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Transforming Short Term Relief  Into Long Term Development Collaboration

Tobias Roberts

If you have spent any amount of time in the world of community development, the following pattern is one that you most likely recognize:

  1. Some sort of natural disaster strikes a poor, marginalized, and underdeveloped community causing massive damage to communities that were already highly vulnerable in the first place.

  2. Within days, dozens of NGO´s and relief-based organizations rush in to offer immediate assistance for food, fresh water, shelter, and other basic needs.

  3. After several weeks or months (depending on the severity of the disaster) these organisations one by one gradually abandon the effective communities, often times leaving behind a mess of emergency housing, ungodly amounts of plastic water bottles, and communities that are no better off than before the influx of millions of dollars of emergency “aid.”

What could be done differently? We humans are perhaps psychologically “wired” to respond to disaster situations with financial generosity, but unfortunately much of those funds wind up as short term emergency relief efforts that are sometime misdirected and often times utterly wasted. Below we will analyse why so many development organisations focus so much time and effort of emergency relief efforts. We will also give a few reasons and strategies on how those efforts and resources could be transformed into more structured, sustainable, and ultimately more empowering development efforts.

The Ease and Luxury of Short Term Emergency Efforts

First and foremost, we need to start by recognizing and accepting that in many cases emergency aid is urgently needed and necessary. After a major disaster, there is a small window of opportunity to get vulnerable and exposed people the food, water, shelter, and medical attention they need to survive.

In many cases, however, the amount of emergency aid that arrives surpasses the actual urgent need of the local community. In 2009, Hurricane Ida caused a massive landslide on the slopes of the San Vicente Volcano in El Salvador. Thousands of people were left without water and electricity.

Two days after the disaster occurred, the organization I worked with received a small grant to bring potable water to the community. We spent hundreds of dollars emptying grocery store shelves of gallons of water. When we got to the community, however, a local official asked us what we had come to donate. He then directed us to a warehouse with literally thousands of gallons and plastic bottles of drinking water, enough to keep the community supplied for months on end.

Many NGO´s prefer to direct their work into emergency relief efforts for two main reasons. Firstly, it´s easier to get quick funding for emergency responses, especially from donor bases of well-meaning people in the Global North whose heart strings are touched by the media´s image of suffering. Secondly, focusing efforts on emergency relief doesn’t require NGO´s and community development organizations to do the hard work of inserting your organization into the community, developing relationships with community leaders, and understanding the complexity of community dynamics.

Short term relief efforts can easily be reported as a resounding success with easily measurable indicators of change, goals, and products delivered. Working through the multifaceted, intricate, and sometimes complicated realities of communities, however, is much more challenging. Discovering ways to leave behind the sometimes paternalistic, colonialist, and assistance-based identities of the NGO in order to truly walk beside a community discovering its own path to development, takes years of dedication, commitment and perseverance. Too often, we simply don´t want to invest the time and energy nor do the necessary self-criticism of how we operate as NGO´s invited into a community.

Relief into Development: The Case of Santiago Atitlan

In 2005, Hurricane Stan caused untold damage to the Mayan communities in the Highlands of Guatemala. The Mayan Tzutujil community of Santiago Atitlan lost hundreds of community members when a massive mudslide buried the village of Panabaj.

Lake Atitlan, where the community is located, has long been recognized as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. When the disaster occurred, hundreds of NGO´s rushed to Santiago to offer their assistance. The chance to set up operations on the shores of a delightful volcanic lake was an opportunity too good to pass up.

Within weeks, the village of Panabaj was literally overrun by NGO´s, both national and international, all looking for ways to get their donations into the hands of the suffering community. The organization I worked for at the time, showed up several weeks after the disaster occurred. While many of the short-term relief efforts had already ended, dozens of NGO´s continued in the area.

Through a local contact, our organization set up a meeting with a group of women from the community. The director of our organization began the meeting by simply asking the women: “What is it that you all need from us?”

After an awkward moment of silence, one of the woman leaders began to cry. After several weeks of an enormous amount of donations and outside “generosity”, we were the first organization, according to the women from the community, who asked the community what it was they needed.

That initial meeting led to a long-term relationship and collaboration that has spanned over a decade. While the initial project was focused on continuing emergency relief efforts, later projects helped to found a locally organized and led community development organization, a women’s cooperative, educational efforts, and so much more.

A Few Lessons

Shor term relief efforts offer quick gratification for our efforts. While they may be necessary at times, they very rarely create any sort of lasting change in communities nor help them to build the resiliency needed to avoid future disasters.

At the same time, emergency responses offer a unique opportunity to identify community leaders and develop strong relationships that can develop into longer term collaborations directed towards community development goals that have been identified by the community.

This requires, first and foremost, the commitment to dedicate time and effort to a certain place and the endeavor to understand and interact with the complexity of that place. While these long-term development collaborations are not easy to develop, they ultimately can be much more rewarding for the NGO and much more beneficial for local communities. 

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organisations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agro-ecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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