On Monday Sierra Leone began a 42-day countdown towards declaring itself free of the Ebola virus that began to ravage the country in March 2014, leaving 3,995 dead. Aside from the human cost of the virus, the economy too faces a long road to recovery.
Just months after the outbreak was first declared, the economy was left in ruins. Communities were quarantined, businesses shut down, people confined to their homes, bringing the country to a virtual standstill. The World Bank estimates that nearly 180,000 people in Sierra Leone have lost their jobs due to the Ebola crisis, with women hit the hardest.
But were it not for a network of well-developed microfinance groups, the economic devastation could have far been worse: As a part of their poverty-reduction program prior to the Ebola outbreak, CARE, one of the world’s largest international disaster relief organizations, had introduced Village Savings and Loan Associations, or VSLAs, in which villagers pool their savings and can issue one another small, short-term loans.
Holly Frew, emergency communicator at CARE, told Devex how these loans provided an invaluable social safety net during the worst of the crisis: “People weren’t necessarily able to meet, but because the savings groups were already in place, they were able to communicate with one another over their cell phones, to help one another economically until the crisis was over.”
One woman was even able to increase her family’s wealth during the outbreak. By buying tools, seeds and chickens, she was able to undertake subsistence farming to feed her family, and sold eggs to her neighbors. “Those small loans are what kept them economically viable during the outbreak,” said Frew.
Where disaster relief ends and development begins can be a fine line — one that CARE attempts to negotiate by using a dual approach of immediate and decisive emergency response when the crisis hits, and poverty alleviation programs for after the immediate disaster has passed to ensure a smooth transition.
According to Frew, although the immediate response to a crisis may be the most visible step, effective relief begins long before the disaster hits, and doesn’t end until long after the initial response. “The most important part of disaster is planning. Each country office does a lot of planning in preparation for possible disasters, including risk-assessments of what the country might be vulnerable to, be it conflict or natural disaster,” she said. “The emergency preparation plan is key to effective response, so we’re ready for different possible scenarios.”
Once the disaster hits, Frew said that working closely alongside local organizations and members of the affected community is key to effective response. “Working with local communities and actors is a good model, not just to meet emergency needs, but in a way that’s building a foundation for rebuilding and recovery,” said Frew. “These are the people most attuned to the needs of the community, who can become leaders.”
Working with Syrian refugees, for example, CARE has trained refugee volunteers as emergency relief liaisons, who help identify vulnerable refugees, assessing their needs, providing service referrals and evaluating how CARE can best help them.
Michelle Nunn, CARE’s new CEO, recently returned from visiting Jordan and Turkey and noted how becoming a volunteer can be a transformational experience for people who were also struggling to adjust to their refugee status. “We’ve found that involving volunteers from the community is not just effective for emergency response, but also provides the volunteers themselves with a sense of purpose,” she said. “By helping their people, they are also helping themselves to heal and recover.”
Equally important is finding ways to provide the affected population with tools to build a sustainable future, even in the midst of crisis: In Jordan, CARE is running vocational training programs to help empower refugees to gain new skills to help them rebuild their lives. “Many of these people may have had good jobs in Syria, but when they come to Jordan those skills won’t help them get work,” explained Frew. “They need new tools in order to be able to support their families.”
In Turkey, Syrian refugee volunteers are provided with a 10-week training program, in order to help them identify vulnerabilities amongst their community and how to advise service referrals for people.
Truly effective disaster relief also means anticipating future crisis when rebuilding infrastructure that may have been lost. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, for example, CARE’s first response was to build emergency shelters for victims of the disaster. Later, CARE provided Nepalese with supplies and training to build new homes that were safer, sturdier, and better equipped to withstand another temblor.
“We don’t want to rebuild things the way they were — we need to make them safer and stronger, so communities are more resilient when crisis strikes again.”
Are microfinance actors the unsung heroes of the Ebola crisis? Have your say by leaving a comment below.
Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.
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