Imagine yourself on the back of a truck. Behind you are several hundred packs of food items for distribution to a flood hit district in Metro Manila. In front of you, in the rain are several hundred people, drenched, tired and quite hungry from not having access to proper supplies for at least 2 days. Around you is floodwater, silt and mud from the nearby creek and river and lots of debris washed out from the homes of the people in the barangay (district). Apparently the floodwaters reached the 2nd floors of some of the houses yesterday. You see relief on the faces of the crowds as they cry out and surge forward in eagerness to get the rations. Shouts ring in a foreign tongue as you realise that they claim the distribution is unfair. Arguments break out between the people and the elected official of the district who’s trying to maintain order. The mood seems less cordial, less relieved. You continue passing on the ration bags, not knowing what else to do.
Such was my first experience in disaster relief over here in Manila. 2 days of more or less non-stop rains have brought the city to a halt with almost a million people affected by the serious flooding all over the city. When the news of this first hit I was left here feeling most helpless in not being able to do anything – I’m still pretty new here and didn’t quite know where to start. It was difficult just to sit and wait knowing that there are thousands of people who need help out there but wait one had to because it was the sensible thing to do.
(Image from Reuters)
So after some waiting and more rain, we were eventually sent out to help collect and deliver the set rations to an area where the floodwaters had just subsided. Seemed simple enough but the mechanics of bringing relief items to people affected by natural calamities can be straightforward but the human emotions and reactions are certainly not as simple. What was originally meant to be a simple delivery turned into ration distribution, with all the attendant difficulties with crowd control, trying to ensure fairness and the like. I shan’t go into details about what happened but will instead write about a couple of insights gained.
Helping is not just about giving (items, manpower, presence) but about giving them appropriately and responsibly. We’ve all heard about the relief teams in the past receiving (and sometimes even distributing) inappropriate items during donation drives and the same goes for when we give relief. We need to be reponsible when we’re out there giving out things. Responsible not just in what we give, but how we do it and to whom it goes to. It’s hard to determine who indeed has the greatest need and sometimes it’s not apparent from what we see. During such times, everyone feels they are in need and it’s hard to convince them that there’s someone worse down the road who needs the help that one brings more than them. The problem is that we can’t know for sure and therein lies the problem with most aid workers.
Then there’s the problem of dealing with the emotions that come into play. No matter how often these things happen to people, the initial loss and grief that comes with it would come into play. It’s hard to explain priorities and careful planning about stocks and such to someone who’s just seen their home get washed onto the road. It’s also hard for those giving aid to pass by people who are in need but are unable to help because the stocks one is assigned is limited and one knows that not everyone will be helped. It’s hard to say ‘No’ to a man who needs what one has but cannot give because it’s earmarked for someone worse off. Suffering happens and like it or not, it’s both a leveller and a hierachy at the same time. It levels because everyone shares in equal misery but it becomes a hierarchy because somebody (possibly the aid worker) ranks the level of suffering of the people so that those in greatest ‘need’ gets help first. How does this work really?
I return from my time doing the little relief work that I did with my eyes open but my head filled with questions with no easy answers. How can we really do these things better? How have people in the past dealt with the need for aid and relief and done it well? Sometimes it’s much easier if the mind switches off as we just offer our arms and legs to the cause. But that doesn’t quite happen so one will have to continue to struggle with the questions and such that do get thrown up. And struggle I will have to.