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Shelter specialist Leanne Marshall helping local communities rebuild.

Navigating a cultural minefield


Special guests: Leeanne Marshall
Host: Alex Hahn, Australian Red Cross

 

Alex
After an earthquake finding a safe place to sleep is critical for survival. Making this happen for thousands of people at once requires clear, simple and effective communication. Shelter specialist Leeanne Marshall shines a light on the challenges of working in several languages and cultures at once, while trying to deliver one the most fundamental necessities of life, a roof overhead. Hi Leeanne, thanks for joining me.


Leeanne
Hi Alex, thanks for having me.


Alex
So you've worked in Malaysia, Fiji, Myanmar, North Korea, Vietnam, Timor-Leste, Nepal, Vanuatu, the Philippines and Ecuador. You've responded to earthquakes and tropical cyclones and worked across many, many different cultures and languages. So today we'd like to discuss not only shelter, but language and communication, and how those factors can make or break an aid mission. So to start off what is a shelter specialist?

 

Leeanne
Well as you've rightly pointed out at the beginning, one of the most immediate needs for a population post-disaster is often a roof overhead. People are often in need of immediate lifesaving assistance and some of that also involves having some kind of emergency shelter where they can keep their family safe, where they know that they can be protected from the ongoing issues. So often times post-disaster, what we're faced with is that people are no longer in possession of safe shelter and that's one of the issues that we have to address. So my role as a shelter specialist, in a post-disaster situation, is to have a look at what has been the impact of a disaster for example, and try and get people back to safe secure shelter as soon as possible. And we want to actually make sure in that process that we're getting people back to their actual lives as quickly, as safely and with as much dignity as possible.
So in a post-disaster setting it's really about trying to find a strategy to meet the immediate lifesaving needs of a population, but then also assist them in the process of building back and getting back to life. Part of my role as a shelter specialist is though also in terms of building up resilience within communities, helping them to understand safer building practices so that when natural disasters occur, that they're actually, their houses might be more fit for purpose and they may not have the devastating impact that we've seen in some of the more recent cyclones.


Alex
That sounds like quite a complicated job.


Leeanne
Yes, it certainly does have its complexities.


Alex
So let's talk application; so an earthquake has just hit, you're sent off to Nepal say for instance - what are you doing on the ground?


Leeanne
One of the first things that we're doing on the ground is really trying to get an understanding of what's happened and what has been the impact. So a lot of times when you get, you know when you first arrive, there's a lot of things coming in from different angles. What we try and do immediately is to get some kind of initial assessment and just understand you know the basic problems that are facing people. And we might try and get some - as I said at the beginning - some really life-saving activities started, making sure the medical teams are out, search and rescue teams are out and then also trying to make sure that people have got some kind of emergency shelter, or they're able to access some kind of shelter options.


Alex
So already you've mentioned quite a lot of different technical concepts, how much is that getting lost in translation if you're in a country where you don't speak the language?


Leeanne
Well thankfully a lot of the initial response and activities are not super technical; it's very much at lifesaving stage, it's very much just trying to get people in some kind of temporary form of shelter and allowing them access to some options that make sure that they're safe and their family are safe. Once we start to get more into the transitional stage, that's when the technical issues come in because you want to be starting to talk about a safer building. This is a very big issue and I think that that's when we start to sort of step out a little bit and make sure that the local organisations and the local players are empowered a lot more, so that those messages that we're delivering are in the local languages, are delivered in a way that it is appropriate for the local context. You know you can't necessarily give people, who are trying to rebuild after a disaster, a technical manual and just walk away from that. So we've seen many different ways of delivering information; whether it's through cartoons, songs, there's been dramas, there's all sorts of ways that you can convey information to make sure that it's taken up by the community that's been affected in the most effective way.


Alex
Wow, I'm really interested in this shelter song.


Leeanne
Yes.


Alex
How does it go? Can you give us a couple of lines?


Leeanne
Unfortunately I will save you all from that. But in the Pacific for example, that is a common way of spreading messages and so they've done really well in different countries. In developing songs it's been used a lot you know in translating messages around hygiene and things like that, but we've also cottoned onto it and there was a shelter song developed as well.


Alex
Is it popular with the kids, I'm sure as well?


Leeanne
It's very popular with the kids, yeah.


