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Relief for the relievers

Rodney Cloete and Penny Middleton (front) with the staff of Namibia Red Cross.

In between responding to thousands of disaster-affected families in the Zambezi River Basin, Namibia Red Cross is taking a breath to improve its own systems and structures. Australian volunteer Penny Middleton is on the case.

Flooding is almost an annual event in southern Africa's Zambezi River Basin, displacing or affecting hundreds of thousands of people and exacerbating health, social and economic conditions in already vulnerable communities.

In early 2011, Namibia Red Cross provided emergency shelter and distributed blankets, mosquito nets, hygiene kits and water containers to an estimated 60,000 people displaced by flooding.

Providing assistance on such a large scale comes with numerous challenges. Many Red Cross branches are struggling with worn-out facilities, inadequate financial resources, outdated administrative systems and lack of visibility in the community - all of which hampers the recruitment and retention of volunteers who deliver relief and recovery services.

As an important precursor to ramping up disaster preparedness and response activities, Nambia Red Cross is strengthening its internal organisational processes and core programs.

The recently-established Organisational Development Department is key to making this happen. As the department's coordinator Rodney Cloete explains: "The organisational development program has to lay the foundations for setting up community structures and engaging volunteers within the communities."

Rodney and his team are identifying ways to improve Namibia Red Cross' governance and management, branch development, volunteer membership, youth engagement and human resources.

They are supported by Australian volunteer Penny Middleton, one of the first volunteers to work with Namibia Red Cross as part of Australian Volunteers for International Development, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative.

Penny's background in psychology and business management are ideally suited to this assignment.

"I really enjoy the challenge of working with organisations and finding more effective ways that they can structure themselves," she says.

"Organisational development makes Red Cross societies more efficient and sustainable through increasing membership and volunteers and by building branch capacity and leadership."

One of Penny's initial projects is the development of a membership and volunteer database, which will help mobilise volunteers more quickly during emergencies. Longer-term, she and Rodney are looking for ways to improve sustainability.

"We need to engage more with our communities at grassroots level because we're currently a bit too centralised," Rodney says. " We need to strengthen the branches and we need to get them to be more financially sustainable."

According to Rodney, the experience of hosting an Australian volunteer has been positive and grounded in mutual learning.

"The number one benefit has been the transfer of skills. Not only directly to me but also to other staff. Culturally there hasn't been much difference, which has made it very easy for us to be able to work together… and professional volunteers are here to support us in realising what we want to realise as an organisation."

For Penny, still in the early stages of her assignment, the focus has been on building trust and strong relationships with her colleagues.

"It's gone even better than I expected. The Namibians are a lot like Australians; they have a similar sense of humour and they're really easy to work with. So I really feel like I'm at home and that's been absolutely amazing," she says.

"I hadn't thought for a long time about getting into the aid or humanitarian area so for me it was a bit of a spontaneous decision, but it's been absolutely incredible and something that I would recommend to anybody."


Photo: Alexandra Peard