Opportunities from the Unpredictable: Hurricane Mitch

The following story is based on the experiences of a team of international grantmakers and their grantee partners working together in response to a natural disaster, laying the groundwork for local cooperation and capacity. Grantmakers working in a variety of fields will appreciate insights on issues such as:

  • Responding rapidly and creatively to an unexpected disaster
  • Encouraging local partners to play an active role in relief efforts
  • Helping grantees to connect with each other in a concerted effort
  • Building local capacity to address long-term recovery and future challenges

Ricardo Wilson-Grau
Senior Advisor, NOVIB

Building the capacity of local NGOs to be involved with matters critical to their community is one of our main concerns at NOVIB. We believe, as many grantmakers do, that international donors can achieve more when they support local NGOs working together.

When the opportunities are associated with unusual circumstances, to what extent would you go beyond your usual procedures? This is a story in which we as a development grantmaker responded to a natural disaster and supported local NGOs working together in emergency relief work.

Frans van Gerwen
Program Officer, Central American Desk – NOVIB

NOVIB is the Dutch organization for international development. We are aiming to fight poverty in a structured way in all parts of the world, by direct interventions at the local level, by strengthening civil organizations, and by political advocacy.

I had my field trip planned for the first week of November shortly after Hurricane Mitch had struck. We sat together at Novib at the level of a team and we were thinking on whether or not to proceed with my field trip. We decided to proceed with it. It was very scary actually, because I really didn’t know what would confront me when I arrived in Nicaragua. But it was a big opportunity to act quickly. The first e-mails and faxes from our partners in Nicaragua were arriving at NOVIB. So we had some communication that mentioned the opportunity of my visit to Nicaragua. 

The first week after Hurricane Mitch, I left for Nicaragua. At that moment, it wasn’t possible to leave the capital, Managua, because all the country was closed. I stayed in one of the central hotels where all the emergency teams were sleeping at night. During the day, helicopters and planes picked them up. At that time, the main thing I did in Nicaragua was meet with our partners.

Promoting Collaboration Among Partners

Frans van Gerwen

Platforma is a group composed of the whole of all our partners in Nicaragua. There are 19 organizations in total. Platforma was always an annual meeting with partners at NOVIB where we discussed issues in international development cooperation. It was informal and a mechanism of consultation, but not so much a mechanism for the partners to exchange their own experiences amongst each other.

The idea was really to have a collective discussion of all 19 partners in Nicaragua to see how we could address this problem. The central challenge we faced at the time was to channel resources that were being collected by the national solidarity campaign in Holland in a quick and effective way to the regions most affected in Nicaragua. The only way to do this was by using Platforma, the network our partners have in Nicaragua. That was the reason that when the first proposals arrived from different partners, we sent faxes and emails back saying that we could not help them individually; we needed coordination. The only way to do this was that they would have to go and sit together and discuss a way of making a joint proposal on how to work with the funds that NOVIB could channel to Nicaragua.

Armando Garcia
Director – ACODEP

Our organization had different interests and different visions, but during the emergency we learned we had a challenge here to come up with a common agenda — to work all united.

Frans van Gerwen

Although everybody expressed that they had this sense of urgency to do something, almost all the partners said, "We do not have any experience in emergency relief programs, we are not specialists, and how can we do something that is also far away from our daily kind of work?" There was this tendency for partners to have direct involvement with their own [client] beneficiaries. In fact, I pushed the importance of thinking about the victims, rather than about the beneficiaries.

Armando Garcia

We decided that during emergencies, we were going to work not only with our clients, but also with all communities.

Frans van Gerwen

We concluded that there was a very important role we could play in channeling emergency packages— food, medicine, clothing, construction materials for provisional housing, water, and buckets.

Melba Reyes Gomez
Deputy Director – CESADE

It was a very complex task. We had to meet very frequently and have long discussions. Sometimes our meetings took between eight and ten hours before we got to a consensus.

Frans van Gerwen

In fact, we established four different regions and there were regional committees created to organize specific responses and to watch specific regions.

Alan Fejardo
Executive Director – CESADE

There were local networks that covered some areas in the country, so they were assigned the task of distributing the goods, or the grants.

Gloria Cardinal
Vice-Director – CIPRES

I coordinated 10 NGOs to help this region. Imagine that, for one week, we had 100 people packing. We had to do 4,500 packages for families in Leon and Chinin Dega. We could do it because all of us wanted to cooperate with each other.

