Donkeys are the hidden “jewels” in the Developing World’s crown when it comes to rebuilding the shattered lives of disaster-hit communities. Finally, their unique support is being marked by an international charity.

October 13 was United Nations International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, an event you might think was just another date in a long line of commemorative days. What is special about this day (and may come as a surprise), is that our heroes are the archetypal Beasts of Burden – donkeys.

Illuminating research by charity The Donkey Sanctuary shows donkeys play a critical but relatively unrecognised role in rebuilding disaster-hit communities. According to Cara Clancy, Senior Researcher at The Donkey Sanctuary: “Donkeys and mules are a key part of the social fabric in many lower to middle income countries (LMICs), providing an essential source of income for some of the most marginalised communities in the world.

Donkeys and mules’ eye-watering list of talents include:

● Transporting people in and out of affected areas and delivering life-saving aid to communities that cannot be reached by vehicles.

● Transporting materials for the re-building of roads, homes and other buildings damaged during the disaster.

● Playing an essential role in ploughing and tilling agricultural land in rural communities.

● Delivering life-saving aid to communities that cannot be reached by vehicles

● Collecting and delivering clean water and supplies after disasters like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and more recently Northern Tanzania. The 2015 Nepal earthquake took almost 9,000 lives, flattened entire villages and cut off mountain communities when roads became hazardous. But this presented little problem for the savvy donkeys and mules coming to the rescue of their communities.

More recently, they have been helping rural communities in Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic, where donkeys from the Meru Animal Welfare Organisation (MAWO) installed and filled water and soap dispensaries in medical centres across northern Tanzania to combat the spread of the disease.

Donkeys and mules help their owners to get back to work, restoring income and social stability across the board. These noble animals also help the family structure by literally taking the “heavy lifting” burden, and the bulk of their work, thus opening up new opportunities for women. ‘Donkey work’ also liberates children, enabling them to access education, as an estimated 500 million people in the world’s poorest communities rely on working donkeys as a lifeline to support their livelihoods.

The Crucial but Hidden Role of Donkeys in Humanitarian Disasters

It is no surprise then that Tamlin Watson, Senior Researcher at The Donkey Sanctuary says: “Working equines must be considered in the wider context of international development.” Donkeys and mules even come up trumps in extreme weather events, which are becoming more and more common due to climate change.

Research has found donkeys play a critical role in recurrent and protracted crises, such as prolonged drought, and are increasingly important to the evolving survival tactics of rural communities such as in East Africa’s drylands, where there is increasing reliance on donkeys as they can survive in areas of sparse vegetation and little water.

So useful and adaptable are these hard working heroes, and so essential to the developing world, that if you translated or applied the effectiveness of ‘Donkey Business’ to the West, and western standards of industry, it would quickly become ‘Big Business’.

Overall, these incredible, resilient and humble animals have an important part to play when it comes to ending poverty and hunger for the marginalised and vulnerable and reducing their exposure to climate-related events. This is because, says Watson: “Donkeys and mules help build this resilience..”

The Donkey Sanctuary is a global leader for equine welfare, research and veterinary care. The charity operates programmes worldwide for animals working in agriculture, industry and transportation.

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