Empoderando a las mujeres para la reducción del riesgo de desastres en Myanmar

[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano de 2017 se publicaran en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

Rakhine, el segundo estado más pobre de Myanmar, está frecuentemente expuesto a peligros naturales, incluyendo ciclones, inundaciones, deslizamientos de tierra, terremotos, sequías, tsunamis e incendios en zonas boscosas y rurales. Los modelos de cambio climático predicen que Myanmar experimentará durante los próximos años y décadas un aumento de las temperaturas, periodos de sequía más frecuentes e intensos, cambios en los patrones de lluvias y un mayor riesgo de inundaciones, así como fenómenos meteorológicos extremos más intensos y frecuentes que generan tormentas e inundaciones y el aumento en el nivel del mar que afectará a casi todas las comunidades del país. Las comunidades en Rakhine ya están enfrentando una variedad de estos impactos. Rakhine también corre el riesgo de sufrir desastres complejos exacerbados por los peligros naturales: una combinación de escasez de alimentos, instituciones económicas, políticas y sociales frágiles o en crisis y conflictos internos que llevan al desplazamiento de personas. Rakhine sufre un conflicto político y militar desde hace muchos años entre el gobierno central, el Ejército de Myanmar y los nacionalistas budistas, por un lado, y el Ejército de Arakan y la comunidad musulmana Rohingya, por otro. Además, el Ejército Rakhine/Arakan tiene conflictos con otros grupos indígenas en Rakhine (el gobierno nacional reconoce 135 grupos étnicos en Myanmar): los combates han desplazado repetidamente a la gente de sus hogares y aldeas, aumentando así su vulnerabilidad. La falta de recursos y educación, junto con estas complejas relaciones sociales en un estado multi-religioso y multi-étnico, añaden a la vulnerabilidad de la gente en Rakhine.

Las mujeres de Rakhine son desproporcionadamente vulnerables a los desastres complejos, peligros naturales y efectos del cambio climático debido a las creencias culturales, prácticas tradicionales y condiciones socioeconómicas. Las mujeres son más propensas que los hombres a experimentar una mayor pérdida de medios de subsistencia y violencia de género. En algunas situaciones, han experimentado una mayor pérdida de vidas durante y después de un desastre. Mujeres para el Mundo (WFW por sus siglas en inglés), una organización no gubernamental de Myanmar con base en Yangon, se asocia con la Coalición de Mujeres Indígenas para la Paz (IWCP por su siglas en inglés) en Rakhine para reducir el riesgo y aumentar la resiliencia. Ellas creen que el género e identidad indígena son elementos críticos para abordar los impactos del cambio climático y riesgo de desastres. La integración de los conocimientos locales de las mujeres indígenas de Rakhine y sus prácticas en la mitigación de los desastres, preparación y esfuerzos de respuesta son esenciales para reducir el riesgo y aumentar la resiliencia.

WFW e IWCP trabajan con diversos grupos de ahorro de mujeres para aumentar la comprensión de los impactos del cambio climático, evaluar sus conocimientos locales y aumentar su capacidad para prepararse y responder a los eventos de desastre. La creencia principal de WFW es que, aunque las mujeres son los miembros más vulnerables de la comunidad, son también las agentes para el cambio. En Rakhine, la falta de oportunidades de empleo ha dado lugar a la migración de hombres y mujeres jóvenes para encontrar trabajo fuera de sus aldeas, dejando a las mujeres, personas ancianas, niñas y niños para lidiar con las secuelas de los peligros naturales. Las mujeres son las cuidadoras de la niñez y de las personas enfermas y ancianas; suelen ser las únicas sostenedoras de la familia, ya que los hombres, niñas y niños mayores salen a buscar oportunidades de trabajo en los centros urbanos o más allá de las fronteras; ellas son responsables de conseguir los alimentos; son proveedoras informales de atención médica; son responsables del cuido del ganado; y son responsables de encontrar y mantener el suministro de agua potable. Las mujeres son más restringidas para realizar viajes y tienen más probabilidades de ser restringidas de poseer tierras, de endeudarse o de invertir dinero, y de diversificar los medios de subsistencia a través del inicio de un nuevo negocio.

Por el contrario, las mujeres son también poseedoras de conocimientos culturales, históricos y económicos esenciales dentro de sus comunidades, lo que las convierte en participantes vitales en los esfuerzos para reducir el riesgo de desastres. Las mujeres administran los recursos ambientales para sostener a sus hogares y actúan como proveedores de salud informales. Tienen habilidades de supervivencia y de responder a desastres, tienen redes comunitarias locales y poseen conocimiento local de la comunidad, incluyendo la ubicación y necesidades de las personas más vulnerables (niñez, ancianas, con discapacidad) durante una crisis, convirtiéndolas en actores críticos en la reducción del riesgo de desastres (RRD).

WFW y IWCP reúnen a mujeres para construir juntas la paz y resiliencia a través de un modelo de grupo de ahorro para mujeres. Además de la capacitación en formación de grupos y gestión de ahorros, los miembros del grupo también reciben capacitación sobre los derechos de las mujeres, transformación de conflictos, violencia doméstica y la RRD. Se les enseña a realizar mapeos para evaluar las vulnerabilidades en sus aldeas, desde el mapeo de la infraestructura hasta la cartografía de la población de las familias y hogares. Representantes de cada grupo, que representan diferentes grupos étnicos, se reúnen para recibir capacitación intensiva sobre transformación de conflictos y manejo de desastres que, luego, reproducen en sus grupos. Los miembros de la IWCP continúan trabajando con los grupos de ahorro, apoyándolos mientras aprenden y planifican.

