Reaching out

For the last three years, I have been engaged in doing social work on a stop-start-stop basis with various small community-based organisations. During this time, I have had the opportunity to go all over interior Sindh, from Sehwan Sharif to Jacobabad, in flood relief and development activities. In almost all the trips, our organisation has been doing immediate post-disaster relief, which includes providing water, rations, tents, cooked food, etc. Obviously, immediate relief has its merits and is very important in the actual scheme of things right after a disaster. However, I have often wondered what happens to these communities post our leaving them after the immediate relief has run out, when the donations run out. Government would be expected to step in and take charge of these communities, provided the relief teams working with them would have notified the authorities of their standing upon finishing immediate relief. What happens though if the government is not even aware of where these displaced persons are at the moment?

When I recently got the chance to work and visit Badin with the World Food Programme (WFP), these questions were at last answered. My friends and I, on our previous visit to Badin, had seen the UC Pangrio district with horror as only the tops of their roofs were visible above water. The district stands at around 7-8 kilometers from the now infamous LBOD and thus was among the first hit. We had actually traveled by boats to get to the people to provide them food rations we had with us, and aided in their rescue via the same boats to elevated ground. On this visit, however, what was underwater when we last saw it, stood in front of us in the shape of a neat village with green budding fields.

Let me explain how this feat was achieved. The WFP reached out to these villagers and gathered them when the water went down. Their own expertise with food and rebuilding came into play here, as they are primarily a humanitarian agency. Obviously, at the time of their intervention, there was nothing left and hence the village in question, Kherad Bhagrio, needed to be rebuilt. The WFP, however, did not do it for them but rather tasked them with the goal of rebuilding, initiating watercourses for irrigation planting and erecting animal shelters. The villagers were provided material and used what was left of the village. Their work hours were measured and compensated for in the form of food or cash to them. Why was it  done in this manner? It is very simple; when you give a man a fish, he can eat it for one day, but when you teach him how to fish, he can eat for a lifetime.

The WFP has not stopped at just this district either. A total of 258,560 participants have been assisted through these livelihood activities (173,770 in food for work with 15,000 tons of food and 84,790 in cash for work with Rs 622 million) The scale of work is massive and it is organised. The most important thing for me to witness was the pride of the villagers whom I spoke to. Not only are their lives back on track but as many of them have been paid for getting back up, they have amenities that they did not have before. Thus, the goal has been achieved with their dignity not only intact but raised.

During this trip, seven of us from social media here in Pakistan also visited a food distribution site and volunteered to work there for a few hours. Here too, the difference in organisation was very visible as the people getting aid were registered first, then the distribution was done in an orderly and dignified manner. The food for work basket includes a ration of 80 kg fortified wheat flour, eight kg pulses, 4.5 kg vegetable oil, one kg salt and 4.5 kg high energy biscuits, enough for a family as one month of rations. The point of providing aid once a month also takes into stock the dignity of the aid receiver, as they do not have to be made to feel like recipients of charity.

Having experienced both sides of the relief field, I must say that there is certainly a much greater need for local community-based efforts to coordinate with and complement larger organisations like the WFP. Perhaps the WFP can also partner with these local groups to reduce their own manpower requirements and take more of a monitoring and guiding role then to actually be on the ground itself. Either way, relief must be phased out for disaster-hit communities in immediate post-disaster and long-term relief, which will see them rebuild their lives again, perhaps even to a status they had not even dreamt of prior to the disaster hitting them. Now that, in my opinion, would be a goal worth the effort.

As published in Daily times on 13/10/2012