Dignity in the face of disaster

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta of Bangladesh is on the frontline of the global climate crisis: these days, when the rains fall during the annual monsoon, it doesn’t just lead to occasional flooding; rather, up to a full quarter of the country – a landmass equal to the whole of Germany – can be submerged underwater. Millions of homes are damaged, livelihoods are destroyed, and, tragically, many people die.

And while they are not solely a disaster – after all, the floods are vital to the continual nourishment of farmland – they sow chaos and calamity as people must frequently abandon their farms to seek protection until the water subsides.

People in the Rajshahi district moving to a safer place with their valuables and domestic animals. Photo by IFRC IPTC/Farid Akter Parag

Timely support: Cash, agricultural support, and hygiene kits – early

In 2020, Bangladesh experienced particularly severe floods. Building on their prior experience, United Nations agencies together with the Red Cross/Red Crescent tried something new. Unlike in previous years of bad flooding, when international responses were mounted only after flooding peaked, agencies set out to ameliorate the worst effects of the floods by deploying interventions earlier than usual.

Under the Anticipatory Humanitarian Action Pilot, UN agencies (WFP, UNFPA, and FAO) delivered a familiar set of vital interventions but, before the peak of the flooding. Support included unconditional cash transfers, water-tight dry storage drums, animal feed, and dignity and hygiene kits targeting women, girls, and transgender people. In total, the support benefited close to a quarter of a million people.

A new client mentality on aid: the importance of listening

To better understand the overall experience of beneficiaries with respect to the support they receive, UN agencies have been working with 60 Decibels to apply the same sorts of customer-centric data collection techniques that you might find at the world’s leading businesses.

In particular, UN officials were keen to better understand households’ most urgent needs in regard to preparations for catastrophic floods and whether the earlier delivery of aid was preferable and had impacted families’ ability to prepare for floods, as well as general feedback from recipients including any significant challenges or complaints.

During October 2020, our team of local Bangladeshi researchers phoned just short of 1,000 recipients of the aid. We asked a range of questions, including how the floods adversely affected beneficiaries, the experience and impact of receiving aid, and requests for future assistance. Here are some of the highlights of what we learned.

Happy customers

On one of the most commonplace determinants of customer satisfaction, the agencies perform extremely well. The Net Promoter Score (NPS)® – a gauge of customer loyalty and satisfaction – was above 50 (the marker of excellence). Only 2% of respondents in our sample reported a challenge in receiving their aid.

“It is impossible to describe how much I benefited from it. This kit seems to have given my family a lot of relief at the time of the disaster and coronavirus pandemic. Maintaining a hygienic life is very important to serve food to other family members. Thus, this kit has helped a lot in remaining healthy during the flood situation.”

Female, 27, Rangpur, UNFPA

This kind of performance is good not just in absolute terms but in relative terms too. 60 Decibels keeps global benchmarks from the hundreds of social change organisations it works with. The scores received in Bangladesh placed the agencies in the top two quintiles for NPS, and in the top quintile for absence of challenges to accessing and using the products and services provided.

Meaningful impact

When asked to describe the impact of the interventions in their own words, more than four-fifths of beneficiaries reported that their quality of life had improved because of the aid they received (a similar percentage had also said that their lives had been severely and adversely affected by the floods). Recipients of cash spoke about being able to access more food, buy or care for livestock, or undertake home improvements/repairs. Meanwhile, those getting support with agricultural storage highlighted benefits to their farm’s productivity and those who received hygiene kits even spoke about feeling safer from COVID-19.

With respect to the timeliness of aid, roughly half agreed that it had been delivered when needed most – the other half split fairly evenly between those either being unable to judge (28%) or those that felt that given sooner they might have behaved differently (24%).

“Our livestock is very precious for us. We can earn some money by selling dairy products. Without the help we wouldn’t have been able to feed the cows. And they may have died, or we would have had to sell them.”

Female, 25, Rangpur, FAO

“We do not have any income during the floods. This money helped us to buy our daily food at that time.”

Female, 37, Rajshahi, WFP

Reaching those in need

Another highly positive finding from 60 Decibel’s research is that the UN has been successfully reaching the most marginalised with their support. Over two-fifths of beneficiaries are living in extreme poverty (less than US$ 1.90 per person per day) and well over four-fifths are living in relative poverty (less than US$ 3.20 per person per day). In Bangladesh more broadly, 14% and 55% of the population live in extreme and relative poverty respectively.

Room for improvement

Of course, like for any product or service, listening to beneficiaries also reveals areas for improvement. Communication channels before and during the floods featured highly. Half of recipients across all agencies reported that their preferred mode of communication is via phone, a technique that had only been meaningfully adopted by one of the on-the-ground agencies.

Perhaps more significantly there was considerable nuanced feedback regarding the impact of cash. While cash was unequivocally useful, as many as a fifth of those receiving cash said it had made no impact on their lives during the flood. When asked to explain why, some reported that the amount of cash had been insufficient to make a material difference to their wellbeing, while others said that if the cash had been provided even earlier they would have been able to use it more effectively. Those that received cash were three to four times more likely than those who received the other interventions to suggest they would have behaved differently had they received funding sooner.

Many further findings can be found in the full report and a further listening exercise is underway to hear beneficiaries’ perspectives, now that they have had more time to (hopefully) get their lives back to some sense of normality after the significant hardship they have had to endure.

This blog was originally published by Centre for Disaster Protection on 8 February. You can read the original here.

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