WFW opera desde el supuesto de que las mujeres no pueden comenzar a adaptarse al cambio climático si no creen que pueden. Para fortalecer la autonomía, WFW emplea un proceso de aprendizaje participativo. Las personas capacitadoras de WFW, primero conciencian a los grupos de mujeres en un ambiente de apertura a las historias y experiencias de las mujeres en desastres como un método de aprender y nombrar lo que las mujeres ya saben. Por ejemplo, las mujeres ya saben que el refugio para mujeres, niñas y niños es vulnerable a los peligros naturales y que el refugio resistente al ciclón más seguro no proporciona privacidad a las mujeres ni a la niñez. Saben que las lluvias están aumentando y las temperaturas también lo están, lo que lleva a una mayor incidencia de la malaria y la necesidad de más mosquiteros. Después de que el personal de WFW ha introducido el proceso de mapeo de aldea, se retiran (a su oficina en Yangon) mientras que los grupos de ahorro siguen creando mapas de aldea que, identifican las fortalezas y debilidades geográficas, los hogares (incluyendo el número de miembros de la familia en cada hogar) y las personas más vulnerables y sus lugares de residencia (ancianas, ancianos, niñas y niños pequeños, personas con discapacidad). Las mujeres también señalan la ubicación de su ganado, escuelas, barcos de pesca y otros activos de la comunidad y del hogar.

En las capacitaciones de WFW, los miembros del grupo aprenden habilidades para evaluar los riesgos y vulnerabilidad y para identificar soluciones de adaptación sostenibles para sus comunidades. Las personas miembros del grupo de ahorros informan que el apoyo que reciben a través del grupo las hace menos vulnerables. A través del grupo de ahorro, las mujeres pueden acceder a préstamos para iniciar pequeños negocios, diversificando sus bases de ingresos. Un grupo formado por WFW está construyendo una letrina segura e higiénica para disminuir el riesgo de enfermedad. Otros grupos están abogando por mejorar los sistemas de alerta temprana en las lenguas indígenas, especialmente en relación con las noticias sobre pronósticos meteorológicos, y para obtener información más detallada sobre la naturaleza de los peligros para que las comunidades estén mejor preparadas para responder. Los grupos capacitados por WFW han identificado públicamente edificios resistentes a los ciclones en todas las aldeas que pueden servir adecuadamente como refugios seguros. En el caso de un peligro natural, las mujeres están preparadas para reunir el ganado en un lugar seguro donde puedan mantenerse hasta que el riesgo haya disminuido, y para almacenar alimentos y agua en un espacio seguro. Después de las inundaciones, las mujeres reconstruyen sus casas para ser más resistentes a las inundaciones, aprovechando los préstamos a través de su grupo de ahorros. Reconociendo la necesidad de mejorar las prácticas de cultivo del arroz para disminuir la vulnerabilidad al cambio climático, los grupos han fortalecido sus relaciones con el departamento agrícola del gobierno para asegurar la asistencia técnica. Un grupo ya ha visto un aumento de los rendimientos después de usar un préstamo del grupo de ahorro para arrendar una parcela de capacitación y acceder al apoyo técnico del departamento agrícola del gobierno. Empoderadas por el apoyo social y organizativo de los grupos de ahorro, las mujeres han formado equipos de RRD en sus aldeas encargados de proporcionar información accesible sobre los riesgos potenciales y desarrollar prácticas de registro para ayudar a evaluar posibles desastres y rastrear los cambios para facilitar la adaptabilidad continuta.

El papel de las personas vulnerables en las medidas de reducción del riesgo no debe subestimarse. Cuando las mujeres se involucran en abordar sus vulnerabilidades, se anima y empoderan para seguir haciendo mejoras en sus comunidades. Si las funciones y conocimiento local de las mujeres no están incluidos en la planificación y respuesta a desastres, las intervenciones de reducción del riesgo de desastres serán ineficaces para reducir el riesgo. Las mujeres son agentes vitales y poderosos del cambio: es imprescindible que participen en la planificación, preparación y respuesta ante desastres. Cuando WFW, IWCP y diversos grupos de ahorro de mujeres en Rakhine se unen para evaluar el conocimiento local e integrar este conocimiento en la planificación y acción de la RRD, reducen los riesgos que plantean los desastres naturales y complejos, y empoderan a las mujeres para crear una sociedad más pacífica, resiliente y adaptable.

Sandra Reisinger es representante del CCM para Myanmar, con sede en Phnom Penh, Camboya. Van Lizar es directora de Women for the World (WFW), un grupo asociado del CCM en Myanmar.

Aprende más

Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. Myanmar Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (MCCSAP) 2016–2030. (July 2016). Available at http://myanmarccalliance.org/mcca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MCCA-Strategy_ActionPlan_11July2016V1.pdf.

Enarson, E. Working with Women at Risk: Practical Guidelines for Assessing Local Disaster Risk. (April 2002). Available at http://reliefweb.int/report/world/working-women-risk-practical-guidelines-assessing-local-disaster-risk.

Mitchel, T., Tanner, T., and Lussier, K. We Know What We Need: South Asian Women Speak Out on Climate Change Adaptation. Action Aid. (November 2007). Available at http://www.actionaid.org/publications/we-know-what-we-need-south-asian-women-speak-out-climate-change-adaptation.

UNISDR. Making Disaster Risk Reduction Gender-Sensitive: Policy and Practical Guidelines. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 2009. Available at http://www.unisdr.org/files/9922_MakingDisasterRiskReductionGenderSe.pdf.

UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Mobilizing Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction: High Level Multi-Stakeholder Partnership Dialogue. (March 2015). Available at http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Mobilizing-Women%E2%80%99s-Leadership-in-Disaster-Risk-Reduction.pdf.

