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Sustainable relief with community engagement is the only solution
Cameron Sinclair, 28 Oct 04

BAM.jpgA Two-Part Series:

Part 1 - Community Engagement and Resilience

Every year the world is devastated by natural disasters. In countries prone to recurring catastrophe governments and aid agencies can no longer take a band-aid approach to recovery. They must turn the aftermath of a tragedy instead into greatly improved living conditions for those affected.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has released its annual World Disasters report which states that governments and aid agencies are failing to listen to people on the ground. In doing so, they are fuelling the 'disaster victim cliché', which portrays those affected as helpless.

Encouraging communities to be active participants in the rebuilding is key to creating sustainable solutions and to reducing the impact of a disaster.

Representatives from the International Red Cross (IRC) spoke at the World Urban Forum on disaster relief and noted the new city of Ciudad Espuma in Honduras - built after Hurricane Mitch swept through in 1998 - was the best example of a "disaster reduction initiative". The 14,000 families who has lost homes had rebuilt their own houses with an awareness of the potential of future disaster.

The Red Cross also cited the earthquake in Bam, Iran, which killed more than 26,000 people and destroyed three-quarters of the city's buildings, as a prime example of how communities can help themselves in the immediate aftermath.

Whereas 34 international rescue teams found 22 people alive, neighbors and local volunteers saved hundreds of lives. Even after the first week, after most of the media left, local groups were organizing and developing rebuilding plans. This is not to say external aid is not needed but a balance must be found.

Earlier this year my organization, Architecture for Humanity, had the privilege of partnering with Relief International on the rebuilding effort. Relief International is a model of what a disaster relief group should be striving to achieve. Not only did relief workers immediately seek our local community partners but set up a rebuilding strategy which utilized local craftspeople and construction workers. This led to cost effective construction using appropriate technologies, creating micro-economies within the community but most importantly sense of ownership. To give some perspective, I should note that the cost of building a seismically safer house was less than US$1,000 (near the same cost of a UN winterized tent). What we learned most from this project is that rather than handouts, long-term relief efforts should be about equipping communities with the resilience to rebuild their lives.

We are now at a stage where local based engagement is just one of many factors to deal with. We are currently involved in three projects, in Grenada, South Africa and Sudan, and in addition to community involvement, sustainable development is at the forefront of each of these initiatives. Taking a look at post-disaster issues it is shocking to see the lack of long term planning and the potential harm caused by 'handout' responses.

In my next post I will talk about the effects of sustainable development within post-disaster planning and also a little about 'hidden' disasters like climate change.

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So, the relief-to-development meme is really popping out there right now: the idea that relief efforts ought to prepare the ground for development, not just staunch the bleeding, so to speak.

Let's start the relief-to-leapfrogging movement!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 29 Oct 04



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