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I knew my family wouldn’t starve

Jamelda Rosaldo shows what she packs in her Go Bag whenever she prepares for upcoming typhoons. Photo: Geraldine Grace Hoggang/Oxfam Pilipinas

Anticipatory action is a new approach to preventing suffering in emergencies.

When disaster strikes, what could be better for the affected communities than a speedy emergency response? One that’s already happened.

That’s the idea behind a new approach to cyclones and other hazards that are possible to predict: distributing cash in advance in the communities that lie in harm’s way.

Preempting disaster

With a little cash in hand, a family can lay in supplies of food and medicine that will help them weather a major storm. They don’t need to fight their way through flooded streets afterward, and then face the shortages and pay the inflated prices that inevitably follow a disaster, and they don’t need to rely on loan sharks to provide what they need. Cash in advance might enable them to secure their roof against powerful winds– a preemptive move that could significantly reduce loss and damage. And every preparation can help ease the worry that they won’t be able to protect their children from the worst effects of the emergency.

“If you wait until a disaster strikes,” says Ria Barrera from the People’s Disaster Risk Reduction Network (PDRRN), an Oxfam partner in the Philippines, “it means more suffering, more losses, more time for recovery.”

To understand the value of what’s known as anticipatory action, it’s important to see the context in so many of the communities that bear the brunt of catastrophic storms: families have virtually no food stored or money saved. Each day they scrape together enough to eat, often by performing day labor in homes and on farms and construction sites. The work doesn’t pay well enough to enable savings, so their existence is hand to mouth.  

Tahera Begum, an agricultural laborer who lives in Gaibandha, Bangladesh, speaks for countless families: “The only food we store in our homes is rice,” she says. “We can’t afford to buy more.”

By interrupting their paid work, a storm snaps the fragile thread that connects them to their source of food and consigns them to days of worry, risk, and—too often—hunger. Under the circumstances, a small infusion of cash can make an outsized difference.

Why cash?

Liza Moscosa, who received cash before Typhoon Odette, reviews the cash-transfer process with SIKAT’s Riva Badanoy. “Knowing we had milk and medicines for my grandchildren was a big help.” Photo: Geraldine Grace Hoggang

Not all anticipatory action involves cash. Everything from creating contingency plans and early-warning systems to setting up safe spaces for livestock and fishing boats fits the bill. It’s all in the service of reducing risks and preventing avoidable suffering and loss. But when it comes to distributing aid to families, digital cash is usually a better choice than physical goods.

The SKS Foundation, an Oxfam partner that works in northern Bangladesh, distributed cash in advance of a recent flood; one recipient spent the money protecting her water supply by hiring someone to raise the level of her hand pump; another chose to repair her latrine. 

Asked why she prefers the cash approach to handouts of food and other goods, a Bangladeshi woman named Koipana says, ““When I receive cash, I can make my own choices.”

Aira Bingco, who lives in a town in the Philippines that experiences frequent cyclones echoes her words: “With cash, we can choose what the family really needs.”

Jamelda Rosaldo lives nearby. Through PDRRN, she received cash before Typhoon Odette. Because she has four daughters, she added hygiene products like soap and menstrual pads to the collection of foods she purchased.

“The problem with receiving goods is that they may not include healthy foods or the ones we need,” says Crizyl Casillano, who, like Bingco and Rosaldo, received cash assistance before Odette. “I have a baby so need milk, but sometimes I receive noodles and canned goods.”

In other words, families know exactly what they need, and the chances of aid providers predicting those needs accurately are nil.

How it’s done

Anticipatory action depends on strong early-warning systems. Oxfam and partners help bring governments and communities together to develop reliable projections that combine technical forecasts with community-based indicators. In the case of typhoons, there is a moment when the strength and path of a storm can be predicted with reasonable accuracy and there’s still time to act.

As for transferring the money, it’s far safer, quicker, and simpler to do it electronically than through a physical transfer of bills. That requires preparation, of course. The local organizations Oxfam works with identify the people most at risk; they help them set up accounts with digital financial services and provide training so everyone’s ready when the time comes. There is a side benefit to enabling digital fund transfers: many of the people who most need to receive aid in advance of emergencies have no relationship with a bank. Once they set up a digital bank account, they can use it for savings, bill payments, and future infusions of emergency cash, and they may become more eligible for loans.

Working in partnership

Oxfam is promoting the shift to anticipatory action wherever possible, and is providing funding and technical assistance to partner organizations to ensure that the transfers go smoothly.

“What I appreciate most about Oxfam is its willingness to innovate,” says Al Bernarte, director of SIKAT, an Oxfam partner in reducing disaster risks in the Philippines. “The anticipatory action work is a good example of that.” 

For its part, Oxfam appreciates the deep connections and relationships of trust that local groups have built with their communities—trust that enables quick, effective action when a disaster looms. Community members have warm words for the partner staff, calling them kind, respectful, and reliable, and some award the highest praise: “They are like family.”

And like family, they are there when you need them.

“When a typhoon approaches, it’s scary,” says Rosaldo. “But it’s extra scary when you have nothing in your hand. When I received the cash, I stopped worrying so much. I felt secure because I knew my family wouldn’t starve.”