A community affected by the cyclone gathers to determine which villagers are in the greatest need of shelter, food, and agriculture grants. Credit: Pact
Oxfam partner, Pact, transforms overnight from doing microfinance work to relief work.

Rebuilding Shattered Lives in Myanmar: Oxfam partner delivers aid, empowers communities

“Our work is not only about providing aid; it's also about rebuilding shattered communities”
Kurt MacLeod

Like so many others in Myanmar, when Fahmid Bhuiya woke up the morning after Cyclone Nargis, his whole world had changed.

Several hours after clearing the debris that blocked his front door, Bhuiya began walking into the city of Yangon. He climbed over trees blocking the roads, and passed bewildered neighbors staring at what was left of their homes. Finally, when Bhuiya reached the Pact office he found there was no electricity and no way to communicate with the outside world or even the other 32 Pact branch offices in the country. He took a deep breath and realized he was no longer a country director in charge of a microfinance program in Myanmar.

"Overnight, we turned into an emergency relief organization that was going to be a part of one of the largest disaster efforts ever in Southeast Asia," he says.

Pact, an Oxfam America partner, has been working in Myanmar for 10 years establishing one of the world's largest microfinance projects, with more than 245,000 active borrowers across Myanmar. Now, Pact has turned its focus to the Delta to help those most affected by the devastating cyclone.

Kurt MacLeod, the vice president of Pact, has been working in Asia for more than 13 years but has never seen this level of devastation. He also has never seen an organization transition so quickly from doing microfinance work to relief work.

Before the cyclone, Pact was working in 960 villages with more than 433 Myanmar staff across the Delta region, five of whom died in the cyclone.

Village networks

Pact's microfinance program works through self-selected village networks that collaborate with community leaders and village elders to make their own decisions about establishing five-member savings and credit groups led by women.

It was precisely this extensive network and strong relations at the community level that put Pact in a perfect position to play a fundamental role in the cyclone relief efforts.

"This has allowed us to work immediately with communities we already know, where we understand their fears, recognize their families, and know what it will take to get them back on their feet as quickly as possible," MacLeod says. "Now other organizations are tapping into the networks to access the most remote areas where people urgently need help. Because we have coordinated our efforts with local authorities, communities, and UN agencies, we are in an excellent position to provide immediate relief."

Emergency relief

So far, Pact has been able to help more than 300 villages. The agency has provided medical care and has distributed food to more than 119,000 individuals. However, the main form of assistance Pact offers is cash. Cash grants are used to rebuild housing, for food and cash for work cleaning up the communities. Providing aid in the form of cash ensures that the villagers receive what they actually can use, rather than what an outside agency assumes they need.

"As long as a village is not too traumatized, Pact believes that the most effective approach places the community at the center of the decision making for what they need and which households need the most help," MacLeod says. "Not only does this empower them and build their confidence after such a blow to their lives—it reinvigorates the economy at the local level and reboots the social network. Our work is not only about providing aid; it's also about rebuilding shattered communities."

Pact's relief effort goal is to help all of the villages it worked in before.  It's an ambitious goal, but in MacLeod's view, it will be the communities that will help them reach it.

"At the end of the day it will be the determination and the hard work of the Myanmar people that will see them through this tragedy and allow them to start rebuilding their lives. Of course they need help, but I believe they have it in them to get the job done. We are just a catalyst while the community is the engine."

Story by Katie Taft, Oxfam America, June 2008

Learn more

Myanmar cyclone