In June 2017, I visited Tacloban, a city in Leyte Province, eastern Philippines, to participate in the final Business Continuity Planning (BCP) programme training sessions and to orient the new Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) Specialist for the Philippines Centre.

By attending the BCP training for micro, small and medium enterprises, I hoped to gain first-hand experience of how a humanitarian capacity-building programme is implemented, and looked forward to meeting the participants that I am usually only counting from afar in my MEAL Officer role. It was also an opportunity to witness how Tacloban had recovered since being devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, an event that claimed the lives of over 6,000 people.

On the first morning of the training, it was immediately evident that the BCP programme, run in partnership with Unilever, was providing much needed training to prepare businesses for disasters. Despite having lived through Typhoon Haiyan, 77% of the business owners participating lacked a written business continuity plan, and 56% of owners were unaware of the plan’s concept. During the training sessions, subject matter experts from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, the Philippine Office of Civil Defense, the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation and the Philippines Institute for Small Scale Industries walked the participants through the process of developing contingency plans. On the second day of training the participants enthusiastically presented their new plans to one another.

The key lesson I gained from the training was how providing space for participants to share their experiences of natural disasters was just as valuable as the training content. The atmosphere throughout the training was one of communal support, as the business owners exchanged local knowledge through accounts of the challenges they faced and solutions they created when Haiyan struck. Some businesses had minor damage and were closed for weeks, while others suffered the destruction of stock worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars and were closed for up to a year. They discussed the merits of loans offered to disaster-stricken businesses by the Department of Trade and Industry, and how cash for work programmes often led to an overdependency on aid. Moving forward, I would recommend including dedicated forums for participants to share their local experiences and knowledge in all disaster risk reduction and management training programmes. This approach will maximise the learning potential for participants.

Despite their differing experiences of Haiyan, what all the BCP participants had in common was an unshakable positivity and an ability to laugh at the misfortune they had endured. Humour, it seems, is one of the secrets of the firm resilience frequently displayed by Filipinos, in a country ranked the third most at risk of natural disasters globally.

As colleagues from the Philippines Academy Centre guided me through Tacloban city, the surroundings revealed further indicators of the resilience shown by the city’s inhabitants. The chandeliers in the hotel hosting the BCP training were crafted from wood recycled from buildings destroyed by Haiyan, road-side vendors had fashioned INGO-branded emergency tarpaulins into awnings for their stalls, and most striking of all, large monuments of hope had been erected at several mass gravesites in and around the city in tribute to Haiyan’s victims and survivors.

Sadly, on 6 July 2017, just two weeks after the BCP training sessions, Tacloban was hit by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake, during which two people died, 187 were injured, and significant damage was caused to local infrastructure. The earthquake served as an unwelcome reminder of the importance of disaster risk reduction management in a country as disaster-prone as the Philippines, and how capacity building efforts such as the BCP programme are very necessary.

Future evaluations will judge the extent to which the BCP training and the exchange of local knowledge increased the capacity of Tacloban’s businesses to recover from the earthquake on 6 July. However, a lesson we can already take from the incident is that it demonstrates the urgent need for Academy-facilitated initiatives that enable people to prepare for and respond to crises in the immediate future.

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