Showing impact

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The spirit of Vanuatu

Vanuatu-Efate-Pang Pang Village-Mark, Oxfam staff, hands voucher to cyclone survivor. Photo: Groovy Banana/OxfamAUS

About three months ago, on the morning of 14 March 2015, I opened the door of my home in Port Vila slowly, not sure what I would see outside after Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam had screeched its way across our beautiful Vanuatu. At the time I thought, and wrote, that our world would be quite different out there. And it was. My first impression was of the physical devastation. My second (just a few minutes later) was that somehow we now had a cat in our garden! The phrase “raining cats and dogs” came to mind. We named it “Cat Five” and took care of it, but that’s another story for another day.

None of us in Vanuatu could imagine what a Category 5 cyclone would do to Vanuatu. Our Oxfam team tried to. We had to prepare and work with our partner organisations to prepare for something, the impact of which we were really not sure of as the country had little experience of a cyclone of this magnitude. None of us were too sure about how we and the whole of Vanuatu would respond to whatever Pam did to our country and people.

 

Only a few minutes out of my home’s door, I had a good sense of both. Large parts of Vanuatu had been devastated. It was, quite simply, bad. Pam had been cruel to our country in many ways. She had ripped large pieces of it to shreds leaving it looking naked and fragile; and leaving many of us feeling that way too. Pam had killed mercifully few for the magnitude of her force. But the people of Vanuatu were already out there, taking control of their own fate, making sure that Pam’s “control” was not allowed to settle over us or hold us back for a moment longer than it could.

In the early days after Pam, we only had ourselves to rely on. The outside world was cut away; and most of the many beautiful islands that make up Vanuatu were isolated from each other too. This didn’t stop families, friends, communities, organisations, government departments and our amazing team of Oxfamers just getting down to work and starting to make things better in whatever way possible. It was amazing to watch and an incredible privilege to be part of. Like the rest of Vanuatu, our Oxfam team emerged safely, a little dazed and tired, but ready to get on with whatever needed to be done.

Much has been said of the amazing Vanuatu response across all forms of media and in early pieces of research. Resilience was what people called it as soon as they could give it a name. That label, for me, quickly became too commonly used — taking away the “something special” that I felt and saw happening in Vanuatu. But what else could it have been? I searched my (very tired) brain for other ways to describe it, to give it a title which had a deeper sense of specialness for me. No luck. And then I looked at synonyms for resilience and there hidden among terms such as elasticity, buoyancy, hardiness and toughness was a word that fitted better: spirit. A simple term, but one which captured the essence of what I was seeing and feeling among our Oxfam team and the general population — a spirit that was strong, positive, realistic, practical under stress and located somewhere deep in the fabric of the people of Vanuatu, deep in their culture and traditions, deep in their hearts and minds.

Three months on and this spirit has done, and keeps doing, amazing things. And it is everywhere. Thanks to the amazing support of people across the world, we were able to launch a solid response to Cyclone Pam. Our team has grown, as has our work at Oxfam. While the initial “surge” needed us to bring in specialist skills from across the world, we have also been able to tap into the amazing spirit and talent of the people of Vanuatu.

I have worked with and watched young Ni-Vanuatu people new to Oxfam absorb the Oxfam values — that are so central to what we do — with ease and enthusiasm. Likewise, I am experiencing Oxfam learn and grow from the spirit of these young people — a deeply valuable and rewarding exchange and a privilege; an unanticipated gift from Pam.

Alice at Vanuatu-Efate-Matarisu village. Evelyn signs list to get emergency voucher. Philemon, community leader. Sandi and three sons, Wilkins, William and Philip n front of their house damaged by cycline Pam. Photos: Groovy Banana/OxfamAUS
 

We have done much. Our Oxfam teams provided life-saving emergency water to communities directly after Pam struck. We have built new longer-term relationships in our recovery work, some with remote communities on small islands. On Epi Island, Oxfam teams were the first to arrive in some communities and provided much needed emergency supplies, and, importantly, a sense that the world out there cared for them. We have continued our work there and on Efate Island. Our expert skills in technical water system restoration have done amazing things, as has our pioneering work in emergency food security, livelihoods and public health and hygiene education. Our partners too have worked hard with us to engage in all of this work. Always making sure that gender, protection of vulnerable community members and sound monitoring, evaluation, learning and accountability mechanisms are core to whatever we do. Together with this, the incredible work that has gone into our coordination role of the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team has been recognised as significant in the response to Cyclone Pam.

