Villagers in Cyclone-Ravished Takara Still Waiting for Their Good News
Peter Albert hasn’t heard of GoFundMe or Crowdrise or Kickstarter. He has a phone but no money to make calls. He knows how to use computers, but to use one he has to beg his friends with jobs to let him sneak into their offices.
He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about the Internet. Which is good, because it would probably kill him to hear about the guy who raised thousands of dollars for his cat’s knee surgery, or the inventor who raised $20 million last week to develop a watch.
Peter does know the basics. He knows aid organizations are meant to help. He knows he deserves a better life. He knows foreign donors are sending money to the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu; he’s just not sure how to find it.
“The big question on my mind every day,” he told me, “I wake up, I wonder who is going to help my community? How am I going to be able to continue to live my life? How will I pay for my kids’ education?”
Dependent on Aid Organizations’ Help
One month ago, Peter’s village, Takara, was destroyed by Cyclone Pam. But that’s not his biggest problem. Peter’s real problem—the scale of which he’s beginning to understand—is that he’s poor.
It’s not just that he’s poor; all the people Peter knows are poor too. His government is poor as well. Plus, they live on an island. They have no bordering countries to run to for help. That means there is nowhere to turn except the aid organizations. And they’re not listening.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “They come, they look around. They take pictures. Then they say, ‘Okay, we’ll call you.’ But they never do.”
Over the past month, at least 30 aid workers from 10 organizations have been to Takara. I met Peter when he traveled from his village to find the aid workers who were sharing my house in Port Vila, the capital. They had been to Takara a few days before, then never called the villagers to follow up.
Desperation Is Setting In
I saw that Peter was starting to feel desperate.
“I feel like I want to die,” he told me.
Peter is the brother of Takara’s Chief and as the most educated person in the village, its de facto spokesperson. He took the hour-long journey to our house empty-handed. When the bus arrived, and the time came to pay, he had to admit to the driver that he had no money. Normally, the ride would cost $14, which people pay at the end.
In his backpack, Peter had a copy of his diploma and a baggie with 12 peanuts in it. Since the cyclone, people have been limited to rations of rice and canned fish. Peter needed something to eat on the road; he borrowed the 20 cents for the peanuts from a friend.
As he told me the story, Peter’s face filled with shame. The driver wasn’t angry with him for sneaking on the bus. And somehow that made it worse.
“The driver gave me two dollars,” Peter said. “He told me to call my family.”
Uncertain of How to Read the Tears
We talked in an Indian restaurant in Port Vila. I picked the restaurant for a little bit of privacy, some shade. I wanted to offer him something cold to drink and hear his story. I knew the story would be sad. And yet I never expected him to cry.
The truth is, in the world of international aid, people hardly ever cry. With all the caring and helping and really sad ad campaigns, it seems like they would, but they don’t.
Locals are tough and often in the dark. They frequently don’t know what they’re entitled to and so they may not grieve at the injustice of not getting it. Aid workers and journalists are inured to their surroundings. I think our cynicism starts as a form of protection. Eventually, we become afraid to let go.
As Peter talked to me, I wanted to cry too. He’d been sleeping on floors, walking miles every day and still felt like he’d been failing his village. At the same time I could hear this pesky voice in my head saying, Am I being hustled? and How bad is it, really?
I felt I had to prove what Peter told me. If his village was desperate, how desperate were they? I went by the book. In the vocabulary of aid, I needed to assess if there was really an emergency? Or if his concerns were primarily about recovery?
“So you have some water?” I asked.
“I mean, yes,” he said. “There is water. But it is brown and not good for drinking.”
“But your village got a few bottles, right?”
“You know, water’s not like food,” he said. “Food you only eat two or three times a day. But water, you might need water anytime.”
“Are you saying these people have no clothes?”
“They dug their clothes out of the dirt and put them on,” he told me. “I think maybe, I don’t know, I think maybe it’s not healthy for them.”
Caught Up in the Business of Aid
If you want to feel awful—truly, profoundly bad—ask a poor man to beg.
