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Why the Painful Process of Disaster Recovery Must Be Locally Led

Why the Painful Process of Disaster Recovery Must Be Locally Led

By Stephen Starr


Regulations on how donated moneys can be spent actually slow progress to a crawl.

By Stephen Starr

With America reeling from the California wildfires — and with hundreds still missing as firefighters continue battling the flames — the world is reminded yet again of the devastation wrought by natural disasters. Around the globe, we have seen these heartbreaking stories unfold — from buried villages and dust-covered children trapped under jagged concrete and mangled metal to mourning families. Once the cameras and news crews leave, however, life can get even worse. What the world doesn’t see is the grueling, complicated and protracted process of reconstruction.

Take Nepal. More than $4 billion in international aid poured into the Himalayan country in the aftermath of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that destroyed around a third of its housing stock — 800,000 homes — in April 2015. From the outside, the Nepali government’s response appeared slothlike. Ten months after the earthquake, none of that vast sum had been spent. The National Reconstruction Agency (NRA) overseeing the rebuilding effort took nine months just to get up and running. The pressure to rebuild and spend as quickly as possible was huge, and the Nepali authorities were savaged in the media for their slow progress and failure to use the cash to help desperate communities.

But what happened in Nepal is close to the norm. Following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir that destroyed more than 600,000 homes and public buildings, authorities planned to rebuild all damaged schools within three years but were embarrassed to find that they completed just 4 percent in that period.

When [donors] do support response, resources often flow through complicated chains and involve many bureaucratic checks.

Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general, Civicus

Unfurling an effective post-disaster response means aligning a disparate array of groups: international donors and aid agencies, the government leading the response and local actors, to name just a few. It’s a hugely complex process. “When [donors] do support response, resources often flow through complicated chains and involve many bureaucratic checks,” says Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general of civil society alliance Civicus and a former member of the United Nations High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing. “This slows down the response of the NGOs at the front line of emergencies and also means that many smaller or local agencies cannot meet the high thresholds to receive funding.”

Then there’s the tension that can bubble up between foreign aid agencies and host governments. When the Nepali authorities slapped a 43 percent tax on aid groups importing corrugated metal sheeting used to build temporary shelters by claiming that the emergency period had ended six weeks after the earthquake, many were stunned.


But relief organizations and their funders are also not blameless. So-called tied aid, in which foreign donors make their assistance conditional on the hiring of donor-country staffers or implementers, is a major issue. “The U.S. government gives the most money in foreign aid — it’s the largest absolute donor — and the U.K. is one of the top countries in terms of the percentage of its revenue that it gives,” says Gina Reinhardt, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex. But most of the money doesn’t make it overseas, she adds: “Recent estimates are that 85 percent of all development assistance given by the U.K. is actually paid to U.K. contractors, personnel and organizations to conduct the work.” For the U.S., that figure is 72 percent, Reinhardt says, because “a lot of development assistance is actually delivered via U.S. agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”   

On top of that, many relief organizations face a mountain of internal red tape. They must “balance the risk associated with working in a disaster zone with [the organizations’] own internal rules and regulations,” says Erik Dyson, CEO of All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer-centered disaster relief organization whose donors include Airbnb and Southwest Airlines.

Back in Nepal, for as slow as the recovery effort had been, the country is now finding out why it’s wrong to move too quickly. Over the past 18 months, the authorities have gone into overdrive, offering owners of destroyed and damaged properties grants of up to $3,000 to build new homes if they meet a series of deadlines. That has led to significant problems: The $3,000 will cover only 30 to 50 percent of the cost of a full rebuild, meaning many homeowners are left with unsuitable one-room dwellings. Others have secured high-interest loans to pay for the remaining cost, and experts fear that may be the trigger to the next catastrophe for Nepal: an insurmountable mountain of debt.

The obvious problem with waiting for an all-inclusive recovery master plan is that the process takes so long it risks fracturing communities, as we saw in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Oftentimes, of course, no one agency or government department is entirely at fault. Nepal’s government oversees one of the poorest countries in Asia and was never in a position to rebuild homes for 3.5 million people overnight. It was criticized for the delay establishing the NRA, but to do that it first had to find and train around 3,000 engineers.

To solve these problems, reconstruction planning must first and foremost be led by the affected communities themselves; that means making community leaders centrally involved in decision-making processes. After all, they are the ones who must live with the results. It may sound like a no-brainer, but with so many interests and such vast amounts of cash involved, all in the midst of a major tragedy, it’s a process that’s failed to gain traction.

If there’s a takeaway from the chaos many post-disaster reconstruction efforts descend into, it’s that all actors — donors, government agencies, aid groups and affected civilians — must realize they are facing a painful process that could take a decade or more to get right. 

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