Disaster as opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti
After disasters strike, can homes, communities, and institutions be ‘built back better’? Released nearly nine years after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, this report examines the concept of ‘build back better’, seeking to understand the aspirations, implications and resulting impact of the term on recovery and reconstruction in three disaster responses - the Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in Haiti.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was a disaster of unparalleled proportions, prompting an international response that was unprecedented in its scale. The response sought not just to reinstate what the tsunami had destroyed, but to leave the communities it had affected better, fairer, stronger and more peaceful than they had been before the disaster struck. This aspiration – encapsulated in the phrase ‘build back better’ – quickly became the recovery effort’s mantra, guiding principle and enduring promise. Within months, the recovery came to be regarded as a means not only to rebuild assets and capacities directly affected by the disaster, but also to address larger political and developmental challenges.
Since the tsunami, build back better has been advocated in many other disasters, including the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
But can such disasters be made into opportunities for change? Build back better raises several uncomfortable questions for the humanitarian community: What exactly does ‘better’ look like? Better for whom, where, how? Is it ethical in humanitarian terms to exploit people’s vulnerability after a disaster to drive social change? And to what extent can questions of inequality be addressed by humanitarian aid at all?
This paper will seek to address some of these questions and dilemmas, examining three contexts: the Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in Haiti.