(many thanks to Mariela Goett for compiling this interview)

From the Filamthropy page on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/filamthropy

In the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, Julius Paras (Principal, Gumption Studios & Curator, Filamthropy) invited Ben Smilowitz, Executive Director of Disaster Accountability Project, to field questions about disaster philanthropy and accountability issues at Filamthropy’s Facebook page. Prior to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, DAP had already started collecting data on Philippines-based civil society organizations involved in disaster relief/recovery.

Filamthropy is a social media initiative highlighting good people doing great work with the Filipino diaspora.  The project highlights fresh perspectives at the intersection of social innovation, social equity, and social capital.


Hurricane Katrina. Haiti Earthquake. Typhoon Haiyan.

These natural disasters have been catastrophic to the US, Haiti, and no the Philippines. Lives have been lost. Many have wondered how the survivors have been able to recover while many donors are left to think whether their contributions have made an impact.

To help answer questions about disaster accountability in the wake of #TyphoonHaiyan, I’ve invited my colleague, Ben Smilowitz of the Disaster Accountability Project, to co-curate Filamthropy for the remainder of November. He will answer questions and may post additional resources for those of us who want to help now, in the next few months, and in the long-term.

The Washington, DC-based Disaster Accountability Project exists to improve disaster management systems through public accountability, citizen oversight and engagement, and policy research and advocacy because:

– Relief is not getting to organizations that need it most.

– The public is “donating in the dark.”

– Insufficient planning is resulting in inadequate responses and leaving people vulnerable

After witnessing the bungled Hurricane Katrina response first-hand while managing a high-volume American Red Cross Client Service Center in Gulfport, MS, Ben started the Disaster Accountability Project to confront the root causes of the failed Katrina response.

After the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Ben expanded DAP’s focus to improve the effectiveness of billions of dollars raised after disasters by humanitarian aid/relief organizations through greater operational transparency and linking the distribution of post-disaster resources to each organization’s capacity to deliver critical services.

Prior to #Yolanda, Ben initiated research and helping efforts in the Philippines. Over the past week, he has appeared on Al Jazeera America as an expert on disaster accountability. Please post your questions and join me in welcoming Ben to this community we call Filamthropy. #ForcesForGood


Julius: Ben Smilowitz, Executive Director of the Disaster Accountability Project, a watchdog organization which tracks relief efforts, notes that donor contributions for specific disasters may be earmarked elsewhere by relief organizations. Those who want donations intended for the Philippines may want to find a Philippine-based organization and donate directly via pay services such as PayPal, he says.

See more at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/13/donations-typhoon-stricken-philippines/3508929/
“American households could contribute $1 billion to relief efforts, making Typhoon Haiyan donations the third highest for an overseas disaster…”

Julius: Ben, my first question is why did you and your team at Disaster Accountability     Project decide to focus on the Philippines, even before #TyphoonHaiyan?

Ben: We know the Philippines is one of the most disaster vulnerable countries. Multiple typhoons occur every year and landslides, flooding, and earthquakes are also common. If we are going to have any success improving disaster relief and humanitarian aid, the Philippines must be an on-going focus of Disaster Accountability Project’s work. Before Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, DAP was trying to raise modest resources to collect pre-disaster data on Philippines disaster relief and human service organizations. Imagine how valuable that data would have been had we been successful… think about all of the misguided “how to help pages” and emotional advertising by hundreds of relief groups. We need real data about groups’ past involvement in the Philippines and their pre-disaster capacity on the ground. Now, DAP is collecting post-disaster information to hold relief groups accountable to beneficiaries and donors and improve transparency of the relief effort.

Julius: What were your first thoughts, then, when you heard about Super Typhoon Haiyan?

Ben: The storm was terrifying and I felt horrible for everyone caught in the storm’s path.

I continue to worry that hundreds of millions of dollars of public generosity are being misdirected and will be under-utilized and/or not spent to help intended beneficiaries. I fear we will see many outside disaster relief/humanitarian aid organizations make many of the same mistakes that caused unnecessary suffering and harmful outcomes after the Haiti earthquake, Japan tsunami and Superstorm Sandy.

I was frustrated because I had been trying to generate support for Philippines pre-disaster data collection before the Typhoon… and that data could have had tremendous impact in how dollars were raised in the immediate aftermath. Now, all attention is focused on supporting immediate needs (i.e. food, water, medicine, shelter), which is critical, but it’s not everything. I truly believe investments in dedicated, independent oversight is critical to ensuring these massive relief efforts are more effective, survivor and demand-based, and leave civil society organizations local to the disaster stronger and better prepared for the next disaster.

Julius: Ben, after experiencing the 2010 earthquake, I read that over $10B in international donations were made to Haiti.

What lessons have we learned from Haiti that could apply after #TyphoonHaiyan in the Philippines?

Reference: Let’s Not Help the Philippines Like We Helped Haiti


Ben: Two years on and you have nearly half a million people still in tents or tarps, some 7,000 dead from cholera and hundreds of thousands more infected. They’ve had to live through two hurricane seasons like this, which is simply unacceptable given the amount of money that was donated.

See more at: http://newint.org/features/2012/01/01/haiti-money-ngo-un/

Vijaya Ramachandran brings up many good points in her opinion piece “Let’s Not Help the Philippines Like We Helped Haiti” — and I have these thoughts: 1) Most of the existing protocol for accountability is self-imposed, self-enforced, and self-monitored. This dynamic is very dangerous. Take a look around and you’ll find that Disaster Accountability Project is the ONLY independent oversight in this very crowded field of disaster relief and humanitarian aid groups. 2) The transparency frameworks discussed have more to do with nation-aid than donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. 3) Once the dollars are donated, it’s already too late. If the wrong groups raise money, that money is either completely lost or significantly under-utilized. It’s critical to have good information before the disaster happens and people need to know where to look for this data. This is something Disaster Accountability Project is committed to doing both before and after disasters in the Philippines and other disaster vulnerable countries.

In her article, Ramachandran contends that humanitarian organizations and aid agencies should publish details of their planned and actual spending and activities. This would allow outside donors and intended beneficiaries to identify where activities overlap, where the gaps remain, and enable everyone to see where the money is going. Most importantly, it would enable policymakers to learn lessons about what worked for application in future disasters.

Julius:  Just the beginning… #TyphoonHaiyan via PBS


Julius: Ben, for folks who want to make a long-term commitment to rebuilding, rather than relief. What would recommend in terms of evaluating channels of charitable giving or organizing efforts, like Oxfam America or the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns?

Ben: It’s interesting that the article discusses the slow government and international responses to the Typhoon. But what about the civil society response? We know groups like Oxfam have partners on the ground… but I’d go one step further: My advice is to identify the Philippines-based partners themselves and make sure they have the resources they need to LEAD an effective recovery. Lets learn from past disasters where huge international NGOs took over and local civil society groups were left weakened. Donors should help facilitate a “flipping” of this dangerous power dynamic so civil society does not become *more* dependent on (often well-intentioned) international NGOs governed by outsiders. Frankly, the Philippines will have a shot at improving preparedness and resiliency for the next Super Typhoon, Tsunami or Earthquake if domestic civil society groups are strengthened by the response to this disaster.

Julius, Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this meaningful way. I am happy to remain involved in this conversation. Disaster Accountability Project is committed to improving accountability and transparency in this relief and recovery effort and I welcome individual and/or group conversations with members of this network.