Bogale, Myanmar, 11 June 2008 — It takes two hours by a diesel-powered boat to reach Shwe Pyi Aye Village from Bogale Township, one of the five townships most severely hit by Cyclone Nargis. Almost half of the village’s population, 441 people, perished in the tropical storm. Three of them were Thin Thin Aye’s brother, father and 14-year-old daughter.
Thin Thin Aye, 31, used to make a living by cutting and selling firewood. But the May cyclone wiped away her house, the wood and all her hand tools. Her remaining family survive on rice rations from other agencies and NGOs. They also received tarpaulin sheets which provide a temporary roof.
“There is nothing to do now,” she said. “I hope I can get a fishing net. At least my family will be able to live on fish. We don’t want to live on donation anymore.”
At the village meeting the United Nations Development Programme organised, Thin Thin Aye brought her four surviving children. She was one of the approximately 200 villagers who showed up. Five community organisers who have worked on UNDP’s Human Development Initiative, which has operated in the region since 1994, explained the goal of the meeting — the villagers themselves would select beneficiary households for different types of early recovery assistance.
The capacity to operate at this grass-roots level stems from UNDP’s long history of working closely with communities, as directed by the Executive Board mandate.
With guidance from the facilitators from UNDP and its implementing partner PACT, the villagers first selected seven members — three of them women — to form the village’s early recovery committee by using a simple blind voting method. They then broke into different groups. Finally, the early recovery committee compiled the list of beneficiary households, and all the groups agreed to the final list.
“This is a development process woven into relief operations,” said Alan McMahon, project manager. “We are not just injecting cash. We are actually setting up an open and transparent system that will help the villagers make their own decisions.”
After several hours of animated discussions, including a quick lunch break, the villagers selected 30 families, Thin Thin Aye’s included, as the most vulnerable households, making each household eligible for a one-time USD40 grant. This enables the villagers to purchase any materials they need right away. The villagers also selected half of the village’s households for shelter assistance. When these households receive USD120 from UNDP’s Bogale Township office in the next few days, they will be able to use the cash to rebuild their houses after the monsoon. Lastly, the villagers selected another 55 percent of the households to receive cash grants and in-kind assistance to help them resume livelihoods.
UNDP also provides cash-for-work schemes, enabling each household to receive USD2 per day for the initial round of 10 days, for community activities such as clearing ponds and paddy fields and removing bodies. The cash will enable the villagers to purchase any materials they need. The village committee, together with UNDP facilitators, will conduct public audit to make sure the cash is spent appropriately. If there is any sign of misuse of funds, the village becomes automatically ineligible to participate further in this project.
During the cyclone, Moe Kyi, 33, held on to a coconut tree with one arm and one of her children with the other. The river rose up to her neck, she recalled, and swept away her four-year-old boy. She said she wanted things to go back to the way they were before the disaster. She would also like a new fishnet to replace the one she was able to salvage.
“The villagers decided that her family would receive livelihoods assistance,” said Khaing Ye Mon, 25, who has worked as loan officer in the village for three years. She knows Moe Kyi and her circumstance intimately, as those of other members of the micro-finance groups in seven different villages. She and teams of other community organisers from UNDP and PACT will be travelling to 70 different villages in the township in the next ten days to help survivors select beneficiary households and disburse cash, addressing urgent early recovery needs.
“The project helps people like her to live normal again,” she said referring to Moe Kyi.
As for Thin Thin Aye, she said any sign of dark cloud gathering in the sky scares her now, because it makes her think that it might be another cyclone. With the cash grant from UNDP, she would be able to buy a new fishnet. As her youngest daughter nestled in her lap, there was a hint of smile in her eyes.
“At night, I pray that there will be no more cyclone, just a lot of good luck,” she added.
Story by Katrin Park, for the United Nations Development Programme 2008