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Disasters as Opportunities – your thoughts please

November 19, 2013
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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!


  1. Duncan, I am not sure that this comment directly addresses what you need but since that has not stopped me in the past :) here goes.

    In the aftermath of the horrific drought in 1972-73, thousands of poor migrated from rural parts of Maharashtra (a State in Western India) and settled in slums of Mumbai.

    Some got employment in private sector or government. Some started small businesses. They had come seeking relief but a large number ended up staying in Mumbai.

    Over time their children went to school, got higher education and were able to break out of the poverty trap in the space of one or two generations.

    When I worked in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to meet a number of such families. I remember being unequivocally told that though the drought was bad and destroyed lives as they knew it, people were actually thankful for it, eventually. It forced them to move out of rural areas where their livelihoods were going nowhere in particular. Interestingly there was a clear difference of opinion of the elderly and the youth. The former still longed for days gone by, the youth only wanted to look ahead.

    Thousands of these families (most of them belonging to the dalit community) settling in specific pockets of Mumbai, changed the political dynamic in those areas. Today, in most of those areas, it is rare for a non-dalit political leader to get elected.

    This is not an ‘opportunity’ that an NGO ‘took’. This was a classic case of people adopting a negative coping mechanism and over time turning it to their advantage.

  2. NGOs or people failed to take up a similar opportunity in the Super Cyclone that battered the Indian state of Odisha in 1999. Then sea water traveled and inundated (& ruined) farm land upto 20 km inland. It also killed over 10,000 people.

    Sadly, I saw little being done to use this (and the millions of aid money that came in) to help build alternative livelihoods, perhaps skills based livelihoods.

    What did happen was that the Government woke up, invested in disaster preparedness and management and consequently was better placed for handling cyclones. When Phailin struck earlier this year, the evacuation was completed well in time and this time only 44 people died.

  3. Hey Duncan,

    From a recent evaluation of the Oxfam international youth partnerships (oiyp) program, which subsequently led to its closing… Long story, we asked the question “what was the single most important factor to your experience of creating change” (outside from the programs support) the most common response was that ‘opportunity’ suddenly appeared, in the form of disaster, political change or what have you. What we found was that our program was not able to respond to the requests of the young leaders we were working with. Because our budgets were set, our processes were too onerous etc. so for us the greatest take home was that we need to plan in a way that enables us to respond to opportunity and we also need to let our partners know that we want the game changing ideas even (or especially) in times of crisis. It’s not an ethical issue if u are supporting communities to challenge power structures that result in inequality, it’s just a different approach.

    You can find the evaluation here http://oiyp.oxfam.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/OIYP-Retrospective-Study-Final-low-res.pdf

  4. Duncan
    You’ve given a few examples of places where things seem to have changed for the better following a disaster. I wonder if there are also examples of things changing for the worse? Disasters are critical junctures but surely they can provoke negative changes too?

    My bigger question is whether you think that aid agencies had anything to do with the changes in Myanmar, Aceh, Haiti? When asking the question “should agencies look to engage in promoting longer term change” in post-disaster contexts, I think it’s important to be clear about what change they can actually offer or foster in these contexts; and crucially what role international aid agencies have vis-à-vis local leaders, civil society organisations, etc.

    1. Good points Matt. On the first, I have often felt that INGOs are sometimes better equipped to stop bad stuff happening, eg closing down of civil society space, or bad trade rules. On the second, of course the drivers of change are endogenous – they almost always are (sorry MPH!). The question is whether how outsiders best use their relatively minor role to promote good stuff.

  5. I do want to believe that disasters open up opportunities for the better, and in some cases they clearly do. The Aceh example is certainly one in terms of the peace agreement. However, perhaps we need also to ask another question: as pratictioners do we make sufficiently coordianted and appropriate efforts to follow through from our humanitarian interventions and keep supporting men and women in communitites in the long term so that they ‘build better’ in all senses? Part of this surely should be about continuing to monitor FOR A SUSTAINED AMOUNT OF TIME the kind of social, economic or other changes which begin to emerge in the aftermath of a disaster. Back to Aceh, our research (in which I was directly involved) showed that, as a conseqeunce of the very high mortality of women from the diret effects of the tsunami, widowers were seeking to form families again failry quickly and it looked like that was leading to earlier age at marriage for girls. Has anyone followed up on that? do we know if there is any evidence of this, and of the possible cosnequences?

