Helping the heroes: practical lessons from an attempt to support a civil society emergency response after Nargis
by ATP staff December 2008

Several months prior to Cyclone Nargis, a loose consortium of international NGOs initiated a three-year pilot to provide long-term capacity-building support to CSOs engaged in community development and service delivery. Known by its Burmese name of Athauk Apun(ATP), it aimed to link a micro-grant disbursal mechanism, a mentorship service and action-oriented advocacy to change the policy and practice of INGOs and donors. ATP had only just become operational when Nargis hit. Over the next 60 days, some 350 grants worth over $700,000 in cash (plus $200,000-worth of materials) were disbursed to 320 local NGOs, CBOs and self-help groups. Over 350,000 survivors received emergency aid via ATP.

While ATP represents only a small part of a far wider civil society response, it is clear that much more support for local responses could have been provided. With the right sort of assistance, a civil society relief response might not only get there first, but also ‘go to scale’, while contributing significantly to local capacity development for longer-term resilience – and all with lower transaction costs than incurred by INGOs. While such an approach cannot completely replace direct implementation, it deserves much more serious attention from INGOs, donors and governments.

How it started

Immediately after Nargis hit, ATP’s procedures and systems were adapted to enable a much more rapid response. The most important step was reducing the turn-around time for grant proposals from about six weeks to a maximum three days. A working strategy was developed for rapid fundraising, and a simplified, four-page emergency application format was prepared. Written in Burmese, this explained how ATP worked, how to contact us, and the application information required (a brief profile of the applicant group or organisation, details of proposed activities, the target group and how the applicant would be accountable to them), and a space for the contract signatories. No minimum grant size was indicated, but the local currency equivalent of about $6,500 was given as a maximum. An initial 500 copies of the forms were printed.

Four teams were set up to process proposals, sign contracts, disburse grants, monitor expenditure and receive reports. One was based in Yangon, with three mobile teams in the worst-affected townships in the Delta. Each team had a grant manager and 2–5 field monitors. Minimal training and orientation was given (ranging from one day to three hours) by ATP’s existing core team of three. In Yangon, known local NGOs were contacted and informed of our approach, as were INGOs with local partners and existing networks. In this way, several hundred copies of the application were distributed. The three Delta-based teams made contact with the few local groups already known in the affected townships, and began visits to badly affected villages. Word of mouth did the rest, and very quickly the teams were inundated with requests for support. Meanwhile, a separate team was set up to offer additional (non-financial) services.

What happened next

Initially, the flood of applicants represented the full range of civil society action: established NGOs already working in social welfare, including Buddhist, Christian and Muslim organisations; newly formed volunteer groups full of youthful, chaotic energy; thoughtful groups of writers, teachers, academics and retired professionals – often with personal contacts in the Delta – seeking to help particular villages; and private sector workers coming together to prise support from their employers. Very quickly, however, self-help groups formed by Nargis survivors from the villages began to predominate. Whether from affected areas in and around Yangon or from further afield in the Delta, all had harrowing stories to tell.

Most grants disbursed during the first two months were for around $3,000, with a range from $100 to $10,000. The majority (80%) included food items. Over 50% also sought non-food items, all of which were purchased locally. A month after the storm, we saw an increasing number of proposals seeking livelihood support: rice seed, rotivators, diesel, boats, fishing hooks, lines and nets. About 10% of proposals were rejected.

For the first month the teams worked around the clock, seven days a week. We were inefficient, inexperienced and understaffed, learning as we went along but enormously inspired by those leading this indigenous relief effort – especially the many self-help groups from the villages. By early July, three months after the night of the storm, everyone was exhausted. Many communities were no longer in a life-threatening situation, and we needed to learn how our approach was working in practice.

Challenges

Cash flow was a major problem, even in Yangon, but especially in the offices in the Delta. Fundraising, while necessary and time-consuming (at our busiest we were disbursing over $150,000 a week, and six donors were used to keep us solvent), was less problematic than actually accessing, storing and counting out the physical cash in local currency. (A grant of around $4,000 needs almost 5,000 Kyat notes, weighs over ten kilos and fills two extra-large shopping bags.) Security, however, was not an issue. Much time and effort also had to spent in the accounts department of the INGO through which our funds were being channelled. Staffing became increasingly problematic as INGOs mounted massive recruitment drives.

Communication was also problematic – for many weeks phone landlines and cell phones were not working. Hiring four-wheel-drive vehicles was difficult and expensive. All transport to villages in the Delta had to be by boats, which were in short supply because of the storm, and the monsoon rains were starting. Given the ‘cautious’ attitude of the authorities, we also had to be careful to be taken to maintain a low, non-provocative profile.

An additional worry at the time was trying to find the right disbursement rate. If we went too fast (by cutting back even further already reduced processes to promote accountability and establish legitimacy) we ran the risk of grant abuse, promoting bad practice and fuelling corruption. If on the other hand we raised the bar sufficiently high to be certain in advance that we were only funding legitimate groups, the extra delays might result in more deaths. All our findings to date reveal humbling levels of integrity and honesty.

Gauging impact

After the first two months or so of frenetic disbursement, the team began monitoring visits to the villages where CBOs were active. To date about 250 grants have been followed up (two field monitors can monitor up to 12 villages per week), allowing us to draw some initial, tentative conclusions.

