Volunteers proved to be the most valuable asset during Serbian floods of 2014

Published: 22 May 2015 8:30 CET

By Andreea Anca, IFRC

One year ago, more than 6,500 volunteers from the Red Cross of Serbia were mobilized to support communities with the distribution of emergency relief in the aftermath of the floods, which affected more than 1.6 million people across the country. Since then, 1,000 volunteers have been giving a helping-hand to communities recovering from the unprecedented destruction of their homes, caused by the water floods and mudslides.

“Our volunteers are gold,” says Vesna Milenovic, Secretary General of the Red Cross of Serbia, drawing from the experience of being at the helm of her organization through the worst floods of the century in this region.

“We had the opportunity  to see the difference between our volunteers, who know how to find a way out of difficult situations, and ordinary people who came to help – full of good intentions but without training and experience,” Ms. Milenovic said.

From the beginning of the crisis, the authorities in Belgrade entrusted the management of all collective centres in the city to the Red Cross of Serbia. The value of trained volunteers was quickly felt when they had to deal with people in distress and often on the verge of desperation because from the shock of the water pouring into their homes and taking away their belongings.

“Despite the pressure of those extreme circumstances, our volunteers could concentrate on the questions posed to those affected by the flood,” says the Secretary General referring to the Red Cross volunteers as “our most precious asset”.

“They collected useful information that helped us provide the right support in the shortest possible time,” she adds.

Gift from Santa

At the Red Cross of Serbia Belgrade Branch headquarters a group forty-five volunteers set up a temporary media centre and kept it running for the first three weeks into the crisis. They used their own networks to get hold of the necessary equipment like PCs, laptops, iPhones and wireless internet connection, and reached out to beneficiaries through Facebook, Twitter and the website of the organization. They provided people with useful information on the place and the nature of donations, and informing many of them about their lost family members. Not least, social media helped mobilize other Red Cross volunteers to join the relief effort.

“This media centre was like a present from Santa Clause to our branch,” says Ivana Marisavljevic-Dasic, the Secretary of the Belgrade branch. The centre was essential in communicating effectively with both the affected people and the donors during those critical first weeks, as the great influx of donations as well as the high expectations of people created space for misunderstandings, which could had potentially damaged the reputation of the organization.

“On Facebook we perceived the frustration of people because we could not help everyone,” says Ms. Dasic. “Social media helped us communicate our mandate,” explaining that although all people are vulnerable at times like this, the most vulnerable groups are being prioritized when it comes to the Red Cross distribution of humanitarian assistance.

“When we publically released the database of our vulnerability assessment and published it on social media, it helped us regain the trust of the people”.

IFRC issued an Emergency Appeal of CHF 4,485,096 in May, 2014. Following updated assessment needs the IFRC Appeal was revised to CHF 3,842,805 in December, 2014 and the operation timeline was extended to June, 2015. The revision reflected the change in the nature of the operation, from mainly immediately relief assistance to shelter recovery-based activities to help the affected population return to normal lives. The main activities covered by the Appeal were: water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, shelter, settlements and home repairs, food security, livelihood assistance, psychosocial support and not least a cash transfer programme in support of the most vulnerable people affected by the floods. Hitherto, the current Emergency Appeal has a coverage of 87%.


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