  6. Duncan,

    In my community-level research on recovery from conflict for the Moving Out of Poverty study, I have certainly seen many communities come back stronger. These are clearly moments when leaders are actively reclaiming their legitimacy, resources are flowing, and people hunger for a return to normalcy. Yet the outcomes are highly variable on the ground. And I think there are many parallels with the windows of opportunity after disasters. Another key force to keep in mind is that women often adapt to harsh circumstances more easily than men — and my research shows that where women were able to access opportunities, community recovery was also more successful. These periods are clearly times when gender norms are in flux. And interventions can help support these forces by adopting clear gender objectives, reaching out to both women and men with information and resources, and creating inclusive arenas for decision-making. In practical terms, this often requires taking account of gender norms and inequalities and “stacking the deck” so women too can benefit. In participatory community-based programs to sort out land claims in Aceh after the tsunami, I learned that women were often excluded from these processes and their access to land declined. To help avoid these types of outcomes, interventions require strong accountability to gender objectives and agility to monitor closely and innovate. Where strong women’s support organizations are present, for instance, investing in strategic linkages with grassroots women’s groups can often help. But other complementary actions will likely be needed as well to ensure that women as well as men can contribute fully to recovery. Thank you for this post! Patti Petesch

  7. Hi Duncan,

    On a slightly sideways note, how does any humanitarian intervention contribute to change within the overall picture of interventions, including contributions from the affected individuals themselves. This is the subject of a new book/guide/approach due to be launched on Friday ‘Contribution to Change: an approach to evaluating the role of intervention in disaster recovery’. If you want to speculate about what potential long term changes a disaster might trigger surely you first need to know how an INGO’s intervention, or any intervention, fits into the bigger picture and here’s a way of finding out.

  8. Good thought provoking and timely blog. One approach that Tearfund and other INGOs is exploring further is how more investment and commitment to partnerships with national and local NGOs can better build their capacity so that when the political moments arise during a disaster they are able to seize the opportunity for longer term change. The report ‘Partnering in emergencies’ gives some examples about using local knowledge and improving accountability between local communities and government when responding to a crisis. http://www.odi.org.uk/events/3677-partnerships-emergencies-local-partners-community-led-capacity-development-local-capacity-ramalingam

  9. Duncan,

    Thanks for this. Thought I would share with the group a brief article from Devex yesterday about the complex history of LGUs in Philippines:


    Feeds into important discussions about accountability and decentralization “opportunities” during relief and reconstruction.

  10. Hi Duncan,

    Can you stop calling those disasters “natural”, maybe then a humanitarian response seeking changes in power relations alongside saving lives would be more obvious.

  11. My quick two-cents:

    One news story that has been making waves in the Philppines is the recent supreme court ruling abolishing the Philippines Development Assistance Fund (a discretionary fund of the president), after it was discovered that PHP 10 bn was being funneled by a criminal mastermind Janet Napoles, into fake NGO’s, with the help of senators and congressman. Here is the news clipping and some excerpts:


    “In a landmark decision that could spell the end of political patronage, the Supreme Court on Tuesday declared unconstitutional past and present congressional pork barrel laws as it ordered the criminal prosecution of individuals who had benefited from the schemes over the past two decades.”

    “The ruling was issued four months after the Inquirer broke the story that P10 billion in allocations from the PDAF and the Malampaya Fund meant to ease rural poverty and the plight of storm victims over the past 10 years had gone to ghost projects and massive kickbacks.”

    In August, President Aquino seemed adamant about maintaining PDAF, despite massive public outcry against it, so this is definitely a rare instance of social progress and clampdown on channels of corruption. The fact that it the ruling came around the same time as the typhoon may be a coincidence, though it is a notable one wouldn’t you say?

  12. Hi,
    I was recently in Northern Mindanao, Philippines doing research on environmental migration after Typhoon Sendong (Washi). There, the disaster was being used (appropriated) as an opportunity to enact alternative visions of development. The differing visions of religious, state and academic actors were especially apparent in the relocation sites they each created and managed.

    I’ve written about this topic and other aspects of my research at my blog: http://montreal2mayumi.blogspot.ca/

  13. Hi Duncan, there is a small movement dedicated to this issue, known as ‘disaster diplomacy’. See here: http://www.disasterdiplomacy.org/index.html including a useful summary of lessons to date.