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Empowering women for disaster risk reduction in Myanmar

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[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Rakhine, the second poorest state in Myanmar, is frequently exposed to natural hazards, including cyclones, flooding, landslides, earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis and fires in forested and rural areas. Climate change models predict that Myanmar over the coming years and decades will experience increased temperatures, more frequent and intense drought periods, changing rainfall patterns and an increased risk of flooding, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events resulting in storm and flood surges and sea-level rise that will affect almost all communities across the country. Communities in Rakhine are already facing a variety of these impacts. Rakhine is also at risk of complex disasters exacerbated by natural hazards: a combination of food shortages, fragile or failing economic, political, and social institutions and internal conflict that leads to displacement of people. Rakhine suffers from a long-standing political and military conflict between the central government, the Myanmar Army and Buddhist nationalists, on the one hand, and the Arakan Army and the Rohingya Muslim community, on the other. Additionally, the Rakhine/Arakan Army has conflicts with other indigenous groups in Rakhine (the national government recognizes 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar): fighting has repeatedly displaced people from their homes and villages, thereby increasing their vulnerability. A lack of resources and education, coupled with these complex social relationships in a multi-layered, multi-religious and ethnic group state, add to the vulnerability of the people in Rakhine.

Women in Rakhine are disproportionately vulnerable to complex disasters, natural hazards and climate change impacts due to cultural beliefs, traditional practices and socio-economic conditions. Women are more likely than men to experience increased loss of livelihoods and gender-based violence. In some situations, they have experienced greater loss of life during and after a disaster. Women for the World (WFW), a Yangon-based Myanmar non-governmental organization (NGO), partners with the Indigenous Women’s Coalition for Peace (IWCP) in Rakhine to reduce risk and increase resilience. They believe that gender and indigenous identity are critical elements for addressing climate change impacts and disaster risk. The integration of Rakhine indigenous women’s local knowledge and their practices in disaster mitigation, preparation and response efforts are essential for reducing risk and increasing resilience.

WFW and IWCP work with diverse women’s savings groups to increase understanding of the impacts of climate change, assess their local knowledge and increase their capacity to prepare for and respond to disaster events. WFW’s primary belief is that while women are the most vulnerable members of the community, they are also the agents for change. In Rakhine, a lack of employment opportunities has resulted in the migration of men and young women to find work outside of their villages, leaving women, the elderly and children to deal with the aftermath of natural hazards. Women are the caregivers for children, the sick and the elderly; they are often the sole breadwinners, as men, older boys and girls leave to seek job opportunities in urban centers or across borders; they are responsible for securing food; they are informal healthcare providers; they are responsible for the safekeeping of livestock; and they are responsible for finding and maintaining fresh drinking water supplies. Women are more restricted in travel and are more likely to be restricted from owning land, from borrowing or investing money, and from diversifying livelihoods through starting a new business.

Conversely, women are also holders of essential cultural, historical and economic knowledge within their communities, making them vital participants in efforts to decrease disaster risk. Women manage environmental resources to sustain their households and act as informal healthcare providers. They have survival and coping skills to respond to disasters, have local community networks and possess local knowledge of the community, including the location and needs of the most vulnerable (the elderly, children, persons with disabilities) during a crisis, making them critical players in disaster risk reduction (DRR).

WFW and the IWCP gather women to build peace and resilience together through a women’s savings group model. In addition to training on group formation and savings management, group members also receive training about women’s rights, conflict transformation, domestic violence and DRR. They are taught to conduct village mapping to assess the vulnerabilities in their villages, from infrastructure mapping to household and community population mapping. Representatives from each group, representing different ethnicities, meet together to receive in-depth conflict transformation and disaster management trainings which they take back to their groups. Members of the IWCP continue working with the savings groups, supporting them as they learn and plan.

WFW operates from the assumption that women cannot begin adapting to climate change if they do not believe they can. To strengthen self-reliance, WFW employs a participatory learning process. WFW trainers first raise awareness among women’s groups in an atmosphere of openness to women’s stories and experiences in disasters as a method of learning and naming what the women already know. For example, women already know that shelter for women and children is vulnerable to natural hazards and that the safest cyclone resistant shelter does not provide privacy to women and children. They know that rains are increasing and temperatures are rising, leading to greater malaria incidences and the need for more mosquito nets. After WFW staff have introduced the process of village mapping, they step back (to their Yangon office) while the savings groups create village maps that identify geographic strengths and weaknesses, households (including the number of family members in each household) and the most vulnerable persons and where they live (the elderly, young children, persons with disabilities). The women also mark the location of their livestock, schools, fishing boats and other community and household assets.

In WFW trainings, group members learn skills for assessing risks and vulnerability and for identifying sustainable adaptation solutions for their communities. Savings group members report that the support they receive through the group makes them less vulnerable. Through the savings group, women can access loans to start small businesses, diversifying their bases of income. One group trained by WFW is building a safe and hygienic latrine to decrease the risk of disease. Other groups are advocating for improved early warning systems in indigenous languages, especially related to weather forecast news, and for more detailed information regarding the nature of hazards so communities can be better prepared to respond. WFW-trained groups have publicly identified cyclone resistant buildings in every village that can adequately serve as secure shelters. In the event of a natural hazard, the women are prepared to secure livestock in a safe place where they can be maintained until the risk has abated and to store food and water in a secure space. After flooding, women rebuild their homes to be more flood resistant, drawing upon loans through their savings group. Recognizing the need to improve rice growing practices to decrease vulnerability to climate change, groups have strengthened their relationships with the government’s agricultural department to secure technical assistance. One group has already seen increased yields after using a savings group loan to lease a training plot and accessing technical support from the government agricultural department. Empowered by the social and organizational support from savings groups, women have formed DRR management teams in their villages tasked with providing accessible information about potential risks and developing record-keeping practices to help assess potential disaster situations and track changes to facilitate ongoing adaptability.

