Our Perspectives

Good governance for disaster recovery


floods in Cap Haitian, HaitiHeavy rains in Haiti's northern city of Cap Haitian left streets, homes and fields flooded and hundreds of people homeless and up to 15 people dead. Photo: Logan Abassi UN/MINUSTAH

In 2007, when I began my career with UNDP in Ecuador, I thought I knew the ins and outs of disaster recovery. I had the technical background as a civil engineer, researcher and professor of earthquake engineering.

A year after starting at UNDP, a major challenge arrived: intense and concentrated rains battered Ecuador’s entire coast for four months. Thirteen provinces were reporting major damage, with some urban centers remaining under water for two months and landslides closing roads and leaving many communities completely isolated. Two percent of the Ecuadorian population was affected, with damages accounting for nearly 2.5 percent of the country’s GDP that year.

I received a crash course in the complexity of recovery. Before a single shovel could hit the ground or a brick laid, dozens of meetings and consultations had to be held and dozens of plans formulated.

While we had created a recovery strategy based on four pillars (social, productive, infrastructure, and environment and sanitation) and three cross-cutting elements (institutional reform, community participation, and land use and planning), we still had to implement an extremely complex, comprehensive recovery plan: arranging and channeling funding; establishing ad-hoc implementation bodies; putting line ministries and regional development entities in charge of local implementation.

This may sound bureaucratic—and it is—but it’s also essential. You simply cannot have everyone doing anything they see fit without a guiding plan, oversight, accountability, and a clear sense of roles and responsibilities. Resilient recovery is well-planned recovery.

For me, this was a daunting process and highlighted all the work that had to occur before the actual recovery began. Much of that work, I learned, can and should be done well before the disaster actually happens.

I began to appreciate the importance of DRR and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ risk-governance type work that UNDP does. Without this type of risk (or recovery) governance, all of those involved in recovery would essentially just be shooting in the dark.

In Ecuador it paid off. Over the next two years we invested US$1 billion in infrastructure recovery; introduced innovative measures, including the use of territorial-based coordination and sectorial working groups; and, more than ever before, made a concerted effort to holistically address disaster recovery.

The next few years with UNDP offered me a new perspective on disaster risk reduction and recovery.  Ecuador was in the midst of its own profound structural, updating and enhancing its risk-governance systems: the state took a stronger role in DRR-related decision-making, with the National Planning Office at the heart of the process; the Secretariat of Civil Defense, which had only focused on emergency response, was replaced by a disaster risk management secretariat; and the government created the Ministry of the Coastal Region to lead the humanitarian and recovery process.

My views and experience in recovery have certainly evolved. As an engineer, I see the practical, hands-on work that needs to be done; and as a recovery specialist, I now appreciate the equally challenging, but less visible, political work that is required.

Next month, DRR and recovery experts will meet in Sendai, Japan, to discuss a new framework for DRR, which includes both resilient recovery and risk-governance. As experience has shown me, we not only need blueprints and roads, but strong policies and streamlined governance procedures that set the wheels in motion.

Ecuador Disaster risk reduction Risk governance Latin America & the Caribbean Climate change and disaster risk reduction Disaster risk management Jeannette Fernandez Castro

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