Why we operate on a grassroots model

Woman carrying water in a village in the Irrawaddy delta, November 2017.

On the evening of Friday, May 2, 2008, a category 4 cyclone called Nargis with winds exceeding 130 mph scored a direct hit on the Irrawaddy delta of central Burma.

The Irrawaddy delta is the “rice basket” of Burma, populated mainly by dispersed farming and fishing villages. Some villages are linked by primitive roads, but many are only accessible by boat.

Due to Burma’s overall lack of infrastructure the Irrawaddy villagers had no warning about the approach of cyclone Nargis. The sky darkened around 5 PM and it began to rain. By 7 PM it became clear this was not a normal storm heralding an early onset of the rainy season.

Nargis raged through the night and by morning the daylight revealed a waterlogged and devastated hellscape. Entire villages were obliterated. The bodies of drowned people and farm animals were strewn in the floodwaters. Bodies of others who’d sought refuge from the storm surge’s 12 foot wall of water by climbing palm trees were jammed among the palm fronds in macabre contortions.

Survivors, in a zombie-like state, searched for missing family members as they made their way to the nearest temple complex, likely the only concrete buildings in their village. Many had their skin rubbed raw and bleeding as their bodies were abraded against tree trunks or house posts through the night. Others had gashes or had lost limbs as flying panels of tin roofing were sent flying by the winds like giant razor blades. Many were naked as their clothes had been torn off by the gale.

As bad as the actual event of Cyclone Nargis was, what propelled it to the level of international controversy was the Burma government’s (i.e., the military junta’s) response. As international relief and aid mechanisms rumbled into action the military junta put the country under lockdown. No aid was let in and no international aid workers were granted visas to enter the country and provide relief.

During the critical days and weeks after the storm the paranoid, control-frenzied generals blocked nearly all international assistance. Planes full of food, medicine, blankets, bottled water, and other essential items landing at Yangon airport were either emptied of their cargo and then ordered to take off again, or were simply turned around and ordered out of the country.

Much of the physical aid supplies and money aid that did arrive was siphoned off to line the pockets of the generals and never made it to displaced villagers.

Yangon was under lockdown and the staff of aid and development agencies were essentially put under house arrest and were prevented from accessing the hard-hit delta.

US warships were just miles off the coast in the Bay of Bengal and unilateral maneuvers to force relief into affected areas were contemplated. Even as a staunch opponent of US interventionism I remember thinking at the time, “if there were a situation where a US invasion is warranted, this could be it…”

I won’t recount the whole tragic tale here. For that, I recommend No Bad News for the King, by the pseudonymous journalist Emma Larkin. I keep a stack of copies of this excellent book on hand to give away to interested friends and coworkers - it’s that good.

The point I want to make from this story is that it wasn’t until several weeks after Cyclone Nargis that any official aid reached survivors in the delta. Foreign government agencies, NGOs, charities…essentially all the large official aid groups were stuck outside the country sitting on their hands waiting to be granted official permission from the junta to respond to the crisis.

In the meantime, food, clothing, and medical aid were trickling into the delta. Not at the level that the tragedy called for, but nonetheless critical supplies were making it to some of those who most needed it.

This aid was unofficial and illegal. Much of it was channeled in from Thailand through familial networks and community based organizations. These are essentially ubiquitous grassroots civil society associations that are mostly invisible to large, bureaucratic, official foreign relief and development organizations.

Farmers along the Thai-Burma border could go about their normal-appearing activities while smuggling bags of rice and containers of cooking oil and fish paste across the border by oxcart or canoe. Village monks strung together an “underground railroad” funneling food and medicine through monasteries into the delta. Ethnic women’s affinity groups channeled clothing and childcare supplies through networks of relatives and friends.

All of this was totally spontaneous, totally organic, and totally illegal. Large official aid groups who were stuck doing nothing because they had to play by the rules were oblivious to this mechanism. It also flew under the radar of the military junta, which prevented them from confiscating the aid and using it as a weapon of control as they had done with much of the official aid.

The reported death toll came to around 138,000, likely a significant underestimate. The informal network’s rapid response following the cyclone doubtless saved lives, though we’ll never know how many.

Witnessing this sold me on the grassroots model of relief and development. Any kind of large agency or institution has at least two critical weaknesses. One is that it has to obey the “official” playbook - it can’t go rogue when necessary. The other is that it has to adhere strictly to its mission as defined by its donors - it can’t pivot nimbly and improvise programming when the situation calls for a totally different approach, objectives, or metrics.

Once any official organization reaches a certain size its mission effectively becomes self-preservation. Grow if you can, maintain if you must, and at all cost avoid shrinking or going away.

Diffuse, informal, familial and community based “organizations” are flexible and nimble because they don’t have a bureaucracy to maintain first-and-foremost. They’re a lot more cost effective due to much lower overhead. They don’t have the huge budgets of official aid agencies, but they can operate when and where official groups cannot. Often that means they are the first in and the last out in situations of crisis and critical need.

In poor countries around the world “development” is often synonymous with “Westernization” and “liberalization.” A source of inspiration I’ve found working in many “underdeveloped” locations is a sense of a durable civil society, an allegiance to the common good, and a degree of solidarity and mutuality that exceeds what I’ve experienced in the US. As an outsider I run the risk of mischaracterizing or romanticizing what I’ve observed. Acknowledging that caveat, it seems to me that the fabric of villager society in SE Asia is strong.

Large bureaucracies are typically rigid, often to the point of ossification. They’re fragile and can and do fail when circumstances change and they cannot adapt quickly enough. In the West we’ve thoroughly embraced the centralized bureaucratic/technocratic model that rewards individualism and “meritocratic” professional careerism. In my view our societal fabric is strained and becoming threadbare. There is much we could learn about community resiliency and solidarity by studying the grassroots affiliations of the global “poor” and “underdeveloped.”