Disasters as Opportunities – your thoughts please

November 19, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Sticking with yesterday’s theme of how our humanitarian work is evolving, one of our more extraordinary Oxfamistas in the Philippines (LanI love Tacloban Mercado, profiled here) has asked a few of us to help her team think through the longer term implications of Supertyphoon Haiyan for our work. I have no idea how she manages to find headspace to think about that in the middle of the emergency response – truly impressive. Anyway I said I would pick your brains as a first step.

The starting point is that disasters like Haiyan are of course moments of acute human suffering. The urge, indeed expectation, is that organizations like Oxfam should drop everything and do whatever it can to save lives (and don’t worry, we are). This is at the heart of the so-called ‘Humanitarian Imperative’ – an obligation to help everyone in distress, as fast as humanly possible.

But disasters are also ‘political moments’ that can make as well as break movements for change. They highlight corruption and political bias: in Nicaragua, popular outrage at the theft of relief money by the Somoza dictatorship after the earthquake of 1972 was a tipping point in the upsurge of protest that led to the Sandinista Revolution seven years later. Catastrophic famines in Ethiopia in 1985 led to the fall of a dictatorship. Major changes (both good and bad) that would ordinarily take decades can occur in weeks or months. Like wars, natural disasters can transform gender relations as they force women and men to break old ways, and discover new ones.

Peace in Aceh

Peace in Aceh

More recently, the 2004 Asian tsunami prompted a resumption of peace talks between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) and the Indonesian government, culminating in the signing of a peace agreement in August 2005 that officially brought a 30-year conflict to an end. The historic peace deal was followed quickly by the release of Acehnese political prisoners, the withdrawal of government troops from the province, the decommissioning of rebel-held weapons, and the establishment of a government authority to oversee the reintegration of ex-combatants and co-ordinate assistance for conflict-affected communities. The following year saw a far-reaching autonomy law, giving the long-neglected province control over its natural resources.

Coincidentally, the ODI has a new report out on just this subject. Building Back Better, by Lilianne Fan, explores the implications of the Aceh experience, along with the Myanmar cyclone (2008) and Haiti earthquake (2010). It raises a lot of tricky questions for the aid community about how to respond to wars, natural disasters, or political upheavals.

‘What exactly does ‘better’ look like? Better for whom, where, how? Who decides – agencies, donors, governments, affected communities – and how can these decisions be translated into meaningful programming? What are the implications of investing in build back better if it distracts attention and money away from the urgent  and often overwhelming need to feed, treat and shelter  people who have nothing but the clothes they stand up in, and for whom ‘better’ may well be a luxury  for tomorrow, not today? Is it ethical in humanitarian terms to exploit people’s vulnerability after a disaster to drive social change?’

On the basis of Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti, the paper concludes that BBB is so vague as to make little direct difference, meaning all things to all people, from peace agreements to earthquake proof buildings. But it may have a more subtle value as a framing exercise, directing attention towards the need to think long term, even in an emergency. Especially on issues of power and politics:

‘Build back better is arguably most strategic and meaningful when it is used to bring about or support a transformation of political relations, and

Winds of Change?

Winds of Change?

[not] when it is ‘merely’ about better materials and technical solutions.’

But the author sits squarely on the fence on whether humanitarian organizations like Oxfam should go there, even if it muddies the humanitarian imperative.

So help us out people. Any advice, references etc on the ethical issues, but also on what Haiyan might mean for progressive social change in the Philippines, or examples of positive change driven by disasters in other countries, and why/how it came about (lots of political economy please!) Especially interested in women’s rights, land rights, social protection, expanding essential services etc.

And just to get the mental juices flowing, I’ve put a poll up – sure my humanitarian colleagues will hate the questions though!