Humanitarian capacity in the South Asian earthquake response: a local perspective
by Manzoor Ahmed Awan, Sungi Development Foundation July 2006

The Sungi Development Foundation has worked in the areas affected by the South Asian earthquake since it was set up in 1989. Its key areas of focus are poverty alleviation, good governance, gender equity and policy advocacy on behalf of deprived and marginalised communities. However, Sungi has also become increasingly involved in humanitarian assistance, and has gradually been developing its preparedness and response capacity. This article describes Sungi’s humanitarian response in the wake of the earthquake in October 2005.


Sungi’s humanitarian response capacity

Sungi is one of Pakistan’s few NGOs engaged in developing its humanitarian response capacity, and integrating disaster management into its rights-based development and advocacy work. It provided relief assistance following flash floods in 1992 in Hazara Division in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) – the same districts affected by the earthquake. It also responded to a number of other disasters, including an earthquake in April 2004 and a winter emergency and summer floods in 2005. Following the 2004 earthquake, Sungi conducted training sessions on earthquake-resistant housing techniques for masons, engineers and the general public. Disaster Management Committees (DMCs) were formed and activists were trained to handle emergencies. This capacity-development initiative was supported technically and financially by UNDP and other partners, including Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FHA), the World Health Organisation and Agha Khan Building and Planning Services (AKBPS).

Sungi became an Oxfam International Contingency Plan (OICP) Partner in 1994, and played a key role in the preparation and implementation of the plan for NWFP and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K). A capacity-building plan was developed with the support of Oxfam Novib, which Sungi used to strengthen Community Based Disaster Management (CBDM) capacity in its working area. A regular humanitarian function was established in the organisation, links were developed with humanitarian agencies and work on creating basic awareness about disaster management was initiated. Sungi successfully developed about 200 DMCs and trained more than 300 activists, including women, in disaster preparedness. These committees were very effective in the winter emergency response during 2005, and rehabilitated 129 health and education facilities and 42 houses damaged during the earthquake in 2004.


Sungi’s earthquake response

Sungi’s humanitarian capacity, its network of grassroots institutions and the support of its strategic partners and OICP consortium members enabled it to respond swiftly to the October earthquake. Within minutes of the first devastating shock, Sungi was in contact with Oxfam GB, Oxfam Novib, the Norwegian Embassy, district governments and UNDP. An Oxfam team joined Sungi in Abbottabad within hours, and a joint rapid assessment was initiated. A number of other organisations, including CRS, Plan Pakistan and Save the Children USA, also joined Sungi teams. The first assessment report was prepared by the evening of 8 October, and on 9 October Sungi and Oxfam coordinated a joint assessment exercise with more than 20 national and international NGOs. These reports provided the first first-hand information for humanitarian agencies. They were placed on the Sungi website (, which has been regularly updated. Within a few days Sungi was able to develop a comprehensive database of affected villages, indicating the extent of the damage.

To address the immediate needs of the affected population, Sungi decided to concentrate on shelter, hygiene, food security, water and sanitation and health in the three most affected districts of NWFP, and in one district of AJ&K. A partnership was initiated with Oxfam GB to provide shelter for 20,000 households, and a joint implementation mechanism was agreed with Oxfam GB to provide water and sanitation, health and hygiene and livelihood support. Sungi’s key staff members were placed with Oxfam teams to carry out these activities. A member of the OICP consortium, the Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), provided logistic support, and other partner NGOs gave medical help and financial assistance. As of March 2006, Sungi had provided shelter-related support to more than 60,000 affected families. Considerable emergency work has also been completed in other sectors, and Sungi has now embarked on rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes, with an emphasis on building the disaster management capacity of communities, civil society and the government at all levels.

Information sharing and coordination

An emergency information and coordination unit was established by Sungi in Abbottabad. It played a key role in information dissemination and coordination, especially in the days immediately after the disaster. Assessment reports, maps and data-sets indicating the extent of damage and immediate needs were of considerable use to the humanitarian community. Sungi also helped a number of organisations to arrange field visits and set up offices in the affected areas. For example, Sungi provided office, communication, equipment and accommodation facilities to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Oxfam. Sungi’s district teams regularly participated in cluster coordination meetings organised by UN agencies.

Sungi also convened a forum of rights-based civil society organisations, the Joint Action Committee for Relief and Reconstruction (JAC-RC). The JAC-RC raised considerable funds for relief assistance, and mobilised hundreds of volunteers across the country and abroad, giving them orientation training and placing them with relief organisations. More than 400 volunteers joined Sungi field teams, helping the agency undertake assessments, distribute relief items and provide medical assistance to earthquake-hit communities.

Community Based Disaster Management (CBDM) in the earthquake

Sungi’s community-based emergency response was made possible by the involvement of grassroots institutions through village committees. These institutions played a key role, ensuring transparency, reducing exclusion and avoiding duplication. Committees were regularly involved in relief assistance, and coordinated the relief work of other organisations in their areas. Sungi facilitated and encouraged these organisations, notably in those sectors where Sungi was not providing any support, or where there was a shortage of supplies. In Shimlai, a very remote area of Battagram, a DMC developed during early 2005 took the lead in coordinating relief assistance by various organisations, including the army. Committees were also active in most camps, where trained activists took responsibility for camp management.

Sungi delivered a presentation on the role of civil society in disaster management, rehabilitation and reconstruction at a donors’ conference in Islamabad on 19 November, and organised an international conference on disaster management and preparedness in developing countries, in partnership with the Human Resource Development Network (HRDN) and Action Aid. It also organised seminars during the World Social Forum 2006, in partnership with Oxfam and Action Aid, on the role of civil society, government and international NGOs in disaster management. A session was delivered on Sungi’s Community Based Disaster Management (CBDM) experience at an international conference on sustainable development in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Some lessons

Sungi enjoyed a number of advantages in its humanitarian response. It had a presence on the ground through organised communities, it had trained activists in humanitarian principles, about 200 experienced staff and clear and strong financial and administrative procedures and monitoring and evaluation systems. Sungi maintained the quality of its work through geographical and sector-specific strategies, and succeeded in providing carpet coverage to all affected people, reducing the risk of exclusion, avoiding duplication and minimising relief disparities at local level. A complete shelter package, adhering to minimum humanitarian standards, was developed and delivered. Sungi also supported other organisations with information, and acted as a link with other NGOs, community-based organisations and Sungi’s partner grassroots organisations.

Sungi faced problems in the procurement of goods due to its inexperience in emergency procurements and logistics. Partners like Oxfam and UNDP supported Sungi in this area. Sungi and other NGOs present on the ground also confronted high staff turnover due to enhanced job opportunities and high salaries offered by international NGOs and UN agencies. More than 20 Sungi staff left the organisation during the early days of the response, and there was a fear that many skilled and experienced staff would quit. With Oxfam’s support, Sungi overcame this problem by providing a market supplement. Financial assistance from donors such as the Norwegian Embassy and Oxfam Novib helped Sungi to keep good-quality staff on board. Oxfam Novib also helped Sungi to develop a strategic plan to make its programmes current and relevant.

Manzoor Ahmed Awan is Director of Operations for the Sungi Development Foundation. His email address is: