Friday, February 24, 2012

If you had spent Thursday with me...

It was a busy week.  Normally I like to reflect and write on key themes in my time here, but with the current state of things I can’t keep up with the reflections, and if I don’t begin writing, I will lose memory of what has gone on.  So, conclusions can come later, today I’ll just write you a rough account of how my day went yesterday.

5am:  The neighbor’s cat is in heat again, and her yowling has woken me.  Quickly Dave and his family and his villages’ situation comes to my mind (read “The Mudslide Story”), and I spend some time thinking about it and trying to decide what should be done.  A week prior I had been to the NATO camp to meet with a USAID rep and ask them to get involved.  There were lots of reasons why they couldn’t get involved, of course.  I have been waiting for weeks for the UN disaster management cluster meeting to happen, and it is scheduled for this morning.  I really don’t want to go to a meeting on my weekend, especially after a 12-hour day yesterday, capping a 60+ hour workweek.  I doubt that this group of organizations will have any positive response for Dave’s village.  Still I have all these reasons in my head why they should do something, not least of these being their mandate for humanitarian assistance.  So, I better go, in case there’s a chance I can successfully lobby them to give aid.  I give a last thought about how our supporters back home would probably be happy if we just bailed out Dave and his family, and I cringe at the thought.  Maybe I’m wired all wrong, but it’s harder for me to think about saving one family and leaving the rest of the village at risk, when I believe there is a better way to respond so that all at risk are helped, and the causes for their vulnerability are dealt with as well.  But for that, I need the help of bigger aid organizations, so it’s settled, I will go to the meeting this morning.

9am: I remember that we’re under tightened security after the Qur’an burning, so I better make some calls and find out if there’s anything going on.  I call a couple sources and our team leader, everything seems peaceful, so I can go to the meeting.  I call Dave and ask him to pick me up and drive me to the meeting at the governor’s conference room.  He’s thrilled to hear that I’m going to take his case to this meeting.  What have I set him up for?  There’s no promise that anything will come from this meeting. 

10am:  I arrive at the governor’s compound, and have to pass security.  Two guards interrogate me in the local language, search me thoroughly, give me dirty looks (all the meanwhile letting several local man with turbans walk right in).  Should have brought my ID I guess.  I get to the conference room: 49 empty chairs, and 1 guy from another NGO.  A meeting agenda was waiting on the table, written only in the local language, so I poke through it with my 2nd grade reading ability.  When am I going to find the time to learn to read better?  15 minutes later, they all start to shuffle in.  When there are nearly 30 around the table, the vice-governor shows up, taking the place of the governor who was run out of town (or so the rumor goes).

10:30am:  The vice-governor is well into his explanation of the survey of 120 families that are homeless because of flooding, and my phone starts to ring.  First it’s my local colleague, telling me that protests have broken out in town, going around the park.  Then my team leaders calls and confirms the protests.  Then it’s Dave, my driver, who had been waiting on the street between the governor’s compound and the park, in our white NGO vehicle.  He says that the protesting crowd is targeting white NGO vehicles, smashing windows and lighting them on fire.  Being warned of this by the police, Dave took off, put promised to come back for me with our red vehicle.  Around the room, others are becoming aware of the protests, and the leader of the meeting addresses it by saying, “yes there’s protests targeting NATO and other associated foreigners, they won’t come here.”  1 Italian man and I are the only foreigners in the room.  Alright well, my driver is gone, they say it’s safe here, I guess I just sit tight here.

The meeting goes on, but it does not go well in my opinion.  Although this cluster is called “Disaster Management”, the only topic the leader wants to discuss is the immediate response for the 120 flood-victim families.  I try to empathize and imagine what it would be like to have my home destroyed by a rush of water, and how tough it would be especially now while the nighttime temps are still in the 20s.  Everyone agrees something must be done, but the vice-governor is not satisfied with the specifics, so he calls for a round robin, and each person around the table states how their organization will help.  One by one the NGO leaders offer food, blankets, tents, and clothes.  The UN groups offer to help with the collaboration and transportation.  One NGO rep says that he does not have anything to offer, and he gets completely chewed out and told to come up with something.  The Italian has a translator, so he doesn’t have to talk.  Now it’s my turn, so I give it my best in the local language, “Honorable leaders, I represent a small NGO that does not typically engage in relief activity because it complicates our development work.  However we are prepared to do a variety or resilience-building and damage control activities such as rock flood walls, to prevent the number of flood-destroyed homes from increasing.”  I thought I had done alright, but the vice-governor shook his head and said that we needed to keep our attention on the immediate need, and not these other things that are done every year in places that don’t need it.  I didn’t argue, and I knew that my chance to lobby for disaster mitigation for Dave’s village was also not going to happen.  The meeting went on, but never reached the point of considering how to keep the number of 120 homes from growing in the coming 3 months when more floods are likely. 