Today I look out over Port Vila, from our offices on the hill above the bay, and it is clear that the land is responding to the spirit — healing itself and sharing this with the rest of the world. The green is returning, plants are growing, flowers are dotting the place with tentative colour, markets are reopening, homes are being rebuilt, smiles are getting bigger and children are at school again. Gone are the constant sounds of chain saws cutting away at the trees that fell across our roads and buildings. Gone too are the clouds and smells of heavy smoke that hung across the city when people could only dispose of the debris by burning it. The warped and crushed metal of roofs have been cleared, signs are back up and shattered windows replaced. The harbor is no longer silent, and likewise the airport — we hear the horns of the boats and ships, see their twinkling lights again at night, and hear the flights come in and out of the airport almost as they used to. Somehow, these have become good sounds. Businesses are rebuilding and customers and tourists are returning to enjoy our special place on the planet. Lessons are being learnt and shared, government is working to respond in ways they consider best, and donors, local not-for-profit agencies and international agencies such as Oxfam are doing whatever they can to support. It is an amazing journey.

Of course, all of this will be documented in copious research and evaluation reports. Pages of paper. Some of the work will be critiqued and some applauded depending on the time and audience. This is all normal in the cycle of events after a cyclone of this magnitude. But through these formal processes we should never lose sight of that special spirit, the simple (but, at the same time complex and often elusive) “something special” that has carried us to the point we are at, and will carry Vanuatu beyond this point too.

As the anniversaries of Cyclone Pam come and go we need to continue to embrace the spirit we have experienced; the sprit that has always and will always be at the core of what makes Vanuatu and her people get up, dust themselves off and get on with life in such amazing ways. I said in the early days that there were lessons for the world in this — there have been and will be. Watch this space!

Colin Collett van Rooyen is Oxfam Vanuatu's Country Director. 

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‘A yes vote in Ireland will give us hope for LGBT rights in Zimbabwe’

Oxfam Ireland is supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in Republic of Ireland’s marriage referendum on May 22nd because we believe that equality and human rights belong to us all, regardless of sexual orientation. These rights include the right to marry the person you love. We work with civil society organisations and citizen activists to build a social movement for justice and equality on a broad range of issues, including gay rights.

Brian Malone, Oxfam Ireland’s Digital Coordinator, recently visited Zimbabwe and met with an Oxfam supported, feminist collective of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women called Voice of the Voiceless (VOVO). 

The LGBT community in Zimbabwe are denounced by their aggressively homophobic government. Homosexuality is a crime under Zimbabwean law with a one-year prison sentence for sexual relations between men. Hate speech, beatings, arbitrary arrests and even ‘corrective’ rape are rife.

Supported by Oxfam, VOVO provides a safe space for LBT women to connect, share stories and raise the visibility of women’s issues within the broader LGBT community. Sian Masuko, Oxfam Women’s Rights Programme Manager in Zimbabwe, explains that, for many of them, VOVO meetings are the only time these women feel safe enough to be who they really are.

Some are private, invite only gatherings where members feel safe to share their stories openly. Other events are more public like last year’s courageous feminist ‘transect’ walk around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, highlighting the areas where LBT women don’t feel safe.

“We went to the Central Police Station and a trans woman spoke because she had been arrested. She spoke about how difficult it is to be free and to be who you are and how you are constantly attacked on the basis of your identity. That was a bit of a risky one so we had to stand at a slight distance.”

Carol and Sku, bravely agree to share their experiences of being gay in Zimbabwe. Sku is wearing a purple t-shirt with, ‘Women Who Are Not Afraid to Use the F-word – Feminism’, written on it. Carol makes a joke about not wanting to be on camera – not for personal, security reasons but because she thinks she “looks like a pirate” today. 

“I think Zimbabwe would have a lot of ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’,” Carol says. “You’re always in character. It takes a toll on the mind. Sometimes it’s just making it through the day and saying ok I didn’t get arrested. I got home after sunset and no-one mugged me. No one spiked my drink at the bar. No one sent me threatening messages.”

In the middle of all this oppression, Sian tells me there’s also a lot of laughter and celebration.

“I think for VOVO this year there was a shift to say, ‘You know what? We’re actually not going to apologise for who we are anymore. We’re going to start to celebrate’. Because what we see as a good, positive, democratic society is a celebration of diversity and not a society where you have to apologise for who you are, and are always having to cut corners or trying to pretend.” 

Above: VOVO members dance in the streets of Bulawayo, t-shirts emblazoned with the message: 'Women who are not afraid to use the F-word - FEMINISM'. Photos: Sian Masuko/Oxfam.

Irish Marriage Equality Referendum

I told Carol and Sku about the gay rights movement in Ireland and we watched Panti's Noble Call. Then I told them how, on May 22nd, voters in the Republic of Ireland will take part in a national referendum on legalising same-sex marriage, i.e. allowing gay and lesbian couples the right to civil marriage. As it currently stands, lesbian and gay couples cannot get married and do not have equal status under the Irish Constitution.

I was curious to know how they feel when they see LGBT communities in other countries taking strides towards equality – left behind or hopeful?

