When disaster strikes, empowering local people to fashion their own recovery efforts, according to their own values and priorities, can be a better way to design relief programs
Disasters cause enormous damage and loss in countries across the globe. They destroy public infrastructure, disrupt basic services and cause loss of lives and livelihoods. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and floods now cause economic losses of $250 billion to $300 billion each year.
As we look to the future, we are told that climate change will increase disaster losses. Predictions suggest the global average for annual losses because of natural disasters will increase to $415 billion by 2030 for urban infrastructure alone, and climate risks could cost countries up to 19 percent of total gross domestic product. Changing temperatures, weather and precipitation patterns, and rising sea levels will increase risk, taking a toll on human and natural environments. These disturbances, when combined with poverty, exposure to the elements, displacement, migration and the destruction of buffering natural ecosystems, will result in catastrophic events.
Descriptions of the high cost and growing risk of disasters penned by governments and international organizations are commonplace, but differ greatly from the heartbreaking experience of personal loss, disorientation and trauma that survivors describe. Local people assess disaster impacts by measuring their ability to provide sufficient food and nutrition for household members, their levels of health and well-being, livelihoods, and housing – they make sense of what has happened by exchanging experiences with neighbors, friends and colleagues. Cultural norms influence their interpretations, as do beliefs and values, understandings about social life, relationships to the natural world, spiritual commitments and sense of morality and fairness.
Governments and international aid agencies often identify different problems needing resolution than the people in communities affected by disasters, and frequently do so with little or no local input. Little consensus over how to foster recovery and resilience can be found within the international community and with the certainty that more tragedies lie ahead, how we approach risk and recovery is important now more than ever.
Researchers have concluded that local culture, knowledge, and participation are the keys to improving outcomes. National governments, international organizations and skilled global experts cannot reimagine the future for devastated communities without their input. When cultural knowledge is used to adapt programs to the physical, social, economic, environmental and political circumstances of a specific community, local input and participation help produce conditions for success.
In 2008, much of Afghanistan was recovering from years of drought, crop failure and lost income. Many ways to address the problem had been tried with minimal success. Seeking better outcomes, an agricultural recovery and livelihood support program was designed with community input. Cultural attitudes about work, supporting a family, social and economic networks, agricultural knowledge and preferences, and personal dignity were explored with male and female farmers to shape a new approach.
Struggling farmers were fiercely proud and self-sufficient, and indicated the local culture viewed accepting charity as shameful, but external assistance was acceptable if a rural producer’s dignity remained intact. This insight resulted in the design of an agricultural voucher program that required a 15 percent co-pay from each beneficiary, implying ownership and retaining self-worth. The program made use of existing community-based decision-making structures, which were empowered to set eligibility criteria and award vouchers based on applications made by farmers. Local suppliers were used to redeem vouchers, supporting local markets and long-standing socio-economic networks and systems of economic relations. This process gave local people the power to assess the situation, determine a course of action, and access the resources necessary to create change.
Because farmers in the community also took pride in their agricultural knowledge and decision-making ability, vouchers were allowed to be used for any agricultural purpose a farmer determined. Recipients could even pool vouchers to invest in larger farm equipment, such as mini-tractors, and these purchases could be shared by multiple families. Choice, and the ability for participants to determine their own needs, was respected. This also applied to farmer training on drought-resistant agriculture, as farmers were not required to take part in educational programs to receive a voucher, but were given the choice to participate or not.
The success of programs such as these provides an example for improving post-disaster interventions. If we understand how a local community evaluates its own risk, and what things people prioritize for their recovery, we can design more successful relief programs. Approaches that privilege local knowledge, culture, and values will succeed at much higher rates than the models of old, because they embody respect, dignity, participation, partnership, and local ownership.