Ask him to tell you more about the water. How dirty is it, Peter? Try to convince him that his kids’ education is a luxury. After all, Peter, you didn’t finish high school either. And look at you, you’re doing all right.
Here’s what I learned from Peter: The village of Takara had some clothes, but they wanted underwear. They had water, but it was brown. They had rations, but no seeds. They had a water tank, but it was broken. Like everybody else in the affected areas, they had no roofs.
According to humanitarians, what Peter described is not an emergency. And because of that, organizations are allowed to ignore him, or at the very least, get back to him later.
For Peter, and the community of Takara, this approach is deeply confusing. And it hurts. In the business of aid, it’s standard practice.
A Menu of Despair
To determine where food is needed most, for example, the World Food Program uses an extensive “Observational Checklist.” Does the village have no food? Or is the food just rapidly running out? Do the people have no safe drinking water? Or is the water merely contaminated?
On the WFP checklist, these points aren’t questions. Instead, it reads like a menu of despair. Check one box for villagers with “high anxiety.” Check another box for villagers with “very high anxiety.”
There is no box for suicidal. Humiliated. Left out. There is no box for fathers who feel they’re failing their children.
The Hardest Hit Left Dazed & Confused
Peter had an anecdotal list of who had given aid in Takara. But there was no way to know if it was correct, except by calling each aid group individually. Aid organizations publish almost nothing about where they go or what they give.
Villagers are often confused about who gave what because of complex partnerships and shared branding. Sometimes groups just go to check things out and they don’t leave evidence that they were there at all.
Takara was among the very worst hit places on Efate Island, and perhaps on all the islands in Vanuatu. The village was perched against the ocean and when the storm surge came through, the ocean knocked some houses right into the water. The wind took the rest. More than 90% of the houses were damaged or destroyed.
First Came Private Industry
It’s not ordinarily the case that mining projects work in favor of the little people. But in the case of Takara and Geodynamics, an Australian company, that’s exactly what happened. Takara is currently the site of a geothermal energy exploration project in Vanuatu.
The project brought the area to the attention of concerned employees operating there. They stepped in right away to get a back-up water system working for Takara. Unfortunately, the water was muddied by the storm surge and though it has become clearer over time, people in the village remain reticent to drink it.
Because of their relationship with a private company, Takara was among the only villages reached just after the storm. Trees were down all over the island and it took a few days to clear the roads.
Then a Visit from Old Friends
The next group who stopped by the village was World Vision, on Wednesday, March 18—five days after the cyclone hit. They had been running a preschool program in Takara before the cyclone. So after the storm, they asked the government if they could intervene to help in communities they already knew.
They brought 18 tarpaulins, 10 kitchen sets, 7 shelter kits, 2 hygiene kits, 15 crowbars and 1 bag of kid’s stationery. Takara has 576 residents and about 123 families, so it was something, but it wasn’t a lot. It was enough for only a small portion of the families. It also didn’t include food or water.
I spoke with Kendra Gates Derousseau, the Operations and Program Quality Manager for World Vision in Vanuatu.
“What happened shortly after we distributed those supplies in Takara,” she told me, “is that all of the different agencies responding to Cyclone Pam started saying, ‘Well, we’re going to respond here and we will respond here.’
“The island of Efate got carved up and the Red Cross took on responsibility for Takara for any further non-food related needs.”
A Local Non-Profit Steps Up
A few days later, a local non-profit, ProMedical, stopped by. ProMedical saw that Takara had received some help, so they marked the community down as “externally assisted” and moved on. Ordinarily an ambulance service, their main goal after the cyclone was to visit places no one had been.
The most glaring problem in Takara was water. Tim Hewatt, a local expat working on the geothermal project, saw the situation was dire and, as a part-time volunteer for Save the Children, asked if the organization could help.
The back-up system had been fixed, but only partially. Hewatt personally purchased some equipment to fix it again. Save the Children helped deliver the materials and handed out water tablets, since the water wasn’t drinkable. The main water pipes, connected to water that’s cleaner, remained inaccessible, covered under dozens of downed trees.