Frans van Gerwen

It was a week of meetings and I hadn’t had any time to go and visit any region. In fact, this was a very strange thing because the last day of my stay I saw on television the images of the national solidarity campaign for the victims of Mitch. That was a very emotional moment, and it broke me at the time. It was my last day in Nicaragua, and I had to go to El Salvador and Guatemala for meetings with NOVIB’s partners there.

Karen Hammink
Program Officer, Central American Desk – NOVIB

We started a Hurricane Mitch team with four people in the office — two program officers, a financial officer, and me. We divided different tasks, but at the same time, when something important happened we tried to come back to each other and talk about it.

Frans van Gerwen

We would also involve other members from our bureau. When people were going to El Salvador or Guatemala they would also make the combination with Nicaragua.

Ruud Lambregis
Program Officer, Central American Desk – NOVIB

I was the first one to go to Nicaragua after Frans went in January 1999. I stayed almost a whole month there discussing the proposals with our partners.

Willemijn Lammers
Financial Office – NOVIB

I think that’s very important because in the end organizations will find their own ways. Of course, they will listen to NOVIB, but they know better than we do.

Anne Kooistra
Program Officer, Central American Desk – NOVIB

We respect the autonomy of our partners. The thing was not to help them or to suggest too many things, but rather to wait and suggest a possibility and ways how they could react.

Platforma: Working Together

Frans van Gerwen

Platforma after Mitch was a mechanism almost of discovery towards each other. Organizations got to know each other better and mutual respect grew at that time. Some very concrete examples were ACODEP (Asociación Consultares para el Desarrollo de la Pequeña, Mediana y Microempresa) and CEPRODEL (Centro de Promoción del Desarrollo Local) which are two partners providing credit to producers. These financial organizations, before Mitch, were considered to be the capitalists of the group. There was a distance between the financial partners and the partners involved in social development. The mechanism of channeling resources during Mitch defined a clear role for them. They had their network of small banks and small agencies all through the country, and it was a mechanism to get the money to the right places so things could be bought at the right places. Everybody understood that these financial partners were very dedicated to helping, the same way everybody was, and that they also had specific capacities that were very helpful in this situation. So respect grew and people got together more than ever before.

Gloria Cardinal

One very important thing was the collaboration between us. Normally, each NGO works only in their thing, and doesn’t tell the other NGOs about their interests. There aren’t a lot of relationships. It was a good experience because now if I am going to work in one thing and I know that there is another NGO already working on it, I can call them and there is already a relationship created because of the experience with Mitch.

Frans van Gerwen

We have this philosophy, or central value, within NOVIB that structural poverty alleviation only can be sustainable when it is done by the civil society itself. During Mitch that was being put to the test because there is a big tendency — if you get this money, if you see the chaos — to go operational yourself. But we maintained the principles of NOVIB — to put trust in the civil organizations, and they organized the help. A big result of Mitch is that we strengthened civil society by this mechanism.

Ricardo Wilson-Grau

For Nicaraguan NGOs, their experience with Mitch has been significant. In the past, Nicaraguans relied on foreign agencies in times of natural disasters. This time we all worked together. At NOVIB, we learned a lot about broadening our regular development approach. Emergency work is a new but growing field of interest for us. We now think that we ought to make organizational changes so that we can respond quickly and more effectively to natural disasters. We also learned that there are different ways for our partners to be involved at times of an emergency. For example, some NGOs might provide psychological counseling to victims instead of handing out food. Above all, we confirmed our belief that it is critical to build relationships with a variety of local organizations.

By October 29, 1998, Hurricane Mitch had become the Atlantic basin’s strongest hurricane in over a decade. With sustained winds of 180 mph, the storm began dumping heavy rain on Central America, causing wide-spread flooding and mudslides. In Nicaragua alone, the National Emergency Commission estimated over 3,000 people died and nearly one million left homeless as a result of the disaster. Total losses were to exceed $400 million in housing, $600 million in the transportation network, $185 million in other infrastructure, and $170 million in agricultural losses. Prior to the disaster, the Dutch organization for international development, NOVIB, and its local Nicaraguan partners formed Platforma, through which they met annually. Although Novib wished to promote collaboration among partners through Platforma, partners did not work with each other directly. Responding to the Hurricane Mitch disaster transformed Platforma into a true collaboration: for the first time this group of Nicaraguan partners together undertook emergency relief, an effort usually led and performed by foreign agencies.

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