Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Rebuild social institutions as well as buildings

By Mary Comerio

The catastrophic earthquake damage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and its surrounding communities is a poignant reminder of the difficulties that many countries and regions have faced in planning for disaster recovery. Losses in the Indonesian tsunami, or earthquakes in China, India or Turkey were equally devastating for the millions of people who were affected.

The media has focused on the devastation as well as the poverty and the seeming lack of local government, as if every building and every institution has suddenly disappeared and "outside" agencies and/or governments will need to "take charge" of the Haitian recovery.

Certainly, in the emergency-period, which could last for several months, the heavy lifting by American troops and  international aid organizations is critical.  Food, water and medical care are desperately needed and the logistics of moving and distributing that aid requires the management and resources of international bodies.

Planning for recovery, however, is a more complex and subtle task.  Recovery is more than rebuilding infrastructure, businesses and housing. While the physical reconstruction efforts are often daunting in themselves (witness the conditions in New Orleans four years after Hurricane Katrina), meaningful community recovery is about people and social institutions.

The planning for recovery needs to start now. Yes, even before the emergency situation is under control. At the same time that international aid organizations are stabilizing the situation, teams from these agencies should be identifying the functioning local government agencies,  NGOs, faith-based organizations and other social and community institutions that exist and know how to work in Haiti, and help them to plan for recovery.

Clearly there are some major tasks that need to be planned:

1) Debris removal will require lots of heavy equipment, but it can also be a source of local jobs.

2) Inspection of damaged and undamaged buildings will require some outside experts to map and inventory conditions,  but local teams of architects, engineers and university students  can also be mobilized.

3) Quick repairs of lightly damaged buildings will allow some people to be re-housed and some organizations to establish a base of operations.

4) Rebuilding infrastructure can involve alternative systems for power and water supplies which again employ local workers.

5) Establishing multiple distribution centers for the sale of construction materials will allow individuals and families to build for themselves, especially if technical assistance is available.

These and many other tasks need coordination, and the will to help Haitians help themselves. Instead of assuming that the "victims" are helpless, it is important to recognize that while many thousands need help, others  can be tapped to work on rebuilding their communities.

The World Bank, the UN, the US government and many others will help to fund Haiti's recovery, but the most important aid will be the planning and coordination that takes advantage of local organizations and institutions -- universities, NGOs, churches, etc. -- to develop distributed networks of health and social service providers as well as construction materials and assistance. Rebuilding after disasters is a long-term undertaking, but if local people are engaged and involved, the capacity building will provide the basis for rebuilding a better future for Haiti.