That’s the way you do it

12 Jul

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?

Anyone remember the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia..?

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.

14 Responses to “That’s the way you do it”

  1. John 12 July, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    I wonder if you can share more about this assessment. I would like to think that such a positive progress report is the result of skill not just a lucky convergence of events (playing out in relative obscurity, for example).

    “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.”

    Even in the context of the above the opportunity for things to go awry are plentiful:

    – Were there “tensions” over suppliers, accusations of corruption? If so, how was it worked out?

    – Was the “emergent cluster of strong local NGOs” hand picked by the Indonesian government or other local “authorities”; or were they truly emergent? All too often these local NGOs end up being viewed as the opposition by the host government. Looks like that was not the case here.

    – etc…

    “… 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 don’t believe that the above just happens. It takes skill. Skill based in the ability to understand not only the people you serve but the partners you work with.

    For example: The ability for large iNGOs to separate their view of the host government based on how they came into and stay in power verses what services the host government provides to their people. I think that is a hard thing to do and wonder if it played some role in the positive assessment you have shared?

  2. John 12 July, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Sorry J. really want to add to the bottom of the my comment this:

    Do the iNGO partners intend on continuing their participation in the context of a straight forward aid effort? Is the temptation to “rebrand” their participation in the context of some greater “development” project absent?

  3. Rachel 12 July, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Oh good. Thank you for posting this. It’s lovely to read about expertise & hope.

  4. morealtitude 12 July, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this J.- glad to hear that things have gone well for the teams, this is an uplifting post in the midst of what often feels like a lot of angst and frustration in the sector. Good points, fluently made, reminding us of some of the important things out there. Makes you ponder on that mixed blessing/curse of high visibility; more money, but more idiocy too.

  5. Tammy 12 July, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Inspiring. Thank you for sharing a success story of a “forgotten” disaster

  6. Chris 12 July, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    I think the scale of the tragedy in Padang is the greatest factor on how “smooth” the relief effort was. As much as celebrity riffraff and #SWEDOW might be annoying to aid workers, I question how destructive those things can actually be. Do you really think that anyone had the capacity within their organizations to provide Haitians with exactly what they needed? The very reason you get an influx of #SWEDOW in a place like Haiti is because nobody has the capacity to provide what is actually needed. But it’s not a zero sum game in which receiving a shipment of shoes means a hospital doesn’t receive it’s antibiotics. I honestly think it’s just frustrating for an aid worker to see the shoes while knowing they are in dyer need of medicine instead. But to blame the shortage of one commodity on the fact that you received a different commodity of no value, isn’t necessarily fair. Would an influx of shoes, or dare I even say t-shirts, have ruined the situation in Padang? I honestly believe that taking #SWEDOW actually helps you receive more money in donations, and the money is something you do need.

    Aid organizations need the help and enthusiastic support of clueless Americans, including the even more clueless celebrity population. As American charity becomes more global, it will get better (you’d hope), but I don’t think a hands off approach for donors is a productive suggestion. America is a land of innovation and every successful idea comes from a series of failed ideas. Successful non profits tend to find ways to use mainstream enthusiasm for their benefit, rather than just bitching about it.

    • J. 21 July, 2010 at 8:32 am #

      “Would an influx of shoes, or dare I even say t-shirts, have ruined the situation in Padang?” Well, let me ask you this: how many cigarettes does it take to cause lung cancer?

      “I honestly believe that taking #SWEDOW actually helps you receive more money in donations, and the money is something you do need.” You’re describing the humanitarian aid equivalent of transactional prostitution.

      “Successful non profits tend to find ways to use mainstream enthusiasm for their benefit, rather than just bitching about it.” This being true would require one to accept a very specific definition of “successful.” It would seem that you and I see the point of humanitarian aid somewhat differently.

  7. Canadian Idiot 15 July, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    I was in Padang last November and had similar impressions of the response by the aid organizations, and perhaps more so, the resilience of the people. My Indonesian colleagues also commented that the people of Padang are known throughout the country for their hard work and can-do attitude. While I was there I saw many collapsed buildings (mostly nice looking government ones) and in some places a lot of collapsed houses, but otherwise it was hard to tell there had been a quake. Quite impressive! Much credit should go to the NGOs and the government, but clearly the key ingredient was the attitude of the people themselves.

  8. Phil 17 July, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    I think that is pretty interesting bec what you are actually saying strikes at the heart of a lot of aid/ devt work: the more attention it gets (which we sometimes want, bec we need more funds to work with (or believe we do)), the more problems are generated. I have just finished a major review of aid efforts in Afg. for a NGO peak body here in Aus, and the basic conclusion is that since the attention directed at Afg post 9/11, all aid and devt efforts have been a bit of a debacle. Afg is now a ‘show’ that is sponsored by USAID, WB, UN, etc and under the glare of their spotlights, it will proceed, regardless of whether it is acutally working/ meeting the needs of people/ doing anything for poor Afghans etc… Be good if you can work your obsvtns into a paper.

  9. Julia 19 July, 2010 at 1:23 am #

    Can’t help but share this example of an “innovation related to shelter” that was just offered to us: http://horizon2world.com/Reconstruction_Haiti_01a.html . I take it as an argument against Chris line of “every successful idea comes from a serious of failed ideas”. There are ideas that nobody needs and having to deal with them is a nuisance and a waste of time.

  10. kayti 19 August, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    J
    Would you object if this was translated into Indonesian and shared with a community of Indonesian response workers and activists who were , and continue to be involved in the rebuilding processes in the areas of Padang and the Mentawais? It would be so good if they could read this article.

    The Bali based environment and activist news web site “akarumput” – grassroots- is interested in translating it after I shared your English version with them , Kayti

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Beyond Borders « Tales From the Hood - 23 July, 2010

    […] already written that if my community was ever to be a disaster zone and I a disaster survivor, I’d sleep much […]

  2. Looking Back on Haiti – I: What’s new? « Tales From the Hood - 20 December, 2010

    […] a result, as many of you remember, media coverage was nearly 24/7 for months. Even in remote, rural Padang, Indonesia, six months after, I spoke to people who were themselves earthquake victims but who knew about Haiti and had an […]

  3. Lessons learned: Hurricane Katrina « Tales From the Hood - 18 August, 2011

    […] “It’s too big!” I remember once not long after the earthquake near Padang in western Sumatra, being interviewed by an Al Jazeera journalist who tried very hard to get me to say on camera that […]

Pearls of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: