The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was one of the worst natural disasters in human history — and also a tragedy where the international aid community could have done much better.
A report by the 2004 Tsunami Evaluation Coalition highlighted one of the biggest weaknesses in the international relief operation was its lack of understanding of the local context and its reluctance or inability to consult with and work through and with local communities, groups and organizations. The report recommended that the international humanitarian community transform its role from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities, and strive to increase their disaster response capacities and to improve the linkages and coherence between themselves and other actors in the international disaster response system, including those from the affected countries themselves.
I asked Roger Yates, Plan International’s top expert in disaster and humanitarian response, what are the main lessons learned from that disaster for NGOs currently responding to the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Yates, with more than 25 years of experience dealing with these situations, including the 2004 tsunami, offered 10 tips:
Focus on the priorities. Don’t try to do everything at once. Accept initial levels of chaos and confusion. Immediate priorities probably include understanding how things work in the Philippines, and who is doing what; developing initial plans based on local needs, not what donors have to give; and thinking ahead when organizing initial work so it will be relevant later on. Prepare to adapt priorities as circumstances change in the coming weeks.
Understand the role of the military and the government. The army will probably play a leading role in the initial response, with international assistance. They may run the airport, clear major routes, oversee logistics and provide security. NGOs should understand how the military is organized and what they see as their role — as well as how government is run. NGOs may be able to influence what they are doing and define complementary roles, like for instance offer expertise in distribution of supplies and engaging with marginalized people.
Work with local elected officials and other community leaders. They know who lives (or lived) where and how things work, though probably lack the capacity to effectively deliver relief goods. NGOs should listen to city, municipality and barangay leaders when they are designing relief activities and identifying who to give relief to, and reviewing how to improve their activities.
Keep the public (in affected communities) informed about: when and where NGOs are going to provide assistance; key public health messages; how people can give and get information about missing people and the dead: and other priorities that emerge for affected people, like transport options or the role of authorities). NGOs can put up notice boards, distribute leaflets, broadcast messages by local radio and television.
Work collaboratively, not independently. NGOs should recognize their role as one part of a locally led, wider effort. All NGOs should consider other actors’ plans when they design their own activities and share information about their activities. They should publish their needs assessments and plans online (using coordination websites like Humanitarian Response or GDACS). They should support local partners and organizations. All NGOs should be prepared to adapt what they’re doing to what other actors are doing. And donors should support this flexibility when necessary.
Go the extra mile to find the most vulnerable and worst affected people, such as adolescent girls. They are likely to have specific needs and to be easily ignored or sidelined by mainstream relief efforts. NGOs can play an important role in making sure they benefit fully from official relief. Though this will likely need specific resourcing.
Don’t underestimate the importance of mental health. People need help in dealing with immediate shock, trauma and grief — as well as help in coming to terms with what’s happened to their families and their plans for the future. NGOs can help reduce stress, for instance by encouraging practical mutual support within communities (around accessing aid), avoiding huge life-changing decisions and treating people with kind dignity.
Support local markets and move to cash transfers as soon as possible. Local markets are probably working better than assumed. They will improve rapidly as opportunities arise and create jobs, dignity and normality. NGOs should support local markets as much as possible. For instance, they should buy goods locally wherever possible and give people money (through cash transfers) so they can choose what to buy for themselves.
Build up two-way communication with the local public. In the coming weeks, NGOs should provide more information to the public about how to get in touch with them. Every time an NGO logo or notice board is put up, it should include contact details of named staff members. NGOs should be transparent about their plans and budgets. They should make use of local media outlets. They should ensure that local people are involved in designing projects. And they should systematically ask local people for comments and feedback about the relief they provide — and respond to their comments. Donors should support this flexibility.
Building permanent houses is difficult. Don’t rush into it! Thoughtful construction takes time, involving many social and legal issues as well as technical ones. NGOs shouldn’t expect that people can move from temporary shelter (like tents) to permanent houses in a year. They may be stuck in tents for a long time. Interim housing may be an important option. NGOs should consider providing people with reasonable quality housing materials — or money to buy their own.
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