With new technologies, developing swift responses to humanitarian emergencies.
By Fatima Raja
PIRTHI GOTH, Sindh Province, Pakistan, June 2008 – Gul Bano is with her children at the water’s edge as the boat approaches. She watches as Rizwan Soomro and his team step onto shore. Her fellow villagers crowd around and escort the newcomers to the village headman seated on a wooden platform outside his home. Rizwan explains that he and his team are here to test an innovative new survey methodology: the Multi-cluster Rapid Assessment Mechanism (McRAM).
The McRAM assesses all the immediate relief needs of communities affected by humanitarian emergencies, using an integrated questionnaire on hand-computers (known as Personal Digital Assistants or PDAs) operated by teams of trained enumerators.
Today, Rizwan’s team has come to Pirthi Goth to pre-test the McRAM in the field and further refine its questions and use.
As this is explained, the elderly headman signals agreement. Gul Bano calls out to gather the village women into the headman’s hut, while a similar group of men collects on a nearby knoll overlooking the expanse of the Arabian Sea. Addressing surveys to groups instead of individuals make it easier to get authoritative data as a measure of fact-checking is achieved through consensus.
The village of Pirthi Goth consists of about fifty grass huts clinging to a small sandbar in the Indus River delta. Accessible only by boat from the port town of Keti Bandar in Sindh Province of Pakistan, Pirthi Goth is inhabited by about 250 people who make a living from the sea. It is also subject to the vagaries of the sea: the small one-room huts are washed away about once a year by cyclones and fierce storms. Every month high tides engulf the land. The huts stand only about a metre above sea level, and when the waters come the children must perch for safety on wooden platforms.
“Our house was washed away in last year’s storms,” Rehmat Bibi recalls. About 25 years old, she is the mother of two young boys and remembers the struggle to rebuild her home. “We built it again with driftwood that washed up on shore and I painted the beams so that it would look beautiful.” The monthly surge a fortnight earlier did not destroy her home, but washed away any possessions that were not carefully stowed.
So remote is Pirthi Goth that the nearest school or hospital is an hour away by boat. When Rehmat entered labour a few months ago, the midwife had to be rowed over from another village. Rehmat lost her only daughter. But despite their precarious life, the villagers of Pirthi Goth are reluctant to move. “We live off the sea,” Rehmat says. “My husband catches fish and sells it in Keti Bandar to buy flour. During the summer, when the sea is too rough to fish, we survive on credit. Where else could we go?”
Meanwhile, the McRAM survey has produced vigorous debate amongst the women of Pirthi Goth. Laughter and good-natured squabbles punctuate their replies. The questionnaire is intended to gather information about the site where those affected by a humanitarian emergency have gathered. It covers the health and nutritional status of the community, as well as food security and livelihoods, shelter, the situation of water and sanitation, education and protection. The women’s questionnaire also covers maternal health and breastfeeding. The women enumerators nod and joke as they check off responses on a paper questionnaire. Presently there is one PDA per survey team. In future the McRAM project hopes to have two per team, one each to survey women’s and men’s groups. Using PDAs speeds data entry and improves its accuracy. The data may then be directly transferred to a central computer using the mobile phone network or email, or copied onto storage media. Analysing the data will yield important information for relief operations: does this specific community have an immediate need for clean water? Are any children missing? And so on.
The team of enumerators is helped and monitored by a team of UNICEF and McRAM staff, including the McRAM Project Coordinator, Sandie Walton-Ellery. "When a disaster strikes a community, the McRAM envisions pre-trained teams of enumerators dispatched as soon as possible to collect the information necessary to plan an initial response,” she says. “Since data is collected electronically on PDAs, it can be analysed within days so UN agencies and their partners can quickly begin the work of bringing relief to affected people." McRAM offers a solution to ‘assessment fatigue’ amongst communities who may be subjected to survey after survey in the midst of recovering from disaster, and soon get tired or disillusioned by the process.
During the pre-test phase, five teams, each consisting of one man and two women, have received exhaustive training in the country’s economic capital, Karachi. Rizwan Soomro, who has worked as a surveyor for other projects in Balochistan and Sindh, later describes the pre-test as largely successful. “Written questionnaires are always a problem in these situations,” he says. “Handwriting is slow and prone to errors, both during the survey and data entry.” Rizwan also represents a McRAM priority: to develop teams who are already familiar with the area. “It was easy for me to persuade the villagers to participate,” he says. “I had worked in the area before. I know the psychology and how to persuade people. I have their trust.”
UNICEF Pakistan’s Chief of Monitoring and Evaluation, Dr Dorothee Klaus, is in Pirthi Goth to monitor the pre-testing. She feels that the McRAM project will yield an invaluable tool for responding to humanitarian emergencies. "Pakistan's experience during the 2005 earthquake and the 2007 floods showed the importance of quickly and accurately assessing the needs of affected people to coordinate relief and rehabilitation efforts,” says Dr Klaus. With rapid assessment, the humanitarian community can coordinate initiatives and resources efficiently. Instead of multiple surveys to gather data on different indicators, such as health or sanitation, all the information may be gathered and tabulated through a single survey. “We realised that a joint assessment would save resources and time in finding out the situation on the ground, and help the humanitarian community, including UNICEF, to develop a targeted response that may save countless lives in the first crucial days of an emergency situation," she says.
McRAM’s potential extends far beyond Pakistan. Its flexibility and ease of use, and the vital questions it seeks to answer, suggest that emergency response in other countries may also benefit from this collaborative approach.
Outside in the sunlight, Rizwan Soomro taps away at his PDA. The battery’s charging finishes, thanks to a long power cut the day before, and he is forced to switch to the paper version. The McRAM team-members note down the necessity of accommodating such issues, and discuss amongst themselves how to improve the questionnaire and its administration.
The village of Pirthi Goth weathered this month’s floods without casualties, but in the years to come other storms as devastating as Cyclone Yemyin in 2007 may hit the region. If so, Rizwan Soomro’s trained team will be ready to act. With the McRAM, the humanitarian community can avail a new and powerful tool, employing the latest technologies, to ensure that those who undergo emergency situations receive the relief and rehabilitation efforts they need.
1. Although McRAM was initiated and is funded by UNICEF and that it benefits from technical support from UN-Habitat, it is a broader inter-agency initiative that epitomizes the spirit of enhancing partnerships under the Humanitarian Reform. Indeed several United Nations agencies and international and local NGOs are partnering into the McRAM project. It is worth noting that McRam has been developed within the larger framework of an Inter-Agency Contingency Planning process for emergency preparedness and response in Pakistan, which itself is based on the ‘Cluster Approach’ e.g. on clusters/sectors of emergency response which fall under a clear and pre-determined cluster / sector lead. For example, in Pakistan UNICEF is the designated cluster lead for the Water and Sanitation, Nutrition and Education sectors while WFP is cluster lead for Food Security and WHO cluster lead for Health. Because McRAM is multi-cluster, each cluster member is bringing its unique technical abilities and expertise in the development of this tool.