disaster relief

Accountability in the disaster-relief world

Hello from Dubai, where I’m on a long layover on my way home from my 13th deployment for ShelterBox. I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about something I don’t think a lot of folks consider when they think of disaster relief: How this agency works to continuously refine both what we deliver to families in need and how we deliver it, so we can be sure we’re doing the best we can.

A large part of this responsibility rests with our MEAL team.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I need feeding every two hours. This has to do with Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning. After a decade at ShelterBox, I think this is one of my favorite parts of working with the agency. In theory, it’s about making sure we gain knowledge to improve every time we deploy aid and resources. I’ve had the great privilege of being a part of putting it into practice three times now, and I think I’m ready to share some of its most salient points with you.

First: Post-distribution monitoring (PDM) can start happening as early as a few weeks after we give families in need our aid, and, in fact, can go on while distribution of aid is still taking place. Some of this is due to our desire to see that the families we helped can use and understand our aid. So we go back and do things like making sure tents are set up properly; tarps have been installed correctly; solar lights are functioning properly and optimally (we might remind a family that using the solar light at full power will drain its battery faster, for instance). This helps us to check up on two things: 1., that the training we helped to provide was accurate and useful; 2., that the family is moving forward from the disaster they’ve experienced.

Second: Another phase of PDM involves longer surveys and focus groups. In the past, this has taken place about six months after we deploy the aid, but we are always trying new things, and this methodology may change. We spend somewhere from half an hour to an hour with randomly chosen families who have received our aid, and walk them through how hey felt about both the distribution process and the actual aid package itself. Since the families have had more time with the kit by the time we reach this stage, we are able to get more in-depth answers from them.

Focus groups are one of my favorite parts of the MEAL process. Since the beneficiaries are in the focus groups with their friends and fellow community members, this is a bubbly, lively event. The MEAL team works really hard to come up with topics that will help us to respond to each disaster, and each region’s, more specific needs. We then work together as a team to come up with questions revolving around the topics, which might touch on things like the potential for cash aid packages, how aid affects larger families, and other relevant issues that affect the communities we worked with.

In a focus group, recipients of ShelterBox aid selected which of the items they received was their favorite by attaching stickers to pictures of each aid item. Photo: Josephine Mendoza, Calbayog Journal

 

The MEAL team might opt for focus groups comprising all men, all women, or mixed. Any way you slice it, we get such valuable information–and such wonderful stories, the likes of which we don’t always hear if the families are just being interviewed by themselves. The air of discussion really loans some focus group participants bravery, and the backing to speak up.

Third: This is another one of my favorite parts of MEAL: The interviews we undertake do not happen without some help from locals. I mean the invaluable interpreters we engage in order to ensure we are understanding the families accurately. Several times we’ve leaned on our drivers, who sometimes do double duty as interpreters, and I’ve twice had the experience of working with students recruited from the local high school or university. These people come to help us as volunteers. These volunteers are amazing. They spend a lot of time being walked through the survey. And they also spend time learning about the software we use so they can use smartphone or tablet versions of the survey if they want.

Sometimes the interviewers are workers from the local government, or community health workers. Sometimes they are Rotarians. Either way, what ends up happening is a collaboration of a most remarkable sort, where people get to make connections to people they might otherwise have ever been able to meet. Another neat side effect: We’ve also heard from some volunteers that the skills they learn, and the experiences they gain, as volunteers for us end up encouraging them in different life directions.

An initial setup for a focus group at Bayho Barangay, in the Lope de Vega municipality of Northern Samar, in the Philippines. Things didn’t stay this way for long.

 

When I was younger, I loved the urgency of disaster relief. Part of me hungered for the drive involved in its immediacy. I thought delivering aid by hand to a family in need was the pinnacle of responsibility. But I’ve seen a lot more since then, and I’ve often wondered how people are after we leave them. Ultimately, our MEAL team and processes allow us to see these families again, which fulfills a certain emotional urge, but it also gives us the tools to improve, so that we can keep on getting better at providing our aid to families who need it the most.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Oh, look, I’ve gone and disappeared again.

And now it’s almost the end of the January. It’s been a remarkably busy few weeks. While I’ve been gone from these pages, I’ve been very busy taking care of a little project I’m so proud of. Most of you have already heard me speak about this, but I’ll say it again: I think ShelterBox is the best thing that ever happened to me. Well, aside from Jim and Sprocket, anyway. And my friends. And, um, being born and stuff.