The role of vulnerable people in risk reduction measures should not be underestimated. When women become involved in addressing their vulnerabilities, they are encouraged and empowered to continue making improvements in their communities. If women’s roles and local knowledge are not included in disaster planning and response, disaster risk reduction interventions will be ineffective in reducing risk. Women are vital and powerful agents of change: it is imperative that they are participants in disaster planning, preparation and response. When WFW, the IWCP and diverse women’s savings groups in Rakhine join together to assess local knowledge and integrate this knowledge into DRR planning and action, they reduce the risks posed by natural and complex disasters and empower women to create a more peaceful, resilient and adaptive society.

Sandra Reisinger is MCC representative for Myanmar, based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Van Lizar is director of Women for the World (WFW), an MCC partner organization in Myanmar.

Learn more

Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. Myanmar Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (MCCSAP) 2016–2030. (July 2016). Available at http://myanmarccalliance.org/mcca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MCCA-Strategy_ActionPlan_11July2016V1.pdf.

Enarson, E. Working with Women at Risk: Practical Guidelines for Assessing Local Disaster Risk. (April 2002). Available at http://reliefweb.int/report/world/working-women-risk-practical-guidelines-assessing-local-disaster-risk.

Mitchel, T., Tanner, T., and Lussier, K. We Know What We Need: South Asian Women Speak Out on Climate Change Adaptation. Action Aid. (November 2007). Available at http://www.actionaid.org/publications/we-know-what-we-need-south-asian-women-speak-out-climate-change-adaptation.

UNISDR. Making Disaster Risk Reduction Gender-Sensitive: Policy and Practical Guidelines. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations, 2009. Available at http://www.unisdr.org/files/9922_MakingDisasterRiskReductionGenderSe.pdf.

UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Mobilizing Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction: High Level Multi-Stakeholder Partnership Dialogue. (March 2015). Available at http://www.wcdrr.org/uploads/Mobilizing-Women%E2%80%99s-Leadership-in-Disaster-Risk-Reduction.pdf.

Camp management in Haiti and the dilemma of local partnership

In the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake, 1.5 million Haitians suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves homeless. United in a collective effort, those affected by the disaster spontaneously congregated in open-air spaces, forming gatherings that would later receive the more formal designation of internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps. Not waiting for external assistance, they used bed sheets, tarps and scraps of wood to construct their own temporary shelters.

During the impromptu creation of these camps, which began forming mere hours after the quake, leaders of these various gatherings emerged, installed through a process that was much more reflexive than it was deliberate. In most cases, the individuals were already seen as natural camp leaders, due to their previous influence in their former communities. Under this leadership, nearly every camp independently established its own management committee, notwithstanding a few cases in which NGOs were involved in the process. These committees played a critical role for camp residents, serving as the bridge used by local authorities, police, NGOs and civil society groups to provide access to shelter, food, medicine and legal support. In fact, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Haiti engaged with the management committees of 14 camps around Port-au-Prince to provide canned meat and locally purchased food supplies as well as essential non-food items such as tarps, tents, relief kits, water filters, water bottles, comforters and flashlights. Through this role as camp ambassadors, the camp committees grew in power and social status as they distributed humanitarian assistance, managed the registration of IDPs and resolved conflicts within the camps.

The distributions mediated by camp management committees were, for the most part, quite orderly. And to the degree that MCC was able to verify, the goods were distributed equitably, with priority given to the most vulnerable IDPs. This differed significantly from the large-scale distributions organized and implemented by other international responders. For example, various UN agencies and larger NGOs, eager to deliver aid as soon as possible, opted for mass distributions with security provided by UN peacekeepers or U.S. Marines. Aid recipients were made to stand in very long lines and wait for hours in the hot sun—an assault on their endurance, to say nothing of their dignity. Some of these distributions turned chaotic, with trucks getting looted and people getting stampeded.

Unsurprisingly, distributions carried out through camp management committees were clearly preferred by recipients, at least early on. But as time went on, it became evident that the committee-led model faced problems of its own. Lacking adequate systems of accountability, these camp committees had the opportunity to abuse their authority through coercion, corruption and sexual exploitation. Women were particularly vulnerable, with some camp committee members using their power in order to gain favors in exchange for access to humanitarian assistance. In other cases, where donors were supporting camp committees from abroad, funds were siphoned off for personal use. As the months wore on and aid began to wear thin, frustrations were directed more and more at the management committees. In some larger camps, grievances led to rival committees forming to challenge the authority of those in power. Even the best examples of camp management committees were never meant to last forever. By six months, most of them had spent their social capital and outlived their usefulness.

Reflecting back on the situation, it seems that many of these unfortunate outcomes could have been avoided had there been some form of accountability instituted for camp committees. However, given the spontaneous nature of their creation, the question is, how? Ideally, this role would be played by the government, at both the local or national level, yet even before January 2010, the Haitian government was in a weakened position. With the destruction of nearly every governmental building and the death of many public service workers, the state became completely paralyzed, unable to make major decisions regarding the coordination of the overall response. Even now, almost five years later, Haiti ranks eighth on the failed states index. This incapacity was seen as a green light by the international community to provide assistance with no governmental oversight.

In lieu of the government, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) was founded as an international partnership that would provide strong oversight to build the country back better than it was before. Co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and then-Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive, the IHRC was mandated to manage all money that entered into Haiti for relief and development projects and to coordinate the overall response. However, the Haitian members of the IHRC ultimately protested against the organization, saying they were simply being treated as a rubber stamp, while other critics suggested that placing an American ex-President on equal footing with the Haitian head of state was an attack on Haitian sovereignty. As Sannon Reynolds from MCC partner organization, Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA) stated, “They [Haitian government] didn’t have the capacity to act, but they shouldn’t have been left out of the decision-making process.”

