Over the few years I’ve worked at Tearfund, I’ve seen us respond to numerous disasters. And over time, I’ve found a weight of hopelessness can grow in you over the destruction that injustice and poverty inflict on people. But hearing Kevin Riddell, one of our senior Programmes Specialists, talk about disaster response as the first step on a journey from disaster to community development; from hopelessness to hope, from devastated communities to ones that are flourishing, helped to give me hope. I thought it would be relevant for people out there feeling the same.

Here’s how disaster responses usually work

When a disaster strikes, people’s normal lives are suddenly destroyed. People may have lost loved ones, been injured, have houses and crops damaged and have no access to safe water.

“Our job is to keep people alive and respond to their immediate needs,” says Kevin.

A response usually lasts between one to three months. But if it’s a big disaster, it can take years, requiring both an emergency and recovery response. This was the case when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines five years ago. Once the immediate community needs are met like basic healthcare and sanitation, shelter and access to clean water, the recovery phase focuses on restoring basic infrastructure and livelihoods that have been lost, like re-planting rice crops.

“Disaster responders come in quick and hard, they try to keep people alive, and then hand it over to either development agencies or the government to bring in the long-term plans. Disaster response isn’t looking at the long-term development of people,” says Kevin.

The destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. A young boy looks out from his damaged home with rubble all around him.

Herein lies the problem

When a disaster strikes, people want to get their normal lives back. One key element of this is being able to earn a living; another is psychological support. There are therefore big gaps in just having a disaster response and recovery way of thinking!

“Emergency response in the long-term is unsustainable,” says Kevin.

Unlike developed countries, developing countries don’t have the resources to rebuild, and vulnerable communities often get forgotten.

“What about those who were in poverty cycles before the disaster struck? What about those communities that are at-risk to future disasters? What about those who are left without a way to make an income?” Kevin says.

“Many aid and development organisations don’t have the mandate to do long-term development through disasters. Very little is often done to support vulnerable communities economically, environmentally, and socially against further disasters. As a result, these communities start falling into even worse states like unsustainable fishing, or trafficking.”

There’s also a whole psychology around the impact of disasters on people.

“It’s hard for us to get our head around,” says Kevin, “but for people living in truly vulnerable situations, who for example have had to buy rice seeds using a loan to eat, when the rice crop and their house is wiped out by a disaster and all their possessions are gone, it breeds hopelessness. With continual setbacks like these, when you ask people, ‘What is your hope for the future?’ They don’t believe they have one. It’s about survival.”

How we’re closing the gap

At Tearfund, we see disaster response as the first step in a long-term development programme; economic resilience goes hand-in-hand with hope!

“In an ideal world, you’d have a ten-year development plan to build self-sufficient, strong communities,” says Kevin.

“During the recovery response, you have to start thinking about strategic development plans that will not only serve the communities but their local partners like their government. It’s big picture thinking with a shared goal of economic resilience.”

Six years ago, dozens of agencies responded to Typhoon Haiyan - the most severe widespread emergency the Philippines has ever experienced.

“Today, our local partner is one of only a few left,” says Kevin. “Unlike other agencies, we don’t say, ‘let’s do the response and then leave’, instead we consider economic resilience and social support. You have to take people on a journey that will lead to hope.”

A man wearing a yellow cap backwards and a yellow t-shirt that says, "agriculture is our future," proudly holds up taro that he's grown on his farm in the Philippines. He's looking upwards,to the right, into the sunlight.

How are we seeing this model working?

In Sri Lanka, a civil war as brutal as the one in Syria, most people witnessed terrible violence as well as endured a devastating tsunami.

“With the end of the 25 year internal conflict in 2009, we began enabling communities to rebuild their lives, using dairy farming as the driver. There was a lot of scepticism at first as they were naturally rice farmers. But six years on, they’ve gone from being a cooperative of eight farmers earning $10-$20 a month from milk production to over 1,400 farmers regularly producing $220 worth of milk (and some well over $1000),” says Kevin.

Milk production has doubled in the last two years, even in the face of a drought which meant many rice farmers weren’t able to produce rice and failed to generate enough income. To date the dairy programme has generated almost ten million dollars for poor dairy communities, and by the end of the dairy expansion programme in 2022, this amount will have increased to almost thirty million dollars!

“In one of the most war-ravaged areas, thousands of farmers have lifted themselves above the poverty line, and have been instrumental in making their district one of the most economically successful in Sri Lanka,” says Kevin.

Every farmer in our cooperative is able to send their kids to school, they’re rebuilding their lives and now believe in their future.

“We’ve set them up, got them going, and have now removed our financial inputs (from your donations) into this cooperative because they’re self-sufficient. We simply monitor the programme,” says Kevin.

“Dairy is their primary household income and it’s going to keep increasing because it’s sustainable. The sense of hope is spreading to other communities, inviting them to join the movement. We had a strategic plan from the first day of the tsunami disaster to make a development programme that is sustainable and resilient, and it’s really working.”

A lady stands with a hand on her in Sri Lanka as part of a Tearfund NZ farming co-operative

Grasping hope in the midst of a disaster

“When a community can say, ‘we don’t need your help now’, and can recover from disasters on their own, that is the development dream. You look at the transformation. Disaster is the first step in a long-term development plan. You’ve just got to see the potential, and grasp hope,” says Kevin.

So if you ask me why I love geeking out over long term development, it’s because I believe there’s nothing better than seeing once vulnerable communities transformed by hope and rebuilt even stronger!

Tearfund is transferring this thinking across more of our partner’s programmes. One of them is the 2018 Indonesia tsunami and earthquake response, where we’re working with our local partner to firstly address post-disaster trauma and health concerns for women and children, and secondly, to support farmers in becoming food secure.

If you want, you can support this life-changing and sustainable work here.

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