In November 2010, I wrote a three-part series on voluntarism and asked the question: “Is voluntarism dead or unconscious?” The answer that I received from many of Barbados’ volunteers was that it was not dead, but barely conscious.
They also said that the concept of voluntarism needed help and a new image, and that it was being marginalised due to what many in the society saw as people taking advantage of others during traumatic situations, by asking to be paid for their services.
They also said that while Government’s involvement in volunteer organisations was often seen a major benefit to its continued growth and worth in a society, they also cautioned that Government needed to be mindful of the fact that at times their involvement was often seen as being politically motivated based on particular party alignment in the community where the volunteer group was headquartered.
While this observation may seem rather harsh and unnecessarily provocative, it is also very true; in that there are times when involvement by the State in the affairs of a volunteer organisation is politically motivated, and not by altruism.
The same analogy can be used when one looks at the District Emergency Organisation, and the often heard criticism that Government needs to be careful in how its assistance is received and perceived by the public. During the past four weeks while speaking to DEO chairpersons and members, there has been one constant in all of the discussions, and that is that there is an urgent need for the reconciliation of the relevance of the organisation, its purpose, and its overall aims and objectives as a functionary in emergency management.
Members have said that while Government must admit to its own lack lustre support, the DEO must also admit that in many cases, many of them have not been able to shed their 1960s image of being a community hurricane response group.
One chairman stated that there were rumours to the effect that there were plans being developed to either merge the DEOs with the recently establish constituency councils, or place them under the same councils, and have them managed and coordinated by the councils.
In their opinion, this would be a very grave mistake, and that they would be vehemently objecting to any such move to place them under the constituency councils. In their opinion, political interference and manipulation would now become a reality as against the sometimes subtle presence that some DEOs experienced from time to time.
Selwyn Brooks, Chairman of the St. James Central DEO, has been promoting disaster preparedness and mitigation activities in the 13,000 person district for the past nine years. He admits that he has some very strong views on how the DEO has been treated by the Department of Emergency Management, but says that his is not an isolated opinion; but that not all chairmen were willing to publicly state their disagreement with the relationship between the DEOs and the DEM.
In his opinion, there seemed to be no clear direction being advocated by the department and that it did not encourage dynamic participation among members, or took a leading role in encouraging membership.
In his opinion, the department was failing in its role of encouraging community residential participation; identifying and assisting in the procuring of much needed resources; and helping to identify and establish a headquarters for each DEO.
Brooks was of the opinion that the department did not know the competence levels and skills of the 30 DEOs. Neither did they truly understand the preparedness profiles in each community. Each DEO served very distinct communities with specific hazard scenarios that had to be identified and prepared and planned for. This was a task that was very high on their agenda of community planning and preparedness in St. James Central.
He said that many of them did not have a headquarters from which they could coordinate community preparedness activities, or keep community meetings. He said that while many might not want to say so, some DEOs had to negotiate for space in schools to hold their meetings. In his case, he held many of his meetings at his residence because there was no headquarters. As a volunteer community disaster preparedness and prevention organisation, fully recognised by Government as a key component of its national plan, there should not be a disparity in capabilities among the groups.
He said that a lack of funding, equipment, and comprehensive relevant training further contributed to the frustration and disillusionment among many DEOs. In his opinion, comprehensive first aid supplies, radios, and training in the use of dangerous equipment were vital to improving the skills of members. It was very important to have trained competent volunteers, than to have inexperienced untrained persons wanting to help but had no training to improve their level of service.
He says that leadership styles may also be a contributing factor as to why some of the groups may stall; if one chair-person has a “laid back style of managing, then the DEO will also be a “laid back” organisation. If another has a more dynamic style, then the organisation will also be very dynamic in the community. And if another has an aggressive style of management, some members may see it as being too strict and may rebel in a subtle manner by not participating to their fullest in the activities of the organisation.
He adds that complacency among many communities due to the fact that Barbados has not experienced a major disaster in many years also contributes to its low-key presence in the community.
He says that political interference based on party affiliation does not appear to be an issue, and that politics among members may be more for visibility than actual manipulation of its role in the community. He said that if there was political interference and favouritism, that those making the statements need to bring evidence of such activities or apologise, that this constant bashing of the DEOs needed to stop, and that the politicians needed to stay out of the DEOs’ internal administrative affairs and remain impartial.
He added that the continual bashing by some members of Government was not helping to promote togetherness, and it was only adding to their frustration that many faced while trying to encourage growth in the organisation.
Brooks noted that his DEO was not perfect, but that they were constantly working to improve their capabilities and maintain their relevance in St. James Central. Barbados was among very few Caribbean countries that had not experienced a catastrophic disaster since Hurricane Janet; and that in some cases, it could be seen as one of the reasons for complacency among Barbadians.
In this regard, he intended as long as he was chairman, to aggressively promote disaster preparedness and prevention in his area.
After four weeks of discussions among the DEOs these are my questions: Is there a need for change? Yes.
Is Government contributing to the lack lustre performance the DEOs? Yes.
Is the Department of Emergency Management capable of promoting and encouraging confidence and leadership among the Chair-persons? Yes.
Is it being done? According to many Chair-persons the answer is no.
Will the DEOs continue to remain relevant in their communities? Yes, but there roles and functions must evolve.
There is one other matter which I will address next week, and that relates to some statements made by the Director of Emergency Management in the electronic media yesterday. What I will say is that you must be very careful when one starts to assign blame for failures that have been recorded.