Alex
So an interesting thing that you've mentioned a couple of times already, is this concept of dignified shelter or dignity. What is that, what does that mean?


Leeanne
Well one of the things that goes into the concept of dignified shelter I guess is that people have a say in what kind of shelter they're living in. One of the ways that you're able to empower people on the road to recovery is actually allowing them to be part of that recovery and to make the decisions that they need to make to rebuild their lives in the way that they wish to. So it's about giving them enough space to make those decisions, which is why some of the shelter solutions that we have can be around toolkits and giving material so that it allows people to rebuild in the way that they want to do. We’ll offer technical support of course. Sometimes it might be cash. So you're allowing people to buy the materials that they want todo. But when people have the space to make their own choices, it really allows them ownership of their own recovery and it makes them stronger, and hopefully with some assistance, as I was saying around sort of technical support, you know you can build their resilience in that process as well.


Alex
And of course shelter isn't just about the hammer and nails and the shelter toolkits, it's about creating a dignified space for people and particularly the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable.

Leeanne
Yes.


Alex
So women, children, the elderly and the disabled, LGBTIQA people the disenfranchised people within a community. How do you relay that concept in a country that maybe doesn't prioritise those kind of people?


Leeanne
Yeah, I think there's quite a bit of advocacy that is involved in our job and I think what you have to do is try and keep the message really simple, because what we trying to do is provide some kind of shelter solution which is safe, accessible, like you say dignified, but it's also appropriate and appropriate starts to bring in all of those other issues. I mean is this enough space for women and is there separated areas for example for changing and things like that. There's a lot of stuff that comes in under appropriateness of the shelter solution. And it is I guess a very difficult prospect; I know that there were issues within the response, well there have been issues in the responses in some countries where we are trying to advocate for safe spaces for transgender populations for example, and that can often get a lot of pushback and we really have to both be cognizant of any kind of biases that are present within the existing system, but really advocate for the rights of all people to have access to this safe and dignified shelter.


Alex
And how do you actually go about that though in terms of your day-to-day job, like you're in a community and you're trying to advocate for a you know group of people that maybe have quite a lot of hostility towards them - how do you actually bridge that cultural barrier and bridge that language barrier and get your point across in a way that's appropriate and respectful?


Leeanne
Yeah I mean it's a really difficult thing to do and that's a good question because I think we're all still kind of figuring it out in some cases. We try and do a lot of preparatory work and within the Red Cross movement it's quite useful because we have branches and we can do work pre-disaster for example and some of the work that we do with communities before disaster, is trying to get groups of people together, and starting conversations in that sort of space.


Alex
And you're talking about the branches obviously in the country - so the national societies?


Leeanne
In the country, the national societies, that's right. But you're right, I mean there's huge challenges in advocating for something that people don't even want to acknowledge. So it's a very, very gentle process.


Alex
Gently, gently.


Leeanne
Gently, gently and you just have to be very, very aware both of the context of the country that you're in and their potential biases, but also of your own, because I think it's also very easy to stand on a soapbox and tell people what to do because you believe it to be true, but you have to be very careful that you're not overstepping your boundaries and you have to respect that these are the limitations or the constructs of a society - all we can do is continue to advocate and really try and demonstrate in a really clear but not condescending kind of way or also not trying to yeah change
the way that people work. Immediately we're not telling them that what they're doing is wrong, but really trying to advocate for those who don't have a voice.


Alex
Has there ever been a situation where that advocacy has gone horribly wrong and you've been in the middle of a training session and getting a lot of pushback?


Leeanne
Yeah, so I mean coming from the city you kind of get comfortable with the idea that people will be on board with these concepts, and I was trying to work in a more traditional part of Malaysia where they weren't as receptive let's just say to the idea of women-friendly spaces and spaces for transgender people, because when I even mentioned the word, people were saying "well that's not, that's not a problem here; those people don't exist". And you could really see within the training room how much people were shutting down and they started not listening and you know the very classic arms crossed, you know getting very angry. So you've really got to be very conscious of the fact that you know things that you think are very normal and acceptable, may not be in a different place. And so you've got to be quite careful about how you introduce those concepts. And if people won't even acknowledge that a certain group exists, it's very difficult to advocate for them but you just have to be aware of that.


Alex
So you've had misions that have lasted from ten months, all the way down to one week.


Leeanne
Yeah.


