Governments and NGOs aren’t the only ones armed with the tools to mitigate disasters – communities can (and should be given the resources to do so) too.
In December, I visited Haiti as part of a trip to learn about the disaster response initiatives the country is pursuing and the Haitians leading them. Though six years have passed since the massive earthquake in 2010, its impressions are still strongly felt. Communities like Caradeux – a post-earthquake displaced persons camp not far from the US Embassy – were born out of the quake’s destruction. The evidence of the recent presence of the likes of USAID and UNHCR are evident in the branded tarps that were left behind and then incorporated into the now quite permanent houses and small businesses throughout the community.
Like almost anyone living in Haiti, the people of Caradeux have very visceral connections to disasters. The country experiences large natural hazards at least once a year – whether earthquake, hurricane, flood or something else. And each time, though to varying degrees, these hazards leave destroyed lives, buildings, and livelihoods in their wake.
And while the residents of Caradeux have this experience in common with other communities throughout the country, they’re unique. They’re preparing themselves to weather the next storm.
Their most important tool? A map.
With initial support from Cordaid and Haiti’s Civil Protection Division – the government body in charge of disaster preparedness and response – a group of 52 community volunteers from Caradeux went door to door, collecting all the information they could about their community. From the locations of every household and business, to the age, economic status, and unique skills of each community member, the hand-drawn map tells an impressively detailed story of the community, and gives volunteers invaluable insight about how to respond effectively in an emergency.
“The map represents the reality of the community,” said Jean Baptiste Herns, one of the leading community volunteers. “It identifies the resources we already have, whether human or material, so we’re able to see what we have and what we need to do.”
Now, whenever they’re alerted to a storm or other threat, the volunteers get to work, going door- to-door and providing support and direction to their neighbors about how to stay safe. “We organize ourselves so the village is prepared,” said Jean Pierre Daniel, another volunteer. “Even if there is just a possibility of emergency we take preventive measures.”
The volunteers are proud of the things they’ve learned and what they’ve accomplished already—and rightly so.
“We understand that the risk is diminished based on the capacity you have, and now that we’re trained we can use the knowledge and talent of the community to make us resilient,” said Herns.
The people of Caradeux have since taken on several new initiatives beyond disaster risk reduction to improve their situation. From pooling their money to buy a TV for kids’ movie nights—giving children a safe space to be and play—to arranging for regular water service for the entire community through small weekly contributions from its members.
“We don’t talk about aid anymore, we talk about capacity building,” said Daniel.
“We would like to help other communities do this too. That is our vision,” said Mirielle, another Caradeux volunteer.
Too often, disaster response around the world is left up to international actors, leading to responses that are frequently inappropriate and late. As the people of Caradeux demonstrate, local people – as well as the governments and local organizations that serve them – are capable and many times best-placed to respond quickly and effectively in times of crisis. And it’s for that reason, that it’s time for the US and donors around the world to start investing more in local solutions for disaster preparedness and response.
Learn more about local humanitarians around the world who are leading disaster preparedness and response efforts around the world at: oxfamamerica.org/noparachutes.