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After the Disaster: Rebuilding Communities

Contributed by Lauren Herzer, who is a program associate in the Comparative Urban Studies Project and Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

Recent history has shown that no country, developed or developing, is immune to the effects of a natural disaster. In the absence of strong institutions, citizen security, and rule of law, this vulnerability can extend to human-made conflicts. The catastrophic tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 are all reminders of the deep and long-lasting impacts that natural disasters can have from the neighborhood level to the national or global level. At the same time, each of these disasters garnered international attention and response, showing that globalization is a game-changer in the worldwide response to community or regional-level crises.

And yet, as evidenced by the continued challenges facing each of the places mentioned above, the disaster response community still struggles with the question of how to contribute most effectively to local-level recovery. In response, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Comparative Urban Studies Project and Environmental Change and Security Program along with the Fetzer Institute focused the final workshop of a three-part series, Revitalizing Community Within and Across Boundaries, on this issue. Following the model of the previous two seminars, the Wilson Center and Fetzer Institute brought together an international group of practitioners, policymakers, community leaders, and scholars to identify best practices and policy in disaster response that are based on community engagement. A subsequent publication, After the Disaster: Rebuilding Communities, highlights the complex nature of disaster response and explores ways to overcome the inherent tension between those responding to disasters and the local community.

A key theme that emerged during the workshop was the importance of identifying the strengths of the post-disaster community and building the response based on those. How can one identify a community’s strengths? In the first Wilson Center/Fetzer Institute workshop, which focused on community resilience, participants emphasized the importance of a civil society’s voice; the creation of space, both physical and political; and the assurance of safety and time. Not surprisingly, all of these aspects of resilience emerged in the post-disaster response discussion as avenues to access the strengths of a community. Finding and listening to the voices of the community, identifying the physical spaces or “centers of gravity” around which the community operates (often spiritual and cultural activities, or gatherings that bring women together), and providing safe and sustained support for healing are necessary steps to engage with and meet the needs of communities.

Having a voice means that people “feel that they have some way to participate meaningfully in decisions that are being made about their lives…they have access, points of influence and conversation,” explained John Paul Lederach, professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, in the discussion on community resilience. Key to listening to the voices of the local community is acknowledging them as first responders. “An involvement and control of the relief and rehabilitation process empowers communities,” wrote Arif Hasan, founder and chairperson of the Urban Resource Centre in Karachi, Pakistan, in his reflections on post-disaster community engagement. “It improves their relationship with each other, makes it more equitable with state organizations, and highlights aspects of injustice and deprivation that have been invisible.”

Technology is playing a growing role in giving local communities a voice and helping relief workers to identify those centers of gravity. “Whether in conflict or even post-conflict reconstruction, technology gives us a possibility of having [not only] a collective history but also collective memory,” noted Philip Thigo, a program associate at Social Development Network in Nairobi, Kenya. “I spoke in a conference where communities were able to map what was important for them and bring it to the public domain: This is who we are and what we are saying, therefore you, the government, have to interact with us within this space. In that sense technology begins to enable communities to say we exist.”

At the same time, new technology isn’t paramount to connecting with a community, and just having the technology is not sufficient. Leonard Doyle, country spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), shared the story of a simple but effective effort to encourage a national conversation in Haiti by enabling “a flow of information between affected communities, humanitarian actors, and local service providers.” IOM set up more than 140 information booths, complete with suggestion boxes, among the 1,300 camps where more than 1.5 million homeless people were housed after the earthquake. There was some doubt that the suggestion boxes would attract letters in a country with a literacy rate of just 50 percent, but it didn’t take long for the letterboxes to fill up. In just 3 days, 900 letters were dropped into a booth in one of the poorest communities, Cité Soleil. “Amid the flotsam of emails and text messages that dominate modern life,” wrote Doyle, “these poignant letters had an authenticity that is hard to ignore....Urgent cases received a quick response; others became part of a ‘crowd-voicing’ effort to listen to those who had been displaced by the earthquake.”

In the end, “the problem is when we NGOs [or other outside bodies] try to create new systems,” observed Philip Thigo. “We do not look at what exists in the community as knowledge. We do not see how to plug our formal thinking into a structure that we may not understand but that we could perhaps simply try to enhance, to provide better services. We think power doesn’t exist in those communities. But there’s a structure of power. It could be leadership that is not necessarily within the formal context that we understand. The fundamental point is: How can we, even during disasters, connect to these points of power?”