Central America: hands across the Gulf of Fonseca

Published: 20 February 2002 0:00 CET

Paul Keen in Central America

The Gulf of Fonseca pilot project aims to mobilize volunteers in Red Cross branches to form partnerships with vulnerable communities, strengthen public health capacities and improve both disaster preparedness and response.

In the early phase of the project branches shared their experience of first aid and disaster preparedness with groups of community volunteers - up to 20 from each location. As the three-year-long project develops, volunteers from the Red Cross and colleagues from the health ministry and other organisations will develop skills in such fields as nutrition, child growth management, water treatment, hygiene, disease control and AIDS prevention.

Thirty-seven communities were chose from the Pacific coastal regions of La Unión in El Salvador and Chinandega in Nicaragua - the two countries which share the Gulf of Fonseca with Honduras.

In recent years, the Red Cross's local network has suffered from lack of funding; yet at the same time the needs of the vulnerable have increased, with a devastating drought afflicting the region and exacerbating an economic situation already suffering from a world slump in the price of one of its main exports: coffee.

The Gulf of Fonseca project is based on the idea that by empowering volunteers in branches and communities in resource development and in health and disaster preparedness, the Red Cross can develop a sustainable and appropriate role.

In rural communities, Red Cross volunteers form partnerships with service providers and other NGOs. Communities are helped to analyse their needs and capacities and to plan training, local campaigns and joint 'micro' projects involving investment of about $1500 for each community and a number of development tools.

It is hoped that by the end of the project, communities and branches will be able to identify other high-quality projects and develop financial and technical partnerships from outside the Red Cross.

Branch managers and key volunteers are encouraged to analyse the recent deterioration of the Red Cross network. Volunteer strategies and initiatives to remedy this are supported. Regular meetings, reporting, communication and coordination within the branch promote teamwork based on the fundamental principals of the Red Cross.

The Gulf of Fonseca project began early last year and despite delays caused by events like the El Salvador earthquakes and the presidential election in Nicaragua, it is proving effective in building partnerships for change and development. Red Cross volunteers and vulnerable communities are being given the opportunity to address immediate health and environmental problems, while at the same time developing sustainable long-term solutions through branch and community development.