When it came to Cyclone Sidr and disaster relief – I thought I knew it all. I knew I couldn’t help them all. I knew the media would be coming. I knew the local population knew the area better than foreigners. I knew aid work was more than just giving stuff away. I knew things could go wrong. I knew the blankets I was giving away could be used to keep people warm during this cold season. I thought I knew it all….. I was wrong.
In this latest episode I talk about the lessons I had to learn – the ones that were tough for me to learn. I’ve tried to keep this project positive. This episode is an exception to that.
Click the jump to read more.
Lesson One: You Cannot Help Everyone, You Will Be Forced To Choose
This isn’t the first time Bangladesh has seen natural disasters. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last either. When I would witness these tragedies on TV – my initial reaction would be “if only I was there, I could have done something”. With this project, “if only” turned into “now I can”. But, as I’ve found out – it’s not so simple. You can’t help everyone you see. The hardest thing for me was when I saw a group of school children run up to the road yelling “STOP! STOP! STOP!” in English – and we just kept driving by. I was able to record my initial reaction. What you don’t see (because I didn’t want to film it) was the fact I started to tear up afterwards.
Lesson Two: Not Everyone Came to Help
I can understand how it can be gut-wrenching for those in the disaster area to see an NGO just drive past them as they plea for help. I can also understand why they get so angry when the only people who do stop were those who wanted to take pictures and film them. The initial media frenzy (which has now passed) basically turned Bagerhat into an open air zoo with the victims as the creatures on display.
I understand the necessity for the media to cover tragedies such as this. It’s a symbiotic relationship – the more the public sees this, the better the public can be inspired by this plight and donate money. It also helps NGOs. These reporters were actually being transported into the disaster area by an NGO. That NGO was probably doing so in the hopes of getting a little bit of coverage. I don’t think its a problem that people come to disaster areas with cameras. But do they have to come with only cameras? I mean that van looks awfully empty…
Lesson Three: Being a Foreigner Sometimes Helps
I foolishly thought that local aid agencies and charities would have the upper hand when it came to disaster relief. They speak the language, know the land, and know the culture. But it’s actually the later – the culture – which actually hindered their efforts. In Bangladesh, the number of people who have greeted me with a handshake is about on par with the number of people who have greeted me by bowing down and touching my toes. What is the significance of touching toes? It’s a form of respect – where people who touch the toes show that they are of a lower status than you. I hate it when people do that to me – and usually try and prevent it.
I never imagined that the touching of feet would play into how medical treatment was given. A lot of my relatives didn’t believe it either – until I showed them side-by-side footage of local vs. foreign medics doing the same medical procedure. The local medics would avoid touching the feet – using prongs and forceps to do routine things such as disinfection. The foreigner medics, on the other hand, would get have no trouble holding a foot and washing it by hand. “They feel like they are getting luxurious treatment” explained Bonnie to me (the medic above). She didn’t know why they were responding like that – or why so many people were coming in with infected (but already treated) wounds. That is, until I explained to her the significance of touching feet in this country.
Lesson Four: Respect Is the Most Important Thing to Give
They may have lost their homes – but they didn’t lose their dignity. I was shocked to find this aid operation (pictured above) from what seemed to be from a local mosque. I say “seemed to be” because, thats the only plausible explanation for such horrible and unprofessional aid work. Items were – sometimes literally – being thrown out the window to whoever could catch it. Sometimes it would be a sweater and another time it would be a kids t-shirt. In between, there would be this huge sack of food which one person would take and try and keep others from snatching. There was no organization, pattern, it was a free-for-all.
I admire the dignity held by many of the locals. Instead of having stuff thrown at them – they protested and even threw some of it back at them. Others pleaded for sanity – but it fell on deaf ears. Clothes were actually the most frequently discarded item. I would find them thrown and discarded all along the roadsides. After I saw this display of “aid work”, I realized why.
Lesson Five: Things Can Go Wrong, Even If You Do Everything Right
What would you do if you see a boat full of aid arrive only to leave without giving you anything? When would the next boat arrive? Would they arrive at all or was this a one time thing? With all these thoughts, I fully understand why the locals chased after our boat in a desperate attempt to get something – anything. Although, not everyone who jumped into the boat did so because they were empty handed. Upon reviewing the footage of that distribution, I noticed the guy in the blue shirt (in the bottom right) had got food from me not once, not twice, but three times. Yet he kept coming back and collecting more. And when we were leaving, he chased us down and demanded more.
I understand the situation is desperate – but food that was meant for four families ended up going just to him and his family instead.
Lesson Six: No Matter How Much You Give, Someone Will Be Left in the Cold
If you’ve been to my site before – you’ve already seen this photo and know my feelings about it. Needless to say, this image will stick with me for a very long time.