After the meeting ended I chatted privately with a couple guys that I knew, to ask them if they could help with Dave’s village.  When they heard it was a village at the foot of a hill they quickly said, “Well, in that situation we view it as a human cause.  Those people have dug into the mountain to make their walls, so they have brought the danger upon themselves.”  I briefly argued the point that the majority of flood-damaged houses are built on marginal land that should also be zoned for no buildings.  Ha, land-zoning, this country is a long way from that.  I also urged them to remember that disasters prevented saves more lives than these blanket and tent distributions in the aftermath.  It seemed they didn’t have ears for me. 

11:45am:  Meeting is done, now how do I get home?  I call my driver, he says town is a wreck, but is trying to get back to me.  I call a couple other informants, they give me enough info that I trust I can get out of the gov compound and away from the park quickly.  I tell the dirty-look guards to have a nice day, blend into a group of men my age on the sidewalk, fold my hands behind my back and walk just like they do until I reach the corner, see my driver, jump in, and we’re off.  The bazaar is crazy busy, lots of police trying to appear to be doing something, rickshaws weaving in and out of traffic, carts with oranges and chickens and yarn and hairbows trying not to get hit while crossing the road, and fortunately, we don’t see anyone that appears to be protesting.

1pm:  Got home, had a nice lunch with my wife while the boy was being watched by the neighbor (the one with the cat in heat… hmm I guess I better not poison her cat if she babysits my kid).  Now I’m going over to pick him up, and my guard and the one from next door are having tea in my yard.  I greet them, ask them what the morning gossip is, and they point to the sky.  A big Apache helicopter roars over us, toward the NATO camp.  We all look toward the camp and see a thick, black plume of smoke going up from the camp.  They ask me what is going on.  I say, in the basest of terms, “how should I know?”  Went home and put the boy down for his nap, and thought for a while about whether we should prepare for something to happen.  Prepare for what though?  Normally when we think evacuation, we think that if it gets really bad, we can always evacuate into the camp, but now it’s the camp that is on fire.  Hmm, what is plan B?  Lay low I guess, and have a bag and a car ready to split out of town if we have to.

2:30pm:  I’m working in the yard with my guard.  We’re just finishing the disassembly of my homemade swingset when I get a call from our team leader.  She says that the protestors had broken into the first parking lot in the NATO camp, smashed up some cars, and lit them and a fuel tank on fire.  That explained the black smoke.  She said the camp itself hadn’t been breached, and no one had been killed, although at least a dozen young men (protestors) had been injured and hospitalized.  What now?  It seemed to be over, although there were now rumors of meetings between the big mullahs and the government to decide what would be a fitting protest for tomorrow. 

3:15pm:  Driver Dave is back to help me move some big things out of my yard and into the yard we will be moving into.  For one of the trips I ride in the back to steady the load.  As I get out of the gate I see a couple of the cute little kids from next door.  They greet me politely and with smiles as always.  Then another boy from my street, not more than 7 years old, comes toward me yelling “death to America” over and over again.  I don’t pay him any attention.  The other kids all along the street hear him and join in.  The group of yelling, chasing kids grows for the whole 200-meter trip.  What do I feel right now, in this moment?  I look at the kids, and I see kids.  Not just any kids, but the kids I have seen and interacted with for the past 15 months.  I know them, they know me, I know they’re not going to do any harm to me, but why are they saying this?  I remember the words of an older teammate that I respect very much.  He once told me that in insecure places, the best way to understand the sentiment of the religious leaders is to listen to the children.  I think this friend was probably right, but still, these kids are not going to do anything to hurt me, they haven’t picked up rocks.  We reach the destination and I get off the back of the truck and just talk to the kids as if they weren’t yelling and acting angry.  Their yelling stops, they return to playing, and I go about my work with Dave and my guard. 