To be fair, however, Reynolds admits that the government assumed no role in the initial stages of camp management. Thus, there was no choice of engaging with the government in the realm of material aid, because “the government was absent.” Then, as emergency assistance transitioned to recovery and resettlement, things got more complicated. The national government showed signs of taking leadership in the earthquake response, but not in ways that were appreciated by MCC or its Haitian partner organizations: it championed one-year $500 rental subsidies to incentivize IDP families to move out of the camps and focused on short-term cosmetic fixes meant to spur private investment and tourism, rather than addressing the dearth of safe and affordable housing in the capital.

Against this background, MCC opted to continue engaging with its partners at the community level. It worked through several Haitian organizations to repair earthquake-damaged homes, and took on a project with the Christian Center for Integrated Development (SKDE) to build a new village for 100 displaced families. Compared to the camp management committees, these organizations were a bit further removed from earthquake survivors, but still a more viable medium-term option.

In the absence of an effective government, the homeless earthquake survivors performed a miracle: they bravely rescued each other from the rubble, built a habitat where they could wait out the aftershocks and shared what they had. In a society long riven with class divisions, they lived in solidarity with each other. They developed leadership and effectively absorbed assistance. But impressive as this was, it was short lived. In a different setting, a more rural setting, a community of disaster survivors might be able to recover and thrive over the long term without assistance. But in ultra-densely populated Port-au-Prince, true recovery is impossible without the assistance of state planning. The challenge now, as it has been for a decades, is for the international community to support the local Haitian population by supporting its government. If its government can be as responsive as its people are resourceful, Haiti will be able to weather any storm.

Kristen and Wawa Chege served as Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinators for Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti. Kurt Hildebrand is Co-Representative for Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.

Community-Based Network Organizations and disaster management

For many communities around the world, a major disaster presents a considerable setback in the healthy development of local infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods and economic growth for years to come. For these populations, disaster management is not a standalone issue, but one that must be incorporated into the broader activities of the community as a means of promoting ongoing recovery and prevention. Unfortunately, for small rural communities, the resources needed to undertake this type of management typically exceed what the community is able to muster itself. In Nepal, however, an effective response to this problem has been the formation of community-based networking organizations (CBNOs), which work with local communities to create a regional network that collectively takes ownership over a range of development initiatives. The linkages formed by such a network enable communities to leverage their human, economic and political capital against that of the wider network. These linkages in turn not only play a major role in disaster recovery, but also offer an effective response in mitigating against ongoing risks.

CBNOs are established and operated with the democratic principle of people-led development, putting local individuals and communities as the primary stakeholders at the forefront of their own development through their direct involvement in the planning and implementation of related initiatives. This approach, which brings together communities with similar needs and diverse capabilities, has demonstrated positive results for improving livelihoods, realizing rights and responding effectively and quickly to disasters. When, on the contrary, plans are imposed on a community by an outside actor, there is a high risk that the recipients will not take ownership of them, diminishing the prospects of successful implementation and sustainable results.

Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal, a networking organization operating throughout Nepal, focuses on uniting highly marginalised and disadvantaged people who have little access to resources. These marginalised individuals—members of lower castes and classes, Muslims, women and minorities—have lower indicators in health, education, literacy and awareness and lack access to state resources and facilities. Although these groups technically have rights formalized by the government, the lack of accountability within and instability of the political system in Nepal has failed to create functioning mechanisms and institutions for their realization. From the rights-based perspective, then, the role of CBNOs is critical, as it not only signals a break from the historic tradition that saw lower-caste individuals at the mercy of their rulers, but it also demonstrates that all citizens have the right to a better life.

In a CBNO, members from different community organizations elect representatives to lead the overarching networking body, an important characteristic that highlights one of the strengths of this model—that each member organization of the CBNO remains in its constituent community, thereby ensuring strong accountability to its primary stakeholders. In bringing together different communities, the CBNO is able to provide a broader scope for self-help through building social capital on a regional level and mobilizing resources on a larger scale.

By linking the household to the community to the region, the network rekindles the traditional spirit of cooperation in the wider society. The sharing of resources not only enhances the ability of any one constituent community to implement strategies that reduce vulnerability to disasters and improve the community’s overall wellbeing, but also motivates individuals to evaluate their own needs and be involved in seeking solutions.

This approach has made CBNOs key partners in disaster response, owing
to the fact that they have an established system that channels information and resources among member communities. Thus, when disaster strikes, the CBNO is able efficiently to assess the impact and quickly respond with the help of other community groups in the network. Additionally, the CBNO has connections to larger organizations and government bodies which provide a path for disaster-affected communities to receive assistance from sources outside their communities that they otherwise would not be able to access.

When a settlement of landless agricultural labourers in Banke district, located in south-west Nepal, was gutted by fire three years ago, the CBNO, Janajagaran Samajtook, mobilized a response from the wider network of communities that it represented. While the affected community focused on meeting its immediate needs, the network sought support to cover the more substantial expenses linked to shelter reconstruction. Thus, the CBNO approached district-based committees, organizations and development agencies, seeking aid for the rehabilitation of victims’ homes. Ultimately, Janajagaran Samajtook initiated a partnership with Mennonite Central Committee Nepal, on behalf of the affected community, for the provision of hazard-resistant construction materials that were not locally available. When the materials were received, 42 damaged houses were reconstructed within six months, with the local community contributing the majority of the labour.