For Sku, it’s the latter. “It shows us that, yeah, you can fight for something and something can actually come out of it,” she explains. “So it’s a good thing, it’s showing us that as time goes on maybe things can change here in Zim too.”

“It’s very inspiring that you’re actually at that stage in Ireland,” Carol adds. “I’m actually looking forward to hearing how that I goes. If I were Irish I would definitely say yes!... I hope the desired outcome becomes the actual outcome.”

A Yes vote in the referendum won’t just be a leap forward for human rights in Ireland. It will send a message of hope to members of the LGBT community all over the world that inequality can be challenged, that positive change can happen.

Use your voice for equality – Vote YES on May 22nd.

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Celebrating female climate change fighters

This International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate Female Climate Change Fighters. In places like Bolivia, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, small-scale female farmers show resilience and strength as they battle the effects of climate change and make their livelihoods happen despite unpredictable weather, dry spells and extreme flooding.

These women are fierce in their efforts to support their families and communities, producing crops that often fail or are destroyed because of the impact of climate change on their environments.

Rosario lives in Guayaramerin in Bolivia and is part of The Santa Rosa Community, made up of around 30 families living in the extreme north-east of the country. In recent years, the climate has changed bringing extreme and uncontrolled floods with devastating results.

Rosario says: “We talk a lot about the climate and how it is affecting us. We, as people who live in the forest, see [that] the main issue is deforestation – that is affecting us all and is impacting on the climate. Because we are all so concerned, we have implemented agro-forestry systems, which are our way of trying to preserve the forest, and ensure we are not contributing to climate change.

“In the past it was cooler during the day but now more and more there is extreme heat and the sun is burning more and more strongly. For me, it is really hard. For everyone it is a challenge to find the right way of cropping because the weather has changed so much.

“Everybody should be getting involved in this issue – especially Governments. But at the moment we don’t see enough results. This is what is worrying.”

In the Philippines, 20 year old Langging has lived in the farming community of Bagumbayan in the south island of Mindanao in the Philippines her whole life. She loved attending school, until unexpected extremes in weather meant her family’s harvest failed and her parents didn’t have enough money for her to continue her studies. Her plan was to train as a vet so she could support her community in caring for their livestock.

Despite this setback, she is using her energy to support her community in the fight against climate change. She is a Youth Leader for her local area and brings together groups of young people to talk about their experiences of the effects of climate change, bringing their concerns to the local government, and other people who have the power to make change happen.

“Climate change is a big concern for young people like me. If it’s hard to plant and grow crops now, what about the next few decades? What about when we’re trying to grow enough food to survive the longer dry spells in the future?

“As a youth leader, I’m inspired to call for other young people to act on climate change. It is important for us to dialogue with the people in power – the government officials – so they will know what the issues are.”

In Zimbabwe, rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic and it's hard for farmers like Ipaishe to predict when to plant.

Passionate and energetic, Ipaishe along with other women in her community is part of an irrigation project, trying to adapt and continue to grow crops despite the decreasing rainfall. They use their experience to campaign for climate change adaptation techniques to ensure farmers in Zimbabwe can grow enough food to feed themselves - whatever the weather.

“The way we survive here is by farming - it’s the only livelihood we have. The food we produce makes us healthy and strong, and the surplus food we grow, we can sell and get money for school fees and hospital fees.

“Over the last 10 years the climate has changed. We have had times where there was a lot of rain and all of our crops were destroyed and so we couldn’t harvest any food. Another time the rains came as normal but went very early, and the crops wilted and died due to the heat.

We must unite with others and all learn about climate change.”

Female Climate Change Fighters

Watch our new film made using stunning drone footage and powerful interviews with women climate fighters across four continents. You might want to watch this one in full-screen!

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the inspirational women in our lives, we’ve launched a special campaign on Facebook to help support women like Rosario, Langging and Ipaishe through Oxfam’s work worldwide.

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Your Impact: One Year On From Philippines Typhoon

Two ships sat wedged on the land. Underneath their hulks lay the remains of houses and the bodies of those who called them home.
 
All around lay flattened. On a piece of corrugated iron read the words ‘HELP ME’.
 
A teddy bear was face-down nearby and underfoot were the remants of everyday life as we know it; school books, shampoo bottles and plates among the debris.
 
I was in the Barangay 70 and 69 district in Tacloban city in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Earlier that day we saw bodies on the streets and drove past an evacuation centre which collapsed on top of those who had sought safety there, the steel structure twisted horribly by the storm.
 
More than 5,000 people were killed and 4 million were forced from their homes as Haiyan (or Yolanda as it’s known in the Philippines) wove its destructive path through the central Philippines. It was the strongest tropical cyclone on record to make landfall.
 
Grief was raw. We stopped at a church surrounded by newly dug plots. A photograph of a boy no older than three marked one resting place, surrounded by favourite sweets.
 