3:30pm:  We’re still working at moving some things between the yards (from within, not on the street) when a mix of firecrackers and AK-47 fire goes off outside the gate of the new yard we are moving into.  The other 2 guys and I head to the back of the yard where there is another exit.  After a minute the firing stops and just the hollering of young men continues.  My guard tells me that the office guard just returned from the bazaar and reported that people there were really stirred up.  I make his concern crack into a smile when I say, “So now is not a good time for me to go get a haircut, I really need one?” 

6:30pm:  To end the day I spend a half hour in the sauna.  I review the day in my mind.  It went differently than I expected, but I’m not upset.  I didn’t get much done, but nothing too bad had happened, and that was good.  It’s hard to know what tomorrow will hold, but I don’t feel that being nervous or afraid will do anything.  Despite all of these things that seem so unfortunate and out of control, I feel at peace and alright with being here. 

30 hours later:  It’s now Friday night, and for those that might have been concerned about what Friday would bring, it was a quiet day.  A little more gunfire on the streets, and definitely some protests took place, but not like yesterday’s attack on the camp.  The longer we are here, the more we learn to just stay inside when things are questionable, and not freak out when anything happens, because just as quickly as these incidents spring up, they die back down just the same.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

The two perspectives from the poverty pit

 For the past two weeks I have been wrestling with the situation of Dave, one of my drivers (read “The mudslide story”).  As tempting as it would be to do a one-off relief project for this man that I know personally, the scale of the problem makes it difficult to do a quick solution.  What really needs to happen is that the whole community would get behind the cause, in order to reduce their vulnerability. 

A disaster program specialist once said that a disaster is when a hazard occurs in a vulnerable situation.  This means that an avalanche on Antarctica is not a disaster because no one is vulnerable to it, but a monsoon in the flood plains of Bangladesh is a major disaster because millions of people decide to shrug about the imminent risks and live in that vulnerable place anyway (and 200,000 Bangladeshis die each year because of this).  This theory and these examples should help us think twice about the notion that relief from the outside is the best way to care for disaster victims. 

What’s better than relief?  Communities that say, “enough suffering,” and look for ways that they can reduce their vulnerability to likely hazards.  I’m currently reading through the training books put out by Tearfund UK explaining how to facilitate such communities.

It’s a lovely thought isn’t it, to imagine Dave’s whole community coming around him and spending their time and money to try to reduce the vulnerability of his and 3 other families.  But is that the only perspective from the community about the risks at hand?  All of the community would fall into a category we would call “poor”, but are there any differences in their priority concerns?

Leave those questions for a moment, and travel with me to the squatter communities of Manila, Philippines.  These are the communities where I first learned about participatory community development.  In these communities you find people living in tin, plywood, tarp, or cardboard houses.  They live so close together that some families have to sleep in shifts, because there’s not enough space for everyone to lay flat on the floor.  No running water, no sanitation, no schools, no health care, and basically it seemed: no escape.  Some seemed motivated to get out, and were scrimping and saving and doing everything they could to send children to outside schools.  Others seemed apathetic to their misery, and some of those sunk in alcohol or gambling addictions.  Going into the squatters there was always this feeling, “man I hope some of these children can get out of here.”  I keenly remember one day when I was doing some anthropological study of one community, and a small group of young adults made a sad illustration of poverty in their place.  They told of the various ways that their parents’ generation had tried to escape the squatters, but never could.  They said that poverty is like a pit, and while there is a ladder, it’s too dark for most to see it.  If someone does work hard and think creatively about how to find and climb the ladder, he will never make it all the way up, because while he’s climbing, the others will hear him, seize his ankles, and yank him back down into the pit with them.  Painful picture to think about, isn’t it?  Doesn’t your heart go out to those ones that try to climb the ladder?  What do you think of the ones that pull them back down?  Who do you favor in this story?

Hold on to your responses to these questions, and now come back to the village where Dave’s neighbors have just been killed by a landslide, and Dave’s family is in equal danger.  Who do you favor in this story?  What should the community do? 