On March 23rd, ten days following the storm, ProMedical was approached by the community, but they’re not sure by whom.
“So we visited… again,” Jen Bowtell, a volunteer, told me, “and [it] turned out no international aid organization had been back since [our first visit].”
Takara’s Water Problem
A major issue was that the villagers at Takara were still worried about water and didn’t feel safe drinking what they had.
I spoke with Michael Benjamin, ProMedical’s Operations Manager, about how the confusion began to set in.
“The biggest issue is that Save the Children will deliver something, Oxfam will deliver something, but no one is actually taking a global look,” he said. “Even if Save the Children goes to Takara, they may supply kitchen utensils and drinking water and someone else does food.”
On the 23rd, ProMedical decided to truck in water to fill the few tanks that weren’t damaged by the storm. They also passed out hammers and nails, gave some donated girl’s clothing and conducted health checks on the community.
The total amount of water they distributed on the 23rd was 1500L, which means if the people in Takara only used the water for drinking, not cooking or bathing, they were given less than enough water for one day. Humanitarian standards for drinking water are 2.5 to 3 liters a day.
The Vanuata Red Cross Arrives
The same day, seemingly without the other’s knowledge, the local country’s Red Cross came and gave tarps and shelter kits, meaning more hammers and nails, along with other tools. They gave two tarps for every household.
The Red Cross distribution wasn’t quite seamless. There was a miscount and about five families missed out entirely. Fifteen of the tarps went missing or went to friends. But in the end, that’s what the villagers got.
On March 30th, Oxfam Australia came by. They held a lengthy meeting with the village’s Community Disaster Committee and the Chiefs, and they discovered what others already knew. In the lingo of the industry, there were “gaps.”
I spoke with Sophie Ford, Oxfam Australia’s Humanitarian Coordinator. She told me, “What we’re seeing is that a lot of people are supplying these big kits and it’s often not what people are asking for or what people need.”
Their visit was followed the next day by a group from All Hands, an American non-profit that specializes in sending groups of young volunteers to do dirty or labor-intensive jobs. The group of four conducted an assessment and determined Takara probably wouldn’t be a match for them.
On April 2nd, 20 days after the cyclone, Takara received their first food distribution. The Vanuatu government along with the World Food Program and UNICEF brought rice and cans of fish for the community. Although they can’t confirm exact numbers, the average distribution was a 5 kilo bag of rice and six cans of fish per person, meant to last two weeks.
On April 4, the Red Cross followed up their initial visit by bringing kitchen kits with pots and pans for most families, as well as two sleeping mat per household.
On Easter, the village got another visit from ProMedical, with an ice cream truck and a guy dressed as an Easter bunny. It was very popular with the kids, but later lots of the adults complained that the group had brought more than 10 cars. News reports said they were a caravan of 20 vehicles.
“We don’t know,” said Roby Peter, from the Community Disaster Committee, “are these people coming here as tourists, or do they really want to help?”
Assessing the Assessments
All of the organizations who visited made “assessments” based on what they saw. Some of them wrote down their findings, others just reported them verbally to the government, but none of them published anything online for other organizations to read.
The lack of information sharing is the major reason why everyone had to visit Takara themselves, leaving villagers overwhelmed and without many of their needs met. After being interviewed for this story, All Hands released a copy of their assessment to me. ProMedical gave me a verbal summary. The Red Cross gave me a summary of the numbers and World Vision too. But Oxfam refused.
They had varying reasons for not having a regular practice of sharing their assessments, whose main goal is to diagnose the problems they see in villages. But most of the reasons for not sharing sounded like they serve the organizations more than the people they serve.
More than 22 different islands were impacted by Cyclone Pam and on each island, there are often a dozen or more individual villages. Despite the sprawling difficulty of reaching these villages, no one seems concerned about sharing what they saw for the purpose of improving aid.
