Community foundations offer disaster recovery lessons: is anyone listening?


Avila Kilmurray


When the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy focused on the role of community foundations in disaster and emergency relief in July 2014, they had in mind the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans.  Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, asserted that ‘Katrina’s landfall in August 2005 was a wake-up call for the city leadership.  Clearly whatever the foundation had done to serve New Orleans and the region before Katrina needed to be re-imagined.’

Less than a year on, the Kathmandhu-based Tewa women’s fund is helping local women to rebuild their shattered lives in rural villages across Nepal.  Tewa, working in partnership with the peace-building organization Nagarik Aawaz, formed an Earthquake Relief Fund Committee in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Recovery will require ‘long-term rehabilitation work, where trust and respect is imperative in order to work as partners’, observes Rita Thapa, Tewa’s founder.  No one is better situated to make this long-term commitment than community foundations, but they are often left out of international relief efforts.

Positioning community philanthropy to play its part
Rita’s comments reflect findings of the San Diego Foundation in the USA, which pointed out that disaster recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. The foundation invested five years of work following a series of destructive wildfires in 2007. It supported community recovery teams to provide local people with a hub to coordinate their work and created an insurance advocacy scheme to help fire-affected residents claim entitlements.  After devastating tornadoes in Joplin Missouri in 2011,  Louise Knauer, of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, identified the role of the community foundation ‘as a community anchor – the “boots on the ground” that will be here for needs that linger long afterwards, often when other funding and attention has waned’.

A focus on preparedness
An emphasis on the long-term commitment of community-based philanthropy to address issues of reconstruction is currently being matched with a focus on preparedness.  The Greater New Orleans Foundation now has a continuity of operations plan in place, and the foundation funds Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOADS), providing up-to-date contact lists for VOADS and their staff.  The importance of preparedness has increasingly been recognized by the UK Community Foundations network, where a number of local community foundations have worked to alleviate hardship during both natural and rural disasters over recent years.

Of course, in Asia, which accounted for 90 per cent of people affected by global natural disasters in 2013, preparedness is particularly crucial. Yet in that region, community philanthropy organizations have limited access to resources.

A conversation with people who cannot hear?
Given that community philanthropy organizations show a commitment to the well-being and resilience of their communities, the apparent lack of awareness of their contributions among development and humanitarian relief agencies and bilateral aid organizations is disappointing.

When the Balkans experienced extensive flooding in May 2014, the community foundations Mozaik, Tuzla and Trag didn’t wait to be coordinated by international organizations.  Mozaik’s Vesna Bajsanski-Agic said that when you get over your disbelief in and shock about a disaster, you just have to react.  In Bosnia, Mozaik mobilized people it trusted, established points of local contact, and distributed help quickly and effectively, with 30 per cent of the funding being raised locally.  Few external agencies even thought to get in touch with the local foundations.

Participating in a recent Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) discussion, Suranjana Gupta, coordinator of the Global Campaign for Community Resilience of the Huairou Commission, emphasized the importance of flexible resources and local knowledge in building community resilience to disasters.  The priorities of local organizations are often quite different from the priorities of national-level programmes, she said.  Rita Thapa agrees.  She describes people in Nepal as survivors, not victims.  Tewa is providing direct support in communities, but, as Rita explains:  ‘We have already requested families we give cash relief to, to make a tiny contribution so that these monies can go to places that are even more in need, or come back to these communities in the form of a revolving fund. So far the response has been 100 per cent.’

If this isn’t turning the paradigm of aid and relief on its head, then what is?

Local people are not just survivors, but they are empowered to be donors.   When speaking about disaster relief and preparedness at a GFCF seminar in London in May, long-term relief expert Bobby Lambert suggested that we could effectively address community resilience when development agencies think in terms of risk, and humanitarian agencies think in terms of power.  Perhaps the story of what is happening at village level in Nepal will encourage both sets of agencies to listen to local people as well.

Avila Kilmurray is director, policy and strategy, Global Fund for Community Foundations.

Comments (1)

Nelson T. Enojo

Most often, it is very difficult for external relief agencies to accommodate all especially to those remote villages. Just like what happened in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan. But today, international organizations have reached the doorsteps even to the most inaccessible households in mountain villages. It takes more than intention to give service to the needy and I highly respect the compassion of foreign nationals doing service in my country.

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