Philippines: My Eight Months With WFP

“Mabuhay! Welcome to the Philippines!” These friendly words greeted me, Philipp Herzog from Germany, at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. As a fellow of the Carlo-Schmid-Programme, sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German National Academic Foundation, I was assigned to support the Communications and Partnerships team of WFP Philippines for eight months -- the team responsible for reaching out to the public, for raising awareness about hunger, and for helping to forge partnerships with the public and the private sector.

When Nature Strikes

The Philippines is among the most disaster-prone countries in the world – that is what I had read before leaving Germany, but little did I know what that really meant.

Within the first couple of weeks after my arrival I would soon find out, as two major typhoons, “Pedring” (international name Nesat) and “Quiel” (Nalgae), hit the northern part of the country – including Manila. I had to fight my way through a stormy and rainy morning to get to the office, and by then the building was already running on electricity generators. The American embassy – which is located right next to the Manila Bay – had to be evacuated because of the flooding.

Soon it became evident that WFP would support the government’s emergency relief operations. I was assigned to join one of those missions, and met many people who had lost their houses to the floodwater and had to live in evacuation centers – often school buildings or city halls. Reaching some of the provinces where WFP’s aid would be distributed was quite challenging, since vast areas of land were flooded. Several times the water completely surrounded our jeep, nearly reaching up to the windows.

One of the barangays (villages) we visited could only be accessed by boat. When we came closer to the area, we could already see the whole village waiting for relief. The damage created by the storm was visible everywhere, and several house were completely demolished. Listening to the stories of poor Filipinos who had lost so much, including houses and family members, wasn’t easy to digest. Many of the faces I saw were filled with a lot of gratitude; and what struck me most was that people never seemed to have lost their hope, and remained forward-looking despite what had happened.

Every year around 20 typhoons hit the country, many of which have disastrous consequences. After my encounter with Nesat and Nalgae, shortly before Christmas, another heavy tropical storm “Sendong” (Washi) hit the Southern Philippines, leading to the tragic death of more than 1,200 people. WFP staff was literally working 24 hours a day – even on Christmas Eve! – to support the government and help their fellow countrymen.

But WFP’s work is not limited to relief activities. In order to reduce the effects of future disasters, WFP conducts a Disaster Preparedness and Response programme, implementing various projects – such as simulations exercises, landslide mitigation, the construction of storage facilities etc. - in the most disaster-prone provinces of Luzon.

Rebuilding Lives And Livelihoods In Central Mindanao

Tropical storms aside, WFP’s presence in the Philippines is mainly linked to the ongoing violent conflict between separatist rebels and government troops in Central Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines. Over the last ten years, more than one million people had to flee their homes due to upsurges in violence.

Working closely with government, non-government organizations and other UN agencies, WFP helps people get back on their feet through activities as diverse as school feeding, nutrition programmes for women and children, and livelihood programmes supporting community-driven projects such as the construction of farm to market roads, the establishment of farming, weaving or fishing cooperatives. The support they receive, often in the form of rice or beans, helps them slowly rebuild their livelihoods without having to worry about where their next meal would come from.

What many of the people I met during visits to WFP field operations in Central Mindanao had gone through - particularly after the outbreaks of violence in 2008 - can only be described as heartbreaking. But what they all had in common was a strong belief in a more promising future. Many of the projects I was able to visit motivated participants to continue on the paths they had taken. With the new skills they had learned, with the new infrastructure they had gained, many could durably improve their lives.

At one point we visited an association founded by a large group of independent-thinking women. They were able to set up a large garden to grow vegetables for their own consumption. But the project could be expanded and they are now able to sell the crops on the markets and gain additional income. I will never forget the visible pride which they demonstrated when they showed me their project.

A Fulfilling And Instructive Work Experience

During my time with WFP Philippines I learned to work more efficiently, I improved my drafting and communications skills, I honed my English and gained knowledge that will help me in my professional life. For me, the time with WFP was a decisive experience since over the course of the last eight months, I gained some deep insights into humanitarian aid – and at 27 years of age, I realized that this is the path I want to continue on.

At an art fair in Manila during the early part of my stay in the Philippines, we were able to raise enough money to feed 18,500 school kids one hot, nutritious meal each. On that day, I had a particularly good feeling about what I was doing. Knowing that a hot nutritious meal for a school kid in Central Mindanao costs only Php10 (less than 25 US cents), I realized that day just how much one person could make a difference in this world, however small it may be.