I was telling my brother, in somewhat of a dazed state after a ton of activity, that I finally understood what it meant to him that he was a Peace Corps volunteer. No matter what happens, no one can take that away from him. He walks taller because of it. When I am wearing the ShelterBox shirt or pin, I walk taller. I know that.

These past few days have been incredibly taxing. We’re literally in the middle of a huge earthquake that I think did even more damage than the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that leveled Taiwan. Haiti, which had no real infrastructure to begin with, is buried in rubble. ShelterBox is there helping, and we’ve got a ton of attention now because of it. Because our goods are so tangible and so easily trackable—do you see a big green box here? Yes? Well, that’s your money, at work—CNN is following a big shipment from Newquay until they get to their destination in Haiti. It’s my hope that they’ll follow the shipment until it gets delivered into the hands of the Haitians. Our tents are now being used as medical tents in a makeshift hospital, so that amputations and treatment can be carried out in more sanitary conditions than they have been previously.

medicaltent

It’s incredible, how fast we mobilized. As a result, I am completely knackered. Here’s the schedule since the earthquake happened:

Tuesday evening. Earthquake happens while I’m at a meeting with Adam Stone, publisher for the Examiner newspapers, for whom I’m doing some copy-editing.

Wednesday. I spend all morning and the early afternoon organizing efforts to get ShelterBox top of mind with Rotarians and tweeting about our efforts, just in case anyone else is watching. My girls at Rotaract of the UN spend some time organizing a fast happy hour, to take place on Monday. I send a quick note to a buddy at Pepsi who knows some folks who live in the city who might go to the fundraiser. I go out Wednesday night and drink too much, feeling a lot of pressure and not believing that such a horrible thing could happen to such a defenseless country. I get a note back from my buddy saying that his Haitian friends at Pepsi have taken an interest. The thing begins to take form.

Thursday. Our teams arrive at Port-au-Prince. I wake up hungover to an e-mail from Pepsi asking if I’m available for the next week to demonstrate the box at Pepsi headquarters. Jim calls to tell me that it’s actually going to be a whole week-long promotion, with bake sales, raffles, and presentations. I go to do a taping for the middle-school kids across the street. I get home to urgent requests for a conference, a phone conference at least, the next day, to arrange all the details for this promotion.

Friday. Conference at Pepsi. Interview for the Examiner’s Business of the Week feature. I get notice that the Westchester Tweetup Group is planning on making the following Thursday’s Tweetup a benefit for ShelterBox. I get a lot misty at the thought of so many people rallying around. I finish up my personal statement for an MFA application and send it in. One step closer to being done. I also file my story.

Saturday. I wake up to a tweet from a local green enthusiast who does cooking demonstrations with local ingredients at the Katonah Farmer’s Market. She wants to make one of her demonstrations a benefit for ShelterBox. We agree on the following week. I spend the rest of the day editing The Examiner. Jim and I head to a friend’s house in New Jersey for the evening—some good conversation and much-needed decompression occurs, although, as we’re walking the dogs on the beach, I’m taking phone calls, trying to arrange coverage for the Farmer’s Market.

Sunday. I can’t remember Sunday. At all. I only remember that Jim and I went to Aileen’s for BACON EXPLOSION. Have you ever had bacon explosion? It is a veghead’s nightmare. For me, pudgy little post-Ironman me, it’s not so good, but it was OH SO GOOD. Anyway. Oh, right, I also did a lot of editing on Sunday.

bacon

Monday. More editing. And a happy hour. Some long-lost friends came out. I was all verklempt to see such support. And really happy to hear that we’d raised enough money for a whole box. Awesome. All that from a $10 open bar and passing the bucket. Fricken awesome. We go to a sushi dinner with friends to celebrate.

lookit my new double chin! wow!!

lookit my new double chin! wow!!

Tuesday. Big, big day at Pepsi. People were in awe. I was in awe, as I am every time I unpack the tent. Probably the crowning achievement was hearing the cafeteria manager say that she and her crew were taking up collections to help Haiti and that we were going to be it for them. The chef came out. I almost cried.

box

Wednesday. Big day at Pepsi R&D headquarters. Full presentation this time. Awesome to hear all the questions; great to see peoples’ faces again as they saw the tent. They did a raffle. The company matched. We had donations from $10 to $750 that day. I almost cried, again. I went home and struggled to pack and work on my critical essay. But I’ve been very disjointed lately.

pepsidemo

Thursday.  I’m away from my desk, of course, but still tied up in ShelterBox stuff. I have a feeling I’ll be tied up in it for quite some time, don’t you?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.