Lessons Learned from the Aid Work at Takara
When Peter Albert came to me with concerns about the village of Takara, he also gave me an anecdotal list of who had visited. So I wanted to just confirm that. Ha! Good luck to me. I soon realized our journey was the story itself. Writing it, researching. The struggle to answer one simple question, “Who was there and what did they do?”
It was unbelievably difficult to find out what aid Takara received. Not to mention, what they will receive. In many cases, it proved impossible. Why is this information so difficult to find? And what are the impacts of that difficulty?
I spoke to individuals at Oxfam, the Red Cross, World Vision, Save the Children, UNFPA, UNOCHA, MapAction, REACH, CARE, ProMedical, the National Disaster Management Office, All Hands, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the government of Vanuatu, the government of Fiji and local community members. Most of the time, I had to speak to at least two people in every organization.
Peter helped too; he talked to the community and helped me organize a meeting. He sent me text messages, spoke with the Chiefs and the Community Disaster Committee. For seven families who lost their houses, Peter went door-to-door and asked what they got, what they needed, and then sent me a list of their names and ages.
Communication Needs to Improve
Through all this work, the most important thing I learned is that even though most of the organizations reported what they did in Takara, that data has not been made accessible to anyone. Which makes me think it wasn’t very important to them.
Also, I learned there’s no way that a local person could have done this on their own. It is too complex, too messy and designed in a way that specifically excludes outsiders, especially non-professionals. This wasn’t my first rodeo (or my second or my third) and that was a key factor. I knew exactly what I was looking for and where to find it. Even so, it was hard.
The other thing I found was that even when organizations had plans—good, great, hopeful plans—to return to Takara and help, they didn’t tell Takara. So although there was light on the horizon, Peter and his community had no idea.
How We Can Do Better
It’s important, as many organizations told me, to have an accurate picture of the need before they act. But while aid workers go island to island and email the home office, the people in Vanuatu just have to wait.
I realize that there are and were “constraints and limitations” in Vanuatu, as the industry says. Many of them were imposed by the government and not aid organizations. That’s why you’ll see that none of my recommendations undermine them in any way.
They are about how we as foreigners, in any situation, can support other people in a more responsible and humane way. What’s astonishing, what keeps me up at night, is that there is so much agony on the part of the local people that could be avoided. The solutions are maddeningly simple.
Publish everything. In the initial Vanuatu response, organizations sent their employees to some of the most remote places on earth, at great expense. Most of these aid workers were required to write about what they saw, but they never posted their reports online.
When they did post them online, it was for self-promotion, not to help Vanuatu. I found many details on Facebook, Twitter and in press releases, but the format was “This is what we brought” instead of “This is what they need.”
In a geographically insane place like Vanuatu, where aid workers are literally trekking through the jungle to reach villages, the lack of published reports has meant a huge delay for the delivery of aid. Does Takara need food? Just consider how long it took for me to answer that question. Yet Takara is an hour from the airport.
Share. Everybody complains about the logistical challenges in Vanuatu. Yes, there are boats and planes required. But it isn’t a logistics problem. It’s an information problem. If everyone shared what they knew, they’d find everything moved much faster. They also wouldn’t have an excuse for dispatching people to places they’re not needed.
It’s really not necessary for every organization to send their own people. When I was on Tongoa Island, I immediately ran into someone from Israel Aid and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. There were also local representatives from Save the Children.
Despite the people working in Tongoa, the World Food Program official report listed no assessment had been done on the island. As a result, the island was categorized as a Priority 2 area, meaning they will get aid later than other places. They were easily one of the worst hit islands and desperately in need of help.
Many organizations told me they didn’t share “assessments” because they considered their research inapplicable to others. We assess against our model, our mission, our capacity. Fine. If that’s true, then you have nothing to lose by publishing it.
Share it even when you think no one else cares. Share rough drafts. Share observations. The fact is, in a situation like this, information is speed, and it is power. It’s also money. And every dollar counts. It counts to your donors and to the people they want you to serve.
If your organization refuses to allow you to publish your assessments, quit. Assessments shouldn’t be treated like competitive work products. If they are, then you know your organization isn’t meeting up to its ethical obligations to the people they serve.
Don’t expect anyone else to do your reporting for you. Pretty much everyone I spoke to told me that they reported their distributions through the cluster system to UNOCHA and the National Disaster Management Organization. What happened to that data is a mystery.
Normally, it might go online to a system they call the 3W: Who What Where. I invite you to try the 3W for Vanuatu and see if it tells you anything useful. OCHA representative Gintare Eidimtaite told me they were “working on making the data more granular.”
Is that what she would say to Peter? The only reason organizations get away with this jargony crap is that they know reporters have to deal with it and locals don’t call. Is it the Vanuatu government’s job to tell everyone what’s going on? Sure. But if the government could do it alone, they wouldn’t have asked for your help.
