What’s the number one tool in the humanitarian toolbox? Flexibility
When COVID-19 shut the world down, IsraAID’s teams got creative.
Thinking on your feet is key to humanitarian assistance. Each context IsraAID works in is unique, with its own capacities, assets, needs, and challenges. This means that wherever we are, we are constantly approaching our work with flexibility. Nothing is static; everything is constantly changing and things that work in one location may not be feasible in another. For humanitarian aid workers, adaptability, agility, and creativity are just as important as water filters, food packages, and medical supplies.
The pandemic amplified just how crucial these skills are. COVID-19 threw a wrench in our work plans and intensified needs on the ground. Our teams around the globe took what they had – trained staff, extensive experience, and a supportive global network facing similar challenges – and adapted our programs, to make sure communities receive these essential services. Continuing as before was simply not an option. These adaptations took different forms in various locations for our diverse programs, but all leveraged flexibility to provide millions of vulnerable people the services they need.
Following Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, families on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas were left without electricity. When the pandemic made it impossible to attend school physically, this meant that many lacked access to WiFi or computers, and therefore, virtual classes were not an option. Almost 17,000 students were unable to continue their daily education. From a mental health perspective as well as academically, this was a huge issue: in the span of less than a year, children faced two disasters that took them away from their education. Through our strong partnerships with ADRA, Latter Day Saint Charities, and the Ministry of Education, IsraAID distributed 850 tablets along with solar chargers and data packages to vulnerable students. Additionally, some 100 school counselors attended online training, offering tools for remote teaching, public health messaging, and discussions about the emotional consequences of this period for children. When an existing path to education didn’t exist, thinking flexibly was the key to finding a creative solution.
Our teams in Uganda faced similar challenges to support children. In the Palorinya Refugee Settlement, home to 120,000 refugees, IsraAID operates two Child Friendly Spaces, which offer basic educational, psychosocial, and protection services for local communities. Previously, these centers were open after school each day for educational and protection activities. In light of local COVID-19 guidelines, the centers had to be closed. Without regular face-to-face contact, it became almost impossible for center facilitators to identify malnutrition or protection issues among the children. Furthermore, cases with these concerns increased. Food was harder to come by. Stress levels skyrocketed. Our Protection team on the ground approached this challenge with flexibility: when children could no longer come to our Child-Friendly Spaces, we brought our Child-Friendly Spaces to them. They launched door-to-door home visits to each of the children on a regular basis. To supplement these visits, new at-home programming encouraged children and their families to be creative, using instructions from IsraAID’s facilitators to find personal development opportunities – like making musical instruments – with what they already have at home.
In Colombia, thousands of Venezuelan migrant and Colombian returnee children were already dealing with significant academic gaps after long periods out of school. When education frameworks shut down, these disparities worsened. Seeking an innovative solution to ensure that these children could reach their grade level, IsraAID partnered with an Israeli start-up, Imagine Machine, who developed an online platform for children to self-teach math. With support from the Rothschild Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network, as well as the expertise of the Pears Program for Global Innovation, children were able to log on and push forward with their studies. Once again, integrating flexible solutions ensured that vulnerable children weren’t left behind.
For refugees living in Sindos, northern Greece, significant flexibility was necessary when shifting all educational programs from the community center to online sessions. Both the staff and students had to adapt to new platforms in order to continue their classes, including Greek, English, and math for adults and children. Many of the refugees could only access these classes through the small screens of their phones, but with flexibility in their platform, they could still feel a part of the community.
These shifts applied to our whole organization. For months, we transitioned to door-to-door visits, launched psychosocial support call centers instead of in-person meetings, and broadcasted key information over radio shows rather than community events. Through these changes, we have reached millions of people during the pandemic. Flexibility may have been a skill we’ve honed in this time, but it’s certainly not new to us. In an organization that is constantly moving from one emergency to the next and developing new programs around the world, the ability to adapt is what facilitates our success. Among the challenges that the COVID-19 virus brought us, it also provided the platform to expand and strengthen that adaptability– which will continue to serve us in the future.
Please donate to our emergency fund today, to ensure our teams around the globe can continue responding quickly as circumstances change. Thank you!
Lilach Grunfeld Yona is IsraAID’s Head of Education Sector, based in HQ. Lilach has vast experience in early childhood education as a teacher and pedagogical consultant.