The Village Tract Assessment in Myanmar, July 2008: lessons and implications
by December 2008

This article looks at the multi-sectoral assessment following the cyclone in Myanmar. The assessment consisted of two processes – the Village Tract Assessment (collecting primary data) and the World Bank Disaster Loss Assessment (largely relying on secondary source information and limited field visits). These complementary assessments were coordinated by ASEAN to provide funders and response actors with a concise, clear picture of post-cyclone needs. Here, we identify the main policy lessons emerging from the VTA experience, and examine how it could be further strengthened and applied in other settings.

The survey

The Village Tract Assessment was part of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA), which was designed to deliver a clear, comprehensive and objective picture of needs resulting from Cyclone Nargis. It involved around 5,000 questionnaires and visits to 283 villages by around 300 people from all stakeholders (the government, the Red Cross, the UN, civil society, the private sector, NGOs and ASEAN). There was a core team of nine: a coordinator, a technical coordinator (an epidemiologist), two statisticians, two GIS specialists, two advisors (one NGO and one retired senior UN official visiting Myanmar) and a logistician. This core team was supplemented by two WHO specialists. Assembling this team was challenging due to problems with visas and staff availability.

The survey instrument was piloted four weeks after the cyclone (ideally this should start around day ten after a disaster); there was a rapid training session for the field personnel and some rapid planning to establish the basic logistical capacity to support the survey. The field work took 11 days. Tough terrain and conditions in the monsoon meant that a wide variety of transport was used (helicopter, boat, motorbike and car). Data inputting took 12 days (partly running concurrently with the survey). Around 45 personnel were involved in data inputting. The analysis took around 12 days (running concurrently with the survey and the data inputting). The analysis involved the core statistical team and the epidemiologist working with technical cluster specialists and the World Bank’s disaster loss assessment (DALA) team.

The VTA assessment provided overall information on:

  • Perceptions of why the disaster was so bad.
  • Proportion of deaths by age and gender.
  • Support needed by communities.
  • Priorities for repairing infrastructure.
  • Household expenditure priorities.

Information showed spatially across the 30 most-affected townships covered:

  • loss of food stocks;
  • loss of agricultural income (before and after maps);
  • loss of fisheries income (before and after);
  • loss of livestock income (before and after);
  • loss of seed stocks;
  • loss of shelter, levels of destruction;
  • changing nature of temporary shelter;
  • salination of ponds;
  • sanitation situation (before and after);
  • damage to schools;
  • access to credit (before and after and from whom);
  • levels of psychological stress; and
  • reach of the humanitarian effort (food and shelter).

The survey cost around $1,100,000 (covered by DFID and the EU). The main costs were logistical and personnel-related.

The system’s reaction to the VTA process

Due to the complex operational environment there was unanimity across all humanitarian actors on the need for a broad-based assessment. This, it was hoped, would encourage the government to open up access and build trust and engagement among all the actors involved. Support to the VTA was manifested by:

  • The broad collective cluster engagement and individual agency engagement of NGOs, Red Cross, INGOs and UN actors and the government of Myanmar in planning, survey work and analysis.
  • The willingness of key UN agencies, INGOs and the government to provide staff to the VTA exercise.
  • Political leadership from ASEAN and support from both the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator.

The team was given the space to operate independently, underpinning the integrity of the work. ASEAN provided a vital platform, and there were daily coordination meetings between the VTA and the DALA teams, which comprised over 50 international experts. Throughout the assessment, DALA staff recognised the value of the primary data collected by the VTA, which complemented or enhanced their own assessment.

Following the VTA, the core team planned a monitoring system (via periodic reviews) to succeed the assessment, with input from an experienced Save the Children colleague and an ASEAN technical specialist. The monitoring system was introduced by ASEAN, and despite some reservations among UN actors it has taken shape and will provide added value to the humanitarian and recovery response in Myanmar.

Lessons learnt

The lessons learnt set out below are drawn from the VTA core team’s experience, the views of the authors and information taken from a participative review of the VTA carried out in Myanmar in September 2008. They include:

  • The value of a quantitative, broad geographical survey that can provide verification of numbers and needs.
  • The value of the assessment exercise itself in building trust and shared understanding of the context, through strengthened partnerships and collaboration between stakeholders.
  • The cost-effectiveness of the survey as a way of providing hard facts to support appeals for humanitarian, early recovery and reconstruction needs.
  • The importance of strong technical leadership and the capacity to get the job done in a maximum of four weeks.
  • Complementarities with the World Bank’s assessment methodology, whereby the primary data collected by the VTA complemented the secondary data used for the DALA.
  • The value of cluster engagement, matched with the inability of clusters themselves to lead and drive an overall multi-sector survey.

