It’s Time to Rethink Disaster Relief

After Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, I worried humanitarian aid might contribute to other disasters.

The rubble of a house destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in front of a still partly standing pink house in The Bahamas.
Photo by Paul Dempsey via Shutterstock

Destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian in Marsh Harbour, The Bahamas

In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian devastated Grand Bahama and the Abacos in The Bahamas. A people accustomed to hurricanes, we were shocked by the terrifying superstorm, a slow-moving Category 5. Those of us on other islands in the archipelago nervously watched social media accounts of what was taking place. Many houses were flooded up to their second levels; others were packed with people who came knocking, desperate for a safe place to ride out the storm.

As director of Equality Bahamas, a non-profit organization that promotes women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, I was involved in relief efforts. We set up a donation center at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in New Providence that quickly grew into a distribution center for displaced people. Over six months, we supported over 700 people by providing weekly food packages, hygiene kits, menstrual hygiene products, bedding, baby items, school supplies, school uniform assistance, tarps, tools, career services, and connections to mental health services.

International organizations sent supplies and entered the country to offer assistance. States and organizations contributed money directly to the government of The Bahamas for relief efforts. International humanitarian organizations and UN agencies largely partnered with organizations that had greater capacity and connections than Equality Bahamas. We sustained our efforts by partnering with another local nongovernmental organization (NGO) with access to funding.

Food aid was typically selected based on cost and non-perishability, driven by the logic that the more food you can buy and the more easily you can store it, the more it can help. But reality is more complex; cheap, non-perishable choices tend to be unhealthy ones, while thoughtless packaging contributes to environmental problems. Day by day, I dealt with these challenges and thought about how we might reimagine the meaning of food security in disaster relief.

Funders typically don’t want to cover human resources, buildings, equipment, and the like. When it comes to disaster relief, everyone seems to want to provide food.

For months, water was one of the most pressing needs of those remaining in and displaced from Grand Bahama and the Abacos to other islands in The Bahamas. International NGOs sent cases and cases of single-use water bottles. I didn’t hear any discussion of purification products or methods as people rushed to get their hands on cases of water. I thought about the relationship between pallets stacked high with cases of bottled water and the rising sea levels that threaten to make these islands disappear within a century. We are still trying to get the landfill under control and, at the time, The Bahamas was just months into a single-use plastic ban.

This response to an unprecedented climate event produced more waste that adversely affects the environment. On Day 1, we needed those cases of water. By Day 30, people would have been better off with water filters, water bladders, and reusable water containers.

Photo courtesy of Alicia Wallace
The author coping with boxes that held food aid after Hurricane Dorian

One of the largest components of the hurricane relief program we ran was the provision of weekly food packages. Due to budgetary constraints, limited space, and the volume of need, we needed items that were nonperishable and easy to distribute. Food packages varied from week to week, but typically included tuna, sardines, corned beef, corn, sweet peas, sugar, evaporated milk, tomato paste, rice, grits, tea, and juice. The protein was canned and high in sodium — a major issue considering the high local rate of heart and circulatory issues.

From the cardboard boxes used for food packages to the plastic wrapped around cases of nonperishable food, our waste filled a dumpster week after week. To make better use of funds, we started asking people to return their boxes from the previous week in exchange for a packed box, but some people lacked space to store the boxes or said the boxes got destroyed. We eventually shifted to recyclable plastic bags which cost less, but they were not sturdy enough. I lamented that we could not secure funding to provide each family with a reusable cloth bag, but we asked people to bring their own so we could stop using plastic bags.

I have noticed, over years of running a nongovernmental organization, that one of the major issues with funding is the obsession with particular kinds of activities. Funders typically do not want to cover the cost of human resources, buildings, equipment, and the like. When it comes to disaster relief, everyone — including international donors and individuals — seems to want to provide food, but there is too little focus on the type of food being distributed. Funders focus on quantity over quality and they tend to encourage NGOs to do the same through impact assessments that privilege quantifiable data.

Over six months, we had the pleasure of getting to know some of the people coming for assistance and had the opportunity to get feedback. While everyone was grateful, one message was clear: tuna and corned beef get tiring, and nonperishable food items are monotonous and not particularly healthy.

It is easy to sit at a computer and make the cheapest selections to help the most people, but isn’t that the problem with international aid? In seeking to reach as many people as possible with limited funds, the system lost sight of the importance of prioritizing health. In The Bahamas, there are overwhelming numbers of people with hypertension and diabetes. The top causes of death from 2009 to 2019 were ischemic heart disease, stroke, and hypertensive heart disease. These should have been the first considerations.

We have a responsibility to think about the long-term physical and mental effects of our actions and inaction. In this case, our food assistance had the potential to foster unhealthy eating habits, negatively affect physical health, and add a mental health stressor as people grew tired of the same items over and over again.

In seeking to reach as many people as possible with limited funds, the system lost sight of the importance of prioritizing health.

I thought of adding a green market to the weekly distribution, but it was not financially feasible. Instead, I negotiated with donors to provide grocery vouchers so people could purchase fresh produce. There is no way to know how people spent the $40 — later reduced to $20 — and that’s fine. We, the people providing assistance, should trust recipients’ ability to make decisions for themselves.

Another area that was initially overlooked was supplemental drinks for elderly people. International NGOs and individuals do not typically donate Boost, Ensure, MiraLAX, and comparable items. Similarly, we had to specifically request or use discretionary funding to purchase baby formula, such as lactose-free options, for those with specific dietary needs.

In the Abacos, a few communities of Haitian migrants lost their homes and everything inside. Unlike most Bahamians who had family or friends who could house them, the Haitians had to stay in government-run shelters. Most were housed together in two shelters which made it easier to deliver programming tailored to their needs. Food packages were of little use to them because they did not have access to cooking facilities, so we made arrangements for volunteers to prepare breakfast one day per week.

We quickly learned the typical Haitian breakfast is not like Bahamian or American breakfasts, so we consulted with Haitian people to create a menu featuring Haitian dishes, such as Haitian-style spaghetti, instead of typical Bahamian breakfasts of grits and tuna, corned beef, or souse, a popular breakfast dish typically made with chicken or pig feet and flavoured with lime and allspice. The Haitian food provided a source of comfort, giving them the taste of home.

We need to be more mindful in responses to disaster, and set the intention not to create new disasters. How can we provide water to thousands without creating devastating waste that will end up in landfills? What food items can provide nourishment and foster health? What alternatives exist for those with allergies and specific needs?

How can our food assistance programs prioritize the needs of vulnerable people, reduce harm to people and environment, and honor diverse cultures and traditions? These questions are difficult to answer. Thoughtful, effective responses are not cheap, nor are the lives and islands impacted by climate events and our responses to them.

We need to be more mindful in responses to disaster, and set the intention not to create new disasters.

The Bahamas is still trying to recover from Hurricane Dorian. Infrastructure is being rebuilt and repaired, people are still displaced, some businesses are still closed, and families still need government assistance. This has, of course, been complicated by Covid-19. We remain concerned about the upcoming hurricane season and the damage another hurricane — whatever the strength and speed — could do.

Since Hurricane Dorian, and even more in the pandemic, Bahamians have become interested in backyard gardening. People are learning to grow their own food and see value in reducing our reliance on imported food. I hope we tap into the power of feeding ourselves, building strong communities with shared gardens and social enterprises that can respond to national crises with homegrown food. We may not be in the position to decline foreign aid, but we can set trends and protocols for international nongovernmental organizations to follow in our country. We live with the consequences of slavery and colonialism, and we risk being saddled with the negative consequences of aid.

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