The rush and panic of the first week of responding to a disaster has somewhat faded for TY Haiyan. Donations have poured in, aid is more firmly established, and a number of humanitarian agencies have set up camp for a good 3 months to a year (or even longer) to deal with the aftermath of this monster of a disaster. So what next? Well, now it's time to start talking to your communities again and in-depth.
It's not uncommon for aid workers and agencies to have the mentality that they are 'swooping in to save the day' and fall back on arrogance that because we've done this several times, we know what the affected populations need." No worries, we got this in the bag." Hang on and hold up. Sure, aid workers get the general outline right but you can never say you know what an affected population needs until you actually pause and take a second to talk to them.
It's happened before that humanitarian agencies have not done well by the people they're trying to serve. In 1994, there was pretty strong criticism for the NGO community responding to the Great Lakes Refugee crisis (aftermath of the Rwandan genocide) and there was a move to create a set of international minimum standards called the Sphere Project that should be achieved for each response. By minimum standards, it's basically the very least that you can do... but feel free to do much better than that if you want to really launch a great response. (To read up an article that can break it down, here's Rodolfo Ticao's article entitled "Guide for aid-givers: Beyond good intentions you must do no harm"). There are also other great standards you can check out, like the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP).
So why am I talking technically to you, about standards and about going back to talk to the communities? Because if you donated or gave aid for TY Haiyan, wherever you might be in the world, the job's not done. For the largest storm ever recorded in the history of the world, for potentially ground-breaking generosity around the world, we've got to make sure that you're funding a well-designed response to Haiyan victims.
When we talk about a well-designed response, it's not just about efficiency and timeliness and sheer quantity of response. It's not always about who gets to be down on the ground first in spite of all the logistical challenges. It's not just about how many people you cover in the shortest period of time. A large chunk of being well-designed is about how appropriate your response was to the affected population. And I strongly feel that the best way to figure out the most appropriate way to give aid is not years of experience and technical expertise (although that greatly helps), but from going back to the communities you're trying to help.
Though I've mentioned a whole bunch of standards, I won't get technical but I would like to break down the simplest and most practical forms of a well-designed response. I strongly feel that monitoring aid isn't just that the funding goes to where it's supposed to be, but that it goes to where it should be --- answering needs of the affected and consulted with the affected.
Once again, I'm no expert - for one thing, I was only 7 when the Sphere Project was initiated and for another, I've been in this field only for the last 4 years. But I'll again attempt to break down this aspect of giving aid -- why it is so incredibly important and basic to design your response based on the people you actually want to help. (My ever-present disclaimer that this is my opinion and personal blog).
So how do you put together a well-designed response (and by well-designed, I mean, fit for the affected population you're responding to)?
For any disaster, it's crucial to do an assessment before you do a response. A lot of the times, you're coming in blind, with communication down, information missing and access terrible (If you remember Typhoon Labuyo that hit Aurora province earlier this year, telecommunications were out and it was very nearly a blackout of information when we headed down to do an assessment). Generally, you don't want to take so much time assessing, that by the time you respond, it's already been more than 3 days and people are hungry, thirsty, or worse, dead. It's why the initial assessment should be a rapid one; in a way, you're gambling with time, trying to get a quick sense of the picture, enough to give you an idea if you should respond and what kind of aid you need to give. If you're lucky and communication wasn't affected or you can get information, you can even do a rapid assessment based on preliminary information (like news, reports from someone in the area done over the phone, etc.). TY Haiyan was an example of knowing you needed to respond immediately without setting one foot in the affected area, based on media reports, aerial surveys and social media accounts.
Why the need for an assessment, why not just bring aid with you already? Imagine assuming that markets are still running but people have lost their livelihoods, like their fishing gear and boats have been washed away in a typhoon. Without their livelihoods, they have no income. Practically, you'd think giving cash would be a good sort of relief so they can choose whether to buy food, water, shelter or use it as capital to restart their livelihoods. And then you get to the area and find out that markets aren't functioning. You just carried a whole bunch of cash that means nothing to families without a market to buy from. I've heard it happen that an angry beneficiary said "ano naman kailangan ko sa pera, eh tubig kailangan namin!" (What would I need with cash when we need water!)
Coordination and Collaboration
In a previous blog post, I talked about how, inevitably, aid agencies compete for the same pot of resources. Competition goes a different route as well: there is the competition to be the first to deliver, the first to meet communities, the first to be there on the ground. I think it's not a conscious attempt to compete because we all basically have the same goal. But it does stand that with the same goal of responding to the needs of the affected, you could basically be working on the same things in the same areas.
This is why I personally value coordination. Agencies and organizations may have the same humanitarian mandate but we have different vulnerable groups we aspire to meet the needs of (Oxfam focuses on women, Save the Children on children, Handicap International on persons with disability, and HelpAge International on older persons, to name a few). And the world is not full of limitless resources (the recession has definitely impacted the resources we're getting!). Assisting a community to recovery is a huge huge task and we don't also come without restrictions. Sometimes, it's rare to move past the emergency response phase towards a rehabilitation project, for example. It's rare to work for an agency that has the resources to answer to food, water, livelihoods, shelter - the whole shebang, and you can battle frustrations daily knowing that these are needs that you can't address.
Being able to build relationships with other humanitarian actors means you're bridging the gaps you can't hope to meet. It's about making sure that you're not duplicating what another organization is trying to do in the same area, which could mean expending limited resources and meeting the needs of affected families - twice. But also, and more importantly for me, it's about ensuring that you're taking advantage of having the same humanitarian mandates in spite of finite resources... but giving the affected a more complete package than you can give alone.
