by Chelsea Zfaz
In 2015, I was recruited to manage a team of humanitarian professionals sent to Myanmar to support the response to massive flooding that inundated a majority of the country. Equipped with an incredible team of water engineers, psychologists and social workers, we set out to the farthest reaches of the country to ensure that even the most remote, isolated communities received access to the emergency relief aid that they so gravely needed.
During my time in the country, I had the great opportunity of working with people and organizations from diverse walks of life, which offered a fascinating window into the cultural complexities of a country that, though on the brink of major change, remained rooted in tradition. I worked with tribal leaders from Ayeyarwady, teachers from Magwey, social workers from Myitkyina, NGO leaders from Yangon, pastors from Kale, monks from Sagaing and Internally Displaced Persons Camp managers from Hakah.
There are over 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar speaking over 100 different languages. In such a sundry country, whose politicians, policies and practices often seem to leverage divisiveness as a tool to achieve various objectives, finding common trends amongst the people I worked with seemed improbable. Yet, after a couple of months on the ground, I managed to see a through line that once acknowledged, could not be ignored. This trend crossed cultures, religions, socioeconomic statuses and vocations. From aid workers to government officials, from tribal chiefs to law enforcement, from spiritual leaders to entrepreneurs- I learned that people were rarely as prepared for disasters as they thought they were.
I was intrigued by this observation and was enthusiastic about evaluating its prevalence in Fiji, where I would land on my next deployment. I was sent to Fiji in the early Spring of 2016 to support recovery efforts after a category 5 cyclone devastated much of the country. An archipelago of more than 300 islands located in the South Pacific, Fiji has been experiencing increasingly destructive hurricane seasons in recent years and is no stranger to devastating storms. Yet Cyclone Winston, which made landfall in February of 2016, was the most intense cyclone ever recorded in the world’s Southern Hemisphere.
Here again I experienced this sociological tendency in which communities, businesses and government agencies had a certain level of disaster preparedness that had been assumed to be sufficient but had been proven to be inadequate. And again, my experiences showed me that people- regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, social standing, or occupation– are rarely as prepared for disasters as they think, feel or assume.
This trend was so prevalent that upon return to Israel from Fiji, I pivoted my focus to strategic disaster preparedness.
Raising an organization’s level of disaster preparedness is not a simple task, especially when considering that preparedness is determined by a number of policies and practices, many of which rely on action from external actors. The reality is that all capacity-building endeavors involve close collaboration between multiple agencies. Whether you’re working in emergency preparedness or response, or humanitarian aid or development- How do you ensure that all actors (including those who are contracted) cooperate consistently and operate uniformly, and that operations are not only as effective and efficient as possible but are also aligned according to equal standards? Achieving these objectives is possible only through critical analysis of both people and processes and informed assessment of the quality of their dynamic in managing various challenging scenarios.
As someone who has spent innumerable hours reacting to the changing conditions of disaster relief, I see great opportunity in shifting the paradigm from a reactionary approach to a proactive approach in order to refine the quality and efficiency of humanitarian service provision.
Such a shift cannot happen overnight. But I do believe that raising awareness of the importance of preparedness in the collective mind of civil society is a necessary step in reducing the extent of human suffering in the world.