Community Development

In Honduras, a grassroots network mobilizes after Hurricane Mitch

The Bahá’í community of Honduras – although inexperienced in the business of disaster relief – energetically mobilized itself after Hurricane Mitch, providing a much-needed and trustworthy network for the timely distribution of aid and services.

In the district of Olancho, about 200 kilometers northeast of Tegucigalpa, a medical team from the International Medical Corps (IMC) treated victims of Hurricane Mitch.

SEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- In his job as a disaster relief coordinator with International Medical Corps (IMC), Stephen Tomlin has been to many of the world's most chaotic crisis areas. The American equivalent of the French-founded "Doctors without Borders," IMC has provided medical relief teams to crisis spots such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Rwanda, to name just a few of the places Mr. Tomlin has been assigned.

The scene that greeted him in Honduras two weeks after the passage of Hurricane Mitch, which battered Central America for nearly a week in late October-early November 1998, was as grim as any he has faced.

"In Honduras, the devastation was such that the last 25 years of development assistance was just washed away, especially in rural areas, in terms of agricultural development, the health network and the education sector," said Mr. Tomlin. According to news accounts, more than 3,000 -- and perhaps 5,600 -- people lost their lives because of the tropical storm.

One of the biggest problems facing international relief teams, Mr. Tomlin added, is finding a ready local counterpart that knows the country and the people and that can effectively help direct incoming relief teams and commodities so that the most needy receive help first.

"When the world's attention is on a country after a disaster, there are a lot of sources of relief that come into the target area," said Mr. Tomlin. "But it often only comes around once. And so the challenge for anybody working in disaster relief is to maximize the incoming resources to make the most significant impact, in order to deal with the priority needs of the communities that are most in need."

In this regard, said Mr. Tomlin and others, the Bahá'í community of Honduras played a special role in helping other established humanitarian organizations identify priorities in the distribution of aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.

"The Bahá'ís have been instrumental in helping us clarify where the help was needed most and how to distribute it well," said Luisa Willingham, who coordinated disaster relief efforts for Foundation Maria, a humanitarian non-governmental organization sponsored by Mary Flake de Flores, the First Lady of Honduras.

Indeed, by its own account, the Bahá'í community -- although inexperienced in the business of disaster relief -- energetically mobilized itself after Mitch, seeking to provide whatever help it could. Its role grew quickly, providing not only a much-needed and trustworthy network for the timely distribution of aid and services but also reaching out to sister communities overseas in an effort to channel more aid into the country. This mobilization took place at the local, national and international levels, providing a model for what grassroots-based organizations can do in times of crisis.

With an organized presence in some 53 cities and towns and a national membership of about 40,000, the Bahá'í community here was well positioned at both the national and local levels to help in such a crisis. About a week after the hurricane, the national governing council of the Honduran community established the National Bahá'í Commission for Humanitarian Aid, giving it the responsibility to coordinate Bahá'í-sponsored relief efforts. One of the Commission's first moves -- one that was almost a reflex action for a community whose principles underscore the concept of global citizenship -- was to reach out to Bahá'ís overseas.

Campaign on the Internet

In a series of electronic mail dispatches, Bahá'í communities around the world were told of the plight of Honduras and other Central American countries. At first, the Hondurans asked only for prayers. But later, as offers of material aid came in, the Hondurans explained what commodities were needed and how they could be sent.

These dispatches led to a largely informal campaign by Bahá'ís overseas, conducted primarily over the Internet, to raise money and send critical commodities to Honduras. Although aid continues to flow, an early assessment of this effort indicates that Bahá'í communities -- mostly at the local level -- in some 18 different countries sent more than US$60,000 in cash assistance to Honduras by various means, according to Nancy Garcia, a member of the National Bahá'í Commission for Humanitarian Aid, as the special commission is formally known.

In addition to cash donations, Bahá'í communities overseas also solicited and organized the shipment of at least 8,000 kilograms of medicine, food and clothing, which was sent directly to the Bahá'í community of Honduras for distribution. So far, Bahá'í individuals and/or communities in the following countries have sent donations of cash or commodities: Angola, Australia, Belize, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Italy, Japan, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States of America.

Bahá'í communities overseas were also in the frontlines in terms of helping to organize donations to other humanitarian organizations. The local Bahá'í Center in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, for example, served as the meeting place and collection center for the Honduras Association of Massachusetts, which sent a donation of some 8 standard shipping containers of food, medicine and supplies to COPECO, the Honduran national civil defense agency, and to the Honduran Red Cross. A group of Bahá'ís in Vermont, USA, working with other local organizations, raised some $100,000 of hurricane relief money for Partners of the Americas, a major private voluntary organization that focuses on local-to-local partnerships.

