After the flood: Achieving a successful reconstruction

The anniversary of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and the havoc wreaked by recent flooding in Colombia and Brazil reinforce the fact that 2011 will be a year of reconstruction in much of Latin America. Reconstruction of this scale can be costly, time consuming and socially disruptive, so it is important to avoid the failures of the past and strive for rebuilding projects that are effective, successful and sustainable.

In Colombia, the Santos government has already taken some important steps in the process: they have hired a “reconstruction czar” (Jorge Londoño of Bancolombia) to oversee the reconstruction process and implemented measures to increase tax revenues to prepare for the huge costs of rebuilding. During the past decade there have been a number of reconstruction projects across the globe and while many projects have been wasteful and failed to meet expectations, some have been a success. It is time to focus on replicating the positive results. Based on research from past reconstruction projects (including an insightful report by Bill Clinton on the 2004 Asian tsunami reconstruction called: Key Propositions for Building Back Better) and my personal experiences in Haiti, there are a few important lessons that can help Colombia (and others) achieve a successful reconstruction.

Local communities need to play a large role in their recovery. Successful rebuilding and relocation projects require the support of locals. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London highlights the importance of “people-centered reconstruction” which takes into account local political, economic and social structures and often costs less than grandly planned large-scale projects carried out by federal governments or international aid agencies. Experience from the Asian tsunami shows that families can be constrained by “model homes” designed by First World architects who are not accustomed to the local environment. Instead many families will need homes that they can renovate, remodel and transform to meet their specific needs.

Governments and aid agencies must create the conditions for entrepreneurs and the private sector to flourish. Local entrepreneurs are an integral aspect of the reconstruction process and need to be supported. The ability of affected communities to work and earn an income before, during and after rebuilding is an important factor of overall success. Larger companies can be a source of much-needed jobs and in some areas companies can be more effective than government or aid agencies in transporting supplies and coordinating logistics.

New settlements and communities need to be connected to centers of economic activity. As the Colombian government knows from experience, displaced populations, if they are to be successfully resettled, will need access to trade, jobs and investment. In Haiti some of the temporary camps have been set up far away from former neighborhoods and jobs which has in effect isolated these communities and created a dependency on foreign aid or criminal gangs for services and security.

A good reconstruction leaves communities safer by reducing risks and planning for future disasters. Fast results are important but long-term planning is an essential aspect of successful reconstruction. With weather and climate conditions set to remain unpredictable, particularly in Latin America, rebuilding plans also need to prepare for future catastrophes.

Colombia has its own experiences to learn from, including programs to relocate populations displaced by the civil conflict and the reconstruction of Popayan after the 1983 earthquake (which is recognized a highly successful long-term project). In the year ahead, there will be a lot of grand talk about reconstruction and how to “build back better”; but let us keep in mind lessons from the past and make sure that this is not just another slogan.

Click here for the Spanish version in La Republica

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