I grabbed a few minutes of Roger Yates’s time today. He’s Plan International’s Director of Disaster Response, with over 25 years of experience. We identified 10 key lessons for NGOs responding to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. They are borne out in plenty of evaluations (e.g. see the box below on the 2004 Tsunami).
1. Focus on the priorities. Don’t try to do everything at once. Accept initial levels of choas and confusion. Immediate priorities probably include: (a) understand how things are working in the Philippines, and who is doing what; (b) develop initial plans based on local needs not what donors have to give; (c) think ahead when organising initial work, so it will be relevant in the coming weeks. Prepare to adapt priorities as circumstances change in the coming weeks.
2. Understand the role of the army 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 (in due course). NGOs should understand how the army is organised and what they see as their role as well as how government is organised. NGOs may be able to influence what they are doing and define complementary roles. For instance, NGOs may be better at running distributions and engaging with marginalised people.
3. Work with local municipality/city leaders and other community leaders. They know who lives (or lived) where and how things work. Though they probably do not have strong capacity to deliver relief. NGOs should listen to city, municipality and barangay leaders when they are (a) designing relief activities and identifying who to give relief to, and (b) reviewing how to improve their activities.
4. Keep the public (in affected communities) informed about: (a) when and where NGOs are going to provide assistance; (b) key public health messages, (c) how people can give and get information about missing people / mortalities, and (d) other priorities that emerge for affected people (e.g. transport options, role of authorities). NGOs can put up notice boards, distribute leaflets, broadcast messages by radio and use local media & networks.
5. Work collaboratively, not independently. NGOs should recognise 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 on-line (using co-ordination websites like Humanitarian Response or GDACS). They should support local partners and organisations. All NGOs should be prepared to adapt what they’re doing in the light of what other actors are doing. And donors should support this flexibility, when necessary.
6. Go the extra mile to find the most vulnerable and worst affected people (e.g. adolescent girls). They are likely to have specific needs and to be easily ignored or side-lined 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.
7. Don’t underestimate the importance of mental well being. 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 (e.g. around accessing aid), avoiding huge life changing decisions and treating people with kind dignity.
8. 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.
9. 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 noticeboard is put up, it should include contact details of named members of staff. 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.
10. 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.
Lessons from the 2004 Tsunami
The 2004 Tsunami Evaluation Coalition evaluation report was a massive and highly respected effort. It concluded:
“International action was most effective when enabling, facilitating and supporting local actors.””Local people themselves provided almost all immediate life-saving action and the early emergency support, as is commonly the case in disasters.”
“One of the biggest weaknesses with the international operation was its lack of understanding of the local context and its reluctance and/or inability to consult with and work through and with local communities, groups and organisations.”
“The key issue here is that of ownership. Aid works best when local communities and authorities have been consulted and are involved in the planning and management of programmes.”
“The urgency to spend money quickly and visibly led to many poorly executed aid projects and acted against the best interests of affected people.”
“Recommendation #1: The international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities.”
“Recommendation #2: All actors should 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.”