New relationships

In Honduras itself, the Commission for Humanitarian Aid offered assistance to other non-governmental organizations, mostly in the form of volunteers. From this offer evolved a series of new relationships with organizations such as Foundation Maria, UNICEF, and IMC, as well as with government agencies. And it soon became apparent that the most helpful role for the Commission was to help other agencies prioritize their relief distribution efforts.

"The Bahá'í community in Honduras had an administrative organization and network throughout the country in both urban and rural areas," said Mr. Tomlin. "That made a lot of difference in terms of rapid response."

Ms. Willingham of Foundation Maria explained that in the first weeks following Mitch's passage, efforts to provide assistance were hampered by poor communications, an effect that stemmed in part from the destruction caused by the hurricane. "We were getting conflicting stories," said Ms. Willingham, a special assistant to First Lady de Flores. "One government office would be telling us that everything was fine, while the people in a region were telling us that help was getting there, but it wasn't being directed well."

She said, however, that the members of the Bahá'í Commission she worked with were able to draw on the network of Bahá'í communities throughout the country, as well as their own knowledge of specific regions, to help identify areas most in need.

For example, the Commission suggested that IMC send a medical team to the rural district of Olancho about 200 kilometers northeast of Tegucigalpa, an area that was especially hard hit by Mitch. The region is largely inhabited by the indigenous Pech people, who have often been ignored.

"It was as a result of the Bahá'í network that we were able to identify this group as a priority group in need of assistance," said Mr. Tomlin, who joined an IMC medical team that was sent to Olancho. "And as a result of us coming back and writing a report and interacting with international donors, we were able to target World Food Program attention to that area."

In other cities and departments, local Bahá'í communities also played an important role in identifying needs, serving as volunteers, and/or acting as local distribution agents. To give a few examples:

• In San Pedro Sula, the major city on the north coast, the Bahá'í community worked with UNICEF to prioritize which neighborhoods had been hardest hit and were most in need of aid. Local volunteers then used their own vehicles to deliver milk, rice, beans, cornmeal, water, soap, diapers and other commodities to those neighborhoods and to outlying areas. They helped repackage 20,000 pounds of lima beans, sent in by air from the United States, into five-pound bags for local distribution. And the community set up an IV fluid holding depository, keeping the fluids ready for rapid distribution in the event of an outbreak of cholera or other similar diseases.

• In Choluteca, an agricultural region in the south that was badly hit by flooding, the Bahá'í community set up a short-term distribution center for food, medicine and clothing. The Commission was also instrumental in directing to Choluteca a team from the USA's Centers for Disease Control to do a survey of water contamination caused by the hurricane and a study of the long-term threat it poses.

• In Comayagua, in the country's central region, the local Bahá'í community of Siguatepeque distributed clothing and food to needy families. An orphanage, El Hogar de Tierra Santa, which is operated with Bahá'í involvement, took in some 20 additional children.

In Gracias a Dios, Hospital Bayan played a critical role in Palacios, a small community on the remote northeast coast. Established by two Bahá'í doctors in 1985 to provide medical care to an under-served population composed mainly of Miskito and Garifuna people, the small medical center became a refuge and rallying point for the community during and after the hurricane.

Shelter from the storm

During the storm, more than 200 people took shelter in the hospital's buildings, which are some of the strongest structures in the area. After the storm, the hospital served as host to an international medical team from Cuba, as well as an emergency relief team from Ireland.

The Cuban Medical Brigade brought in some 15 tons of medicines, equipment and mattresses, and saw more than 5,000 patients during November and December. "Bayan supported all aspects of the work of the Cuban Medical Brigade in terms of electricity, water, general supplies," said Dr. Victora Abraham Salazar, coordinator of the six-member Cuban team that was sent to Palacios. "And there was a close relationship at all times between the Bayan staff and the Medical Brigade."

For the Bahá'í community of Honduras itself, the experience of working at disaster relief has clearly pushed the community in new directions. "Although the Bahá'ís are used to working in communities, we have not before worked under these circumstances," said Jeannie Hernandez Imboden, secretary of the Honduran Bahá'í community. "I believe that in spite of all that is bad that it is a very good experience for us, because we have redoubled our efforts and developed our capacities as a community."

The Commission itself has already begun discussing how it can contribute in the long run to helping to rebuild the nation as a whole. "As Bahá'ís we see that this catastrophe has immense potential for inspiring new attitudes of cooperation, collaboration, and reciprocity," said Ms. Garcia of the Commission. "If we help communities develop the skills for consulting and working together to find solutions for restoring their homes and livelihoods for the good of all, they will benefit also from newfound unity, self-worth and vision as individuals and as a community."