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From Disaster to Development: Community Women's Leadership in Times of Crisis

Posted on: Friday, September 30, 2005

Keywords: Emergency Relief, Economic Justice

In the wake of disasters like the Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, we may find it comforting to see big international agencies taking charge of relief and reconstruction efforts. But large-scale relief operations are not always best suited to meet the needs of those most threatened by disaster. Certainly, international agencies—with their resources, know-how, technology, and access to government—have a critical role to play, but their expertise is best utilized in the service of local organizations. Often, however, we see international aid agencies coming into a crisis with little practical experience for addressing its particularities and with little regard for those who have been working in the affected community since long before the disaster.

A member of MADRE's Sri Lankan sister organization described this scenario after last year's tsunami: "The international agencies moved in and immediately began spending huge sums of money, setting up offices in five-star hotels, buying SUVs . . . Within a week they had artificially inflated the economy." Prices skyrocketed because the big agencies were paying 10 times the going rate for accommodations, car rentals, and food. Local groups simply could not afford to function.

Sri Lankan community-based organizations experienced another common—and detrimental—side effect of large-scale relief efforts: a brain drain. "The international agencies lured the best–trained people from the community-based groups," said the director of one local organization. In fact, local organizations sometimes collapse after losing their core staff to higher-paying agencies during a critical time. As for the high salaries, they disappear as soon as the international organizations leave for the next high-profile crisis.

Rather than replicate the work of existing organizations, MADRE works in partnership with local women's groups grappling with disaster. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua's North Atlantic Coast. Decades of government neglect pushed some Indigenous communities off the map of relief operations. Responders didn't know where these villages were, much less how to reach them in flood conditions. But MADRE delivered aid directly to women who had grown up in the region. They knew where every family lived, which households had new babies or disabled elders, and how to reach remote communities by canoe.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, MADRE mobilized community support services for battered women. While this seemed to some to be an arbitrary focus, our work with women around the world has shown that domestic violence escalates in every natural disaster, and that in big relief operations, already-marginalized people are usually the ones who "fall through the cracks." After Katrina, for example, many battered women didn't use missing person registries for fear that they would enable their abusers to find them.

Women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they are over-represented among the poor and often have no safety net. Women are also primarily responsible for those made most vulnerable by disaster—children, the elderly, and people who are ill or disabled. Yet, it's not enough to ensure that women receive aid. Women in communities must also be integral to designing and carrying out relief efforts. When relief is distributed by women, it has the best chance of reaching those most in need.

Community-based organizations—especially women's organizations—are a crucial resource in disaster response. Natural disasters are always local events and women in the community have expertise about problems women and their families face. They have pre-existing networks for sharing information, scarce resources, and for extending social and emotional support to survivors. For all of these reasons, the leadership of local women's organizations is crucial in disaster relief.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Communications Director

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