Being a volunteer for the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CDRC), which is responding the needs of the victims of Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, I had the chance to get first inside views into the work of a Community Based Organization working on Disaster Relief. Having so far only read about the concept of community based projects, it was interesting to see now, how those concepts work in the field and to see, if one can talk about a “best case” in the context of the disaster management in the Philippines or if the involvement of a large number of self reliant and independently working people is more an obstacle but a sake.
When I arrived in Manila to start my work as a volunteer, I at the very beginning was surprised to find out that the high number of people, literally working day and night and repacking food aid, loading the goods up and down the trucks and being involved in the distribution of the relief packs, were mostly volunteers. Their high motivation to work often more than any paid worker would have liked to work, was so striking that I began to ask myself where they were taking all their energy and motivation from. When I went to bed at midnight, totally tired from the often demanding physical work in a hot and humid climate I was not really used to work in, I often was the only one in my ten-bed dorm room. Hours later I hear people coming in little by little to lay down for a sleep, only to find out that by the time I was getting up in the morning at 7am, I again was alone in my room. When I asked my colleagues how they managed to find so many so motivated people to help them, they simply answered that those people who were working so hard to make it possible that the deliveries could be executed in time, were part of the communities that were most severely hit by the disaster and hence part of the group of beneficiaries.
CDRC is active in the area of disaster management for more than 25 years now. The main idea of its activity always was and still is, to support communities by enabling them to help themselves. Through capacity building, technical assistance, social organization and disaster preparedness trainings they help communities in disaster prone areas to become less vulnerable to the different, mainly natural disasters that regularly hit the country. I had the chance to visit one of the workshops in which CDRC staff members like Maria Teresa whose background is in community work, explain their concept to the interested members of different communities. In this particular case, the training took place in a region close to Metro Manila where several thousand former inhabitants of the informal quarters around and on the rail tracks of central Manila were relocated two years ago. As their new houses got affected during the typhoons by a nearby river which grew within minutes to a disastrous wave that washed away bridges, houses and in the worst cases the inhabitants of the town, community members felt the urgent need to organize themselves. This wish was not only based on the traumatic experiences during the typhoons in which it turned out that disaster preparedness measures were not existing or insufficient, but it was also based on the unsatisfying reaction by the side of the government during and after the disaster. The logical conclusion for the participants of the training therefore was that it is always better and important to prepare oneself for every possible crisis than waiting for others to come to help.
CDRC and its 17 network organizations which are active all over the country are getting in contact with communities that are living in disaster prone areas in order to provide training on disaster preparation etc. After the training they offer their help and knowledge for those who want to build up Disaster Preparedness Committees (DPCs) and for the monitoring of the development and execution of the preparation efforts. The newly build DPCs start to discuss possible threats to their home places and thereby raise awareness within their communities. Then they organize and divide task for the organization for further projects aimed to improve the disaster preparedness within the communities. These projects include the development of early warning systems, evacuation trainings and drills, the preparation of evacuation plans and sites and the learning of needs assessments and proposal writing – an important skill that enables them to respond timely and effectively to eventual disasters. Such a professional and correct analysis of the situation is of primary importance in the direct aftermath of a disaster in order to enable CDRC and its partners to organize adequate and fast help in case it is necessary.
Once help is really required, the DPCs built up before, start to analyze who are the ones most affected and vulnerable within their communities. Based on this analysis the aid will finally be prepared and brought to the beneficiaries. Once the aid arrives and is going to be delivered, beneficiaries are already registered with the help of local partners. During the relief operations it was always great and interesting to see that the delivery was mostly executed without any problems caused by the beneficiaries or other people in need. Even if the situation in the affected areas is often severe and the number of people who need support is often much higher than the number of people who practically receive help, people are very disciplined and discussions about the decision why person “X” receives help but not person “Y” nearly never took place. And if it took place, the DPC members, who followed an open and transparent catalogue of criteria when getting to their decision, could always easily explain their decisions which were taken democratically and hence widely accepted within the community.
The people helping to load down the goods, and helping during the delivery, were also partly coming from within the affected groups. The benefit of this system is that not only conflictive situations are prevented but that relatively complex and work intensive projects can be executed even with a relatively small number of staff in an extremely cost effective way. Thereby it is guaranteed that almost all donations go directly to the beneficiary, to those people who need the help most, and will not be consumed by large bureaucratic and often inefficient institutional arrangements.
Another positive outcome of Community Based Disaster Prevention is its positive long term effect. Even long after the end of the disaster and the disappearance of national and international helpers, people are still benefiting from the aid and help: communities are better organized and enabled to formulate their needs, they are able to demand changes from the government; they developed new capacities which help them to engage in- and execute reconstruction and livelihood projects; they gain environmental awareness which saves scarce resources; and through the building of – and organizing in networks, their capability to react in future calamities is enhanced.
Critical aspects which have to be observed and excluded in such community based approaches, is the misuse of aid for private or political reasons as well as the misuse of organizations names and values for individual goals. To be able to do so, an intensive monitoring before, during and after the disaster is of primary importance. This includes the process of selection of partner organizations and DPC members. Furthermore humanitarian standards like neutrality, impartiality and transparency have to be taught to prevent unwanted misconduct during operations. And finally a detailed evaluation of the operations is very important to detect possible weaknesses of the organizations or their projects which in the following can be readjusted. A very close communication and timely and regular reporting system contributes to such a monitoring and facilitates a later evaluation.
As CDRC with its long experience and well trained staff took those aspects always into consideration by for example giving trainings to the regional staff partners to refresh and deepen their knowledge on disaster management, by being open for outside suggestions and by intensively reflecting on its own projects and programmes, their community based approach for me seemed to be very positive and successful. Even if I only spent two months with CDRC and therefore got only a little inside of their broad areas of work, the main idea which is underlying their work, and the way they execute their programs seem to be the only way a sustainable disaster preparedness based on local ownership has to be conducted in order to achieve a positive change on a long term. The engagement of dozens of local and regional staff and Preparedness Committee members, and the involvement of hundreds of volunteers from my point of view therefore is a little success story. And it therefore can even be called a possible “best case”, at least for the Philippines and its very well locally organized society. What it definitely can be called is a great lesson learnt for me and an inspiration for any future professional programmes I may get involved in one day! I am very grateful for these little insides and hope that CDRC will continue its great work for at least another 25 years – and all of course with the help of local communities and volunteers as well as with the support of the international community!