Jokingly, Michael drew parallels to agency practice with the exploitative labor arrangements called in the local slang as “endo” [end-of-contract], referring to how shopping mall clerks are hired and rehired on short-term contracts without ever getting access to mandated benefits of paid leaves and social security.

There has been a recent clamor in the humanitarian sector to finally take on a locally driven approach to humanitarian work. Why don’t we start on this by looking at the plight of the local workers in the sector? If the agenda of the global leaders is to make humanitarian operations “as local as possible and international as necessary” it is timely to unpack and bring into critical discussion how labor arrangements in the sector might end up undermining the lofty ambitions for the localization of aid.

We need to support local aid workers to confidently author projects from the local perspective, rather than seem them as passive recipients of “capacity-building” projects or laborers to be used and discarded as quickly as the tech the are hired to test. When racial differences and intra-organizational hierarchies compromise the implementation of the digital humanitarian project, it ultimately fails on its ambition to empower local communities by first and foremost overlooking the plight of the local worker.

Photo by IOM/Alan Motus



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The Network
The Newton Tech4Dev Network research team is led by Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong, Prof. Peter Lunt, and Prof. Julio C. Teehankee.