I was stuck today, to realize that the participatory community effort that I hoped Dave’s community would do for him is exactly the type of thing that grabs at the heels of the motivated poor man trying to climb out of the pit.  Dave has to try to grab; he has no other options.  What about the others in the community that live further from the hill and thus do not share the vulnerability Dave is in?  Do they look at Dave and say, “you were told not to build there, you knew it could be dangerous, now go away, I do not want to share the consequences for your bad decisions because it will pull me back down from the investments and savings I have made for my own family.” 

Do you hear these opposing perspectives from the poverty pit?  Which one resonates with you?  Where do you find your own perspective on the poor, and your posture and response to them? 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The mudslide story

 Last week I was talking with one of the project drivers and he mentioned that his wife had taken the kids and moved out of the house.  He explained that she did this because she no longer felt safe in the home he had built for them there.  The reason she felt unsafe was because less than 3 weeks ago a mudslide completely destroyed their neighbors’ house.  Some of the damage had since been cleaned up, but a mess still remained.  I asked the driver, whom I will call Dave, what needed to be done, and he said he was spending every spare minute trying to shovel dirt so that his home would be safe again.  This sounded simple enough, so I told him I would come over on the weekend with my shovel and help him.

The weekend came and kaka and I grabbed shovels (he didn’t have much choice in the matter!) and went to Dave’s house.  My enthusiasm about actually having some practical work to do was quickly let down when we approached Dave’s house and saw him 150 ft up the hillside that towered over his house.  He was up there working away with a shovel, trying to shovel dirt down from the whole hillside.  It wasn’t until I took a walk around the house that I could even see what he was trying to do.  His house was nested right at the base of the hill, in fact, to build it years ago his elders had cut into the hillside with shovels, and used that dirt to build the walls for their houses.  They are so close to the looming hill that clearly, any shift in the hillside would send soil into their yard.  This was exactly what had happened to the house behind Dave’s, which was now destroyed.

As I was inspecting the rubble of Dave’s neighbor’s house, he came and quietly told the story of what had happened in the night a couple weeks ago.  He woke in the middle of a rainy night to a thunderous sound.  He ran outside and realized the sound was coming from just behind his house.  Running there with a light he saw that the whole hillside was covering his neighbors’ house.  He quickly shoveled dirt away from a window and dove into the house.  He saw the top of a baby crib, peeking out of the dirt that had caved in from a window, and he dug through the dirt and lifted the baby out of it.  He handed the baby out the window to another rescuer, and continued looking for other people.  At that moment he heard another thunderous sound, and another wave of mud showered down, filling the room until he was up to his neck.  He realized that there was no way he could save anyone else, and he just had to get out.  Minutes after he climbed out, the house collapsed under the weight of the mud.  The father and mother of the small baby were killed, and she was 5 months pregnant.  Also lost in the mudslide was all the livestock: sheep, cows, chickens, goats, all crushed under the mud. 

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there was little help or consolation.  The government contributed a 3-day contract for 2 dumptrucks and 1 excavator to clean up the damage, but in 3 days they had only cleaned up the house, the dead livestock were still buried under their collapsed buildings.  The community did the standard funeral, burial, wake, and mourning, and that was that.  Another tragedy in their midst; nothing out of the ordinary. 

Dave’s story complete, and my own heart torn, I now have to decide: what do I do?  He points to the hill and explains that his plan is to “lighten the load” of the face of the hill, so that if (when) it falls, it will not do as much damage.  He admits it’s a feeble attempt, but doesn’t know what else he can do.  He also shows me that there is a little area left in his yard where he could build a new room to move his family into, so that they could sleep 5 meters further from the hill.  He asked for relief money to build this room, because his wife agrees to return and live in a room there, but not in the one 5 meters closer to the hill.  I’m pretty sure that those 5 meters will not make much difference in his family’s safety.  So what was I going to do? 