Overall, the survey:

  • provides clear evidence of the scale and nature of humanitarian needs, and their multi-sectoral dimensions;
  • provides a reasonably broad baseline for future strategic monitoring of the evolving humanitarian context;
  • provides clear information on which donors can base their funding decisions;
  • supports with hard data public fundraising by humanitarian actors; and
  • provides a basis against which to measure the adequacy of the response and outstanding needs over time.

Despite these benefits, the process could have been improved. In particular, the experience highlighted the need for an institutional ‘home’ for exercises of this type. There was a lack of useful analysis of the vulnerability of different groups affected by the cyclone (landless people, older people, the disabled people, women-headed households). That said, there is some anecdotal evidence that the VTA has supported donor decision-making in response to the humanitarian appeal.

Conclusions and emerging policy issues

The VTA worked, and when combined with the World Bank DALA approach provided a powerful tool for humanitarian and recovery practitioners, policy-makers, national governments and donors. Despite many global efforts in this area there has been limited road-testing of such an approach. Here we have a method that delivers, and it would seem logical to build on this experience.

At the global level, the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team assists in rapid assessment at the start of a major emergency. This is a useful tool to orient the system in line with the broad scale and scope of the disaster and ensuing needs. However, there is no solid methodology to back up this assessment approach, and it is really only useful in the first week of a disaster to get a flavour of needs. The VTA would complement the UNDAC approach, providing assessments for the Common Humanitarian Action Plans and associated CAP appeals.

Globally, considerable effort and investment has been made in strengthening assessment capacity and sharing assessments. Efforts have also been made in three of the global cluster teams (Health, Nutrition and WASH) to develop an Inter Agency Rapid Assessment (IRA) tool. UNICEF has led work to establish a broad assessment tool for disasters, and WFP, in many ways a natural leader around food security and some parts of a multi-sectoral survey, has growing capacity and specialisation in assessments, building out of its Vulnerability Assessment Mapping (VAM) work.

All of this work has consumed great resources and effort, but to date has not yielded the sort of broad and relatively simple assessment carried out through the VTA in Myanmar. The main policy issues limiting progress in this area seem to be:

      1. The lack of an institutional home for such broad-based assessments. Here, OCHA needs to be given the responsibility of bringing together common assessments as and when they seem useful to improve response and accountability frameworks. This would complement OCHA’s current role in facilitating and coordinating UNDAC.

2. The lack of standby technical capacity to support the conception, planning and implementation of assessments. The people are there but the system is not. A principle of having a core independent technical team, working in partnership with the clusters and DALA teams, represents a solid approach.

3. Attempts to create assessment instruments at the global level have tended to be too complex and too drawn out, with far too much expected from a broad-based assessment tool. Keeping things realistically simple is essential to get a workable, timely assessment done and analysed to feed into appeal, programme and funding decision-making in real time. The VTA type of common assessment could happen from week two of a crisis, and most likely would take four weeks to complete, feeding into and validating a major humanitarian appeal.

4. Donor leadership in this area has been limited. Through the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative, donors are clearly committed to transparent and effective humanitarian action, and they systematically support broad assessments when asked to do so. Overall, donors should expect and demand the establishment of broad baselines that would strengthen effective response and improve overall humanitarian accountability.

 

All of these constraints can be opportunities to take forward the VTA experiment, to see how the best aspects of this approach might be captured and supported to inform future assessments. There is also considerable scope for the VTA to be used alongside and possibly as part of future World Bank-supported disaster loss assessments. There is significant donor, UN and IASC interest in the VTA model, and how it might be adjusted to other contexts. External evaluation of the impact of the Myanmar VTA and the periodic reviews should yield interesting findings to inform future work. Realistic, broad, multi-sector, multi-stakeholder assessments are very rare animals in humanitarian settings. When done properly, such assessments can provide crucial objective information on the realities facing affected communities and the priorities of those in need.

This article was written by Richard Blewitt (Helpage International), Yves-Kim Creac’h (Merlin), Adelina Kamal (ASEAN), Puji Pujiono (UNDP) and Yohannah Wegerdt (ASEAN). A complementary paper on the technical details and learning from the VTA will be available in January 2009. To access the results of the VTA surveys, go to the AESEAN website (www.aseansec.org) and search for the full Post Nargis Joint Needs Assessment (PONJA) report.

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