Seattle Filipinos take a community-to-community approach to disaster relief

The Mindanao region of the Philippines has been devastated by storms. Photo by All Hands Volunteers

Tropical storms and flooding in the Philippines have killed 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more in recent weeks. The United Nations issued a desperate appeal for nearly $30 million in relief funds late last month.

Last Thursday BAYAN-NW, the Filipino Community of Seattle, and the Ihaw Ihaw Band responded to the crisis, holding a fundraiser for victims of the disaster at the Filipino Community Center in South Seattle on Martin Luther King and Juneau Street.

But the money they raised won’t go to the UN or any big-name relief group.

Instead, the funds will go to Balsa Mindanao, a coalition of local groups named after the term for “wooden raft,” who are themselves from the affected Mindanao region.

That decision – to give to a Filipino organization “anchored on community support”- is emblematic of a unique new kind of fundraiser that was more confidence-inspiring and uplifting than the average charity event.

Take it from a journalist who spent the past two years reporting in Haiti, another disaster-struck country: by donating to Filipino community groups rather than mega-NGO’s, the dollars are far more likely to reach the victims.

Many of these sprawling bureaucracies wasted their resources in misguided projects while marginalizing Haitian community groups and the aid recipients themselves, prompting protests and anti-NGO graffiti.

A well-known anonymous aid worker blogger concluded last year: “It’s time for Aid to leave Haiti.”

There was also an acknowledgement at the BAYAN fundraiser that merely donating to relief groups will not be enough. It will take long-term engagement to truly help the Philippines.

In the case of Haiti’s earthquake, over half of American households donated for relief. But with lackluster follow-up and no serious assessment of how aid really functions in the country, much of it has been wasted.

“It’s not just a matter of sending relief, which is what we’re doing now and is really important,” Katrina Pestano, who was born in Mindanao, told the crowd. “But also, we need to keep in mind the future of the people.”

Pestano visited the area last year, meeting with activists and villagers who warned that multinational mining operations had made the area more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding.

“I want to be able to go back to Mindanao and raise a child there,” she said, “and not worry about dying in our home in the middle of the night because there was no warning that a storm would wipe out or whole village.”

“The corporations are stripping the trees out and creating the conditions that caused this disaster. I really appreciate you exposing that.” – State Representative Bob Hasegawa, in this two minute audio capture of an interview/conversation with activist Katrina Pestano.

A religious leader led a moment of silence to commemorate the dead, as a soundless slideshow showing the scope of the disaster played in a loop on a wall off to the side. A box was passed around for donations.

All told, $1778.22 was raised from a crowd of several dozen.

“Because this tropical storm was so powerful and affected an area that was so unprepared, we need you to go the extra mile…we need you to give extraordinarily,” urged Joaquin Uy, an organizer, as the box was passed around a second time.

One speaker read a message of support from the Seattle Mayor’s office.  But when the speeches were finished, the spunky Ihaw Ihaw rock band took the stage.  A captivating, versatile vocalist in a sparkling red shirt with slicked back hair and spiked bracelets regaled the audience with classic American rock songs.

Local youths and families with kids chowed down on Filipino food served on paper plates, while some of the elders got up and danced. This was far from a depressing, somber affair.

As the music played in the background, organizer Freedom Siyam explained to the Globalist, “Often times, there are administrative fees that are taken away from the donations. These donations are strictly going to the communities that are in need.”

The fundraising drive officially ends Saturday and the money will be donated on Monday, January 9.

Uy says since last week’s fundraiser they’ve raised another $1100 and they need only $181 more to reach their $3000 goal. Donations to Balsa Mindanao can be made online through PayPal.

4 Comments

  1. Remember that the “well-known anonymous aid blogger” included diaspora in his post about why aid should leave Haiti.

    While I wish them well, let’s bear in mind that the Seattle Filipinos are not inherently more capable of delivering good aid in Mindanao than the establishment it’s so trendy to rail against right now. Nor are they immune to the same tendencies toward delivering bad aid.

    1. Thanks for the comment, J.. I think you know as well as I do that UN meetings in Port-au-Prince were conducted inside a military compound in French and English, not Haitian Creole. Some groups, longer after the quake, wised up and moved their meetings off-base. If the Balsa Mindanao coalition speaks the local language and is made of up actual community members, that’s just one tendency in bad aid – doing things that impede meaningful beneficiary participation – in which they are far less likely to engage.

  2. Remember that the “well-known anonymous aid blogger” included diaspora in his post about why aid should leave Haiti.

    While I wish them well, let’s bear in mind that the Seattle Filipinos are not inherently more capable of delivering good aid in Mindanao than the establishment it’s so trendy to rail against right now. Nor are they immune to the same tendencies toward delivering bad aid.

    1. Thanks for the comment, J.. I think you know as well as I do that UN meetings in Port-au-Prince were conducted inside a military compound in French and English, not Haitian Creole. Some groups, longer after the quake, wised up and moved their meetings off-base. If the Balsa Mindanao coalition speaks the local language and is made of up actual community members, that’s just one tendency in bad aid – doing things that impede meaningful beneficiary participation – in which they are far less likely to engage.

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