    The Indonesia case of course needed an external heavyweight (Martti Ahtisaari) to play a central role in the peace process. I look at this briefly in Aid on the Edge of Chaos as part of the case study on peacebuilding and systems thinking, p251-257. Could principled humanitarian responders have done the same thing? Or are their negotiations always likely to be more focused on operational issues of access and rights? To use a crude analogy, can you get the firefighters to rewrite building standards and codes?

    A good, if depressing, example of the negative implications of disasters is Sri Lanka post-tsunami, where the crisis polarised both sides and helped to destroy a fragile peace. Same disaster, different contexts, different outcomes.

  14. Hi,

    Past disasters in the Philippines and especially Haiyan have shown how much improvement is needed on DRRM governance in the country despite the passage of the DRRM Law or the R.A. 10121 of 2010. Corruption, lack or insufficient preparedness, delayed response, ineffective and inefficient coordination are among the issues that have recurred every disaster. The worse the disaster is, the greater the challenge, not only for the local but also for the national government intervention. And this reality made communities more vulnerable and to suffer more during disasters.

    But, even how ineffective the government is or how lacking in terms of capacity, it is not enough reason that it would be excused from its responsibility and accountability to ensure safety, security, and protection of rights of its citizens. Help of INGOs’ and national or local NGOs’ or faith-based groups is certainly needed, especially in disaster with magnitude as Haiyan’s, but it should not replace in anyway the role of the government which has the only structure supposedly that could respond from national to local level up to the remotest community if only it would be able to effectively mobilize all its institutions and structures and if only it is governed by people that are responsible and accountable enough. However, reality shows that the Philippine government needs support from all sectors, albeit, also needs effective monitoring and pressure especially from its citizens that should have the power to make or unmake governments.

    But, reality in the Philippines also is that majority of its people are not yet that empowered. Votes selling and buying is a manifestation. Patronage politics is still very strong that certainly plays a role during disaster response resulting to inequitable distribution of assistance and disenfranchisement of other affected communities and survivors.

    But, whatever the level of response from the government or from NGOs or from faith-based organizations during disasters, what is common in all communities facing disaster challenges is the self-help of families, and the sharing among relatives and neighbors who become the first responders of any disasters. A number of communities affected by Haiyan shared how they survived because of this strong cultural practice in the Philippines called “damayan” or helping one another. This is especially happening in areas where after two weeks since Haiyan struck their community no external support has yet arrived. Hence, before governments or NGOs or humanitarian agencies could respond, it is always the local people, especially the relatives and neighbors that would be there to help.

    As external and government support pour into the communities, local practice of sharing would also slowly fade away. And as the response becomes more externally driven, coordination would then become more challenging; allocation and sharing of resources would become more difficult with standards to uphold and with biases in terms of priority services of intervening agencies.

    As more external support prevails power is also shifting – from locally-driven to externally driven process. Oftentimes, we hear survivors and IDPs complaining about the lack of consultation and their participation from the choice of relief to planning of the recovery and rehab of their community. To simplify things and for more convenience of the assisting agencies, shelter designs made more uniform and instead of considering on-site and near livelihood sources reconstruction of houses, resettlement and relocation even if it is against the will of the survivors/IDPs who usually don’t have any choice. With the need for time, efforts and resources for a participatory process, this is oftentimes neglected to fast track recovery and rehabilitation.

    But, isn’t it that it is the life, shelter, livelihood and community of a survivor that is being rehabilitated? Being the first responders as many have shown before external support arrive, isn’t it enough basis to say that if only given a chance, communities affected of a disaster (including that of Haiyan) could very well initiate their recovery process with the right external support that is responsive to the real need and with a process that is respectful and reinforcing of its positive cultural practices like “damayan” and of empowering local structures?

    Well, survivors may also opt to resettle or leave for good their place of origin because of the magnitude of the disaster like in Tacloban, that could also be their choice that should be supported.

    What is greatly challenging is the lack of a strong disaster governance structure that could have helped facilitate the necessary process. Much has yet to be done to address other underlying factors of ineffective governance including corruption.

    With this reality and in the context of the Philippines, role of other local structures like local CSOs/NGOs (the real ones), faith-based groups and the like could certainly fill-in the gap especially in strengthening capacities of survivors and affected communities to assert and claim their rights and link them to the duty bearers and service providers including international support.

    With a strong advocacy nature of CSOs/NGOs (thereal ones) in the Philippines, they could also certainly perform the role of monitoring and advocacy to uphold accountability in disaster governance.

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