Why survivors should lead responses to disasters

When a large disaster hits – like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – it receives international media coverage, aid is mobilised and aid agencies rush to respond. While survivors of smaller disasters might wish for such attention, there are some serious negative side-effects to these responses. Survivors are often sidelined with little influence on the responses chosen and with little control over how the external funding is used or prioritised, as these decisions rest mostly with external funders. But responses  that don’t consult with them risk not only failing, but potentially weakening the communities they’re working with. It doesn’t have to be this way.

20 October 2011

Survivors have successfully taken the lead and influenced responses before. After the devastating 2004 tsunami struck the coast of Thailand, a large camp – called Bang Muang camp – was set up along the Andaman coast of southern Thailand to provide shelter to 850 families who had lost their homes. The camp was managed by the survivors. They set up working groups to address their different needs – namely for housing (mapping where they used to live to help plan rebuilding efforts), livelihoods, welfare, children’s activities, food supplies and cooking, camp hygiene, water supply and medical care.

This was orchestrated through a collective management system. Tents were set up in groups of ten families and in three group zones, each with its own leader.  Meetings were held every evening and anyone could attend. This system - in addition to helping them run the camp efficiently –  also helped prepare survivors for the longer-term tasks of negotiating with the state and external agencies to obtain secure land and for rebuilding and livelihoods.

In May 2008, a coastal tidal surge caused by Cyclone Nargis wreaked devastation along Myanmar’s Irawaddy delta killing over 100,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of families homeless

Many survivors received assistance from international agencies to reconstruct their destroyed homes. Community leaders, when questioned, said that they were very pleased that these agencies gave houses to the people. However, they said that they preferred to retain control over the spending and construction themselves. In one group of 18 villages with houses damaged by the cyclone, the financial support available appeared insufficient for the 700 affected homes. So the settlement committees worked together to examine the scale of housing need, to prioritize the most urgent cases and agree who would get what kind of support. All construction work was done by the residents, who bought materials and built collectively, keeping costs so low that they were able to repair or rebuild all homes. Local communities such as this showed that they could build better houses for one-seventh of what it cost the external agencies. In doing so, they also strengthened themselves.

These examples highlight the importance of placing survivors at the centre of emergency response planning and reconstruction. Survivors need to be able to meet regularly and discuss what they need with each other. This helps develop their confidence in what they can do.

As in development, the effectiveness of external funding depends on the quality and orientation of the intermediary (mostly local) institutions through which external funding is channelled. And often these institutions do not facilitate the participation of survivors in the process. For example, the disaster response in Banda Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit was referred to as the “second tsunami” that hit communities there. Among the many international agencies, each had their own budgets and priorities – and survivors found it very difficult to influence what was done and to get their priorities supported.

Post-disaster responses can be a positive opportunity for change if survivors are the agents for change at all stages from immediate relief to planning, reconstruction and implementing effective disaster prevention processes for the future.   The benefits are clear:

  • Community-led responses ultimately prove more effective and long-lasting, as those who are affected know best what they need
  • Properly supported, survivors can end up in a better position, particularly if they are able to negotiate land tenure and build better homes. 

This blog was written by Somsook Boonyabancha and Diane Archer at the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.

Find out more

Read Seeing a disaster as an opportunity in the October 2011 issue of Environment and Urbanization.