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Earlier this week a category three cyclone hit Burma at the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, the South Asian country’s rice producing region, killing an estimated 100,000 people and displacing many more. Events such as these echo back to other recent devastating disasters, such as the South Asian tsunami of 2004, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Given the obvious opportunities for comparison, it is difficult not to think as well about the news stories reported at the time of those events on failed relief efforts: the violence that ravaged New Orleans; the images of bottled water and canned food piled up in ports with no efficient process for their dispatch.

Those failures in relief are not inevitable, however. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina a number of organizations conducted evaluation studies to determine what aid organizations did well, what they failed to do and what could be done better in the future. Studies conducted by the Fritz Institute and the World Bank, to name two, provide interesting insights into the recovery process. Some of the most consistently noted findings were:

1) The response in the first 48-72 hours after a catastrophic event is overwhelmingly local. Local organizations, even local people with no official organizational affiliation, are the ones usually reaching out to search for their neighbors and friends and provide whatever relief is available. They also have the knowledge of the terrain, the local dynamics and where the most vulnerable reside. Thus, it is the local groups that need immediate support in terms of supplies, money, etc. Where international organizations with a relief capability play a role is where they already have a local presence and are able to dispatch their personnel quickly and efficiently to help locals. This reality may make international organizations not already in the region feel helpless, but it should instead be viewed as an invaluable opportunity to assess the situation and its needs and plan for what follow-up and recovery support can be provided.

2) Survivors are consistently concerned about friends and loved ones, often more so than they are with their own health and safety. Relief efforts need to acknowledge this concern while dealing with the immediate requirements of the surviving victims—studies consistently report that survivors whose concerns over the missing were acknowledged and addressed had a more positive recovery outlook months later than those whose concerns were dismissed. A more positive outlook was also noted in people who received aid of any kind—water, shelter, food, clothing, etc.—in the first two days after the event.

3) Donations of in-kind clothing and food often are less useful than monetary donations given to organizations who can then assess need. The reason is that that clothing is often climatically or culturally inappropriate; by wearing them victims are reminded of their displacement and humiliation. Likewise, food donations that arrive after the immediate days or weeks, when local food markets may be nominally back in order, can cause the same distortions as in-kind food aid, which depress prices at functioning local food markets and breed shame in the recipients.

4) Donors need to keep a long term view of the recovery period. The vast majority of funds are given in the immediate aftermath of a disaster for relief efforts, often more money than is needed for that task. Most famously, a few weeks after the Asian tsunami, Doctors without Borders stopped accepting donations because they had received more than they could use in the relief effort. One of the most consistent findings from the Hurricane Katrina and Asian tsunami studies, however, is that nine months after those events the majority of the victims were still living in temporary housing and had not yet regained their previous levels of income generation. This suggests that large donors should prioritize the longer term effort of building permanent homes and creating income-generating opportunities over the immediate safety and public health challenges have been met.

5) Recovery needs to be managed with an eye toward equity and the environment. Land rights, for example, need to be established quickly so that the displaced and worst affected don’t lose the rights to their land to those less affected. Donations and recovery efforts must also be sensitive to the economic and environmental balances in the region. For example, after the Asian tsunami, coastal regions in India received donations of fishing boats so their fishers could return to earning income. The problem was more boats were donated than had been operating before the disaster, thus putting additional pressure on fisheries and decreasing incomes for everyone on the water.

The disaster response in Burma over the past few days has been fitful, in part because the affected regions are inaccessible due to inundation, and in part because the military junta that rules Burma fearing challenges to its rule is refusing to allow international aid workers into the country. As the disaster relief effort hopefully accelerates, however, donors considering where their money can do the most should consider the above noted lessons and evaluate recipients based on how aware they are of the pasts’ failures and how willing they are to improve on their outcomes.


Here is a map with the names of the organisations with staff of the ground that can deliver NOW.

But the first FIVE days have already passed without much of a response in the Irrawaddy Delta. We already have to think about the longer rehabilitation phase.

HIV Information for Myanmar moderator

May 08, 2008

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