Over the past few weeks, it's been amazing to see both locals and immigrants coming together to support the many families affected by the response to Covid-19 here in Indonesia. I know it's the same in many places around the world -- and the displays of unity and solidarity have been truly inspiring. This is what we are designed to do: come together as one when we need to. And I hope that in the many emergencies to come we will do the same.
One thing we know for sure now is that we were unprepared to face an emergency -- this is true of both nations and communities. Many of the projects that are springing up are run by passionate individuals and groups who unfortunately have little or no experience in managing emergency response. Many of the lessons that have been learned in the humanitarian sector are not trickling down to those on the front line, making it difficult for these new initiatives to be effective, let alone transformational, and many have the potential for actually doing harm.
With this in mind, I want to share some of the most significant lessons we've learned in delivering emergency response and long-term resilience programmes over the past few decades. I hope that these will help to redirect efforts and increase awareness of some of the key issues so that current (and future) mutual aid can be more effective.
1. Don't ignore your position
Many of the initiatives here and across the Global South are being led by well-meaning (mostly white) foreigners. These people are often well-placed to leverage funds and organise within their international networks. But they also have extra power because they are foreign. They come with privilege, and although it's certainly commendable to use one's privilege for good causes, it should never come at the expense of making space for local people and those who are actually affected to have their voice heard. The same should be true when working with any individuals or communities that are not your own.
2. Cash transfer is nearly always most effective
Rather than giving food or other equipment, all the data tells us that as long as there is a functioning economy, the best way of supporting the needs of communities is through giving cash. That way, people are able to buy exactly what they need rather than receiving what other people think they should get. This recognises each person's right and capacity to decide what they need for themselves and is far more empowering than being a passive recipient.
3. Delivering food/equipment can have a negative impact
By providing anything for free to community members, we risk harming local businesses. If there are a number of local businesses selling rice, for example, by bringing in lots of free rice to the community, the local businesses suddenly find themselves without income. The same goes for anything else. By giving cash to people, you actually strengthen the local economy and help them to become more resilient.
4. Don't assume - ask!
The best way of finding out what the community needs is to ask them. Let them lead. This doesn't necessarily need to happen face-to-face and can be done through community representatives plus conversations with more marginalised groups specifically (disabled people for example). But the number one way of supporting those most affected is to be led by them. This helps to prevent dis-empowering affected communities and doing unintended harm -- because no matter how well-meaning our projects are, they can easily contribute to some sort of harm.
5. Gender cannot be an afterthought
Always consider the different impact your intervention will have on different genders. Work with local women to find the best way of addressing the needs of women and children without adding risk or danger and don't assume you know best.
6. Support local organisations that already exist
Local organisations often already exist and are also affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. These groups are already connected to communities and many have been doing this kind of work for years (particularly related to natural disasters, community mobilisation, behaviour change, etc.). Rather than setting up new projects and initiatives, why not give any money raised to local organisations who have been working on these issues for a long time? If there are gaps in delivery we could support them to expand into new communities and issues.
7. Coordinate rather than compete
Communicating with other organisations and individuals trying to help is essential. Don't wait for them to come to us. Find out who's doing what and where and work together rather than competing with one another. Don't forget why we are doing this in the first place. Find out if a referral system is already in place and if not, start to set one up that is accessible to everyone. Most importantly, do not compete for funds. Donations could even be pooled and democratically run so that priority issues are addressed first.
8. Don't play the role of the state
Governments are legally responsible for the rights of their citizens. From ensuring food and shelter to providing healthcare and education. If a government is not taking up their duty or they are unable to act, go ahead and support local communities but do so while advocating for the right policies and actions from those whose job it is to do so. All too often our projects are simply letting governments off the hook when what we should really be doing is getting to the root causes of injustice.
Keep on helping each other. Keep on learning. Keep on calling for systemic change and emergency preparedness. But most of all, keep on working towards long-term justice.