Life with dignity in disaster
Millions of people are affected by disasters every year. Lives are lost, people are injured and displaced, assets are destroyed, shelters are damaged, and survival becomes a struggle. The suffering makes thousands of people come forward to support disaster victims as an act of charity. Life-saving relief assistance is provided by governments, civil societies and other humanitarian actors to as many affected people as possible, depending on the budget available and information on the needs assessment post-disaster events. Most of the humanitarian actors globally agree that the populations affected by disasters have a right to life with dignity. The noble act of giving must also take into consideration what is being given, how and how much is being given.
Persons affected by disasters need to be at the centre of the humanitarian action. In the absence of minimum standards, the needs of people cannot be met adequately. One could provide food grains that would serve the food requirements of a family for 15 days to a few months, or one could provide one biscuit to one family and call it food assistance. Support provided should meet the needs with dignity. Concerns regarding the quality and impact of relief assistance led to the development of standards in disaster relief.
A group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement identified Minimum Standards to be attained in disaster assistance in the major sectors: water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelter and health services (The Sphere Project) in 1997. It emphasises on meeting urgent survival needs of disaster affected population while asserting their fundamental right to life with dignity and right to humanitarian assistance. Since then there have been revisions and additional sectors added. The Core Humanitarian Standard on quality and accountability (CHS) launched in December 2014, describes essential elements of humanitarian assistance with quality and accountability towards the affected people. Setting out nine commitments that humanitarian actors can use, it recognises people affected by disasters as principal actors who participate in assessments as well as in the design of the response. It appreciates capacities of affected people and builds on it, instead of treating them helpless beneficiaries.
One of the key areas in meeting the accountability standards is setting up feedback and complaints mechanism. The CHS commitment regarding handling complaints talks about safe and responsive mechanisms to handle complaints. People should feel safe and welcomed while providing a feedback or making a complaint. Some of the ways to ensure this is done well during emergency relief are:
1. Sharing contact details of the agency and person who can be approached in case of a complaint.
2. Demonstrating and explaining the content of relief kit to all the beneficiaries
3. Listing out and putting up at a common place the agreed criteria for recipient selection. This applies in the case of targeted relief distribution.
4. At the relief distribution site, setting up a complaints/feedback desk and inviting the beneficiaries and other community members to get their feedback noted.
5. Conducting post-distribution monitoring visit to collect feedback on the quality and quantity of relief items as well as procedure followed while carrying out assessments, identifying beneficiaries, and distributing stocks.
Based on the experience of needs assessment, many humanitarian agencies in India have identified a set of items to meet specific needs of affected communities with dignity in Shelter and WASH sector. e.g. A hygiene cum-dignity kit for a household of will contain: bathing soap bar, washing soap powder, toothpaste, toothbrush, bucket for washing (with lid), disposable razors, ladies underwear, cotton salwar suit/saree with blouse and petticoat, sanitary napkins – packets of 10 each, detergent soaps, combs, washable baby napkin, packets of safety pins, bathing towel, hand towel, nail cutter, draperies/cloth – pieces, thread, and sewing needle, old newspapers in adequate quantity to serve the needs of all members of the family.
During disasters, basic human rights are often forgotten. The right to being safe from sexual violence and the right to healthcare are basic human rights that apply to emergency situations as well. When healthcare facilities are disrupted, complications during pregnancy can be fatal. The Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) sets minimum standards by identifying critical actions to respond to reproductive health needs during a humanitarian crisis. A wide range of actions are covered under MISP that range from preventing and managing the consequences of sexual violence to the provision of clean delivery kits to skilled birth attendants and visibly pregnant women. It also focuses on the integration of comprehensive reproductive health services into primary health care.
When resources are less, and a large number of people are affected, with significant gaps in aid provided by the Government, humanitarian agencies are left with a difficult choice to make. Reaching out to many affected people with fewer items versus meeting the minimum standards regarding quality and quantity for a ‘smaller’ population is a difficult call to take. Decisions then are made given the primacy of humanitarian imperative.
(Eilia Jafar is Head, Disaster Management Unit, CARE India. The views expressed are strictly personal.)