As the previous example highlights, a CBNO’s strength in disaster response is the ability quickly to mobilize the assets of a wide network of communities that ensures a rapid assessment of and response to the immediate needs of affected members. By drawing on the local capacity of members for disaster response, CBNOs are able to gain information and resources quickly that allow for an immediate response to the physical and economic impacts of disasters. Within a short amount of time, communities are able to marshal resources and begin advocating with local governments and organizations to attend to urgent needs identified by the affected community that would otherwise go unmet.

Bal Krishna Maharjan is the Executive Chief of Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal,
a community-based networking organization in Nepal.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.

Rights-based approaches to disaster response and risk reduction

A rights-based approach shifts us away from viewing crisis-affected populations as the objects of charity or as passive recipients and towards recognizing their agency and rights as citizens. In this framework, disaster-affected communities are rights holders and governments are duty bearers who have an obligation to address the needs of their citizens. The Responsibility to Protect principle argues that in contexts where governments are unable or unwilling to respond to the needs of their citizens, the international community has an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance and protection. At its best, such responses involve international non-government organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supporting the efforts of local civil society organizations who are often first responders to crisis.

In the context of humanitarian crises, a rights-based approach means that governments have the primary duty to ensure citizens have access to humanitarian assistance and to reduce overall vulnerability to disasters. With the support of MCC, local partner organizations play an important role in mobilizing community members around their right to assistance and in holding governments accountable for the delivery of government programs under existing legislation. In the absence of such a legal framework, MCC partners meet urgent needs and facilitate the formation of community-based organizations that are able to speak collectively to governments regarding their needs and priorities. This brief article compares ways in which MCC partners in India, Ethiopia and Colombia are implementing a rights-based approach in response to humanitarian crises in order to reduce disaster risk.

In India, where acute seasonal food insecurity remains a chronic problem for millions of Indian citizens, the federal government has instituted some of the most progressive food security legislation in the world through a series of measures under the Food Security Act. This includes national legislation, specifically the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Under MNREGA the government guarantees that all rural citizens have access to 100 days of seasonal employment, that is, daily wages in exchange for participation in the construction of public works.

In the nine years since its enactment, the implementation of the scheme has been patchy, with many citizens unaware of their right to seasonal employment in their communities. The impact of the legislation is also limited by a lack of knowledge, adequate resource allocation and implementation by local- and state-level governments. Long-time MCC partner in India, the Church Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), implements a seasonal food-for-work scheme in communities where the government scheme is lacking or only partially implemented. In addition to filling the government void by providing access to food, CASA’s Food for Community Mobilisation project—supported by MCC’s account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB)—seeks to educate and mobilize citizens to claim their right to employment under MNREGA. Increasing the number of citizens who have access to government employment is a key project outcome that CFGB, MCC and partners are supporting and monitoring.

In Ethiopia, MCC, in cooperation with several local partners, supports seasonal cash- and food-for-work projects. Like India, the government of Ethiopia has also implemented a national employment scheme—the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP)—that aims to address predictable and preventable seasonal food insecurity. The coverage of the PSNP is inadequate, with government figures underestimating the number of people that require assistance.

In contrast to India where seasonal employment is a right or “guarantee,” the PSNP in Ethiopia is not enshrined in any legislation and its implementation is at the discretion of international donors, policy makers and bureaucrats. In collaboration with district-level government, MCC partners implement parallel cash- and food-for-work schemes to provide greater access to social protection. While MNREGA in India is a right, and therefore demand-driven, in Ethiopia community members have no recourse to claim their right under the PSNP (Tessitore, 2011).

Community mobilization through the formation of self-help groups and district level community associations is, however, a key component of all of the projects in Ethiopia and encouraged by local government. These groups provide opportunities for community members collectively to set local priorities, build mutual self-reliance by saving and sharing resources and provide a platform for dialogue with local government.

Through the formation of community-based organizations and community mobilization, citizens are able to hold their governments accountable in order to realize their rights. For Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, the director of Sembrandopaz, an MCC partner in Colombia, community empowerment is fundamental to addressing the needs of communities displaced by conflict. Community development, he says, has two wings: economic
development and political action. Through community organizing and mass mobilization facilitated by Sembrandopaz, Colombian citizens displaced by government military, para-military and rebel groups have been successful in some cases in receiving reparations from the national government.

Another MCC partner, Mencoldes, works with displaced persons in Colombia to access government services. In addition to providing food assistance and access to other essential household items, Mencoldes plays a critical role in informing conflict-affected families of government services available to internally displaced persons and providing legal support where such services are unfairly denied.

With case studies like this in mind, what might the implications be of a right-based framework for MCC’s program? At least four principles present themselves:

1. Local civil society partners should play an important role in educating and mobilizing citizens around their rights to government schemes and services.

2. Where government programs are absent, implementation is patchy or programs lack legislative guarantees, partner organizations can fill gaps by providing humanitarian assistance, social protection and social services.

3. Group formation and community organizing (i.e. self-help groups, local associations, village savings and loan groups) should be integrated into disaster response project design in order to assist affected groups to increase their voice to government and build
mutual self-reliance.

4. International non-governmental agencies, such as MCC, and local partner and civil society organizations need to incorporate participatory approaches to project design, monitoring and evaluation. This ensures greater adherence to international minimum humanitarian standards and thus increases the likelihood that the priority needs of affected groups are met.

A rights-based approach ensures that the rights of citizens are at the centre of governmental and non-governmental agency responses to disasters. In India, Ethiopia and Colombia, community empowerment alongside humanitarian assistance helps citizens achieve their rights and reduces long-term disaster risk.

Bruce Guenther is disaster response director for Mennonite Central Committee and is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.

