Seven Commandments on Responding Effectively and Providing Humanitarian Aid During a Pandemic

The 15th ILMU Hasanah was successfully conducted through a webinar for the first time on 14th April 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through this knowledge sharing session, three (3) panelists; Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister, Lilianne Fan, Founder and International Director of Geutanyoe Foundation and Said Alhudzari Ibrahim, General Manager of MERCY Malaysia shared their experience on “How to Respond Effectively and Provide Humanitarian Aid during a Pandemic: Lessons for Civil Society Organisations in Malaysia”. The webinar was streamed live via Zoom and Facebook, and almost 200 participants joined the session.

The session was moderated by Shahira Ahmed Bazari, MD, Yayasan Hasanah.

Learning from the webinar, we have put together Seven Commandments for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to respond during a pandemic or any other disaster situation:

1.CSOs are advised to adopt and follow the ‘Code of Conduct for International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Principles

The code of conduct aims to improve the services of CSOs by providing guidelines in humanitarian assistance, including treating people with mutual respect and dignity, and not as helpless or hopeless. Communities should be empowered to make decisions and allowed to be involved in project planning and implementation. Services provided by CSOs should be carried out taking into account all four (4) humanitarian principles of Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, and Independence; and the “Do no harm” principle.

During a pandemic, CSOs need to continuously assess the needs of the communities it intends to serve and prioritise services wherever needed.  CSOs should be flexible in order to cater the changing needs of a community, and be mindful that the needs would differ across different communities. Everyone has the right to receive assistance regardless of race, religion, nationality, and gender in accordance to the ‘Leave No One Behind’ philosophy of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

2. Pay special attention to the vulnerable

Women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, migrants, refugees, and undocumented populations are particularly at high risk especially during a disaster. Research has shown that women are often the first responders in disasters and play a crucial role in helping their families and communities cope. CSOs must recognise and empower women to take on leadership roles to increase the chances of families being protected during recovery.

Women’s roles and responsibilities prevent them from fleeing disasters, as they stay home to take care of their family and others. Inequality of resources such as knowledge of self-care, disaster risk reduction, and economic constraints therefore increase women’s vulnerabilities. It is therefore crucial to provide equal access to resources and empowering them to be decision-makers will allow them to protect themselves as well as reducing the impact of the disaster on their family and community.

The Movement Control Order (MCO) imposed by the Government to break the chain of the pandemic also has further exposed inequalities in society, such as economic inequalities. Understanding the different types of inequalities and the complexity of the vulnerabilities in target groups will help CSOs to respond better.

3. Be culturally sensitive and transparent with communities

CSOs should be sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of the communities they are working with when providing aid. For example, in the context of Malaysia, it would be prudent to be transparent on the nature of the aid, e.g. that the meals are halal so that communities feel comfortable in accepting the aid. In fact, aid workers should constantly get feedback on their services, and treat the affected with mutual respect and dignity.

4. Coordination and collaboration

Distribution of workload among government agencies, large and small CSOs, the communities and through partnerships with other agencies such as UNHCR helps build a better coordinated response in reaching wider groups of communities in need. Creating such a platform to plan coordinated action and dissemination of information can help prevent duplication and replication of assistance and services provided.

5. Enhance communication especially in local languages

Addressing language barriers and identifying the medium of communication that everyone can understand could help in fighting the virus and flattening the curve. Information and guidelines from the government should be well received and translated into the local language or dialect and communicated in a manner that can be understood by everyone irrespective of education levels.

One of the ways in which we can break the barriers to accessing health and other services in a disaster situation is to develop simple messaging including voice messages wherever needed to ensure that these vital pieces of information reach everyone in the community. On most occasions, information dissemination needs to be done by those who are trusted by the communities such as their community leaders, religious leaders and CSOs who have been working with them.

6. Consider all risk mitigation issues during a response

CSOs are encouraged to have proper risk management measures and procedures in place, such as having a separate operation hub, proper Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) during a pandemic for staff and volunteers, minimise movement where possible, and using local communities to assist them in order to mitigate the potential risk of further transmitting the virus.

7. Capacity development

Established and larger CSOs should help develop the capacities of smaller CSOs to respond effectively and efficiently during a crisis.