Alex
How do you ensure that you maximise the way you communicate with people in such a short amount of time?


Leeanne
Yeah, on the short missions it is imperative that we have a really good working relationship with the Red Cross national societies on the ground. We rely on them for making the inroads to communities to other organisations, whoever we're trying to work with. So one of the sort of greatest things that we can do is establish those relationships early and maintain them. You know I don't just call on the national society because I'm arriving; I want to talk through the plan a long time before I get there and propose ideas; talk to them about what they need. So also not assuming that the services that I can offer are actually something that they want. So you know we don't go to a national society and sort of rock up and say "Well I'm here and I'm a shelter person and I'm going to fix all your problems". You know it's really about establishing a long-term dialogue and making sure that you're on the same page and that what we're talking about is really the same. And then ensuring that you've got those relationships set up before you get into a country and so then you've got the inroads. And basically then you're really just a support. Like I am not necessarily the community face; I will be there and I can say things, but honestly the relationships that the national societies have already built up on the ground are the most important thing.

Alex
So other than relying on the national societies and going gently, gently, as you say; are there any other tricks of the trade that you personally use to help you work across multiple cultures and multiple languages at a time?


Leeanne
Yeah I mean having another language is a great thing if you can have it. I haven't necessarily had the language in every country that I've been to, but goodness it's made a difference in the places that I did. It really does assist you in getting, you know really getting to the heart of the matter. So if you're able to have some kind of language skill, or even just the facility to pick up a few words here and there; if you can do a little bit of research before you go and just have something that you can offer. Because it's always about you know you being able to offer something to show that you're interested and that you care, that it's not just you're there to monitor or make judgement or anything, but it's really about demonstrating that you're there for other people. So there's being very, very conscious of mannerisms and the way that you communicate and the, you know just simple things. I mean just earlier today we were talking about even just the simple kiss, like do you kiss people on the cheek? And so just being quite aware of like you know is it two kisses on the cheek, are we in France or is it one or is it none?


Alex
Of course.


Leeanne
Yeah, or you know I've been in situations where you know I've gone to shake the hand of someone, because I'm very you know used to, and sometimes you just get in this mode of well this I how we greet each other, but in many cultures it is not appropriate for a man to shake a woman's hand; so you know just being aware of that. Really trying to mirror the kind of cultural norms in many ways.


Alex
And have you ever found yourself in a really tricky situation or a situation where you've seriously offended somebody because you have forgotten about those hand gestures or those cultural norms?


Leeanne
I don't think I've very seriously offended anyone, but I have definitely gone for the hand grab, the shaking of the hand, many times, and had people quite shocked. But you know thankfully I'm a very tall, blond, white girl, so I don't look like -


Alex
They forgive you.


Leeanne
They forgive me because yeah, I don't look like the local population necessarily.


Alex
So speaking of having other languages, you of course speak English as well as Spanish. How important was having this language, Spanish, in your missions?

Leeanne
Well interestingly a lot of my work has been done in the Asia Pacific, so it seems like it wouldn't be that usable. I mean when I was doing the coordination role in Ecuador obviously it was vital; I wouldn’t have been able to do my job. The government, and quite rightly, would not have sort of taken me seriously. And also it is a huge disaster going on in their country; we should be making an effort that all of our communications and the strategies that we can come up with, are all developed in their language, in the local language. This is not something that we're going to be taking away; the local government will be the entity that is dealing with the strategies that we're talking about.

So in that context it's so important for me to have the language. But interestingly, just having another language often makes it more easy to, to pick up another one. So, and I found with the Philippines for example, just because of the history of the Philippines, there's quite a lot of Spanish words in Tagalog and so there's little things that you can pick up along the way and that people, you know and making that effort to understand each other is quite important. I mean I would really love to have a few more languages under my belt. You know the ideal is that you are able to converse with everyone freely in their own language so that they can be comfortable and open about what issues are facing them and how we can address those issues. But it's not practical; I can't, like I don't know every language of every country that you mentioned before.


Alex
You mentioned earlier that you felt that the government wouldn't have taken you seriously had you not been able to communicate with them in Spanish?


