BY LUKE MILLER
A report on a workshop held on the 2nd of July in Labutta, in the south west of Myanmar, which took place to decide the allocation of a budget for small-scale mitigation plans for disaster risk reduction.
The significance of disaster risk reduction (DRR) was painfully highlighted in areas like Labutta in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, claiming the lives of thousands. Recognition of this importance was evident on the 2nd of July, when village representatives and local government staff gathered in Labutta to discuss the implementation on a budget solely focused on DRR. The project is run by the ActionAid Myanmar-led Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience (MCCR), funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) and also consisting of HelpAge, Malteser, Plan, Oxfam and UN-HABITAT. The primary focus of the consortium is the implementation of disaster risk reduction in the vulnerable coastal areas of Myanmar. Labutta remains a crucial area that highlights the prominence of DRR: its geographical vulnerability remains prevalent since Nargis, with its position in Myanmar’s delta area and proximity to the coast meaning that it is still highly susceptible to extreme weather. Communities still have stark memories of 2008 and understand how crucial it is that they focus a large part of their development on ensuring they are prepared for any future natural disasters.
The village representatives, consisting of village leaders, community mobilisers and their Village Disaster Management Committee (VDMC) leader had travelled from far across the area and came with a well-prepared and prioritised action plan for the projects that their village felt needed to be focused on for the next year. The workshop positioned ActionAid Myanmar staff act as facilitators for a discussion over the budget that would primarily involve the villages, but would also have the oversight of a number of local government officials. ActionAid ensured that the meeting’s participation would not be affected by the villages’ economic situations by fully funding all the necessary expenses for the representatives attending.
A crucial aspect of this process is that ActionAid would not decide what proportion of the budget each village would get – this would be a decision left to the village representatives, who were expected to analyse each other’s action plans and make their choices with regards to the vulnerability of each village. This approach is all part of ActionAid’s emphasis on community-based disaster risk reduction – it is recognised that the village members themselves are the best judges of what needs the community has. Four villages had previously received MCCR support and two had received funding from ActionAid’s Governance Seed Fund. However, 9 of the 15 villages present had not benefited from any such support and it was hoped that the decisions made would take this into account.
Each village was given an opportunity to present their action plans to the group, with many representatives passionately arguing their case for being included as a priority. All had detailed explanations of why their project was crucial to their area, with the benefits of participatory vulnerability analysis training from ActionAid Myanmar evident as several came with diagrams and detailed breakdowns of the costs and nature of their project. The villages stated the total estimated cost of their proposals but also included the amount the communities were willing to contribute themselves. Some villages simply possessed the capability to provide manpower in building infrastructure and many others had raised money in their communities to fund around 10-20% of the cost of the project in many cases.
Examples of the projects proposed included building strong bridges across nearby rivers to improve emergency access in the local area, flood defence systems, a boat for crisis situations and the development of a direct evacuation route for one village. The representatives made sure their voices were heard over the sound of rain battering down onto the roof of the meeting hall and when microphones failed they shouted instead; they were intent on making sure their particular needs were fully understood.
Once each proposal was presented, every action plan was analysed in depth by the group. ActionAid staff provided their expertise in disaster risk reduction and, importantly, other villages drew on their own past experiences of different projects. This stage of the workshop, where each plan was critically analysed, is hugely important in DRR as badly designed infrastructure can have the opposite effect of the intentions of DRR. Representatives were prepared to stand their ground: when one village’s project was criticised, they produced two large diagrams to highlight the extent of coastal erosion in their area – the community had already relocated once and measures needed to be taken to prevent this happening again.
Halfway through this discussion, the Deputy Leader of the local General Administration Department arrived to deliver a speech. While in some areas in Myanmar the links between the triad of communities, NGOs and local government has improved in recent times, in other areas this is still a work in progress. The civil servant’s speech was incredibly brief and he did not take any questions – within five minutes, everyone stood to attention as he left the room again. This provided a stark contrast to the representative of the Relief and Resettlement Department, who arrived later and became involved in the debate, answering questions positively. Crucially, he made an offer towards the end to personally help villages apply for funding for any projects that could not be met through the MCCR budget. While money cannot be guaranteed in all cases, it highlighted that there are individuals within Labutta’s local government that recognise the importance of DRR and their role of acting as representatives of the communities in their area. This relationship between the people and the government is a crucial aspect that Myanmar needs to focus on to achieve sustainable development.
The workshop culminated in a long debate between the villages as to how the available funds from ActionAid Myanmar would be allocated. This section was hugely successful in demonstrating the capabilities of community-led discussions and showed how villages benefit when they are empowered to make their own decisions, rather than being dictated to by NGOs. Crucially, both the villages and ActionAid were open about how much money was available and needed in each case. The villages that needed more funding than others were encouraged to explain why their project was worthy of that extra funding. Some heartwarming decisions were made by the community representatives: one village, Aung Hlaing, chose to take none of the budget, despite lobbying for renovations to their clean water pond. They instead opted for their side of the funds to go towards building a bridge at a nearby village, AmatKyi. The leaders from Aung Hlaing assured ActionAid staff that their community would be happy with the decision – they benefited considerably from the previous year’s budget and they hoped their relatively large population would be able raise the funds to repair the pond themselves. Another group of four villages chose to weight their budget towards a fifth village, Poe Laung, because they recognised that its central position to the others meant it was more important to prioritise. This meant that Poe Luang were able to fund their proposals for an evacuation route to a pre-existing cyclone shelter.
Many villages took on the advice of others in how to cut the costs of their own projects so the money could be spread more sustainably across the 15 communities. On top of this, buoyed by the words of the Relief and Resettlement Department representative, village leaders vowed to lobby the local government for assistance in funding their projects.
ActionAid Myanmar staff praised the decisions made in the workshop discussions and were extremely happy with how villages recognised the need to prioritise the more vulnerable communities. The villages will now have to finalise and add to the detail of their proposals, taking on what they have learned from this workshop. Following this process, the communities should have the funds from ActionAid by the beginning of August. The day ended with a moment’s silence for the victims of Cyclone Nargis – all the communities hope that this workshop will contribute to ensuring that people are better prepared for the next time Myanmar is hit by such extreme weather.