After the Flood: Humanitarian Teamwork in Pakistan and Beyond
By Elizabeth Ross, Senior Program Director for Central Asia & Africa Relief International
July 27, 2010, the rains started in northern Pakistan, and the Indus River began to swell. The Relief International team on the ground was sharing observations with me hourly, concerned about impact to the communities where RI has worked since 2005.
July 30, 2010, I held a late-night (for New York) meeting with colleagues in Islamabad and towns in the soon-to-be underwater regions of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. Our meetings in the next 72 hours were fast-paced briefs attended by whoever could join; many had to cope first with flooding in their homes or were struggling with dying electricity and internet. My goal leading these sessions was to start RI’s response: gather information about affected populations, operationalize an RI medical team to journey up to our office in a remote part of Swat Valley (where 40 bridges were out), and mobilize kits with lifesaving water purification supplies and food rations to stave off hunger and prevent disease that would soon bloom from the flood waters contaminated with dead animals and waste. As I turned our team of 300 on a dime, I needed help from our security officers to ensure RI’s team would not be vulnerable to insurgents. All other hours of the day and night were spent with colleagues to move supplies, write proposals to our donor partners to secure the funds necessary to support the relief effort, and attend coordination meetings in Washington.
I am proud to have launched the RI Pakistan flood response and to have been just one part of the team that has, to date, assisted more than 100,000 people (for a full summary of the RI team action and impact, go to: www.ri.org/pakistanflood).
The flood response, like so many projects in my scope of work, required a “plate-spinning” approach to get successfully through each day and see impact on the ground. Mostly because humanitarian relief and development in Pakistan—and many other countries challenged with poverty, nation building, and social injustice—is basically “project management” dropped into a cocktail shaker of militarism, terrorism, and natural disaster.
Before the floods, the team I support was at work with communities in the final stages of rebuilding from the 2005 earthquake and 2008-09 military campaign to eradicate the Taliban, which drove residents from their homes. Now that the floods have interrupted that recovery, we, and most importantly the Pakistan people, must start all over again.
It is amazing to me that my Pakistan colleagues come to work every day with such verve. You need to know that this is not unique to Pakistan; it is the same in Somalia, in the Sudan, in Afghanistan... Some of my local colleagues have degrees in international development, civil engineering, and medicine. Others, like me, come from very different paths, and for humanitarian work we have learned on the job. And my local colleagues are often working even when the crisis is in their own communities.
In Darfur, 2006, my first fieldwork with RI, the local logistic officer invited me to meet his family. Eyeing the makeshift fabric and plastic hut we were about to enter on the edge of town, I said, with total naiveté: “You live in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camp?”
“Of course,” he said, “we are not from here. We are from Tawilla.”
He had helped his family escape the violence, rape, and house burning plaguing his hometown, placed his family in the camp, and found a job with an INGO—with RI. Before that, he was a farmer growing ground nuts and onions on his family’s land. During the floods, my Pakistani colleagues still came to work; several of our team members lost their houses, grain stores, and family assets.
I am not sure you can really learn how to do this type of management in school or if celebrity spokespeople who tour these communities understand what it takes for a team of international and national colleagues working together to achieve humanitarian impact: the late nights writing funding proposals, negotiating with government officials to access populations neutrally, keeping the vehicles running and free of IEDs, filling staffing gaps, ensuring transparent and competitive procurement of supplies, ensuring you are meeting rigorous international standards….
While considering these less-than-glamorous tasks, keep in mind I have the privilege of working alongside my local colleagues—who are committed to improving their home communities. It is certainly worthwhile.
It is November now. The team and I are looking forward to recovery. And if you think the emergency response was important in saving lives, consider how valuable it would be to know that because of your help, school can restart because the walls, books, and latrines are all there as they should be; so children can learn and grow to lead in their communities—as they should. To take action and enable the resilient Pakistani community to rebuild, go to:
Elizabeth Ross is Relief International’s senior program director for humanitarian relief and development operations in Africa and Central Asia. Her deep fieldwork was spent with communities in Darfur and South Sudan. She is RI’s Gender Focal Point, contributing to the improvement of humanitarian programming to meet the different needs of women, men, boys and girls.
Quick Study: Disaster Relief