On May 2 and 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept across Burma, causing the worst reported natural disaster in the country’s history. More than 138,000 people lost their lives. Recognising the devastation to family livelihoods, the Legatum Foundation determined that the most effective intervention would...

Restoring Livelihoods after Cyclone Destruction

On May 2 and 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept across Burma, causing the worst reported natural disaster in the country’s history. More than 138,000 people lost their lives.

Recognising the devastation to family livelihoods, the Legatum Foundation determined that the most effective intervention would be to focus on the restoration of livelihoods during the early recovery phase – the fragile period immediately following the emergency relief phase, in which families regroup and people try to get back on their feet.


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Strategic Initiative

SECTOR

Disaster Recovery

TOTAL INVESTMENT

US$ 503,917

LOCATION

Burma

LIVES CHANGED

5,625

SOCIAL IMPACT INDEX

68.0 (out of 100)

AVERAGE COST PER LIFE

US$ 89.59

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SI Breakdown:

Key Achievements

  • Livelihood restoration – 3,914 women, 1,711 men and 28,125 family members benefitted through this intervention, which provided assistance through the restoration of livelihoods.
  • Grants distributed –113 villages received 50 grants for the 50 neediest families, elected in open community meetings.
  • Additional donor investment – The programme was so successful that it encouraged other donors to similarly invest in livelihoods in an additional 60 villages.

The Problem

On May 2 and 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept across Burma (also known as Myanmar), causing the worst reported natural disaster in the country’s history. This 165 km/hr storm surge swept inland into the Ayeyarwady Delta region, where water levels rose to 3.5 meters and remained above 1.75 meters for several hours. More than 138,000 people lost their lives. (By comparison, 225,000 people were killed in the 2004 tsunami.) Approximately one-third of the delta region’s total population was severely affected. In total, 450,000 housing units were totally destroyed and more than 800,000 acres of land were flooded, destroying the livelihood of thousands who relied on harvest from the delta, often referred to as Burma’s ‘rice bowl’, for survival.

Solution

Recognising the devastation to family livelihoods, the Legatum Foundation determined that the most effective intervention would be to focus on the restoration of livelihoods during the early recovery phase – the fragile period immediately following the emergency relief phase, in which families regroup and people try to get back on their feet.

After discussing options with indigenous implementers and a number of international agencies, the Legatum Foundation invested in Pact, one of the first agencies to implement a cash grant scheme in response to the destruction caused by the cyclone. The initial plan was to make 4,500 cash grants of US $100 each for the purchase of livestock, repairing of homes and businesses, and replacement of fishing gear and small-scale trading. Designed to be participatory, the programme called for open village meetings and allowed villagers to nominate and vote for the neediest village members, and thus determine who would receive a cash grant. Each elected participant would be required to prepare a small business plan, which would serve as the pro forma memorandum of understanding between the recipient and Pact. The total US $500,000 Legatum Foundation grant was expected to impact 18,000 primary and secondary beneficiaries.

Critical Analysis

A highly successful programme, Pact exceeded its original target by 25 percent. Initially, Pact had planned to work with 90 villages. However, because of good project management, it was able to capitalise on fluctuating exchange rates and work with a total of 113 villages. The project period was extended for an additional three months to allow utilisation of the remaining funds in the 23 additional villages. When the project was first proposed, the estimated number of beneficiaries was based on an assumption of four people per household, which was one person less than pre-cyclone family size. As the situation normalised after the initial emergency phase, families began to regroup. Although many people died, many of the remaining families actually increased in size to up to six members, because they took in needy extended family members.

This was an innovative programme that addressed the acute needs of communities in the most severely affected areas in sustainable ways, linking directly into the long-term community development plans of the implementing partner. Furthermore, the nature of the programme allowed for participation, which is not always a hallmark of humanitarian action in disasters. All of these factors made this a beacon programme that served as an example to other implementers and attracted further investment from additional donors.

The success of this grant demonstrates that there is both room and need for philanthropic investment in disaster recovery. This intervention illustrates that it is achievable for a private philanthropist to effectively and rapidly assess and disburse funds at the grassroots level, based on sound first-hand analysis, thus engaging in the early phase of a disaster situation more broadly than is possible via the large international relief agencies. Philanthropists who recognise both the need and the potential impact of intervening in a disaster situation can, in fact, catalyse targeted and focussed interventions that dovetail with the investors’ own interests and experience, without being confined to the activities of the largest players in the international relief system. 

Lessons Learned

Successes:

Programme served as model for organisations – This disaster recovery transitional livelihood programme came to be considered a solid model for livelihood recovery, both for Pact and for other key players in the field. The final design of the programme was based on field comments and inputs, which made the programme well adapted and suited to the needs of the beneficiaries.

Beneficiary business plans – Each beneficiary had to propose an individual business plan to receive in-kind grants from the project. This was one of the major pillars for the success of the programme, since the beneficiaries planned which tools were needed to restore their livelihood status in businesses where they already had expertise. Many recipients used this opportunity to leverage their own small savings increase their impact, and restore their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

Community selection process for beneficiaries – The process of discussing livelihoods and selecting community members to receive grants brought communities together, encouraged cooperation, and inspired neighbours to work together to ensure that the community moved forward in creating a livelihoods safety net for everyone, and not just those who were selected.

Challenges:

Change in market prices – Although increased prices were anticipated after the cyclone, Pact realised that when the actual grants were disbursed, market prices had risen even beyond what had been anticipated. This impacted the purchasing power of each grant.

Delays in results – There is always a delay in re-establishing productive activity and achieving meaningful income after an interruption. Simply giving a beneficiary a grant does not immediately result in increased income. In a disaster setting, there is much to overcome. Buyers require time to reconnect with vendors that have begun selling again.

Burma Disaster Relief : Featured Projects

Note: The Social Impact Index Score reflects the relative social impact of a given development project. The lowest possible score is 20; the highest possible score is 100.

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