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Lessons Learned from tsunami recovery - Key propositions for building back Better

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
Originally published



Two years after the tsunami of December 26, 2004, there have been major achievements on the long road to recovery among the devastated communities across the Indian Ocean region. Some 150,000 houses have been built, and most of the people who are still displaced are living in adequate transitional shelters; large infrastructure projects are underway; children were back in school quickly, and hundreds of new schools are under construction; most affected families have resumed a livelihood of some kind; and in Aceh, the parties to its long running civil war have achieved a seemingly lasting peace.

These achievements are a testament to the extraordinary effort by hundreds of local and international governments, the private sector, organizations, governments, the private sector, and hundreds of thousands of individuals, from the affected countries and around the world. And their extraordinary efforts will need to continue for years to come. As we have learned in other parts of the world in the wake of massive disasters - from Kobe to New Orleans, Tangshan to Bam - rebuilding the physical, social, and human capital of shattered communities takes years.

Can that time-frame be reduced? How can we improve the underlying quality of the recovery process? How can we reduce the number of casualties when disasters strike? Are we doing our best to improve the safety and economic vitality of communities and help them on their path to development? How can we transition better and faster from relief to reconstruction? In every recovery process, there will be flawed assumptions and decisions that we regret. Hopefully, there will also be innovations worth replicating and stories of progress to highlight. It is critical that we pass on such lessons to actors in future recovery processes.

The tsunami recovery operation is no exception. We have seen examples of great new approaches, as well as decisions and programs based on flawed assumptions that have caused us to lose time and allowed beneficiaries to suffer longer than they had to. Aid partners and governments have also perpetuated some of the systemic problems in humanitarian and development assistance that have been identified for years but have proven difficult to solve. Indeed, the scale of the tsunami recovery - the sheer number of organizations involved, the physical breadth of the theater of operations, and the vast amounts of funding available - has placed some of these systemic challenges in even sharper relief.

The aid community has not shied away from analyzing, documenting, and publicizing these lessons, whether good or bad. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition was the largest such effort, with around 40 organizations joining hands to examine the first year of operations. Hundreds of organizations also have conducted their own evaluations.

Governments in the affected region have also been monitoring progress and drawing their own lessons. Several of the affected countries have established parliamentary oversight bodies and conducted special audits, which have - not surprisingly - revealed both good and bad news.The tsunami survivors have also been involved in this effort, through large-scale public surveys and polls in several countries, although it is widely recognized that involvement of beneficiaries in this and other aspects of the recovery program has been inadequate. As always, more could have been done to enhance the transparency of the tsunami aid effort, but I have been truly impressed with the level of transparency and accountability that has characterized this operation so far. Our tools have yet to catch up with our aspirations, true, but the effort has been genuine and widespread.

This report attempts to capture some of the key lessons from the tsunami recovery effort as I end my mandate as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. Its subject is recovery in the aftermath of a natural disaster, rather than a man-made one. My goal is to help move the humanitarian community forward in the hope that others will learn from our experience as they face the inevitable disasters that tomorrow will bring.