Market Assessments, Earthquakes, and a Soapbox…

Wow, there’s so much to say! I’ve actually been here now for about 6 or 7 weeks, but am only just finding the time to write stuff down….

My first few days in Cebu were a bit crazy, working really long hours, and getting up so early every day – my first night in Cebu after I got off the plane I had to get up at 4am to travel straight out to the north to Daan Bantayan to do some livelihoods assessments, and then I only came back to Cebu for 2 nights before I headed back up there for a hygiene kit distribution and more market assessments.

I was getting up so early the first few days (well, in the middle of the night really), that it took me about a week before I noticed that my hotel room didn’t have any windows!

One Wednesday night (20th November) I had worked a really long day, and my colleague P and I only just climbed into bed knackered at 11.45pm, knowing that I had to get up again at 3.15am to go and load the trucks ready to leave for the distribution. We had just turned out the light, and I was so tired, I felt the bed vibrating slightly. I thought it was rather relaxing, until P’s voice from the other bed said

“Erm, by the way Maya, you do realise that’s an earthquake right?”.

Well that woke me up again pretty quickly! We leapt out of bed to check and see if we needed to do anything, but it was a very small tremor, and no-one seemed bothered, so we went back to bed. Although it was very hard to drop off to sleep once my adrenalin had started going!

I was really nervous about managing my first distribution, but it all went really well, and we managed to get a lot done. We assessed the markets and held some focus groups with farmers and fishermen about their needs etc.

One thing a lot of people have asked me recently is why we don’t just throw aid/relief off the back of helicopters in an emergency.

Well, there’s lot of reasons why that’s not a great idea. Firstly, helicopters are hugely expensive to hire, and the money raised can help a LOT more people if you don’t blow the entire budget on helicopters. But more importantly, NGOs need to do proper targeting and assessments of needs before hurling food out of vehicles at high speed.

For example, it’s generally a good idea to try and target the most vulnerable people after a disaster, whether they might be single mums, disabled people, the elderly, child-headed households, or some other vulnerable group. If you chuck food out of a helicopter, it stands to reason that the strongest and fittest are the ones who will get to it first, and it’s very unlikely that the elderly, disabled, or pregnant people will be able to run as fast to get to the food before it’s all gone, or carry home large, heavy sacks of food if it’s chucked out at random.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of donor accountability. If a donor gives you money to buy food for 100 people, and you throw it off the back of a truck or a helicopter, you can’t prove that you fed 100 people. If one or two guys with a car manage to grab it all and make a few bucks selling it on to those people with any money left, you can’t really prove you’ve helped anyone at all.

Which is why targeting, beneficiary registration and needs assessments are so crucial. even in the first few days after a disaster. You need to know how many elderly/disabled/pregnant etc people there are, and how you can reach them. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to also help the younger, more able-bodied people as well, but it means you can make sure that the most vulnerable people aren’t left behind.

Another question I get asked a lot is about why some agencies prefer to give cash instead of food. I know I have waxed lyrical about this before, but in a nutshell, it’s like this:

Imagine you’ve lost everything in a disaster, and the markets have completely frozen – meaning that there is nothing to buy, even if you had money, then NGO’s giving out food is a good idea. However in almost every context in the world, people will start trading almost immediately – it may take a week or two, but markets start to function as people start trying to support themselves and make a living again.

Now let’s say it’s two weeks after the disaster, the markets are getting back up and running, slowly but surely, and here I am, an International NGO, still handing out rice. You might be able to feed your family, and stop them from starving, but plain rice is pretty boring to eat day after day, and doesn’t contain that many vitamins and other nutrients needed for a healthy diet. Your neighbours, who are local rice farmers, are a bit screwed, because suddenly all these aid agencies are giving away free rice, so they can’t sell any of their crop at all, making it hard for them to support their family. In fact, it’s depressing the local economy and causing market prices to drop. In some cases, trading might even stutter to a halt altogether.

Meanwhile, you’re now dependent on handouts of rice, because the economy is tanking and you can’t get a job, and you have to try and swap half of your rice to meet your other needs – the bank you borrowed money from a month ago is putting the pressure on, and your son needs a new inhaler for his asthma. Also your teenage daughter has got her period and urgently needs sanitary products, you lost all of your clothes and furniture, and when it rains, water pours in through the holes in your roof, because you lost half of your roof in a storm and your house just isn’t going to repair itself….

Now then, imagine that instead of giving out rice, an NGO (which has first done a market assessment and found that food was locally available in the market) gave each family in the community $20.

Now you can go down to the market and choose what you need for your family – which might be different from what your neighbours need. Let’s say you spend $1 buying rice from your neighbour, and you spend $5 buying corrugated iron and nails to fix the roof of your house, and $2 buying medicine for your kids. Next you buy some clothes and underwear for your family for $4, and make that $3 loan repayment so you don’t fall behind and forfeit. You still have enough money left to buy some vegetables at the market for $1, so you can make sure your kids have a more balanced meal, and then you decide to use your last $4 to get your livelihood going again by buying 10 chickens, so you can sell the eggs. You also no longer have to endure the indignity of being forced to live on handouts & food packets, live in a wet, soggy home, or walk around with no underwear.

Meanwhile, your neighbour uses the $1 you spent on his rice stall, plus the money he makes from other people who received cash instead of food aid, and he is able to fix the roof of his storeroom, so protect the remaining rice stocks from the rain. The vegetable seller down in the market is able to re-stock and support her family, as is the guy who runs the hardware store where you bought the materials to fix your roof. In fact, the $1 the aid agency gave you, which you spent on rice, then went over to the hardware store, where the rice seller spent it on nails to fix his store, and the hardware store owner used it to buy vegetables for his family. The vegetable market trader used it to buy her son a new textbook, so he could return to school.

And so on.

So, there we are, I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute, but before I do, to all those people out there who say “Oh but if you just give people money, they’ll spend it on alcohol, or cigarettes, or a new car, or a smartphone….”  feel free to give yourself a slap.


a) people who are starving do not buy new cars or whiskey, they just don’t.


b) who are we to dictate what other people need or should buy? There is no need for us to revert back to our colonial, magnanimous roots of giving largesse to the masses and placing conditions on what people do with it – there’s no dignity in that, and it’s insanely pompous and arrogant for us to assume that because we’re the ones holding the money, we know what’s best for them.

Alright, fine, that’s enough preaching for one day. I shall now do a double-twist backflip and execute the perfect dismount from my soapbox.


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