I’m a day and a half into a week-long follow-up visit to my employer’s response to the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. You remember, the one that hit last September 30, on the tail end of that spate of rapid-onset emergencies in Southeast Asia?
Unless you work for a relief organization and it’s your job to be on top of such things, there’s a good chance that you’d forgotten about Padang by the end of the first week in October, 2009. If you’d even been aware at all. And if you had been aware to begin with, you almost certainly lost track of Padang by January 12, 2010.
By the time Haiti was but a few hours old on CNN, the rest of the world had forgotten about Padang. And Manila, Kompong Thom, Savannakhet, Quang Nam, and southern Taiwan… All of those places slammed by Typhoons and small tsunamis and earthquakes last fall.
But now that the initial fervor of Haiti has begun to diminish, it’s my job to track back to all of these smaller, less sexy disasters. Time to check back and make sure that funds committed have been spent in the manner promised, that my colleagues in the field coordinated, assessed, distributed, all within Sphere standards and in an appropriately transparent manner. Time to check that those schools got rebuilt, those NFIs got handed out and are not still sitting in a warehouse. Time to check that we really did it “right.”
I must say that I’m impressed with our local team. If my community were to be hit by a big earthquake, I’d sleep better at night knowing that my Indonesian disaster response colleagues were running the show. Seriously. They’ve done a bang-up job, though it’s not been easy. There have been significant challenges.
As I get shepherded around, talking to local partners and beneficiaries, I’m reminded of the importance of coordination – simply taking the time to let other people know what you’re doing, where, when. It’s unsexy as heck, sitting in those meeting rooms crammed with sweaty aid workers. And to outsiders it looks like so much pfaffing around, wasting time that should be spent, you know, helping people.
I’m also impressed with how well the overall response has gone. Not that everything in Padang is fabulous. But amazing progress has been made in the nine or so months since the earthquake. And right alongside that, I’m impressed with how straightforward the response has been. It has been straight Sphere sectors (shelter, WASH, protection…), led by the host government, an emergent cluster of strong local NGOs, and a small group of the well-known, “classic” INGOs (including my employer). Even considering the huge difference in scale between the Padang earthquake and the Haiti earthquake, I’m impressed with the overall lack of drama in the Padang response.
Sure there were some tense moments. Sure there were a few coordination meetings where feathers got ruffled. But for the most part, it seems that the right people were in the conversation at the beginning and stayed in, the right organizations and entities were involved and given the latitude necessary to do their jobs.
I also cannot help but comment on the distinct lack of celebrities and #SWEDOW. Neither were an issue in Padang. Despite the fact that nearly everyone drinks coffee from here, that some of the trendiest terrestrial endangered species are here, and that some of the best surfing on the planet (I’m told) is here, no celebrities pitched up to help Indonesia. No singers, no actors, no famous politicians.
Similarly, Padang seemed to be of little interest to the church groups and entrepreneurs with their containers full of used stuff, eyeglasses, shoes, 1million T-shirts, or what have you. Sitting in my cubicle in North America, I fielded not one single call from someone with an invention (usually related to shelter) that would be a humanitarian aid “game changer”, if only I would agree to send a few thousand to the field.
The past nine months in Padang, Indonesia have had no cameras rolling (or very few), no strident opining from the peanut gallery about what should be done, no gaggles of untrained and inexperienced volunteers pitching up “to help.” Thankfully, there have been no huge pushes to adopt Indonesian children who survived the earthquake.
No, the Padang earthquake response ran the old-fashioned way: professional aid organizations, whether international, local or governmental, planned and then implemented a straightforward emergency response. They figured out what the earthquake survivors needed by asking them, and then got them that – not something like the thing that they wanted, not something altogether different but that could, with some imagination, be used in place of what they needed… No, simply got them what they needed in the most direct and efficient manner possible.
And you can tell. The people I talked to today were happy about how things had gone and were going, the terrible disaster of last September notwithstanding. They expressed hope.
That’s the way you do emergency response.