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Myanmar: The Importance of Civil Society's Response to Natural Disasters

This week, CHGN Associate Dr Joy Wright shares her recent experience in Myanmar and explores the key role of civil society in disaster response.

“Rain – proper rain- on the roof all night. Like someone left a thousand power showers on.” I wrote three weeks ago, in a guest house in Yangon. What I didn’t know then was that the rains were unusually heavy even for monsoon season, and had been for weeks. And then Cyclone Komen made landfall in the west of the country, bringing a whole lot more wind and rain with it.

The combined effect was that across Myanmar, rivers flooded, mountainsides slid, and bridges crumbled. Three quarters of a million acres of farmland were damaged. 300,000 people had to leave their damaged homes. Large parts of mountainous Chin state are still cut off from road access and food supplies. And as the floodwaters have flowed south, many villages in the Delta area have been submerged. It is the worst natural disaster the country has seen since Cyclone Nargis in early 2008.

What was fascinating was being there to see people respond. As social media filled with images of flooded streets, community groups rose to the challenge. Within days, many of the Cluster members in Yangon were busy coordinating relief efforts. There were stories of groups evacuating residents by boat, sheltering them in church halls and monasteries, arranging vast distributions of rice, pot noodles, water and blankets. Yangon was suddenly energised- people collecting donations on every main road. I was impressed that no one waited for the government or the international NGOs to respond: although they did so after a few days, the early response seemed primarily to be from ordinary people responding to their communities, and national NGOs like the Red Cross. Disaster experts have known this for years – that if civil society is ready to help, it has a unique role to play in the immediate aftermath. But it was good to see it in action.

A week later, I stood in a muddy camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in another area of Myanmar. The poorest group within the camp are the unregistered IDPs, who do not receive any food rations or formal support. A community leader with a weary face beckoned me over to a box like tent of blue tarpaulin and bamboo poles. Stooping to get in, I met John: a clear eyed man who had been bedbound for the last two years since developing progressive weakness in both legs. He had no relatives to care for him and so the leader was visiting him each day to wash and toilet him, and make sure he got to eat. Extraordinary commitment – without which John would almost certainly not have survived. And this, in the midst of the most extreme poverty.

There is something very powerful about ordinary people helping other ordinary people, responding to the need in front of them, simply out of kindness. Without it being their “job”. Without an agenda imposed by donors or the state. How hope generating: that whatever the ebbs and flows of international aid, if communities respond, a meaningful, sustainable response to the world’s challenges can take place. One that includes human connection as well as all the “measurable outcomes” the monitoring and evaluation experts ask for. At CHGN one of our hopes is to make local relief and development efforts as skilled as possible, without crushing their creativity.

We work through connections- connecting the doers, to build momentum, but also inviting the thinkers, who can advise on best practice. I hope we can work on other kinds of connections too- links between practitioners and policy makers, to enlarge the space for civil society’s response; opening doors for researchers to generate community-based evidence; educating funders about the effectiveness of genuine participation. If you’d like to join the conversation, get in touch.

Joy is a GP based in Sheffield, and also works for InterHealth Worldwide. She has worked and travelled in Asia, and has a connection to Myanmar, where in March 2014 she helped us launch a Cluster. She is now a CHGN Associate for the Myanmar Cluster.

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