Global Policy Forum

How NGOs Can Help in Disaster Recovery

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Rohit Jigyasu

AlertNet
May 26, 2003


International non-governmental organisations have an increasing role to play in disaster mitigation and recovery, especially in critical disasters when local governments grapple with acute shortage of resources. However, these NGOs must take into consideration several important issues and challenges while formulating their policies and programmes.

I would like to illustrate these by using two cases in South Asia that I have studied -- Marathwada and Gujarat in India. In the first, the long-term impact of post-earthquake rehabilitation was studied in the wake of the 1993 earthquake and the second dealt with understanding the transition phase from relief to rehabilitation after the 2001 earthquake.

One of the predominant issues, which has arisen time and time again but which nevertheless demands greater attention, concerns the transfer of knowledge to make local communities disaster-resilient. Both cases have shown that, although imported technology may be sophisticated and effective in resisting a particular natural hazard such as an earthquake, it may not be culturally and climatically compatible, making it unsustainable in the long run. This is exemplified in Marathwada where, over the years, the city-like village layout and house designs have been totally changed by the rural communities to suit their way of life, ironically making them more vulnerable. Also, urban house designs were found to be unsuited to local activities and, therefore, many of them were vacated and used only as storage.

An important aspect which international NGOs should realise is that their role is limited by the fact that they do not stay forever in their areas of activity.

WELL-INTENTIONED ACTIVITIES

Therefore, they must ensure that their well-intentioned activities take root in the communities, so that they are sustained after the NGOs leave. Otherwise these will end up as short-term projects with no long-term vision. This means that NGOs have to be aware of local skills and capacities and help communities adapt these to changing needs, rather than totally negating them.

It is important to bear in mind that these skills and capacities have evolved over time, through trial and error, and as such show sound knowledge of optimum use of climate and available resources. Although these may have become outdated, nevertheless they stand a good chance of being tuned in to contemporary needs and socio-economic dynamics.

Undoubtedly, shelter provision is seen as the primary need for a disaster stricken community and, as such, is one of the major spheres of NGO activity in post-disaster situations. However, they need to be conscious of the fact that housing, especially of a rural nature, is not just a one-time physical product, rather it should be seen as a process, closely tied to social and economic dynamics. This aspect is often overlooked by NGOs in their goal of providing maximum number of shelters, generally viewed as the only benchmark for measuring the success of their activity.

All this requires a certain sense of humility while interacting with local communities. This is all the more important since these organisations need to have an in-depth knowledge of local dynamics and establish a direct rapport with communities. However, the communities generally view them with suspicion and thus it becomes difficult for the organisations to win their trust and confidence. NGOs and community-based organisations working at grass-roots level, which have been in the area long before the advent of a particular disaster and represent the social and economic profile of local communities, can provide the crucial interface between external organisations and the local community. For example, after the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, the U.N. Development Programme undertook an extensive rehabilitation programme through ABHIYAN, a consortium of local NGOs working in the area on drought mitigation, before the earthquake. Community participation is crucial for long-term sustainability of activities and programmes initiated by international NGOs.

MORE RHETORIC THAN REALITY

However, the Marathwada and Gujarat cases show that community participation has become more rhetoric than reality. Community participation does not merely imply involvement of communities in NGO activities, rather it means facilitating the local capacity-building process to enhance the ability of communities to take decisions long after NGOs have left the scene. This issue comes forth in the Gujarat case, where in many instances, local people were merely used as labour in the process of shelter reconstruction. Moreover, true participation implies that everyone irrespective of social or economic status takes part in the decision making process. This is especially relevant for many South Asian communities, which are already deeply divided on the basis of caste. Marathwada case illustrates this point. In Gujarat, these deep-rooted divisions have even led to physical break-up of many reconstructed villages.

Finally, NGOs have to play a balancing role, acting as a bridge between communities on the one hand and local government on the other. This requires certain preconditions. This challenge is evident in the Gujarat case, where the link between communities and NGOs has been strengthened over time, especially since the 2001 quake.

However, the link between communities and local government is structurally so weak that effective communication and action on behalf of the government, based on community feedback, is missing. There seems to be a lack of trust by the community on the one hand and a lack of accountability on the part of the government on the other. This is related to the fact that, until now, grass-roots governance is not politically strong and has not been given a significant role and responsibility in the rehabilitation process. This is certainly a prerequisite if the efforts of international NGOs are to be sustained in the long run.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.