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Responding to Disasters: Myths, Mistakes, and Recovery

Paul Born, Co-Founder and Director, Tamarack - an Institute for Community Engagement, Ontario, Canada; Dr. Frederick Burkle, Senior Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Senior Fellow & Scientist, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard School of Public Health; Leonard Doyle

Date & Time

Apr. 6, 2011
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET

Responding to Disasters: Myths, Mistakes, and Recovery

"Major crises and disasters have massively changed over the last generation," said Dr. Frederick Burkle, senior public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and senior fellow and scientist at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. "We have to start a new narrative of what we need to do to address [them]."

To discuss the emerging and persistent challenges of disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery, Burkle was joined by Paul Born, co-founder and director of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement; Leonard Doyle, Haiti country spokesperson at the International Organization for Migration; Arif Hasan, adviser at the Orangi Pilot Project and founder and chairman at the Urban Resource Centre; and Dr. Eliane Ubalijoro, adjunct professor at McGill University and member of the Presidential Advisory Council for Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

"Retrieving the Wisdom of Those in Need"

Unfortunately, disaster responses often fail to "listen and gain a corner on the obvious," said Born, discussing the need for community engagement and healing in times of disaster and conflict.

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the formal disaster response failed to use hundreds of available buses to evacuate people, leaving thousands of people stranded in the floods. "If people were engaged, had a role to play, knew what to do, were part of a team, would this have made a difference? Would those buses have been deployed to help people?" asked Born.

Effective disaster response must utilize "the assets, the skills, and the knowledge that are present," concluded Born. For example, when the systems in place by the Philippine government in the village of Talba failed to give proper warning to evacuate from a volcanic eruption, "it was a parallel warning system, developed by the community, that warned people, on time, to vacate the area and avoid any loss of life," said Born. Community preparedness and engagement led to better utilization of available humanitarian assets and mitigated what could have been a much more severe disaster.

The Changing Nature of Humanitarian Emergencies

Increasingly, humanitarian crises are the result of unconventional warfare, causing major challenges for the humanitarian community, said Burkle. Rather than refugees, "what we are beginning to see today is an unprecedented number of internally displaced people."

Many of the displaced migrate to urban settings, contributing to rapid urbanization which is straining water, sanitation, and public health infrastructure. In these settings, he said, there is sometimes only one latrine for every 200 people, new and infectious diseases are rampant, and high rates of violence and rape are common, putting women particularly at risk.

"It is a lot more than population size – it's really density of population," said Burkle. In Mumbai, for example, there is an average of 30,000 people per square kilometer, but there are major areas of the city with over one million people per square kilometer.

"People moving to the cities are still remaining in extreme poverty," said Burkle. While the majority of the poor once lived in low-income fragile states, recent population data indicates that 72 percent of the world's poor now live in middle income countries like India, Indonesia, and China. "It's a total reversal – we've spent almost 20 years crafting our foreign aid budgets and policy around this…we have to start a new narrative about what we are going to do."

"The other issue that I don't think we hear about, but certainly the young people in the audience will be dealing with on a daily basis, are the biodiversity crises," said Burkle. "Of the 34 biodiverse areas, 23 have experienced prolonged conflict," which has had major impacts on the availability of water, food, and energy in these regions, said Burkle.

Moving forward, "we have to change the humanitarian community; we have to have more accountability and more accreditation, leading to a blueprint for professionalizing the humanitarian field," concluded Burkle.

Community and Communication in Haiti

A little over one year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, 680,000 people remain internally displaced, said Doyle. "About half the population has moved out of the camps, and there is some congratulations to be given to the humanitarian community for organizing that," he said. "But, when you look at the statistics…only a tiny fraction of these people have reached what you would call durable solutions such as sustainable housing."

"There is clearly a problem… why has more progress not taken place given the number of international organizations there and the generosity of the funding?" asked Doyle.

"People have a right to communicate and there is a benefit in that communication," said Doyle. To help make this possible in the Haitian displacement camps, he and his colleagues at the International Organization of Migration (IOM) set up 140 suggestion boxes. The response was amazing, he said, and with the help of a local Haitian organization, IOM has begun broadcasting some of the over 5,000 letters received on a daily radio show.

"We need to help create respectful conversations in countries where we do so much hard work but see so much of it go nowhere," said Doyle. Information from the letters has been compiled into reports detailing the major challenges faced by people including a lack of jobs, education, and housing. These letters are being used as a monitoring and accountability mechanism through which Haitians can tell NGOs and donors the successes and failures of projects being implemented in their communities. "Through this communication you can see what the community needs, rather than what the experts tell you the community needs," he said.

Engaging Local Communities

"Regions are sometimes so badly devastated [after a disaster], that to rehabilitate their agriculture, transport, water supply systems, is a very daunting task," said Hasan. His home country of Pakistan faced all of these challenges after heavy rains and subsequent flooding wiped out 3,000 villages and affected over 20 million people last year.

"Without a governance system, you cannot provide rehabilitation or relief," Hasan said, citing an added challenge for disaster response in many developing countries. Often the needs of the people are not translated in to policy actions, he said, and "there is a big difference between what people want and what politicians want."

Hasan offered some insights on how the development community can work with local communities to improve disaster response, pointing out that "pre-disaster situations determine the effectiveness of relief and rehabilitation." Existing mechanisms to provide development assistance can be used to efficiently deliver goods and services in emergencies, he said. By fostering "true partnerships" international NGOs can help communities and governments should manage reconstruction and relief efforts after disasters using local materials, labor, and technologies, he said. Engaging communities in reconstruction "can be a really important healing process."

Recovery and Resilience

"When you have a community that has been reduced to ashes, how can you retrieve hope so that transformation can happen?" asked Ubalijoro, stressing the importance of building community resilience after disasters. "We've been talking about disasters, but it's important to remember how we learn to dream again together."

Baskets of Hope is a project that aims to help Rwandan women recover from the genocide by providing training and jobs weaving baskets that are sold internationally. In addition to providing a source of income, the project also provides information about health and nutrition. With this multi-pronged approach, Baskets of Hope helps families to recover and move forward. "There's an interesting relationship between weaving these baskets that are allowing these women to have economic empowerment and what it requires after a time of trauma to reweave the fabric of society," said Ubalijoro.

Youth who have survived man-made or natural disasters are particularly vulnerable, said Ubalijoro. She and her colleagues work to link Rwandan youth with Holocaust survivors so that they can share their memories, pictures, and stories with one another. "Retrieving the wisdom from those who have gone through the unimaginable and having them share their experiences shows youth that even though they've lost everything, there are ways to move forward."

Drafted by Ramona Godbole and edited by Schuyler Null
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178



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