Leeanne
No, there was a certain amount of pushback and resistance around international organisations who were landing on the ground with people that only spoke English, and them expecting to be part of the decision-making. You know the government had a huge amount of capacity and there was no reason that they should be left out of the conversation you know. I think that there's a tendency, well and this may be incorrect, but some countries think that you know international organisations will arrive and try and take things over. And by us speaking in a different language, then that would actually increase that perception. So being able to conduct those meetings with the government in the local language was super important in making sure that they're on board with us as well, because we want them to be coming along the same journey and not actually, and not sort of ignoring us and creating two separate parallel functions, response functions.


Alex
So it sounds like having a skill being bilingual or multilingual is pretty important for international aid work?


Leeanne
Absolutely. I mean if you're working within the UN system you have to have one of their languages as well as English. We don't have that same requirement within the Red Cross movement at the moment, but it definitely does help. And even just if you’re going to be living in another country, because you know these missions, these response missions and you know even just capacity building, if you're doing training in another country, you're going to be there, you still have to go to the supermarket and do certain things, take a taxi - so it's so much easier if you can actually do those things on your own.

Alex
How important is non-verbal communication in your line of work when you are in a country and you don't have the languages?


Leeanne
Yeah, I think that when you don't have the language that it takes on a whole new significance. Like I think that non-verbal communication is really important anyway but when you're unable to have those conversations that you might usually have to sort of break the ice and get to know people a bit more so that they're comfortable with you, you have to be very conscious then of how you are presenting yourself and sometimes it's really hard. You know people laugh at me all the time because they say that I don't have a poker face and you know that my emotions sometimes come
out too much on my face. And I've got to be really conscious of that when I'm travelling and working abroad because that can sometimes come across as very negatively, so yeah.


Alex
Yeah of course. So if you're frustrated and you're trying really hard not to show that or you just have a dead pan look on your face.


Leeanne
Yeah, well I also have to kind of have a little chat to myself about why I'm being frustrated. I mean sometimes I'm frustrated because I can't speak the language, but that can't come across, you know you've just got to be really responsible with the way that you're presenting yourself and the potential impacts of that presentation. And just, like I said it before, I think there's something in the kind of mirroring of people's actions and reactions and really noticing how that happens, so that you can be kind of aware and like not cross over anything.


Alex
Of course and also not only the actions and the mirroring people, but the way in which you speak. Australians are absolutely notorious and they talk really fast … have you had to change the way you talk?


Leeanne
Absolutely, especially in the Philippines I think but there are other countries as well, I mean even when I, not for work, but I used to live in South America and they couldn't understand my accent at all because they're all watching American TV shows. And so I really had to monitor how fast I talk, but also the words that I used and the way that I said them. I have a bit of a facility for picking up people's accents, so I think that works really well, but when I, yeah, when I came home from living in South America for example, people asked if I was American because I got so used to trying to mirror that way of talking so that people would understand, because there's so many times when you're literally saying the exact same word and someone would say "Oh you meant that", and yeah I'm saying that word.


Alex
Of course, I mean because accent plays a huge part in how you hear a word.


Leeanne
Yes, yeah an expectation of how a word sounds and so if it is your second language, it's really difficult sometimes you know to understand the very easy way let's say that Australians speak, and also all of the slang, so you've got to be very careful not to bring in a lot of that slang language as well.

Alex
Absolutely and obviously you know communication is so much more than the spoken word. How important is it for you going into a context and being able to pick up on the different power dynamics that are at play in a community?


Leeanne
That's really important as well and I think that something that we potentially don't place as much emphasis on, but that kind of observation and the understanding of that power dynamic, is super important. I've noticed that working in certain countries you know if you've got a team meeting and there's both women and men present, that a lot of the women won't actually be as open with their comments and their contributions to the discussion. So you've got to be really cognizant of when to
have these mixed situations where everyone's together and you're having these group decision-makings, and understanding whether that's going to be useful and then, so maybe you need to take a different group out and then you can have a women's group in one day and a men's group in another day and then triangulate some of that information. Just so that you're allowing space for people to actually communicate what they want to communicate.


Alex
It was really interesting you mentioned earlier that sometimes you need to be aware of different power structures, for instance sometimes in communities women won't be able to necessarily speak as freely as men. And I guess the question here is how does gender and communication intersect? Do you speak and communicate differently with women than you do with men in certain communities?


