• On the history of development and disaster relief

    by  • January 28, 2011 • Everything Else • 1 Comment

    (adapted from an email)

    So my gut feeling on this is that it’s about culture, and avoiding the concept of poverty as a dominant predictor of what happens in disasters. Let me expand.

    Disaster relief is prototyped on the operations of the Red Cross starting around 1870 as a battlefield relief operation. The model is
    1> strict political neutrality
    2> cooperation with relevant authorities
    3> extremely limited short term operations so as not to put pressure on 1> and 2>
    4> use of a military technology base (relief tents) and skill base (the classic refugee camp is a WW2 vintage military camp, recreated after the experience rehousing European refugees with military surplus equipment and demobbed personnel after WW2)
    5> This basic system is then expanded into foreign disasters as the relief model is expanded into natural disasters etc. in the last 50 years without substantial changes in operations or mindset

    Development has a completely different theoretical base. You have a convergence of groups – the foreign policy / international relations / colonial transition angle which provides the funding from central governments (“we must do something with the colonies, colonel!”) creates a funded mandate which is then carried by a community of practice which has a lot in common with missionary activity and often shares a near-religious faith in development as a process. Well-intentioned moral people who want to “save the world” operating in support of national foreign policy objectives, creating the split in aid organizations between the development mandate above, and the basically humanitarian mindset below.

    The point of convergence is that, generally speaking, only the very poor require heavy support in a disaster. Here’s the biggie, however.

    1> The Disaster Relief model is rooted in the idea of a temporary intervention to help protect people until normality is restored, but
    2> In real Poverty, if you put it back like it was before the disaster, it is still a disaster. But
    3> The Red Cross model, which has been generally adopted, assumes you put things back as they were afterwards because of the concepts around strict neutrality and so on – to change nothing in the situation expect providing, say, a blanket is necessary in a battle field.

    Now the place this model is completely straining is transitional housing – the gap between the tent and the rebuilt society. There’s a multiplicity of actors in this arena, because it’s where Disaster Relief meets Development head-on. On the disaster relief side, Shelter Center is designing a semi-permanent tent, and Netherlands Red Cross has the steel frame house studies from Vietnam (see Eelko Brouwer at NRC for more on that.) On the development side, the entire Build Back Better approach is pushing development further and further into the disaster relief arena, looking at using that influx of capital to create deep change.

    So I think the crux of a strong research project would be to look at the evolution of cities encountering urban disasters, and specifically on how neighbourhoods form and reform after crisis – the progression from the tents-and-latrines stage back to something else – and on how the opportunities for systemic transformation afforded by crisis are either taken up to build anew, ignored to rebuild a broken system, or completely dropped on the floor, resulting in permanent shanty towns.

    In Haiti, for instance, essentially no rebuilding has happened – perhaps 20k transitional shelters and next to no permanent housing is my understanding of the situation – with > 1,000,000 remaining homeless after several billion dollars were raised to manage the relief process.

    A hard place to start, but a story to be told. Thoughts?

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    One Response to On the history of development and disaster relief

    1. January 28, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      I think you’ve nailed it. The Red Cross/Battlefield/Neutrality model runs into the chronic systemic factors that put the population in peril in the first place. In Haiti there’s been no development beyond tents because to do so would require confronting “property rights” that tie people into placelessness and poverty.

      There is no “going back to what it was like before!” there or anywhere. That’s a fiction demanded by the neutrality model. There’s always a further erosion into deeper poverty as the ever larger population is deprived of the most basic connection with its place. Further exploitation of resources and people create an ever-worsening poverty of possibilities.

      Aid is a dead-end because it was never meant to “do anything.”

      Identifying the smoke=screens and cul-de-sacs is a good first step!

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