Sunday, February 20, 2011

Work on the Ground

I work in disaster risk reduction field. This is an exciting work to do, as I understand how much it can help others to live safer despite the hazards they are living with. I work in Aceh, a province in Indonesia that was severely hit by one of the worst disaster in world's history. In December 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami claimed almost 200,000 of lives here.

With my other 2 colleagues, I am in charge of disaster risk reduction public awareness and education duties. Some friends asked me, what disaster risk reduction is. I have some links to more formal definitions of it, including from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR) but to sum up - and this is my version - disaster risk reduction is the efforts to minimize the risks of the hazards in a community, through the systematic measures - from government policies that regulates the land use, environment management, building codes, and so on, the education to the community on recognizing the hazards around them and how to secure themselves, the establishment of mitigation facilities, and an active involvement of the communities in developing a safer environment for themselves.

Prior to 2004, very few Acehnese knew what tsunami was. The knowledge, that after a massive earthquake hit there would be possibilities of tsunami was not registered in their minds. The evacuation routes were not in place, there was no early warning system, neither was evacuation buildings. Had those measures were in place, the tragedies that follow the tail of the waves might not be exist.

In disaster, knowledge and awareness are among the most important safety measures. If people are aware that they live with disaster risks and they do not want to be the victims, they would do some efforts to secure themselves. They need to possess the knowledge on how to mitigate the risks, how to save themselves. They need to believe that they can really do something about their lives. To feel empowered, and to be prepared.

Our public awareness approaches go through various avenues. We hit the road, delivering public performances of the traditional artists to the villages: the dance, the songs, the comedy shows, and we introduced them to the empowering messages that they can reduce the risks. We deliver talk shows on televisions and radios. We write in the newspapers. And, most importantly, we go to schools. We introduce disaster risk reduction to children, because we believe that the internalization of life concepts, including the concepts of safety, is best started at the early ages.

We would like to promote what we call "the culture of safety": the ways of thinking, the attitudes, and behaviors that consider the safety measures as part of normal life.

We work with government counterparts in charge of the education and public information. This is to make sure that they would later continue our efforts with their ow fundings, after the international donors close down the aid program for Aceh.

I really have fun with my works. Lately we travel a lot to conduct the assessments on the communities' knowledge,a ttitude, and perspective on DRR. The results of the assessments help us to understand the level of knowledge of the community members, that later is considered as the basis for the development of more suitable approaches to them. We also went to elementary schools to map what children know about disaster in their environment, whether they know the safe spots at their schools so that they can rescue themselves if disaster strikes during the school hours. We went to meet the NGOs working with the community and learned about the local wisdoms apply in the villages where they work.

The more I work with the communities, the more I realize that our works really begin with the process of "listening" and "understanding" the people. We cannot just jump into the community and throw the messages of DRR without understanding what they need and what they know (or don't know). Communities are not at all inferior in terms of knowledge. They might not know exactly the varians of disasters, or the sophisticated terms like "risk reduction" or "sustainable development", but they have other knowledge such as how to make things work for them, and that is important. However, often they need to have the basis for the making well-informed decisions. And this, is where we make our entrance.

The process of listening itself is amazing. We learned a lot from our communities (I don't like to call them "beneficiaries" - as commonly practised in my "development world"). Their knowledge about their environments is amazing: how they recognize the nature's sign, how they survived disasters, how they have ideas about what might be good to be done by them. The process of "teaching" the communities comes along with the process of "learning" about,and from them. This is why I respect the ideas of participatory approaches. I love to ask "what do you know about X?", and start my works from there instead of coming directly with "This is X - and you have to do this."

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