Oxfam evaluation of Cyclone Sidr response

Summary of evaluation1

A boy stands next to his makeshift home in Patarghata (Barguna District).

Late in the evening of 15th November 2007, Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh's southern coastal areas leaving around 4000 people dead and millions homeless. The cyclone also killed livestock and destroyed crops, farming equipment, and fishing boats. Planning for the emergency was already well underway before the cyclone hit land. Early warning systems and disaster preparedness measures allowed a reported 3 million people to evacuate low-lying coastal areas and local government officials and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) rapidly to move contingency stocks from neighbouring districts into the areas of anticipated impact. Following the cyclone's landfall, the government, armed forces, local civil society organisations and volunteers moved quickly to mount search and rescue operations and to distribute food, water, logging and other emergency items to survivors. The reduced death toll compared to previous cyclones is a testament to improved community preparedness measures and a credit to the 43,000 volunteers working under the government funded Cyclone Preparedness Programme.

While the immediate response to the disaster was both prompt and vigorous, Oxfam believes that some actors could and should have done more effectively to meet emergency needs. While coordination at local level was reasonably effective, gaps were visible in coordination between local and national actors, resulting in poor quality humanitarian response. Since field based staff and officials within national NGOs and institutions were rarely empowered to make programmatic and policy decisions - for example, regarding numbers of households to target or types of items to distribute - large parts of the response remained resource-driven and 'top-down', rather than needs based.

Above all, coordination at both the national and local level appears to have been hampered by a lack of strategic focus. While the informal activation of the United Nations (UN) 'cluster approach' to humanitarian coordination did allow those involved in the response to meet more regularly at Dhaka level, the clusters themselves were not utilised by either the government or UN agencies as a space for genuine policy discussions around actual needs on the ground. With regard to the UN system, the absence of a clearly identifiable, inclusive inter-agency coordination forum, as well as a dedicated Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) or other high-level UN official, also resulted in missed opportunities in terms of joint planning and preparedness.

Cross-cutting issues like gender and protection appear to have fallen through the cracks as clusters were limited to discussing the more technical and practical aspects of the response.

Many multilateral and bilateral donors gave generously during the first phase of the response but struggled to coordinate assistance both with each other and with government. In part, this appears to be the result of the poor sharing of information and a lack of established communication channels between donors belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DEC) and other countries who fall outside this group. Government officials and Dhaka-based donors appear to have had little or no information on the timeframe within which substantial bilateral pledges were being spent or which activities they were funding.

Targeting the right people for relief was another major challenge in the emergency response. Relief distributions did not always benefit the most vulnerable, such as female and child-headed households or elderly and disabled people. In part this may have been the result of people's needs outstripping available resources. However, due to the information gap between national policy-makers and field staff, those leading the response did not pick up on additional needs early enough to allow donors to respond with more assistance. In light of financial and material constraints, NGOs delivering the assistance often found it difficult to select beneficiaries. This seems to have been a particular challenge for NGOs who had previously carried out development work in the same villages. A strong developmental approach meant that staff sometimes struggled to develop and explain to communities the new selection criteria required for an equitable emergency response.

Considering the fact that the vast majority of assistance programmes in Bangladesh are implemented by local actors, international donors and aid agencies have not invested adequately in strengthening these frontline responders in disaster-prone areas. More efforts are needed to build these organisations' capacity, especially in terms of beneficiary selection, the application of international quality standards such as Sphere standards and effective contingency planning.

In terms of recovery there are still two massive gaps - the repair and reconstruction of homes and the rehabilitation of people's livelihoods.

Nearly 1.5 million homes were destroyed or damaged due to the cyclone and subsequent storm surge. Damage assessments estimates are 800 million dollars. To its credit, the government of Bangladesh acted immediately after the disaster to provide families whose homes were fully destroyed in the worst affected areas with a oneoff housing grant. Carried out with remarkable speed and efficiency, this distribution proved to be an innovative way of supporting extremely vulnerable families. It was clear, however, that the amount was insufficient to allow families to actually rebuild their homes. Most people interviewed by Oxfam reported having spent their cash on other emergency needs, such as foods or winter clothing for children, as well as to support recovery of livelihoods.

Utteran (Oxfam partner) Cash for Work programme for communities to build latrines to replace those damaged by Cyclone Sidr.

The cyclone killed over 1.2 million livestock and destroyed nearly 2.5 million acres of crops. Damage and losses were estimated at 500 million dollars, with large numbers of communities that were previously reliant on agriculture, fishing and casual labour having lost both their incomes and assets. Food security needs were significant. The World Food Programme (WFP) led the food security cluster in calling for relief distributions to continue for more than 2.2 million people until at least May 2008. However, Oxfam feel that the clusters, by not advocating for more seed distribution, missed an opportunity for improving some people's food security. Also, the fact that 95% of local markets functioned again suggested that some cash-based responses may have been appropriate.

Loans and credit are a major source of income for many rural families in Bangladesh. Most families were already carrying debt loads before the cyclone. Following the cyclone, some microfinance institutions took decisions to temporarily suspend repayment of loans but communities expressed fears that current grace periods of 3-6 months were not long enough. These institutions must follow government advice and be more flexible, as well as write-off loans in cyclone affected areas as much as possible. There has also been unscrupulous lending at very high interest rates for new loans. Special efforts will be needed to ensure that sufficient amounts of credit are offered by micro-finance institutions and banks at low or no interest rates to facilitate recovery of those affected by the cyclone.

Considering the country's high level of vulnerability to natural disasters, the government and international donors must commit to better rebuilding and so improve future resilience to disasters. Scientists concur that the ferocity and frequency of hazard events such as cyclones, hurricanes, and earthquakes have increased. Few countries are at higher risk of climate change than Bangladesh where experts estimate that more than 50 million people could be made homeless by rising temperatures and sea levels. Climate migrants already account for at least one third of the impoverished people who are flooding from rural areas to seek work in the city of Dhaka.

Cyclone survivors have demonstrated a remarkable resilience in the face of disaster but their capacity to cope with the enormous challenge of rebuilding their lives must not be overestimated. The government of Bangladesh and the international community have a legal and moral responsibility for ensuring that their needs do not fall off a crowded humanitarian and development agenda.

Show footnotes

1Oxfam Briefing Note (2008). After the cyclone: lessons from a disaster. 15th February 2008. Full report at http://www.oxfam.org/en/policy/bp_bangladesh_cyclone_sidr_080214

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Oxfam evaluation of Cyclone Sidr response. Field Exchange 35, March 2009. p29. www.ennonline.net/fex/35/oxfam