Power and partnership: responding to crises in Attawapiskat

The theory of community-based disaster management, which highlights the importance of community empowerment and the active participation of disaster-affected peoples in decisions around mitigation and response, is a welcome conceptual shift from previous theories that framed communities as passive victims who lack the capacity to assist themselves. In bringing the community to the fore, however, there is a risk that the focus sidelines the issues of partnership and power, two critical determinants of a community’s ability to manage a disaster event. Just as no person is an island, all communities rely on a host of external actors for support in determining what response options are possible and for acquiring the necessary resources to implement those plans. These actors fall along a rather broad continuum that includes informal social networks, civil society organizations and formal government institutions. Simply put: communities with strong partnerships are better positioned to manage a crisis than those who attempt to do so on their own. But when the partner (e.g., a government agency) controls the resources that affected communities need, the ability of those communities to chart their own course is significantly diminished, as decision making power is largely left in the hands of others.

For all communities in Canada, government is one of the most crucial partners in disaster management. In the majority of these communities, local municipalities have the primary responsibility (in coordination with the provincial government) of managing the prevention of, preparedness for and response to disasters and emergencies that affect them, be they fires, floods, snowstorms or other humanitarian crises. The municipal governments and/or provinces and territories are also responsible for a vast network of infrastructure that is critical to the functioning and resiliency of these communities. A notable exception to this partnership model exists in First Nations communities, where the federal government has assumed responsibility for providing emergency management support, and holds all fiduciary responsibility. Moreover, under the Indian Act—a statute which governs the relationship between the Canadian state and registered First Nations peoples—responsibility for infrastructure falls to the federal government. It is a distinctive arrangement, characterized by an extreme asymmetry of power, and one which poses considerable challenges for First Nations communities seeking to mobilize in the face of seasonal disaster risks and ongoing crises. A look into the case of the Attawapiskat First Nation highlights these challenges.

Like many isolated communities in northern Canada, the Attawapiskat First Nation has found itself increasingly threatened by a variety of natural and human-made hazards that pose a serious risk to the community’s existence: on more than one occasion, the community has seriously discussed the possibility of resettling elsewhere. While climatic hazards, such as flooding during the spring ice break-up, are nothing new for this community situated along the Attawapiskat River only a few kilometers inland from the coast of the James Bay, changing weather patterns have significantly reduced the predictability and scale of this annual event, thereby heightening the community’s vulnerability to these floodwaters. In the face of this increased risk of flooding Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency in three separate years since 2008, each time resulting in the evacuation of a significant proportion of the approximately 1,900 persons living on the reserve at great financial and social cost.

Current plans for extensive mining in the lucrative “Ring of Fire”— Ontario’s largest mineral reserve located upstream from Attawapiskat— pose an uncertain and potentially grave risk to the life and livelihoods of First Nations in the region, who are justifiably alarmed by the potential contamination of their water systems. For Attawapiskat, this would not be the first time they were affected by a human-made disaster related to resource extraction. In 1979, 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel—to date, the largest petroleum spill in Northern Ontario—leaked under the community’s elementary school. Despite repeated efforts by Chiefs and band council members to call attention to the ongoing health problems suffered by students and teachers, the school only closed in 2001.

In addition to these discrete disaster events, a more chronic humanitarian crisis emerges from Attawapiskat’s inadequate and substandard infrastructure, particularly its subpar housing and water treatment facilities. At present 124 families in Attawapiskat lack adequate housing, and substantially more have no access to treated drinking water. These families live in 24’ x 36’ bungalows sheltering 18 to 24 people sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. These specifications fall considerably below minimum shelter and sanitation standards recognized and observed by countless humanitarian organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee. Though this crisis was brought to light in 2011, when Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike to demand a federal response made international news, it has been an ever-present issue for decades.

Despite the urgency and protracted nature of these crises, little progress has been made to address them in a comprehensive manner. In fact, the increasing rate of population growth in the community only exacerbates its vulnerability, as additional demands are put on infrastructure that is already inadequate. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the community of Attawapiskat has not explored its own solutions to bring about change. In response to the annual flood risk, for example, the community seriously investigated several options, ranging from the construction of major dyke infrastructure to the seasonal migration of the community back to traditional spring camps. The government, however, had its own solution: evacuation and temporary resettlement. Another example of the Attawapiskat community organizing to mitigate its vulnerabilities to disaster occurred when, as a way of addressing inadequate housing and the exorbitant costs of building material, the Chief Assembly passed a resolution to establish a regional saw mill that would allow multiple communities in the area to access local natural resources at considerably lower prices than imported materials. The government, sadly, had its own flawed solution: woefully inadequate “temporary” shelters, which have since turned into subpar permanent housing.

There are many reasons why alternative solutions to the deficient answers provided by the Canadian government to the challenges facing Attawapiskat have not materialized and not all of them are external sources. That said, there are substantial obstacles within the
current partnership between the federal government and First Nations communities that make it very difficult to achieve permanent solutions to the vulnerabilities First Nations communities like Attawapiskat have to disasters. First, payments from the government are unpredictable and often ill-timed. For a community that is only accessible by air or by inter roads for the majority of the year, late transfers mean huge transportation costs that can render projects untenable. Second, the year-to-year allocation of funding by the government is insufficient to finance permanent solutions which require substantial up-front capital investments. This also makes long-term planning rather difficult. Finally, the fragmentation of the bureaucratic structure between various departments leads to temporary piecemeal solutions, when what is needed is a more holistic strategy that recognizes the multifaceted nature of these crises.

