The role of communities in post-disaster reconstruction. A call for owner-driven approaches

Duyne Barenstein, Jennifer (2012) The role of communities in post-disaster reconstruction. A call for owner-driven approaches. Tafter Journal. Esperienze e Strumenti per cultura e territorio (50). ISSN 1974-563X

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The importance of community participation in reconstruction after disasters has been recognised by scholars and relevant agencies for several decades. Ever since UNDRO declared that “the key to success ultimately lies in the participation of the local community – the survivors – in reconstruction” (UNDRO 1982), most governmental and non-governmental agencies define their approaches as participatory. However, as pointed out by Sliwinsky (2010), while participation gives reconstruction projects a morally legitimate theoretical framework, its impact on practice often remains weak. In this paper I argue that community participation in reconstruction remains little more than a slogan as long as decision-making power and control over resources remains with the reconstruction agency. Only if and when people have control over the building process and over the required resources, the process may be considered as truly participatory and empowering. This is potentially the case of a reconstruction approach that a decade ago was successfully tested on a large scale in Gujarat, India and that became know as ‘owner-driven reconstruction’ (Jha et al., 2010). When the State Government of Gujarat, India, following the severe earthquake of January 2011, embarked in its ground-breaking owner-driven reconstruction programme, many professionals, scholars, and NGOs reacted sceptically, arguing that people would not have the capacity to build back disaster resilient houses or that they would spend the money for other purposes. In this paper I will first of all give an overview of different reconstruction approaches, as I defined them for the World Bank Handbook for Reconstruction after Disasters (Jha et al., 2010). Based on research in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Argentina and Nicaragua, I will further explain why in many disaster situations owner-driven reconstruction may be the most effective, efficient, empowering and satisfactory approach to reconstruction. My own research findings are confirmed by several studies and evaluations of the reconstruction experiences of India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, which show that ODR leads to the highest levels of citizens’ satisfaction, to a better quality of construction, that it is faster and more cost-effective than other reconstruction approaches, and that it enhances communities’ capacity to build disaster resilient houses. Yet it is important to recognise that also ODR entails some challenges and risks that need to be carefully taken into consideration by implementing agencies. I will thus discuss the determinants for successful ODR and the opportunities and challenges of replicating the positive experiences with ODR in different contexts. To conclude I will underline the importance of developing national and international reconstruction policies in normal times with the aim of ensuring that whenever possible ODR becomes a regular practice for governmental as well as non-governmental reconstruction agencies.

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