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Can disasters become an opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 15:30


Lilianne Fan - Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group

Jo da Silva - Director, Arup International Development

Priscilla M. Phelps - Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction Advisor, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery

Simon Levine - Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group 


Dr Camillo Boano - Senior Lecturer at Development Planning Unit, UCL



​Can disasters be made into opportunities? Launching a new report “Disaster as opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti”, and chaired by Dr Camillo Boano of the Development Planning Unit, University College London, this event sought to explore what we can learn from the past decade’s experience of trying to use disasters as an opportunity for bringing about transformative change.

While the phrase ‘build back better’ seems like common sense, Lilianne Fan, author of the report and Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) began by noting that it raises a set of uncomfortable questions for humanitarian actors:

  • What does ‘better’ look like? Better for whom, where and how?
  • Who decides and what are the implications of those decisions?
  • Is it Is it right to invest in building back better if it distracts attention and money away from the urgent and often overwhelming humanitarian needs?
  • And are there ways in which the current international post-disaster architecture itself gets in the way of transformational aspirations and the ability to actually engage and empower actors who could drive and sustain the change aspired to?

The concept of build back better, promoted by former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery Bill Clinton during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami response, has been used by different actors to mean very different things: in Aceh build back better was used by the Indonesian government as an opportunity to not only to build physical and economic resilience but also to bring the 30-year conflict in Aceh to an end. In Myanmar, ASEAN and some international NGOs used build back better to mean building trust between Myanmar and the international community and increase space for humanitarian and development efforts. In Haiti build back better was mobilised largely to promote DRR and technical solutions, such as transitional shelters.

However, panellists all agreed that the concept, while it held potential, has often been used by various actors taking advantage of build back better to advance a particular agenda, approach or project. As stated by Jo da Silva, the Director of Arup International Development, “build back better doesn't help me - it doesn't mean anything… we need vision about what we're trying to achieve". Priscilla M. Phelps from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery at the World Bank agreed – “We need to be much more precise about what we're doing”, arguing that if build back better is to mean anything at all then it should mean building in a way that reduces vulnerability to risk. The aid world was taken to task for blindly following trends and buzzwords: “I would blame Bill Clinton for a lot of things, but he is not to blame for build back better” commented HPG Research Fellow Simon Levine, noting how since then aid agencies have latched on to resilience as the latest trendy term.

The concept – and failings – of build back better also revealed systemic issues and problematic assumptions present in the humanitarian system. Many reconstruction and recovery programmes lacked a strong understanding of the local context, history and culture - aid actors are incredibly incurious about local issues such as land tenure, said one audience member, reflecting on her experience in Haiti. The importance of the local context is something that many aid actors are, in fact, aware of, said Lilianne Fan, but that the international humanitarian architecture privileges rapid response through the delivery of ready-made solutions regardless of the context, and has institutionalised the exclusion of local actors, preventing aid agencies from conducting sound analysis of the contexts they work in and from engaging meaningfully with the very people who would be best placed to identify opportunities for and sustain deeper structural change. 

This has often meant that many aid programmes failed to address issues of structural inequalities that increased vulnerability to disasters. As Simon Levine argued, issues of poverty, inequality and vulnerability that are present before a disaster do not disappear after the crisis – there is no ‘clean slate’ upon which things can be built upon. Aid agencies must better understand why things were the way they were prior to the disaster to better conceptualise how to support efforts for a better future.