We're learning smarter ways to help

In a disaster, humans rush to help. May they ever do so. But when rescue turns to recovery turns to rebuilding, there are smarter ways to offer a hand up without making it a hand out.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A worker dug a ditch for water lines in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2006, two years after a devastating tsunami.

In a disaster, rapid response is essential. Time is short. Lives hang in the balance. First aid, clean water, safe food, blankets, and beds are dispatched, but help always seems too slow, suffering too prolonged. Finally – after what seems like weeks but is only hours or days (but still an eternity for those in the disaster zone) – helicopters hover, hospital ships drop anchor, aid convoys plow inland, and first-aid tents and feeding stations swing into action.

It’s just about then, as rescue turns to recovery, that the world loses interest. The immediacy of a disaster – aerial views of roofless homes, interviews with grieving refugees, videos of the earth shaking and tides surging – rivets attention far more than what comes next. Chapter 2 is slow, the methodical work of buckets, wheelbarrows, hammers, and saws, the first steps toward rebuilding and resuming a normal life. 

But getting recovery right is crucial. This is where corruption, theft, and waste are most likely and where unmet needs can prolong suffering and stir unrest.

Recovery is also a moment of opportunity. As Peter Ford reports from the typhoon-damaged central Philippines in a Monitor cover story (read it here), there’s a better way to help a shattered community rebuild than by sending in armies of fresh rebuilders from afar. The best practice, disaster recovery specialists now believe, is to encourage survivors to reconstruct their own homes, farms, businesses, and factories. This can mean everything from supplying power tools to offering engineering advice, providing on-the-spot business coaching to giving out no-strings cash.

This hands-off approach jump-starts the local economy by making it self -reliant rather than aid -reliant. As well-meaning as volunteers and relief agencies are when they put money and muscle into rebuilding, their very involvement can slow the hiring of survivors who need work. A steady flow of food and supplies from across the seas can deter the regrowth of native supply chains. Local entrepreneurs understand the tastes and interests of their neighbors, even if that sometimes means the cash they receive stocks shelves with KitKat bars and cigarettes. It’s a start, at least, on the road back to normal.

Self-empowerment isn’t a universal solution. As Peter points out, it doesn’t work in every recovery effort, especially in extremely poor, repressed, corrupt, or conflict-ridden regions. But when it can be employed, smart recovery replaces “we know better” with “you can do it.” 

 Natural disasters have long been tests of faith. When an earthquake shattered Portugal’s capital in 1755, clerics blamed the people’s wickedness. But the Enlightenment was stirring, and the people began to doubt that tired, old explanation. Scientists suspected geology and engineering. Governments considered how to prepare for the worst and respond when the worst occurred. Lisbon rebuilt.

Almost four centuries later, we have a better understanding of quakes, floods, fires, and famines. So we prepare. But we are still surprised. That was the case with the 2004 South Asian tsunami, hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2008 Chinese earthquake, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Japanese tsunami, superstorm Sandy in 2012, and dozens of lesser disasters every year.

Disasters still test our faith. A practical demonstration of faith, however, is evident the day after disaster strikes: We rebuild.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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