Skilled Volunteers disseminate early warning messages in Sirajganj, Bangladesh Skilled Volunteers disseminate early warning messages in Sirajganj, Bangladesh Photo credit: Ashutosh Mazumder/Practical Action Bangladesh
‘Skilled Volunteers’: an innovative approach to disaster management
by Haseeb Md. Irfanullah, Sazzad Hossain Miah and Md. Ashraf Uddin, Practical Action Bangladesh October 2012

Volunteerism in disaster management is well-accepted and widely practiced. The roles volunteers can play in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and preparedness, early warning, disaster response and post-disaster rehabilitation have been recognised in a number of policy instruments, such as the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005), and many international bodies, including the UN and the Red Cross, have well-organised volunteering systems for motivated and enthusiastic young people.

Bangladesh, being a disaster-prone country, has a strong pool of volunteers. The Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, for example, currently has about 50,000 active volunteers in 13 coastal districts, who help to save lives and assets in cyclones, tidal surges, storm surges and tsunamis. Even so, making community volunteerism an effective and sustainable part of disaster management can be challenging.

Combining disaster management and livelihood support

Many poverty alleviation, food security and livelihoods projects in Bangladesh have a DRR component, especially in disaster-prone areas, and developing community volunteers is an important part of these initiatives. These volunteers are often selected from the poorest sections of the community, and often have links with formal organisations, such as disaster management committees at local government and district levels.

Since many volunteers come from poorer families, there are few incentives to continue volunteering after a project ends. Moreover, as the focus is often on training young people – who grow up and move away from home in search of a better life – new volunteers must be continuously recruited to replace them. To address these challenges, the UK-based NGO Practical Action has piloted an innovative approach to disaster volunteerism in the flood-prone district of Sirajganj, by the River Jamuna, in Bangladesh. The approach combines two components: disaster volunteerism and extension and advisory services. In addition to helping their communities during disasters and supporting them in post-disaster rehabilitation, the selected volunteers are also trained in livelihoods skills (see Table 1). This enables them to provide technical services and advice to their communities during nondisaster periods, in exchange for a small fee.

In 2010, Practical Action Bangladesh started working with 200 Skilled Volunteers, including 46 women. Their capacity was built in two complementary areas. First, they learnt about disaster risk reduction – preparing communities for disasters like floods, alerting them through early warnings, rescuing people and helping to rebuild damaged infrastructure. Second, their livelihood skills were improved through formal training and follow-up and monitoring of their activities and performance. These skills enabled them to make a living by providing technical services to their communities. For the second capacity-building programme, the volunteers were divided into 14 groups, based on their background, preference and capabilities. Each group was then trained in a specific livelihood skill. Building effective links with community-based organisations and disaster management committees within the local government system to ensure sustainability was an integral part of this capacity-building process.

Does the approach work?

Over the last two years, these Skilled Volunteers have played an important role in raising awareness within their communities of the importance of disaster preparedness. After receiving early warning information through the national early warning dissemination structure and electronic media, the volunteers have spread messages by using megaphones and the public address systems of mosques.+Early warning information is generated by national agencies including the Flood Forecast and Warning Centre (FFWC) and the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD). It is then disseminated by the Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) to local Disaster Management Committees and via the TV and radio, as well as through the websites of the FFWC, BMD and DMB. They have also erected measuring poles in flooded areas and rivers, following local water levels and alerting people accordingly (usual levels of flooding occurred in the last two monsoons, in 2010 and 2011, and only small-scale evacuations were required). The volunteers also regularly attend local government meetings as part of their incorporation into the formal disaster management system.

Regarding the livelihood component of the programme, almost all the Skilled Volunteers were providing services to their communities. Three-quarters of the 200 volunteers sold their services on a regular basis (at least 20 days a month), while 21% did so seasonally or infrequently (about ten days a month). As a group, the coverage (households or villages) and popularity of the Skilled Volunteers increased daily. Table 1 summarises the services these Skilled Volunteers offer to their communities.

irfanullah-table-1In all, 40% of the Skilled Volunteers considered that their improved skills constituted their primary occupation. The remaining active Skilled Volunteers were using their skills as secondary or additional sources of income. The average monthly income of most of the Skilled Volunteers has increased by about 70% over the last two years, reaching Taka 3,000 ($38). Previously, the Skilled Volunteers were unemployed on average for three months per year, and many (especially men) had to temporarily move to other districts for work during lean periods. After training the number of days Skilled Volunteers spend working has increased by 25%, and out-migration by men in search of work has decreased by around 70%. Female Skilled Volunteers have also benefited substantially from the programme.

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The benefits of this approach to the community are clear. Over the last two years, the volunteers have reached more than 11,000 households in the project areas and beyond. Community members confirm that around 90% have received early warning messages. The volunteers have also worked with community-based organisations to operate early warning systems, evacuation boats and boat ambulances. Their support in disaster risk reduction and preparedness has helped save people’s lives and assets. The technical advice they have provided has resulted in reduced losses of livestock and other assets, and improved food and economic security. Alongside other project demonstrations, for example raising the base of hand-pump tube-wells for safe drinking water and raising the plinths of homesteads to protect assets, the Skilled Volunteers have made communities more confident that they can face future floods on their own.

Challenges and opportunities

Despite significant progress, the programme also encountered a number of challenges. Although most of the Skilled Volunteers used their skills effectively, some found this more difficult for a number of reasons. First, demand for some skills, such as power-tiller operation and apiculture, is seasonal, and volunteers cannot support themselves through these activities all-year-round. Second, the extremely poor often struggle to become technical extension workers because their initial client base, drawn from their own section of the community, is usually too poor to pay for services. Third, for some livelihood services there is a significant gap before any return on investment can be obtained. For example, it takes four months to fatten a cow for sale and ten months to raise a milking cow. Very poor Skilled Volunteers need additional support to tide them over. Finally, there is low demand for some services because communities do not perceive them as a priority. People are often not willing to pay for poultry vaccination, for example, when there is no apparent disease threat. Refresher training to support continuous skills improvement, guidance to develop yearround individual business/investment plans, revising the range of livelihood service activities to take into account seasonality and raising awareness amongst communities of the potential benefits of services such as poultry vaccination are some measures that can be taken to make the approach more effective.

The last devastating flood in Sirajganj was in 2007 – before the Skilled Volunteers initiative began – and the volunteers have not yet been faced with a large-scale disaster. They have, however, helped to prepare their communities for disasters, provided a range of livelihood support services and increased their own incomes. To make this system resilient and sustainable, its links with local community-based organisations, local government bodies (e.g. the Union Council and the Union Disaster Management Committee (UDMC)) and government departments such as agriculture, fisheries and livestock need to be strengthened.

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is Team Leader, Reducing Vulnerability and Natural Resource Management Programme, Practical Action Bangladesh. Sazzad Hossain Miah and Md. Ashraf Uddin are Programme Managers. This article reflects the experience of the ‘From Vulnerability to Resilience: Household Preparedness’, supported by the Z Zurich Foundation, Switzerland. The contributions of Mukta Roy, Ashutosh Mazumdar, Debashish Bose, Md. Mahfuzur Rahman, Md. Jasim Uddin, Md. Abdur Razzak, Mahmod Hasan Sohel and the staff of partner NGOs (MMS and SHARP) are appreciated.

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