Leeanne
Absolutely, and in many contexts I mean it's an imperative you know I just don't have the same opportunity to interact with men in the same way, and it certainly takes on a kind of different tone in many ways. A lot of the time, and this is a gross generalisation, but in some countries you know the conversation with men is sort of very structured and rigid and you know it has to be very professional because even the dynamic of me talking to them is uncomfortable for them. So I keep it as short and sharp and targeted as I can. But I can often have a lot more comfort with women and I know that there are women's groups that you know part of the communication that you start with is a lot of touching. And it sounds really strange but you know they will, just being able to, that comfort that people feel in just being able to touch you on the arm or you know feel like you're part of that group, is so different, and so then you can go from these very rigid kind of discussions where it's very, very business-like, into this kind of much more, I don't know, sharing space. And I know that sounds super-stereotypical, but that's just been one instance in, I can think of two different countries where that was really relevant and you know you actually do have to do that to engage with women you know. Like sometimes I've been told you know "I don't want to talk about business, you know tell me about your life" you know, so you have to -


Alex
So what countries were these in?


Leeanne
In Fiji I worked with an amazing women's group and you know they were very, they'd tell me all the time, like stop talking so highbrow type of thing. You know they just want to, you know they try and undersell themselves a bit, because they say "Oh we're just simple, rural women" and they're amazing women and very sort of powerful in their own way. But they have a way of getting things done which isn't the way that I necessarily you know barging in and demanding things - so like take it softly, we have other ways of convincing the people in charge to get things done.


Alex
I see, so you learnt some of your gently, gently, softly, softly advocacy work from the women's group in Fiji?


Leeanne
Absolutely. You know they were always telling me about times that they cannot go and sort of very openly question decisions that have been made at a higher level within, especially within the indigenous groups and you know because the hierarchy is very strong and very structured you know. And so I'm sort of forgiven sometimes for barging in and being a bit, like a bull in a china shop I guess, but they really understand that those relationships are important to cultivate and you really have to do that in the way that they understand that they work. So you know very, very under the radar pushing things through.


Alex
Talking about being culturally sensitive and dealing with different cultures, you've been to North Korea which is not a place where many westerners get to go, and I'm wondering if you could talk to us about your experience there - it must have been absolutely fascinating?


Leeanne
It was absolutely fascinating and a bit of a shock to be honest to end up there. As part of my role as a shelter advisor, one of the tools that we have in our back pocket, is a particular thing called PASSA, it's the Participatory Approach to Safe Shelter Awareness, and it's really a community based programme, building their resilience, they get to identify issues in their community and then try and work on it, and therefore be more prepared for disasters.

You know and I guess I didn't really know a lot about the country before I went there except you know about the war and the partition, and right from the beginning you know landing on the ground was quite a different scenario. As the plane landed, there's only one very small airport and there's only one airline that flies in and out of there, and as we arrived there's groups of army people.

But it was a very interesting place. You know there's still not a lot of traffic on the roads, so there's not a lot of people and especially we were driving around at night time and there's very few people who would be walking around at nights. And there's you know there's still a lot of bicycle riding, there's a lot of walking - so it's a very different pace than many, many cities and it seems to be a place that has stuck in time in some ways. Now I know that things are opening up a bit more and it's getting easier to get there, but we still have very little understanding of the real processes that go on. You know even going from the main city to the satellite city where we did our training, there are many people who have never made that trip out of the city to you know a more rural, regional hub centre.


Alex
Your job is about going into communities and helping them recover. So my question to you is how important is the power of language and the power of connection in helping you do your job but also helping communities recover?

Leeanne
Oh look I think it's absolutely essential; I could have all the technical skills in the world but if I couldn't communicate that properly or connect enough to a community that they feel safe to be able to really talk about their needs, then it's worthless. You know part of my job is facilitation, and I'm really happy that I had done a lot of community facilitation before I took on this role with the Red Cross, because that kind of human connection is really at the essence of everything that I do, and looking for ways to make that connection is kind of more important than being able to say how to put a cyclone strap on in some ways. Like I need to be able to finally get that information out about how to make a safe building for example, but unless I've made a connection, firstly no-one's going to listen to it, and also, yes, like you say, it's not just about me getting a message across. If I am not approachable enough then people aren't going to be able to tell me their real needs, and if I don't have their real needs, then I can't solve anything. So it's basically paramount to doing my job; just being you know a human I guess.


Alex
Leeanne Marshall, thanks for your time.


Leeanne
You're welcome Alex.

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