Rebuilding lives, restarting communities

The Star, 22 Dec 2014

Two organisations that stepped up to the plate explain how they helped put lives back on track.

AS humanitarian relief forms the core of World Vision’s work, the global organisation was among the many NGOs that launched fund-raising campaigns immediately in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“We have categories of disasters to take the appropriate type of response,” explains Liew Tong Ngan, CEO of World Vision Malaysia.

“Category three covers disasters affecting over one million people spread across a wide geographic area and the Indian Ocean tsunami was like five category three disasters all at once. The scale of destruction was unprecedented. ”

World Vision was able to launch immediate assistance within 24 hours through its Global Rapid Response team, as it conducts year-round disaster preparedness training and has three major warehouses in strategic locations stocked for urgent and immediate relief response.

The Malaysian operation is a support office for the regional offices, from which it collected some RM5.1mil that was channelled to relief work in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The funds collected globally were approximately US$346mil (RM1.2bil) and went into the organisation’s largest ever relief effort programme, extending beyond initial emergency relief to community rehabilitation, livelihood recovery and infrastructure rehabilitation – all of which stretched beyond a period of three years.

“All donations are given towards specific projects or countries and every cent is channelled accordingly,” explains Liew.

World Vision is well known for its high level of transparency and accountability for its relief work, which dates back to the mid-1950s after the Korean War, when it provided shelter for thousands of orphans.

Process and finance audits are conducted regularly with established external organisations like Ernst & Young or Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) and peer audits are also held. Distribution of donations adheres to UN regulations and standards, Liew adds.

Child-friendly spaces

“We were stretched to the limits of our capacity during the Indian Ocean tsunami. One of the things we have piloted was to introduce child-friendly spaces to safeguard the young who were made vulnerable by the loss of their guardians, families, and homes.

“We cooperate very closely with the government and local communities and never go through back channels even if it hastens the process,” says Liew.

“It helps tremendously that World Vision has been working among the poorest communities in many countries from the beginning. When disasters strike, these communities are the ones … often very badly affected. As such, we were able to work very closely with the local people as we already have a strong presence among them.

“For example, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last November, we had a team responding to an earthquake there at the time. Some of the team members were devastated to hear of the typhoon destroying their own homes and villages.

“As our people were already deployed, we moved rapidly because of that. Ground consultation and community engagement is crucial in dispensing aid efficiently.

“We give documented proof of where and whom we deliver aid to.”

Following the tsunami, Liew says, disaster mitigation efforts were increased, with more training conducted among villages, as mitigation is far more cost effective than relief work.

“Training of staff and volunteers is crucial to any operation as a disaster is no place for ‘relief tourists’. While it is always encouraging to have volunteers, if they are not trained to help effectively, they take up precious resources that should go to those in need.

“Survivors of disasters may be poor and disadvantaged by their situation, but we (take) their dignity very seriously as we are in it for the long haul. During the tsunami and other subsequent disasters, once we are beyond the survival stage, it was crucial to involve local communities in assessing their needs and how we can help.

“We asked for funds only when we were assured we could deliver the assistance where they were needed.

“Malaysians remain a generous people when it comes to giving towards a cause or a specific need. We never take that for granted.”

A record in relief work

Another organisation to step up to the plate was the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, known as the largest NGO in the “Chinese world”, with a record of aid relief efforts in over 80 countries.

The foundation has branches in more than 50 countries, and Malaysia has the largest branch outside Taiwan, both in terms of donating members (over a million) and volunteers (about 10,000).

The local chapter also participates in international joint efforts with Tzu Chi chapters of other countries, such as those for last year’s Haiyan Typhoon in the Philippines.

“Compared to other disasters, it was less of a challenge to raise donations for the tsunami as Malaysians were aware of the disaster,” says Tzu Chi’s Humanistic Cultural Development head Chong Chuan Yit.

In their post-tsunami efforts, Tzu Chi volunteers collected donations in 30 countries from Jan 1 to March 31, 2005, raising about US$81.9mil (RM284mil) in the process.

Chong explains that the foundation’s financial statements are audited by certified public accountants from Ernst & Young, with audited accounts provided to Malaysia’s Inland Revenue Board for review every year.

“Most Malaysians were kind enough to donate and help, as we were also one of the countries affected,” he adds.

With the tsunami being the largest disaster relief programme coordinated by Tzu Chi Malaysia, volunteers from Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, the United States, Hong Kong and Australia – all led by Danny Lee Mun Keat for 17 months after the disaster – concentrated on Hambantota, the hardest hit area in southern Sri Lanka.

“To get to the area, we had to travel through the mountains for eight hours as the coastal road for the usual six-hour journey was destroyed,” says the 53-year-old Lee, who spent two Chinese New Years on the ground there for what he initially thought would be a two-week assignment.

Immediate relief for Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia came in the form of food and necessities such as blankets, sugar, cooking oil, milk powder, and basic supplies, with water filtering systems making their way to affected areas in Indonesia.

In the first two months, Lee coordinated the challenge of distributing over 2,000 tonnes of rice from Pakistan to the affected populace in Sri Lanka, with each 50kg pack painstakingly divided into 10kg rations for easier transportation by weak and malnourished tsunami victims.

With the majority of first-wave volunteers being Taiwanese doctors, medical teams were also sent to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Apart from monetary contributions, other donations include thousands of pairs of sports shoes from a factory in Malacca, while temporary tents sent to Sri Lanka and Indonesia were donated by a Taiwanese businessman.

Restarting an economy

Unfortunately, not all donations were usable.

“A lot of Western countries sent thick clothes and blankets that were unsuitable for the hot and humid weather in Sri Lanka. A Singaporean donor sent soya bean packet drinks, but Sri Lankans do not favour nor drink that flavour,” shares Lim.

Instead, he preferred to use monetary donations to buy food supplies from local vendors and get the economy in motion again.

In the few years that followed, the volunteers rebuilt the Da Ai (Great Love) village with the help of local contractors, along with the major infrastructure the area required, such as roads, electricity poles, infrastructure, and piping.

In Sri Lanka, a total of 649 houses were completed in 2006 along with a school and community centre, while 2,566 houses were constructed for three villages, with nine schools, and a mosque, clinic, market and community centre for Indonesia.

Whenever he visits the village, Lee is heartened to see the efforts of some to beautify their homes, and recalls how Tzu Chi first built temporary housing in the form of 300 huts, with the assistance of the Sri Lankan army, using the 101ha of land allotted by the local government,

“We flattened the area and made a smooth and level sand base for each hut, so the victims could rest comfortably. We also tried many ways to help them stay inside without feeling too hot, like using netting for the top.

“Even though the first form of housing was only temporary, I remember Dharma Master Cheng Yen saying that we must let (the tsunami survivors) stay in good conditions throughout,” he explains with a smile.

Medical services, food and home care visits were provided for the first year, but only a minimal number of personnel are currently maintained to assist in about 50 home visit cases in Hambantota.

“People there have rebuilt normal lives – I’m happy to say some have even gone overseas to better their fortunes,” Lee adds.