The Hard Lessons of Disaster Relief
When it came to Cyclone Sidr and disaster relief - I thought I knew it all. I
knew I couldn't help them all. I knew the media would be coming. I knew
the local population knew the area better than foreigners. I knew aid
work was more than just giving stuff away. I knew things could go
wrong. I knew the blankets I was giving away could be used to keep
people warm during this cold season. I thought I knew it all..... I was wrong.
Here are some lessons I've learned. When I left the Cyclone Sidr Disaster
Area - I left more than 70 blankets. I also left behind my childhood
innocence of what it means to help the poor.
There is a video on YouTube that accompanies this report.
Lesson One: You Cannot Help Everyone, You Will Be Forced To Choose
This isn't the first time Bangladesh has seen natural disasters.
Unfortunately, it won't be the last either. When I would witness these
tragedies on TV - my initial reaction would be "if only I was there, I
could have done something". With this project, "if only" turned into
"now I can". But, as I've found out - it's not so simple. You can't
help everyone you see. The hardest thing for me was when I saw a group
of school children run up to the road yelling "STOP! STOP! STOP!" in
English - and we just kept driving by. I was able to record my initial
reaction. What you don't see (because I didn't want to film it) was the
fact I started to tear up afterwards.
Lesson Two: Not Everyone Came to Help
I can understand how it can be gut-wrenching for those in the
disaster area to see an NGO just drive past them as they plea for help.
I can also understand why they get so angry when the only people who do
stop were those who wanted to take pictures and film them. The initial
media frenzy (which has now passed) basically turned Bagerhat into an
open air zoo with the victims as the creatures on display.
I understand the necessity for the media to cover tragedies such as
this. It's a symbiotic relationship - the more the public sees this,
the better the public can be inspired by this plight and donate money.
It also helps NGOs. These reporters were actually being transported
into the disaster area by an NGO. That NGO was probably doing so in the
hopes of getting a little bit of coverage. I don't think it's a problem
that people come to disaster areas with cameras. But do they have to
come with only cameras? I mean the van which brought those cameramen (see attached picture) look awfully empty...
Lesson Three: Being a Foreigner Sometimes Helps
I foolishly thought that local aid agencies and charities would have
the upper hand when it came to disaster relief. They speak the
language, know the land, and know the culture. But it's actually the
later - the culture - which actually hindered their efforts. In
Bangladesh, the number of people who have greeted me with a handshake
is about on par with the number of people who have greeted me by bowing
down and touching my toes. What is the significance of touching toes?
It's a form of respect - where people who touch the toes show that they
are of a lower status than you. I hate it when people do that to me -
and usually try and prevent it.
I never imagined that the touching of feet would play into how
medical treatment was given. A lot of my relatives didn't believe it
either - until I showed them side-by-side footage of local vs. foreign
medics doing the same medical procedure. The local medics would avoid
touching the feet - using prongs and forceps to do routine things such
as disinfection. The foreigner medics, on the other hand, would get
have no trouble holding a foot and washing it by hand. "They feel like they are getting luxurious treatment"
explained Bonnie a Paramedic from Kingston, Ontario. She didn't know why they were
responding like that - or why so many people were coming in with
infected (but already treated) wounds. That is, until I explained to
her the significance of touching feet in this country.
Lesson Four: Respect Is the Most Important Thing to Give
The victims of Cyclone Sidr may have lost their homes - but they didn't lose their dignity.
I was shocked to find an aid operation (picture appended) from what
seemed to be from a local mosque. I say "seemed to be" because, thats
the only plausible explanation for such horrible and unprofessional aid
work. Items were - sometimes literally - being thrown out the window to
whoever could catch it. Sometimes it would be a sweater and another
time it would be a kids t-shirt. In between, there would be this huge
sack of food which one person would take and try and keep others from
snatching. There was no organization, pattern, it was a free-for-all.
I admire the dignity held by many of the locals. Instead of having
stuff thrown at them - they protested and even threw some of it back. Others pleaded for the aid workers (or mullahs from the mosque?) to have some sanity - but it fell on deaf ears. Clothes
were actually the most frequently discarded item. I would find them
thrown and discarded all along the roadsides. After I saw this display
of "aid work", I realized why.
Lesson Five: Things Can Go Wrong, Even If You Do Everything Right
What would you do if you see a boat full of aid arrive only to leave
without giving you anything? When would the next boat arrive? Would
they arrive at all or was this a one time thing? With all these
thoughts, I fully understand why the locals chased after our boat in a
desperate attempt to get something - anything.
everyone who jumped into the boat did so because they were empty
handed. Upon reviewing the footage of that distribution, I noticed the
guy in the blue shirt (in the bottom right - picture appended) had got food from me not
once, not twice, but three times. Yet he kept coming back and
collecting more. And when we were leaving, he chased us down and
I understand the situation is desperate - but food that was meant
for four families ended up going just to him and his family instead. I
also admire how this NGO handled the situation. It only took a few
minutes for them to safely remove everyone - all without the slightest
bit of violence.
Lesson Six: No Matter How Much You Give, Someone Will Be Left in the Cold
The pivotal moment for me was when I saw two kids. One was warmly
dressed and was holding one of my blankets that I had distributed. The
other, was a young boy shivering in the cold - watching as the now
empty boat returned back to basecamp. For some reason, I can forget the
faces of those whom I've been able to help - but I never seem to forget
the faces of those who were left in the cold.
quite the feeling - to have come so far, done so much. Only to be left
saying the same thing I used to say back in Canada: "If only"....