Consider local actors like Live and Learn, ProMedical, the Vanuatu Surfer’s Association and many more, who were desperately trying to fill gaps in the early days. Regular people need to be able to find this information.
Think about the feelings of the people you serve. When aid workers came through Takara, 30 of them, the people started to think things were going to happen. They pinned their heart on it. They prayed for it.
They are living in the most awful conditions they’ve ever experienced and the richest person they’ve ever met just stopped by and never called back. It is excruciating for them.
They are your constituents. I get that organizations need to “check with the donors,” but believe me, the donors want you to serve the community first. In fact, that’s what they think you’re already doing.
Leave a phone number with the community. A lot of the stress that Takara experienced could have been avoided if they knew how to reach key people. If you visited Takara and you decided to never go back, that’s okay. But they deserve to know that.
ProMedical, a local NGO, did exactly the right thing when they went back to Takara three weeks after the cyclone. Look, they said, we gave you all the trucks of water we’re going to give. You need to fix your pipes. Were the people of Takara sad? You bet. But they got it. And more importantly, they knew what they had to do next.
Staple a note somewhere or drop a flag. GIS tracking systems and mobile reporting are all well and good. But until the drones take over our jobs, why not just tie up a notebook somewhere and write down your name, your number and the reason you visited? If they can do it on the Appalachian Trail, it can certainly be done for Vanuatu.
When I went to Takara, there was no way to know who had been there before me. The people of Takara couldn’t tell me because organizations and distributions are often complex. Sometimes people know the donor and sometimes they don’t. The kitchen kits, in Takara, for example, were labeled “AusAid.” So I called AusAid. As it turned out, they were donated by AusAid but distributed by the Red Cross.
Other organizations, like All Hands, just stopped by Takara to see if there was something they could do for them. They decided there wasn’t. But what about the next group of volunteers who rolls through? How many visitors are acceptable and how can we avoid “assessment fatigue”? Sometimes, transparency and accountability is as simple as writing down your name.
Give them something useful that will last. Lots of organizations told me the first groups they sent to Vanuatu were part of the emergency response. Which is why it wasn’t necessary for them to share their reports, or bring anything truly useful to the places they visited.
In Tongoa, for example, I met a group called NYCMedics, funded, in part, by Americares. NYCMedics were on Tongoa to meet the emergency health needs of the people. They didn’t find any. What NYCMedics found was that none of the health clinics had any medicine, or even, as one doctor told me, the thing Tongoa needed most: Band-Aids.
Unfortunately, the group had brought nothing to leave behind. Leaving medicine, they said, was an activity for the recovery, not the emergency.
Tongoa had not had a doctor visit in more than a decade. Sad? Maybe. What’s really sad, from their perspective, is that when the doctors finally came, they didn’t have anything to leave behind. The people here know, better than any of us, how unlikely it is that the doctors will ever come back.
Put yourself in their shoes. The distinction between an emergency phase and recovery phase is totally absurd and arbitrary, particularly when you consider it from the perspective of the ni-Van people.
The whole definition of “emergency” is a cultural construct. It is informed by Western philosophies, modern living and the unique history and contemporary limitations of the aid industry. Just go back in history a little and look at Clara Barton. The Red Cross wasn’t handing out high-energy biscuits to Armenian farmers. They rushed over seeds and hoes.
While we may think of planting seeds as planning for the future, when you live on an island, like these people do, in the middle of a vast ocean, planting seeds now is an emergency. Their now is defined by what’s in the ground.
The lack of crops is experienced as panic, as despair. Every bag of rice, every can of fish, every stop gap measure, just makes them feel that much worse.
Get to know the locals. For a lot of aid workers, their single biggest local interaction is with their driver. It’s an okay start, but it’s not enough.
Truly skilled aid workers, just like really good doctors or really good teachers, don’t isolate themselves from the people they serve. When Jack says he stopped drinking, his family doctor can tell he’s lying. When the kids are tired in class, the teacher knows it’s because they have bed bugs at home.
To become really good at your job, you have to let some boundaries go and enter the world you’re in. Get out of the office. Talk to people. Relax. Rent a motorcycle and circle the island. Stop hanging out with people like you all the time. And do it the first day you arrive, not the last.
Listen more. People in Vanuatu can tell you a lot about what they want and need if you take the time to listen to them. Don’t assume they’re wrong because they’re poor.
People can talk a lot and I realize it gets annoying. You ask about a water tank and it turns into a 20-minute story about the Japanese and then the Australians and then this Peace Corps girl who used to live there. But give them space to tell their stories. Inside the stories is something important. It is their experience, their knowledge, their dreams, their perspective on the world.
Let them tell you about the good times too. Ask, What did it used to look like? How were things before? What are you doing this weekend? What are you cooking? What are your kids’ names?
What we all want is to make peoples’ lives better. And that means knowing and understanding what their lives are about. What matters to them. How they spend their days and what they see in their future.
We came for them, not for ourselves.
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