Back where the ships lay, we met a father who had lost his wife and three children. In an emotional encounter, he wept as he showed their pictures in the family photo album.
 
Amid the devastation, children played in the street and begged us to take their smiling pictures. Nearby, an Oxfam water bladder was providing clean and safe water. Opposite stood one of another Oxfam tap.
 
In spite of their overwhelming loss, people were trying to get back to some sort of sense of normality. Stalls were opening again on the side of the roads and the most popular items were torches, proving that demand dictates the market no matter what the circumstances.
 
Everywhere we went in the Philippines, people on spotting the Oxfam t-shirt would ask where we were from and express their gratitude for the support coming from the island of Ireland at this most difficult of times. Their resilience stunned us.
 
This was my first time in Asia and my first experience witnessing our humanitarian work in action. It was a real privilege to see how the generous donations of people across the island of Ireland translated into positive results on the ground. 
 
From those who came into our shops with cheques written out to the appeal (the odd one written in four figures), to children who saved up their pocket money, along with bucket-shaking, events and even a charity single, we are incredibly grateful for your support. 100% of the funds raised went to our emergency response and had a positive and long-lasting impact.
 
 
Photos:
 
Top left: Seaweed farms like Marissa Gegante’s on Bantayan island were destroyed by the typhoon. She says: “We are thankful again for having Oxfam. They helped us to recover from the typhoon and to the donors of the livelihood programme and cash-for-work – and for the love we received from them. God bless Oxfam.” Tessa Bunney/Oxfam.  
 
Top right: Enfracian Boca, pictured with her granddaughter Marcy Anne Fuentes (8 months), received  an Oxfam hygiene kit containing essential items including soap, detergent, toothpaste, and underwear. She says: “Thank you to Oxfam for the hygiene kit. It has been very useful – we have used everything, especially the soap.” Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam.  
 
Bottom left: Arlene Arceo, Manager of Latufa Farmers' Association, says: “We thank Oxfam for helping us to recover after the super typhoon Yolanda. You give us new hope for our livelihoods and a new job on our coconut lumber project.” Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam.  
 
Bottom right: Kenneth Caneda stands in front of two Oxfam latrines in Tacloban. “I use these Oxfam toilets,” he says. “We have no other toilets here. Also thank you for the cash for work for clearing the paths here.” Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam.
 
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we were able to not only provide vital aid such as food, clean water, sanitation and shelter in the immediate aftermath but also be there for long-haul, helping people to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
 
Typhoon Haiyan delivered a double blow. In the short term, it left more than 14.1 million people in need of immediate, life-saving assistance. But it also pushed millions of poor people further into poverty. Rice crops, coconut trees and fishing boats were wiped out, leaving people struggling to grow food and earn an income. 
 
In response, we have reached more than 860,000 people so far. Our first priority was to provide life-saving assistance, such as clean water, toilets, hygiene kits, and cash to buy food and other essentials. We then began helping people to recover the livelihoods that had been destroyed by the disaster.
 
For example, we provided rice seeds for farmers to replant lost crops and chainsaws for clearing fallen trees that obstructed fields. 
 
One year on from the disaster, the emergency phase of our response has finished. We’re now focusing on long-term recovery and rehabilitation. One way we’re doing this is by planning how water and sanitation facilities will be managed on a permanent basis. We’re also looking at how people will be able to earn a living. 
 
We need to ensure that communities not only recover, but are more prepared for the next disaster. 
 
The Philippines is the third most disaster-prone country in the world. In the face of predictions of more extreme weather, our new report Can’t Afford to Wait highlights the importance of being prepared for climate-related risks. It follows a warning last week from experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the irreversible impact of climate change on people and eco systems. But there is a solution, if we urgently reduce carbon emissions.  
 
Our Philippines campaign called #MakeTheRightMove calls on the Filipino government to get resettlement and rehabilitation efforts right, and immediately put in place their disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation plans. 
 
As the world reflects on the events of November 8th, 2013, for those grieving nothing can ever replace their loss.
 
All we can do is continue to provide life-saving and life-changing support in times of crisis, and ensure people can face the future prepared, come what may.  
 
Sorcha Nic Mhathúna is Oxfam Ireland’s Communications and Content Manager.
 
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Oxfam & You

Read the latest edition of Oxfam & You to see how we're making amazing things happen together.

Your support has enabled us to stand in solidarity with the people of South Sudan as the humanitarian crisis there escalated (see page 4). With 1.5 million people displaced and an estimated 4.9 million in need of assistance, we are there providing clean water, food and other basic essentials.

We are also responding to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (see page 5), providing food and sanitation as well as supporting hospitals and health clinics as they struggle to cope with large numbers of injured people.

Your support is vital in times of emergency but also in our long-term development work, like the Pink Phones project in Cambodia supporting female farmers to boost their harvest and their profits as well as helping them to use their voice for good in their communities.

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