Responsiveness– especially for proposals coming directly from SHGs formed by survivors, the approach was undoubtedly highly responsive, allowing survivors to specify exactly what they wanted to prioritise. Of the first 350 interventions funded, 270 were qualitatively different depending on the particular needs of each village. Simply by looking at the changing nature of proposals, we were able to observe changing priorities far more accurately than many INGO needs assessments.

Flexibility– the CSOs were able to rapidly adjust the assistance they provided, as opportunities or needs arose. Thus, while evaluations revealed minimal misuse of funds, over 25% of action plans were changed after grant disbursal (e.g. from food to non-food items, or from seed purchase to diesel, or from nets to hooks and lines), either due to market changes or unexpected distributions from other agencies.

Rapidity– with no need to spend time on mobilising and supporting large operational teams, aid started reaching distant communities in a matter of days.

Minimal logistic requirements– over a period of 30 days, a sub-team of one grant manager and five field monitors, with minimal facilities, can disburse (and subsequently monitor) over 150 grants to 150 SHGs, in turn providing lifesaving relief to at least 120,000 people. A national director, a finance manager and two database/admin/finance assistants can support four such teams. Add in some safes and calculators, laptops and printers, a couple of hire cars and some back-up for fundraising, reporting and donor management, and costs are about $30,000 a month, for an operation that can help half a million people receive $2 million of highly responsive aid in about six weeks.

Efficiency– the total indirect cost of $30,000 a month incurred by ATP included the 7% overhead paid to head offices. The indirect costs incurred by the CSOs themselves were usually very small and often non-existent. In all, some 83% of the funds provided by donors was spent locally on buying the relief items directly received by beneficiaries.

Accountability– so far only one case of misappropriation has been encountered. Such remarkably high levels of integrity may decrease with time, but it does seem that many humanitarian agencies could be far more trusting than they currently believe possible. Our experience has also demonstrated how a small team of experienced, national community-development practitioners can, with simple procedures, identify most (if not all) illegitimate or spurious proposals at the application stage. To date, SPC has funded some 360 groups; it has rejected over 30.

Catalytic– many SHGs described the ATP approach as a motivation for local action. In some of the more traumatised villages, there were alarming signs of lethargy and depression, and several survivors spoke openly of being close to suicide. Seeing or hearing about the activities of groups that had accessed ATP grants seems to have had an important galvanising effect.

Longer-term self-reliance and resilience– recipients are interested in taking a larger role in on-going recovery and longer-term development. They also express a strong desire to learn how to be better prepared for storms and floods in the future. Even if only 30% of the SHGs assisted to date actually sustain themselves, this approach will have played a key role in helping over 100 CBOs come into being.

Weaknesses and limitations

One core lesson of the ATP experience is that civil society often achieved much despite our efforts, not because of them. We still have much to get right about application procedures, grant disbursal and grant size, coordinating and channelling information, and ensuring our own capacity to provide support. It is also clear that ATP only provided a small proportion (probably less than 5%) of the total funding that enabled the massive civil society response to Nargis – with much coming through religious institutions, local donations, the private sector and INGOs and donors working through local partnerships. However, even with considerably more support and improvement, it seems unlikely that this approach could ever replace the kind of response a well-organised INGO or the UN can provide. Limitations of the approach include:

  • difficulties in ensuring 100% coverage of all villages and equitable or need-based targeting within them;
  • dependence on local supplies of relief goods and transport;
  • the lack of potential for generating new ideas or technical solutions, or challenging local norms (this approach would not, for instance, generate a demand for child friendly spaces or gender-sensitive responses);
  • low levels of participation or inclusiveness and the difficulties in promoting good practice;
  • the risks of doing harm by providing too much money too quickly to SHGs with low levels of capacity and experience in handling grants; and
  • the risks of provoking a deluge of illegitimate applications that become hard to separate from genuine proposals (the fact that this has not happened to date is probably a reflection of the integrity of Myanmar culture as a whole and of the level of compassion the scale of the tragedy evoked).

What next?

Over the next 15 months, using multiple grant cycles, mentoring and other capacity-building initiatives, ATP aims to work with 240 SHGs and CBOs, largely drawn from groups already funded, contributing to livelihood recovery and DRR and strengthening their potential for driving longer-term development. Given the high levels of poverty in the Delta before Nargis, there is a huge amount that a larger, more confident and better networked civil society could achieve. Efforts are also needed to help improve relations between state and non-state actors.

Last thoughts

Because of the nature of its unusual organisation (a pilot process answerable to a Consortium of INGOs through an overstretched Board), from the outset ATP has functioned somewhat autonomously. The team raised all its own funds in-country and remained largely outside the kind of corporate influence within which many INGO relief responses operate. Because of the complexity of the working environment, it has also had to maintain as low a profile as possible – definitely no flags, signs or press releases (and we shall have to see whether indulging in the vanity of writing this article will be justified or not).

Undoubtedly, these institutional peculiarities led to the emergence of an ATP sub-culture that forced us to remain as humble, client-led, adaptable, risk-taking, autonomous and team-managed as possible. Most importantly, it forced us to view the target group as the initiators and managers of their own relief interventions, not as helpless victims needing massive outside help. What the victims of Nargis really needed was for us to trustthem – to trust them as the decision-makers and implementers of their own relief and recovery response. Perhaps all of us, but especially international agencies, need to re-examine our organisational cultures against the criteria of trust and humility.

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