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The future of “building back better”: houses, schools, and political transformation too?

by Magda Mis | @magdalenamis1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 3 February 2014 16:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Disasters can become an opportunity to bring about political transformation by ending conflicts and improving governance

Disaster recovery experts and scholars alike seem to agree on at least one thing: disaster-recovery efforts should concentrate not only on restoring affected communities to pre-disaster levels, but should focus on “building back better” by linking immediate relief with long-term recovery and development.

Some go even further by suggesting that disasters can become an opportunity not  just to “build back better”, but to bring about political transformation by ending conflicts and improving governance in post-disaster settings.

“The aspiration to build back better – to use the opportunity of a disaster response to leave societies improved, not just restored – is self-evidently common sense: after all, who would want to build back worse, or simply reinstate conditions of inequality, poverty and vulnerability if the chance for something better was at hand?”, said Lilianne Fan in her paper “Disasters as opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti.

The first step is to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals to withstand nature and protect their occupants better when the next disaster strikes. But aside from reconstructing buildings, a disaster response could also present an opportunity to improve people’s lives in other ways.

At a time when money is flowing into a region, and international organisations are at hand, this could be the moment to reshape the political environment too.

As Fan noted in her paper, during the post-tsunami recovery in Aceh almost a decade ago, the Indonesian government focused not only on reconstructing safer housing for its citizens, but it saw international attention drawn to the region as an opportunity to support peace efforts to end 30-year old conflict between Jakarta and separatist rebels.

The benefits of a wider definition of “building back better” – better governance, a stable political environment and more resilient communities – have an obvious appeal. When the next disaster strikes, the affected population will have a better chance to survive and emergency relief will be better organized, quicker in response and will cost less.


However, in order to achieve these complex goals, there is a danger that some attention and resources could be diverted from basic needs such as shelter, clean water and food that have to be addressed immediately.

Should relief organisations take a step back and instead of delivering immediate assistance start debating the possibilities of improved, long-term recovery and development? Is it ethical to divert attention from urgent needs? Who should make these decisions?

“Local government and local actors (should be in charge), but they need to be doing so in a way that’s really inclusive. They can be guided by the international community – the U.N. system clearly has some good practices and experience on how to do that”, Fan told Thomson Reuters Foundation during an event in London.

In contrast to the positive outcomes seen in Aceh, across the globe in Haiti the government and international organisations failed to achieve what they hoped for following the devastating earthquake of 2010.

Despite President Rene Preval’s declaration that the disaster response was “a rendezvous with history that Haiti cannot miss”, poor governance and lack of trust between the government and its citizens resulted in Haiti missing the opportunity to “build back better” on many levels.

Fan pointed out that many obstacles stood in a way of “building back better” in Haiti, such as the use of English in meetings with its French-speaking citizens. As a result, large proportion of communities affected by the disaster felt marginalised both by the state and the international community.

Governments and international organisations must adapt their recovery programmes to local needs and customs. As Jo da Silva, head of Arup International Development, pointed out, aid organisations should also realise that the jargon they use, including the very term “building back better” may not be easily understood in disaster-affected communities.

And often well-meaning outsiders can get things very wrong. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004,  thousands of huts made of corrugated metal were built along hot and humid coastlines. People refused to live in them calling them “ovens”. Soon they were dismantled.

“Building back better” is about common sense and doing the homework: analysing and understanding local circumstances, relationships, the political situation, and the physical environment.  

Another key issue as humanitarian workers look to the future of planning post-disaster recovery is that disaster-prone communities are increasingly living in cities.

“Some of the things that I was seeing (during disaster recovery) in both Sri Lanka and Aceh made me realize that we are moving to a very new space in terms of post-disaster responses and it’s the space that is going to be become increasingly urban”, said da Silva.

According to UN, among 450 urban areas with a population of one million or more, 60 percent stand in regions exposed to at least one major type of natural disaster.

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