I travel a great deal as the Executive Director of the World Food Programme. Because of the nature of WFP’s life-saving work, it’s often to places that have been brutally devastated by natural catastrophes or torn apart by war. On my travels, I see a great deal of sadness, suffering and desperation. But I also see the best of the human spirit; the faith of people who do not lose hope in times of darkness, the generosity of communities sharing limited resources, and the determination of families who strive to build a better future for their children, even in the face of terrible circumstances. Nowhere have I seen this human spirit more elevated than in the Philippines, where I witnessed WFP’s support in response to Super Typhoon Haiyan.
At a warehouse in Tacloban City, eight days after the storm ripped through Leyte Island, volunteers were preparing food parcels for relief distributions. Most of the volunteers were from Tacloban and had lost their homes and loved ones in the storm, but there they were, scooping WFP rice into packages that also include canned food and instant noodles. The steady traffic of trucks outside the warehouse rumbled off through the pouring rain to deliver the packages around Leyte Island.
Not far away, a local high school has been turned into an evacuation centre. Families sought refuge here before the storm. Although they are slowly returning to their homes, more than 1,000 people remain - mostly women and children, since the men have returned home to make repairs and protect what little possessions are left.
The local government is distributing food packs in this evacuation centre. WFP is supporting the government efforts by providing rice as well as high-energy biscuits for the children whose excitement was palpable as they squealed and giggled, waiting in line to collect their ‘cookies’. The fact that WFP was able to put a smile on their faces with these cookies, and to give them the energy to laugh and play again, made me feel truly proud of our work.
I had the chance to meet Jocelyn, whose fifth child, Julie Anne, is only two months old. They had been in the centre since the day before the storm.
After Tacloban, I joined IOM Director General William Swing on a visit to Roxas in the Panay Islands. Thankfully, there were fewer casualities here than Tacloban, but the storm was equally destructive to homes, fish ponds and rice crops. As we drove through the Island making our way to visit some of the evacuation centres, there was already evidence of recovery and business slowly reopening.
In my discussions with the tyhphoon victims they are eager to rebuild their homes and businesses. The people of the Philipphines are incredibly resilient. These are a people who want a hand-up and not a handout. The mothers spoke of their wish to have their own means to feed their children again.
Resilience and recovery for these people means WFP will work with partners like IOM to provide conditional cash for work that will allow the victims to buy tools, fishing boats and seeds torebuild their livelihoods. I also learned that Roxas is a major rice exporter. Flying over the destruction it was clear that many harvests have been lost. Recovery efforts must include working with other UN partners like FAO to ensure that planting and re-planting is done in the next few weeks.
At the end of my visit, I recalled leaving one of the evacuation centres in Tacloban, and was struck by a group of boys playing a lively game of basketball at the back of the school. In the midst of the debris, in the pouring rain, this image reaffirmed my belief that nothing can dampen this human spirit.