How effectively has Operation Mercy responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what role has the integration of culture sensitivity played in the level of effectiveness?
By Marieke van Woudenberg
The core of the research was the response of Operation Mercy to the COVID-19 crisis. As there were five Operation Mercy offices involved in this research, the responses varied greatly in how they were designed and implemented. However, the aim of the different responses to COVID-19 were quite similar, to meet the needs of project participants and others in need.
In Kazakhstan meeting the need took the form of distributing food parcels among families. The project was designed in such a way that each family received one parcel for themselves and one parcel to give away to someone else in need. Being able to share with and provide for others helped the families to accept the food parcels, because it is not appropriate and even shameful in the Kazakh culture to accept food from organizations because you are not able to provide food for your own family. Because the families were able to give away one parcel, they did not lose their dignity and they were able to take ownership of their situation.
When asking any organisation if their activities were effective, one would assume that all of them would answer “yes” without any hesitation., but that would not be objective, it would rather be an answer to protect reputations or assets. Therefore, for this research before interviewing Operation Mercy staff the concept ‘response effectiveness’ was researched and conceptualized to remain objective and reach unbiased results. After extensive literature review the concept of response effectiveness consisted of three components: alignment with overall mission of the organization, purpose, and internationally agreed upon humanitarian standard (shown in the figure). If all three components were kept or reached, a response could be counted as effective.
Fourteen staff members from five different country offices were interviewed. There were three main results which Operation Mercy and other humanitarian organisations are able to use for their own benefit:
The first result is that 18 out of the 20 analysed Operation Mercy responses regarding COVID-19 were effective.
The second result is that the two responses which were not effective, based on the conceptual framework, were emotional staff care and financial staff support. Important to note is that the majority of Operation Mercy staff did receive emotional and financial staff support and for a small percentage this could be improved. Therefore, even though these responses were not totally effective, they can still be seen as partly effective.
The third result is that integrating culture sensitivity was necessary for the responses to be effective.
“The main focus of our work is the relational aspect,” a local Operation Mercy health worker in Jordan said when talking about the integration of culture. “We are not just trying to help people physically and then leave, they are people, so we treat them that way. We always try to be sensitive to their perspective of being honoured and respected and integrate that into our approach.”
This is a good summary of how Operation Mercy integrated cultural sensitivity into their COVID-19 response, and any development program; with respect and honour towards the people they are trying to help. The research results show that the integration of culture was actually necessary for the responses to be effective. Without respecting, honouring, and considering the local culture, Operation Mercy’s response purposes could not have been reached.
Cultural sensitivity is important for all actors in the humanitarian sector to consider when designing and implementing either relief or development projects.