In exploring the challenge of a community-based response to crises within First Nations communities, the issues of partnership and power cannot be avoided. For the community of Attawapiskat to protect itself from hazards and ensure that each family has access to adequate housing and clean water, a serious commitment by the federal government to stand as an equal partner with Attawapiskat is required. This involves listening to the ideas of the community and taking seriously the concerns that have been raised with the current partnership model which disempowers First Nations communities who are best positioned to identify and implement measures to protect themselves.
Ignace Gull is the former Chief of Attawapiskat (1991-2001) and Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council (2003/04). He is currently the President/Chair of the Specialized Solvent Abuse Treatment Center Board in Thunder Bay. Christopher Ewert is a Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.

Community-based disaster management: an introduction

The past few decades have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of people around the world affected by disasters, triggered both by human-made hazards (e.g. conflict, industrial accidents, arson) and natural hazards (e.g. typhoons, earthquakes, drought). Although the average number of annual deaths attributed to these events has decreased by almost half since 1975, the economic losses attributable to disasters have risen more than four-fold over the same time period (The International Disaster Database, 2014). And while the frequency of disaster events suggests that high income and low income countries experience a similar level of exposure, the costs of disasters—economic, social, physical and environmental—are disproportionately borne by the latter in terms of lives, livelihoods and social disintegration. The recognition that these losses  constitute a major set-back in achieving the longer-term development goals of equitable economic growth, sustainable livelihoods and poverty reduction has led to increased attention by governments, donors and development and humanitarian organizations on finding a more holistic approach of analyzing and responding to these calamities.

Disaster management has become the  umbrella term for a range of activities that occur both prior to and following a disaster event aimed at mitigating the economic impact of disasters on vulnerable, low-income communities (see figure 1). Broadly speaking, these activities are commonly grouped together under the two overarching concepts of prevention and recovery. On the prevention side, emphasis is put on mitigation and preparedness, whereby strategies are designed and implemented to reduce the risk of a disaster occurring within a given population and to minimize the impact of such an event when it does take place. Once a disaster occurs, however, attention shifts to recovery, which includes a relatively short-term relief response aimed at addressing the immediate needs of a disaster-affected community, combined with a longer term recovery strategy that ultimately seeks the restoration of the affected community. Ideally, this continuum of categories is cyclical rather than linear, where the recovery activities integrate mitigation strategies that reduce the likelihood and impact of a future disaster.

Figure 1: Disaster management cycle
disaster cycle

Early applications of this framework were predominately implemented through a top-down, command-and-control approach that neglected affected communities in decision making and implementation. The results from these programs were largely seen as ineffective, inappropriate and/or unsustainable. The lessons learned echoed what had long been understood by many practitioners and academics in the development sphere—that genuine community participation is the key to effective programming. Thus the qualifier “community-based” was added to the framework of disaster management, representing the need to put local participation and ownership at the centre of all related programming.

In contrast to its predecessor, community-based disaster management (CBDM) takes a bottom-up approach, recognizing that affected populations are best placed to identify their vulnerabilities and needs, while also acknowledging their agency to respond.

Methodologically, CBDM works through deliberate engagement of community members in a way that empowers them to address the root causes of their vulnerabilities by transforming social, economic and political structures that generate inequality and leave them susceptible to further disasters (Salajegheh and Pirmoradi, 2013). For Mennonite Central Committee, this level of focus and engagement epitomizes the operational approach it strives for through the accompaniment of local community organizations and church partners in a process of mutual transformation.

The articles in this issue examine different aspects of CBDM, drawing on the diverse experience of MCC staff and partners working in unique settings around the world. Though the particular focus of each article varies widely, there are two characteristics that all contributions share. First, each relates to programming that falls within one or more phases of the disaster management cycle presented above. And second, each critically examines the opportunities and/or challenges of empowering local communities to manage the risk of disasters and other humanitarian crises in their settings effectively.

The opening article by Kevin M. Kamuya and Rand Carpenter explores the topic of disaster mitigation, describing the effectiveness of self-help groups among the Wakamba people in responding to the perennial threat of drought in East Africa. In the face of climate change and the increasing unpredictability of weather patterns, the article suggests that the community model, notwithstanding its own challenges, offers the best hope for successful adaptation through local innovation.

In keeping with the topic of prevention, the second article by Riad Jarjour and Andrew Long-Higgins provides a fascinating account of how an inclusive humanitarian response can serve as a powerful tactic to prevent violence and foster trust amongst diverse peoples. Their argument draws on an example from Syria, where a food assistance project implemented by community members of different faiths works to keep a varied network of communities together against significant odds.

In the third article, Ignace Gull and Christopher Ewert investigate the importance of partnerships and, through a case study of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Canada, remind us that effective community-based disaster management requires support of external actors. However, in exploring the community’s relationship with the Government of Canada in response to a series of humanitarian crises, the article highlights some of the challenges communities face when a partnership is characterised by extreme power asymmetries.

In keeping with the theme of government, the fourth article by Bruce Guenther outlines a rights-based approach to disaster management, whereby the state (the “duty bearer”) has a legal obligation to ensure the well-being and safety of its citizens (the “rights holders”). In the absence of effective government intervention, Guenther compares ways in which MCC partners in India, Ethiopia and Colombia are implementing responses to humanitarian crises through educating and mobilizing citizens around their rights to government services.

In the fifth article, Bal Krishna Maharjan explores the effectiveness of community-based network organizations (CBNOs) in responding to disasters in the context of Nepal. In bringing together representatives from multiple communities, CBNOs are able quickly to mobilize the assets of a wide network that ensures a rapid response to the immediate needs of disaster-affected members.

The final article by Kristen Chege, Wawa Chenge and Kurt Hildebrand explores the dilemma that is often faced by international organizations as they decide how best to intervene in the aftermath of a major sudden onset disaster crisis: whether to work through informal structures or to act through more formal democratic institutions. Using MCC’s experience following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Chege examines the opportunities and challenges the MCC team faced in working through informal camp management committees.

Christopher Ewert is a Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.