Situation Report
Dressmaking livelihood in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte. Photo credit: EcoWEB

A series on localization: How the Philippines is quietly implementing a more localized COVID-19 humanitarian response (Part 3)

The third of the series on localization delves into specific interventions and contributions of local actors for COVID-19 response. It highlights the importance of approaches and experience of local actors as well the need to enhance local engagement platforms trusted by at-risk communities, people in need and the affected population.

How Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and People Organizations (POs) support the local government and affected people in their livelihood?

Throughout the lockdown in the Philippines that lasted from mid-March until mid-May, Ecosystem Work for Essential Benefits (ECOWEB) has been supporting the Philippine Fiber Authority (PFA) and local government in Mindanao (including Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur) in abaca harvesting and fiber extraction, providing alternative jobs and strengthening the food security of affected farmers.

Abaca is a native leaf fiber species from the Philippines and can be commonly found in the Bicol Region and Mindanao areas. The Philippines supplies 87% of abaca fiber demand to the world market. It is considered one of the most important exported products in the country for its in-demand lustrous fiber that can be hand-loomed into elegant textiles.

In late March, the PFA announced that demand for abaca had risen since it is both a technically suitable and durable raw material for the local mass production of protective equipment, including face masks. As no vaccine is yet available, the use of protective personal equipment (PPE) together with proper washing of hands remains the primary defense measures against COVID-19. Tested and approved by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) last March 2020, abaca fiber mask has a filtration rate seven times better than cloth product and has lower water absorption than N95 masks.

With strong local networks in Mindanao, ECOWEB is expanding its project to support more farmers (currently 800 in the Iligan conflict-affected areas) across Mindanao areas on local abaca fiber extraction and to help existing cooperatives shift to the local manufacture of PPE. The PPE abaca project will complement the ongoing community livelihood programmes supporting local dressmakers, loom weavers and fiber manufacturers.

“Clearly there is a market for abaca despite the COVID-19 crisis. The main goal is to be always sensitive to the alternative means for people to survive and ensure that they are secure in terms of access to food and daily income. That’s why we are investing some of our core resources for this project and expanding it to deal with big challenges under new normal situation. Impact to an already vulnerable sector like the farmers will be great in the long run because of the COVID-19”, said Regina Antequiza, ECOWEB Executive Director.

To support persons with disabilities who have lost their jobs, the Inclusive Humanitarian and Development Center-BBMC, a local NGO, has been supporting its members across the country in the production of customized washable facemask made of durable cloth. It partners with other NGO networks to purchase their product as support to affected persons with disabilities.

Flexible re-alignment of funds from donors

Due to competing global demands and travel restrictions, it is difficult to bring international support to the country. Previously reliable supply chains have been heavily disrupted, affecting procurement, packaging and delivery of medical supplies and other essentials. To mobilize new international funding has also been a challenge to many aid organizations.

In case of the Assistance and Cooperation for Resilience and Development (ACCORD), portions of their COVID-19 response efforts across the country had to be changed against existing funding coming from their partners and donors such as ECHO, CARE-Philippines and Governments of Germany, Czech Republic and Netherlands, who provided scope for the flexibility needed.

While most of the programme funding previously approved was focused on development, ACCORD was able to early re-align their budget so that they could immediately deploy in several targeted provinces lifesaving aid in form of water-health-sanitation (WASH) kits, personal protective equipment to local partners, emergency food packs to people in need and mobilise local staff that could provide technical advice in setting up community quarantine facilities.

“It has been our practice to inform our big partners and donors about the need to use or re-align portions of the programme budget if there are emergencies. But the COVID-19 crisis is totally different. We have to rely as well on our local partners at the field level for things to move forward on our end. It’s a bit of logistical nightmare to purchase and deploy kits due to travel restrictions and varying implementations of ECQ by the local government”, said Sindhy Obias, ACCORD Executive Director.

The limitation has positively obliged ACCORD to work with their community partners by allowing them to decide, arrange and fix the needed administrative or logistic concerns in order not to delay the transport of aid in various areas. Community partners have identified trusted local suppliers and mobilized volunteers to provide support in transporting the relief packages.

“It helps if you have a well-capacitated and trained local community to be prepared in an event of an emergency. Somehow it validates our approach that in times like this, only they can activate or find creative ways to complement the support we’re providing. It’s not that easy and not something what we wanted but it left us no choice”, Obias said.

ECOWEB too was able to re-align some of its core disaster risk reduction budgets due to flexibility from its main donors, Catholic Organization for Relief and Development Aid (CORDAID), in order to support local farmers engaged in the production of alcohol for disinfection in Agusan del Norte. Together with the abaca PPE project, supporting farmers and local alcohol production may prove an effective and sustainable alternative livelihood while the COVID-19 crisis persists.

Having a say in developing national guidelines on humanitarian assistance

Together with the Disaster Risk Reduction Network (DRRNET), an alliance of CSOs and FBOs in the country, ACCORD was also supporting the process of reviewing the Philippine government’s protocols for engaging the humanitarian actors under lockdown and community quarantine. Under the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the Office of Civil Defense prepared interim guidelines for delivering humanitarian assistance during community quarantine, also by consulting with the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and other non-governmental entities. The revised interim guidelines were welcomed by both the government and HCT as they provide greater clarity on the flexible mobility of aid workers while observing the minimum health standards in the provision of aid to at-risk communities. The interim guidelines will also apply for any compounding events, such as natural disasters, and are yet to be fully tested in practice.

The examples above, indicate the importance of working with local partners and relying on local supply chains, a need for funding flexibility in times of COVID-19, as well as the importance of establishing a constructive dialogue with the authorities. Over the longer term, it may just as well be that COVID-19 would require substantial changes to the current humanitarian response model, including programming modalities that are more reliant on national actors, with greater consideration for the humanitarian-development-peace collaboration.