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What does 'early recovery' mean?

Written by Sara Pavanello

Last month, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) co-sponsored the Practitioners’ and Policy Forum on ‘Early Recovery - Addressing Gaps and Dilemmas Together’ in Copenhagen. The aim was to develop a shared understanding of early recovery for countries in the wake of natural or man-made disasters, and outline a set of commitments and action points to strengthen the international response and help countries recover from crises as early as possible.

I attended the Practitioners’ Forum, which brought together over 200 representatives from the UN, donor organisations, developing countries governments, NGOs, international financial institutions, and research institutes, to discuss the current international approach to early recovery. The Forum examined the three gaps in the international response that were identified in a recent background study prepared by the New York University Center on International Cooperation (CIC)  - strategy, capacity and financing. The discussion contributed to the key output of this event: a draft statement on ‘Joint Action for Strengthening International Support to Early Recovery’.

The early recovery agenda is gaining momentum in bilateral and multilateral policy circles and this high-level event was a major contribution to efforts to strengthen international support and push forward this agenda.

But what is early recovery? While the event aimed to develop a shared understanding of the term, the concept remains elusive. Early recovery was described as a ‘shared space between humanitarian and development actors’ to provide the foundation for full recovery and for the quick reduction of humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of a crisis. Crucially though, in the absence of a general consensus on what is meant by early recovery, both in policy and programmatic terms, the concept became and continues to be open to different interpretations.

At the Forum, institutional affiliation appeared to play a key role in determining how different stakeholders perceived and understood early recovery. For humanitarian actors, it seemed to be linked to sectoral efforts to promote livelihoods activities at community-level. For development actors, it appeared to be linked to efforts to strengthen national recovery capacity, ensure ownership of the process, and identify opportunities to initiate development activities at the earliest stage of a crisis. Finally, for some donors and developing countries’ representatives, early recovery was related to peace-building initiatives and efforts to restore security.

The need to work with and support national and local authorities throughout the early recovery process was a central theme of the Forum and the idea that, both in post-conflict and post-natural disasters settings, early recovery should be a nationally owned process was stressed repeatedly. However, a country emerging from a conflict is almost inevitably affected by weak policies, institutions and governance, and the ability and even the willingness of national and local authorities to own and lead the recovery process is highly questionable. In many supposedly ‘post-conflict’ countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan, there are areas where people continue to face high levels of violence, mortality, illness, food insecurity, and so on. While the legitimacy of a government is very rarely compromised by the onset of a natural disaster, the picture is very different in countries recovering from conflicts. Here, the restoration of government legitimacy has to be a key step in the recovery process.

The international community has long been concerned with the need to strengthen the synergies between humanitarian and development assistance and improve the transition from relief to recovery and, ultimately, to longer-term development. Over the past decade, efforts to address the ‘gap’ between humanitarian and development, such as the ‘relief-development continuum’ and ‘linking relief, rehabilitation and development’, have resulted in significant discussion but little substantive impact.

The early recovery approach represents the latest expression of the ‘linking’ debates, but to move from decades-long debates to concrete solutions and actions in the field it is important that earlier mistakes are not repeated. This would mean that more significant efforts should be made to clarify this relatively new concept both at conceptual and programmatic levels. It would also mean considering the political implications of a rapid shift to a nationally owned process of recovery in countries facing chronic complex emergencies, with persisting pockets of conflict, widespread insecurity and a fragile peace, where development opportunities are clearly threatened.

Over the next two years the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI will be working on early recovery. We aim to contribute to the clarification of the concept and analyse the implications of implementing an early recovery agenda in countries facing chronic complex emergencies and significant humanitarian needs.