To illustrate what I mean, here in Bohol, Sagbayan was the epicenter of the earthquake and nearly all of the municipality has crumbled. The municipal hall has its entire facade shaved off so you can still see the offices inside, with all the desks, chairs, aircons, office supplies - it just doesn't have a front wall. The damage to infrastructure is huge. Early on, looking into our capacity and resources, we got in touch with Catholic Relief Services who was also working in the area with a very similar WASH package as ours. In the interest of coordination, we quickly set areas where we were going to work to make sure we don't duplicate our services, but cover as much ground in Sagbayan as possible. I can safely say between the two of us, our coverage is almost complete in the municipality and the local government is clear on who to talk to when it comes to what barangays (villages) are being covered.
Coordination and collaboration doesn't just apply for humanitarian agencies, but across all humanitarian stakeholders. Local government units, national government units, private sector groups like companies... even informal aid groups if you can manage it! I'm really liking this group in Bohol called Bangon Bohol because they sit in Cluster meetings (cluster meetings is a UN system of coordinating meetings under different sectoral groups... and it is pretty rare to have private citizens be part of this!).
If aid workers had a Bible, one of our 10 Commandments would be to give affected populations "a right to life with dignity." I like to interpret that this way: just because we are giving to people who've lost everything, doesn't mean we should give them something substandard or unsuited to their needs. It's why you don't go around giving your hand-me-down underwear as relief items or insisting on giving people food, when what they need is water. It's not about giving just anything out of the goodness of your heart and then patting yourself on the back without looking to see if it actually helped.
Kind of the best way to understand protecting someone's right to a life with dignity is by giving them options to choose what would best suit their needs. There’s giving them a choice in terms of the method of aid, like giving cash so they can opt to buy food, water, shelter or medicines. But the kind of option I like the most is by consulting with them about what they need.
I think it’s a bit different from assessments because in assessments, you’re using a lot of your expertise looking at a situation. But when it comes to consultations, it’s a bit like coming in like an open book. Sure, at the end of your discussion, you might not consider everything they want (I’ve been in consultations when requests have gone as far as permanent shelter and land... way beyond the means of humanitarian agencies). But you’ll be surprised at how much of your mind can change in the process.
Let me give you an example. There’s an island barangay here in Bohol that stresses me out because it’s far from the mainland and I worry about their drinking and domestic supply of water. It’s a good 30-40 minutes away from the mainland by a tiny bangka and every time I think about it, I shudder and thank every single thing I can that Haiyan hadn’t put Bohol in its crossfire because that tiny island would have been gone and taken everyone and everything along with it. If it is high tide, they stay put in their island. If it rains, it’s the same thing. Our team and I have discussed it at length about how to possibly increase their water supply so it’s actually meeting some sort of international standard. When I came to visit it, I was already leaning towards the idea of constructing a new water source, even if the water would be salty, just so they could have a source for domestic water, free from garbage and fecal matter. I thought it was kind of brilliant.
Wrong. When I talk to them and propose this idea and they kind of look at me like “Well, who is this person proposing this kind of dumb idea?” As we get to talking and walking around their village, they start pointing out their rainwater catchments, basically gutters running along their roofs into water tanks. Many of them are kind of makeshift and ratty-looking but some are solid looking water tanks. Their village council runs a communal water tank where they can get rainwater for free. They tell me that sometimes, when they can’t get to the mainland and since there is no electricity for refilling stations in the mainland to even produce clean water, they drink the rainwater. No incidents of diarrhoea so far either. As we keep talking, I start seeing where we can help them without sacrificing their usual practices. If this is what they’re used to, there are ways for us to complement this while making sure they have clean and safe drinking water and no health risks will arise from continuing their usual practice. We can improve their rainwater catchments, provide rust-free gutters and tanks, give household treatment solutions. The best solutions are sometimes the simplest and the ones that won’t change their lives so drastically, they don’t understand the point of it all. (P.S., the rainwater was tested negative for bacteria and safe to drink!)
Earlier, I was also talking about how sometimes the best way to design a response isn’t always the expertise in a specialty. I’m a Response Manager to a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) response but I’m not a public health engineer or a public health promoter (I graduated with a degree in political science and I don’t know how much farther you can get from that!). But what is helping me throughout this response is talking to communities who aren’t experts at specialties either... they are just experts at their way of life. And what you’re trying to do is build back their lives better, not remake their whole life.
This doesn’t always apply in every country (for example, Haiti’s earthquake was a huge shock for the country unused to earthquakes) but I strongly believe in going local when it comes to the Philippines. We’ve been the star of the biggest disaster of the year for the last three years and the way the trend has been going, that’s not likely to end soon. Though we struggle with some of the largest disasters in the world, we’ve built up a capacity to prepare and respond to disasters. It’s not yet perfect but it’s pretty solid. Going local means, not just the consulting with the communities bit, but working with local people and local resources.
What are the benefits of going local? To name a few:
Sometimes, the best ideas come from people who know the way of life. In our TS Washi response in Cagayan de Oro city, one of the ideas that donors and foreign observers found so simple yet innovative was proposed by one of our local partner’s staff. She thought that using excess wood from our semi-permanent latrines and bathing cubicles could be reused into something infinitely simple but a huge plus for our communities: clotheslines. In a tent community where everything was round and there were no sharp corners to hand anything anywhere, clotheslines were strangely not just convenient, but great for their well-being; in spite of living in tents, families (mothers, particularly) could make their house more a home and more orderly.
As much as possible, don’t let us in the humanitarian field rest on our laurels by not finding out about what we’re doing with your money. If you donated to a legitimate organization, then definitely, your donations will be spent precisely on aid. But the next question you should be testing us on is:
How will the aid we’re designing with your funds help Haiyan-affected families recover?
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.