I decided to do what I came to do: spend the morning shoveling with my driver Dave.  I wasn’t sure that we were going to accomplish much, but if taking a shovel with him would at least provide a sense of solidarity for him, I would do it.  So the three of us climbed the hill, about 150 ft up, and began to dig, one shovel at a time.  On the very front edge of the hill it was easy to shove the dirt down, tumbling all the way to the wall separating the base of the hill from his yard.  Dave’s goal, however, was to shovel from the edge, to 2-3 meters back from it.  Soon it became apparent that each shovel full of dirt would have to be scooped and handled not once or even twice, but probably 8 or more times, in order to send it down to the bottom of the hill.  I began to estimate that there was at least 500 cubic yards of dirt to move in this fashion.  For this morning, however, I tried to put these calculations out of my mind and just put my back into the task of joining this friend in the only action he could think about in order to bring his family back to a safe home. 

As I shoveled the morning away with Dave, he repeatedly urged me to commit relief money to him, either from the project or personally, so that he could build the new room 5 meters further from the hill.  I told him early on, and reminded him later, that I would not make any promises or decisions today, I needed time to consider this matter carefully.  Is that a disappointing response?  Sorry if you think I blew it, but I just couldn’t act until I had carefully thought this through.  On one hand, Dave’s request for helping building a new room was small and attainable, but would it provide protection?  On the other hand, Dave’s effort in shoveling the entire mountainside was insurmountable, and yet it seemed like the better way to look.  So how could I help him to move the mountain, without discouraging him by not helping him build a new room? 

When I got home later in the day, I went to work making phone calls to other organizations to ask for help.  There is still big aid money available in our region this year because of the insecurity and the drought, and one of the priorities is disaster-affected people.  So I called my friend who is the head of one of the UN organizations and co-chair of the Protection cluster.  I told him I had a disaster risk reduction project for him, and it could save the lives of 70 people.  He was interested, and asked me to draft him a proposal that he could take to the Protection cluster to push it further.  That finished, I went on to call another contact with USAID who personally advises the governor on the projects he should take up for public goodwill and improving governance.  I told him about the situation, and we talked about it a bit.  It seemed that this contact was not as easy to persuade, because he stood behind the government’s suggestion that these families just move away from the hill.  I urged my contact to consider that houses do not sit vacant, drifters would quickly move in to the empty, unsafe houses.  I also urged him to see that while the government’s reactive response in cleaning up the demolished house was one kind of help, what was really needed was a proactive government that would help people get away from imminent environment danger, and then put legislation in place so that people would not build on land like this.  He agreed that we could meet and talk about this more, so an appointment was made.

It’s too early to say what will come from my advocacy efforts to bigger organizations.  I hope that there will be a release of funding and an organization that is willing to manage a project where 20-30 men are hired to shovel the hill, and an excavator works from the bottom of the hill to move the dirt they shovel down.  If they do this, and leave it on a pitch that cannot be built on, but will not slide onto the houses below, this would be the best solution for this village (aside from moving).

Unfortunately, sometimes advocacy takes time to get a response, and practical minded fellows like Dave want a quicker response.  When Dave didn’t get the relief from me to build his new room, he called other foreigners he knew and asked them.  Somehow these foreigners learned I had been more directly involved and asked my opinion of the situation.  It was hard, but I had to say that I thought it was better if Dave did not build the new room, but rather continued to stay with his wife at her brother’s house, because it’s a safer place for them to be while it’s still rainy season. 

Before giving the suggestion that Dave leave the area rather than build a new room, I had some discussions with my CDP team about Dave’s situation, and this was informative.  As it turned out, our CDP facilitators had met with Dave just last summer, when he was digging at the base of the hill, in order to build a guestroom.  When they learned what he was doing, they urged him not to build a room there, because it was so close to the mountain, and was vulnerable to landslides.  Dave shrugged off their advice, saying, “this is the only land I have, I have to build here.”  Somehow, this information only made this situation harder for me to wade through.  It would have been easier, as a foreigner, to be naïve of that background story, and then just respond out of compassion and quickly answer his request now for a new room.  Since I had asked about the background, I was no longer naïve, and I had to deal with the fact that this victim I wanted to save had himself to blame as anyone else! 

It’s useless to say, “you should have listened to our CDP facilitators when they advised you not to build here.”  But isn’t it also useless to respond to Dave in a way that makes his choices seem without consequence?  What do you think, what can be done for Dave that would also have positive impact on the community around him?