When natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis devastate the developing world, first-world countries are quick to raise funds and lead humanitarian assistance – including construction.
But how can we ensure recovery programmes are a success? The answer lies in governance and knowledge-sharing.
In the initial relief phase, first-world expertise and skills in search and rescue, medical care, supply of clean water, and food and temporary shelter are paramount to prevent unnecessary fatalities.
However, in the longer-term recovery phase, the focus should shift from supply of first-world capabilities to reducing the dependency of the developing country on international aid.
From our experience in the reconstruction following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, there were three recognisable trends that resulted in continued donor dependency: lack of construction expertise within international organisations driving the recovery; lack of community engagement; and lack of professional oversight during construction.
In Nepal, many INGOs had been operating in the region for years without significant construction expertise.
”International organisations can often be guilty of not engaging with the local community to establish their needs and understand the unique opportunities and constraints that affect reconstruction”
When the earthquake hit, their focus was on government-approved designs regardless of their appropriateness. Not all realised that to meaningfully ‘build back better’ they needed to develop or build on construction skills within the community.
International organisations can often be guilty of not engaging with the local community to establish their needs and understand the unique opportunities and constraints that affect reconstruction.
In areas such as Nepal, it is understandable that the logistics, cost and time to visit extremely remote villages in the Himalayas can prevent this engagement. This can lead to crude assumptions being made about end-user requirements, resulting in buildings that are not fit for purpose and don’t provide the facilities the community needs long term.
But such failures are easily mitigated by tapping into the knowledge and resources of the existing network of small and medium-sized NGOs and local experts who have been operating on the ground for many years.
Top-down recovery also often results in first-world construction methods. However, regardless of the construction method proposed by the funding or implementing NGO, the transition from a good-quality design to a good-quality building is at the mercy of the workmanship of the builders.
In Nepal, all designs were signed off at government level but, in many cases, what was then constructed on the ground did not match the design. As the government do not have the resources and infrastructure to monitor all construction projects, especially in remote regions, it lies with the INGOs to have robust governance processes to oversee construction.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the INGO project managers are not suitably qualified to report on construction and so poor workmanship and key details on which seismic performance is reliant are missed.
It is therefore critical that local construction experts are brought on board to drive this process with guidance and training provided by industry experts, either local or international. This capacity-building approach is fundamental to success.
We must understand the skills and capability in a country and work with it to develop enduring knowledge.
When the dust settles and reconstruction is complete, the INGOs and experts should be able to leave knowing their legacy is not dictated by the buildings, but by how well they imparted knowledge and skills.
Glyn Utting is an associate at WYG