On Reliefweb.int, the unofficial but most popular website for information sharing, there are 15 documents listed in the “assessments” section, most of which are irrelevant, out-of-date or narrow in scope. On the other hand, there are 616 press releases.
Oxfam Australia told me, “We have not posted our assessment of Takara or the program plans online; this is part of our operational planning and not shared with the public.”
All Hands initially said the same thing, but agreed to share. The contents give a lot of clues about why organizations don’t publish them and why they should. In addition to noting the downed trees and houses, the All Hands team made some startling observations, including that there was “no viable local source of potable drinking water present.”
In the Response section of the memo, they write, “Assessment outreach by humanitarian agencies has been made, but emergent needs still do not appear to be appropriately addressed.” And later they note, they are “unclear of [the] level of humanitarian agency communication and coordination in the response.”
Many people told me they reported their assessments to the UNOCHA 3W: Who What Where. But when I asked the UNOCHA representative, Gintare Eidimtaite, where to find the data I was looking for, she pointed me to the nearly empty website, then told me that they didn’t “have time for individual requests.”
“I don’t want you to misunderstand,” I said. “This is not an individual request. Yes, I’d like to know what happened in Takara, but I don’t need you to tell me. Just tell me where the data went and I’ll find it myself.”
She said maybe I’d have better luck checking the website in a week or so. Then she added, “We’re working on making the data more granular.”
Some Help, But Only So Helpful
I struggled at first with how to tell Peter the news. The news I already knew before a week’s worth of investigation made me not only certain of it, but also depressed.
Peter did a good job of summing it up when we met… “We got some help,” he told me, “it’s just not… helpful.”
As if acknowledging that their model doesn’t work, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Vanuatu, Osnat Lubrani, warned on March 30 of “a secondary emergency” since 90% of crops were damaged. For the people of Vanuatu, that was actually the first emergency.
They live on islands. They live mostly alone. They never wanted tarps and cans of fish. They wanted new walls and seeds and a way to catch the water that falls from the sky.
Takara is just an hour from the airport and it’s on the main road. I wondered what would be the fate of the villages far away and how much it would hurt for them to see dozens of new faces in the remotest parts of the world, only to have them leave behind what amounted to a bag of chips.
Some Further Interest Stirring
I learned after talking to Oxfam that actually they were planning a good, hopeful program for Takara. In a few weeks, they are planning to give cash vouchers, where community members will get a spending coupon and a ride into the city, so each of them could buy something small that they need.
If only they’d told Takara.
“I think it will be in two weeks,” Sophie Ford said, “because we’re not trying to meet that immediate relief. This is about the recovery. They are already getting emergency supplies.”
Two weeks later, I asked why they hadn’t been told yet, and why Oxfam was willing to tell me about the program but not the villagers.
“It is standard practice,” Ford wrote, “for humanitarian agencies to inform communities of aid distributions only once they have dates for delivery locked in, to avoid raising expectations prematurely.”
World Vision, too, was planning to come back to the village and on a regular basis. They were planning to start up the preschool again, and bringing toys.
“Did you tell Takara?” I asked. No, they told me.
“We are still confirming grant funding, liaising with our donor partners.”
World Vision stepped back for a while, but they’re ready to try again. “We want to demonstrate that we are happy to work in partnership with others. We were just pleased to see that the community was having their immediate needs met.”
Hoping for Some Real “Gd News”
I spoke to dozens of people about Takara. When I left, I gave Peter everyone’s cell phone numbers and money to make calls. In a perfect world, I’d give him their home addresses. Let them hear the agony for a change.
Every day, Peter texted me. “Any gd news?” he’d write each morning.
And every night, “Hi! Sorry to bother u. Any gd news?”
“I hope to hear frm u,” he said.
Peter and his neighbors are still waiting for the world’s reply.
You can read more about my experience reporting on the village of Takara. Here, I write about the lessons I think Takara can teach the aid community. http://aid.works/2015/04/lessons-learned-from-the-aid-work-at-takara/
I’ve also written about the role of these diverse organizations in the “ecology” of aid.