Evaluation of the Response to the Montserrat Volcano
The UK Department for International Disasters (DfID) commissioned an evaluation1 of the British government response to the Montserrat volcanic emergency between July 1995 and November 1998. The island of Montserrat is a British Government Overseas Territory. The volcanic eruption which began in July 1995 devastated Montserrat. By the 26th of December 1997, when the most extreme explosive event took place approximately 90% of the resident population (over 10,000) had to relocate at least once with over two thirds of the population leaving the island. Virtually all the important infrastructure of the island was destroyed or put out of use for the short to medium term. The private sector collapsed and the economy became largely dependent on British Aid.
Overall, the disaster response by British government was considered a success with only 19 confirmed fatalities and hardly any measurable increase in communicable disease and physical ill health. Throughout the emergency, which involved four major evacuations at little notice, everyone had a roof over their head and no one went hungry. However, the success has to be qualified by less satisfactory aspects of the response and its consequences.
Following evacuations in December 1995 and again in April 1996 relief food was distributed to support those relocated to the north whether resident in shelters or private housing. Rations were intended to supply one main meal a day. They consisted primarily of long-life tinned foods and where locally donated supplies allowed, fresh fruit and vegetables. The approximate numbers receiving food rations ranged between 3,500 and 4,600. Overall the ration distribution appears to have been well organised. However, people also needed income support for other essential expenditures. Also, the administrative costs of direct distribution were extremely high.
Plans were put forward to refocus the form of assistance from June 1996 within three months of the final evacuations of the South. The Government of Montserrat elected for a Food Voucher Scheme, broadened to include all foods and basic toiletries and exchangeable in local shops. The scheme reduced the burden of organising supply and delivery. It also provided a way of supporting the fragile private retail sector. It offered an opportunity to broaden the eligible population beyond evacuees in shelters to include other evacuees outside the shelters as well as safe zone residents who had lost their jobs because of the evacuation.
The assistance scheme was further adapted when vouchers were replaced in December 1997 by cheques to the same value that could be cashed at banks and supermarkets. This change appeared to be a pragmatic response to pressures from beneficiaries wanting freedom to use the assistance in a more flexible way to meet general expenditure, including rents. It was also a response to the heavy administrative burden of the voucher system on staff involved in the programme. Pre-registration was undertaken with a view to rationalising beneficiary lists as in September 1997 it was estimated that nearly all of the on-island population were in receipt of the voucher. During 1997, it had been decided that there would be a social welfare review to move towards more targeted forms of benefits for more narrowly defined groups based on means testing. This process had still not been completed by September 1999.
The evaluation authors concluded that the provision of relief during the initial evacuations was appropriate and timely in providing a rudimentary safety net. The switch to a voucher scheme was a practical, and probably appropriate, development when it became clear that people would be remaining in the north of the island indefinitely and that large numbers were still in need of some form of assistance. Substantial savings in transaction costs were made in the move from rations to vouchers. However, the introduction of an exchangeable voucher was partly based on the desire to extend the categories receiving support. In view of the subsequent problems of targeting, a more rapid move to some form of income support might have been appropriate. Generally, unless there are specific reasons in favour of more restricted food assistance, purely monetary transfers are preferable on grounds of flexibility and minimising transaction costs for all involved.
Senior Monteserratian officials suggested informally that had there been a needs assessment, up to 20% of the beneficiaries in late 1998 would have been removed from the lists. Potentially the most serious criticism of the voucher scheme and its successor was that they fostered a dependency culture amongst some of those remaining on the island.
1Clay. E et al (1999) An Evaluation of HMG's Response to the Montserrat Volcanic Emergency. Evaluation Report EV635, December 1999.DfID, 94 Victoria St, London SW1 5JL. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 10, July 2000