Doing Relief with a Development mindset
When I was a student at Wheaton college graduate program on Humanitarian Disaster Leadership, I heard lecture upon lecture, and read book after book on the topic of Emergency Management. With my missionary history of Community Health Evangelism, where Development and local ownership are emphasized, I was glad to recognize that engaging the locals in relief activities was frequently mentioned as an important component of appropriately implemented aid. However, reality and theory sometimes do not check. Most of the times when I have been involved in responses to disasters, outsiders with resources are who determine the assessments, priorities, procedures and evaluation of their plans. They decide when to begin, how long and when to end their interventions.
Community Participation is covered as long as members of the affected area are hired, consulted, or met at some point of the journey, so the box can be checked. There are lives to be saved. Time is an essential resource. “We are the experts”, you can almost hear them say. Even the language spoken in clusters rarely corresponds to the country of intervention.
But Community involvement is not an item to be checked on the list of relief best practices. It is the way to begin, it is a road map and it is also how to end well a relief effort. Through the years and the eyes of someone who has seen transformation take place in urban and rural environments, I present a list of things to be considered if we really want to witness local ownership and ongoing development in the midst of a crisis that requires immediate response:
1.- Relationships of trust are cultivated, nurtured, promoted and pursued. It is not about a mere job to get done. We are sincerely concerned about the well-being of fellow human beings that, in the midst of their own dismay and stress, need to be reminded that someone cares for individuals at the deepest level, mirroring God´s sacrificial love for the world by being there with them.
2.- Local groups that have previously been involved with community efforts to solve their challenges are invited to the table as partners the moment we step into their own areas. We acknowledge the need for their moral approval also, even if we have authorities´ permission to come in, out of respect for their area of influence.
3.- Training local leaders in Disaster Preparedness and Risk Management before a disaster occurs, equips them to respond with more understanding when crisis come. That is why Medical Ambassadors invest in areas of the Disaster Cycle that may not seem as impressive as immediate response efforts, but in the long term, build capacity for local response in multiple circumstances where outside resources do not become available.
4.- We need to have an integral mindset, even if our intervention is single-focused. If we do not have a holistic view of an event and its causes and consequences, considering the necessary responses to it, we may miss the opportunity to link with others responding to the different aspects of complex emergencies. Only when we replace an attitude of self-sufficiency with a deep understanding of being a small part of God´s response to the need, we will be able to contribute without claiming ownership and relinquishing all credit to the One who sees the whole picture.
5.- Care for the most vulnerable, remain non-partisan, respect dignity, value people´s ideas, be mutually accountable. Though these are well promoted recommendations from recognized actors in the Disaster-Response arena, our organizations have to be intentional in our approach as these things can be easily engulfed by the stress of the moment.
When COVID 19 affected our planet, response was no different. Communities that took charge succeeded in the fight against the spread of the virus. Those that relied on the latest information, the outside world, the magic solutions had an uphill struggle.
Resilience came out of practical actions to express creativity, care and confidence. There is always room to learn to respond to crisis better. But without communities´ own initiative taken into account, we are in Paul´s words, “beating the air”, (1 Corinthians 9:26)
Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air