Notes from the Field

Lessons from Asia: Post-Disaster Recovery

March 10, 2010

As Haiti began to recover from the devastating January 12 earthquake that left over 200,000 dead and destroyed the livelihoods of millions of families, another even-stronger 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit Chile February 27, leaving nearly 500 dead, and over 1.5 million displaced. Last Thursday, March 4, another earthquake hit Taiwan, followed by another smaller, yet destructive, earthquake that shook eastern Turkey on Monday.

In the aftermath of such disasters, food, water, and shelter are the most important concerns. But medium-to-longer-term recovery planning is crucial, especially in places like Haiti, where millions of people struggle to find ways to reclaim their lives. As debilitating as the immediate circumstances are in Haiti, creating opportunities for people to work again is not only necessary for family survival, but also for the psychosocial recovery that is critical to rebuilding communities in the longer-term. In this phase of disaster recovery, lessons learned from international non-profits like The Asia Foundation, which works on good governance and development across the region, and our sister organization, Give2Asia, which facilitated over $20 million in funding to Asia following the 2004 tsunami and 2008 China earthquake, are worth sharing. Such lessons can be especially useful for those trying to help in Haiti and other disaster-afflicted regions to avoid common mistakes, and to set realistic expectations with donors for the inevitably slow progress ahead.

1)   Disaster recovery schemes exist along a continuum, while donor funding is short-lived.
Consider the phases of post-disaster recovery:
a)    Immediate relief (first month: search and rescue, medical assistance, clean water, food, shelter, etc.);
b)    Short-term recovery (1-6 months: temporary housing and schools, psychosocial services, food and safe water, needs assessment, etc.); and
c)    Medium-to-long-term recovery and reconstruction (6 months – few years: livelihood development, recovery planning, infrastructure rebuilding, disaster preparedness, etc.)

On-the-ground realities in post-disaster environments demand the maximum amount of funding flexibility, and program planners must coordinate projects to support a range of local immediate needs while serving longer-term community recovery objectives, especially given that the influx of funds following a disaster normally lasts six months to a year.

2) Identify the worst-affected communities and local circumstances that will affect recovery.

  • The worst-affected and most vulnerable populations following a disaster may or may not always be near the center of where the disaster struck. They may be in rural locations, or minority communities who were already marginalized from society. This was true of the sea gypsies in Thailand, minority Muslims in Eastern Sri Lanka, and widowed women in rural China, who already suffered from lack of legal status or land rights issues with the local government.
  • Consider how a disaster may have affected local leadership and the political climate. Have local leaders died in the recent disaster? What are the dynamics of local politics? How can donors and international NGOs work with existing local partners and trusted groups to address pre-existing issues through recovery activities? In post-tsunami Aceh, a long-running civil conflict was ended in part through recovery efforts that took advantage of opportunities to promote cooperation, development, and trust-building among different groups in society.
  • Identify a range of innovative ways to increase access to public services. After the Aceh tsunami, the Foundation worked with Radio 68H to provide information about what emergency relief services were available to hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in 50 welfare camps. The forum also enabled users to call in feedback that assisted relief organizations in improving service provision.

3) Work through and empower local organizations and institutions on good governance to ensure sustained recovery.

  • Before bringing in outside help, first identify local organizations and individuals that are experienced in disaster preparedness, management, or emergency response.
  • Citizen participation in development planning helps ensure that locally-identified needs are prioritized for funding, and can ameliorate oversight and transparency concerns between funders, local authorities, and intended beneficiaries of aid, which is essential for long-term sustainability.
  • Empowering local government leaders improves longer-term capacity to respond to local needs. This can often be the slowest part of post-disaster recovery, but as in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, when local leaders were struggling to respond to their community’s needs, The Asia Foundation made a commitment to work through these local institutions instead of seeking short-term gains of going around them to provide services directly to citizens.

4) Coordinate closely among donors and with local organizations on funding and accountability standards.

  • Encourage and support donor coordination efforts at the international and local level. Programs should be identified and proposed by the in-country partner given their proximity to, and understanding of, local needs, and fine-tuned through external assistance as needed. As local partners coordinate donor support, they will be able to maximize the effectiveness of the funds they receive, and to plan appropriate follow-on activities for remaining needs. While this can be slower than direct delivery by international organizations, it is nevertheless an important step to ensure that funds are allocated responsibly. Rushing this process in a country with a reputation for corruption and poor accountability such as Haiti can hurt the chances to improve governance for years to come.
  • Consider development of a public opinion and complaint mechanism that can allow the public to contribute to the oversight of services and distributed funds. In Indonesia, one of the main reasons for the numerous problems initially facing communities and local NGOs after the tsunami was the lack of a mechanism or specific organization whose job it was to listen to public concerns regarding aspects of the rehabilitation and reconstruction process.

One of The Asia Foundation’s core strengths is our long-term relationships with local organizations and governments already working in stricken areas. Matching donors to those efforts when possible, through private philanthropy organizations such as Give2Asia, is an ideal example of responsibly facilitating some part of the large influx of funds experienced after disasters, to ensure that these funds go to local organizations with the necessary on-the-ground relationships and trust to handle them responsibly and sustainably.

The 2004 tsunami experience shows that of the hundreds of millions of dollars that poured in during the immediate aftermath of the disaster, only 39 percent was able to be expended during the first year because the absorptive capacity of local organizations was not sufficient for the funds to be granted responsibly fast enough. With over $3 billion already raised for Haiti, a country that has as poor if not worse corruption rankings than Indonesia did preceding the tsunami, expenditure responsibility should take on a new meaning for donors, international and local non-profits, as well as the Haitian government and its citizens. Working more slowly through local organizations may seem frustrating to donors who want to see their philanthropy used faster to help stricken citizens. But in order for more citizens to see the maximum benefits of these funds, they need to be able to hold their government and local organizations accountable for more of these funds reaching the local level and being used more responsibly to support both immediate recovery and longer-term development needs.

Bulbul Gupta is The Asia Foundation’s Assistant Director of Programs & Private Philanthropy. She can be reached at bgupta@asiafound.org.

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