*By Professor Matthew Clarke

Over the last decade, 400 natural and human-caused disasters have killed more than 100,000 people and affected a further 120 million annually. Many of these events are natural disasters ranging from volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and cyclones to flooding and droughts. The international community provides significant resources to assist local communities impacted by these humanitarian emergencies. This aid flows through multiple channels, including national and regional governments, international non-governmental organisations and local community based organisations.


The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami at Ao Nang, Krabi Province, Thailand

Often these humanitarian events result in substantial media coverage with images of damage infrastructure and displaced people filling our screens and newsprint. Such media coverage though is often short-lived. When these images and reports slip from the front page of our papers, the work to rebuild these communities is only just beginning.

In 2004, Indian Ocean Tsunami is the largest natural disaster in living memory. It directly affected 11 countries, killing up to 300,000 people and displacing over one million more.

While the tsunami reconstruction was largely positive, it is important to learn from this experience to enhance future reconstruction programs. A study of Aceh’s reconstruction indicates nine lessons that should be incorporated into the international community’s response to future responses to humanitarian events:

  • Contextual factors are critical to designing appropriate responses. Not only is every reconstruction multifaceted, it occurs within a particular context. Such understandings are reminders of the folly of analysing post-disaster reconstructions as abstracted technical procedures.
  • Disasters result in physical and non-physical destruction. The international community needs to do more on psychological reconstruction, as reconstruction of the psyche is just as important as reconstruction of infrastructure.
  • International aid agencies often experience tension between competing priorities. They can choose between pleasing donors in their home country by expedient actions, managerial control and forcing ‘Western’ ways of doing things on recipients, or undertaking a slower process of recovery involving participation of recipients and ‘local’ ways of doing things. It is important that all stakeholders understand this tension.
  • Gender analysis must underscore the response. While disasters affect communities indiscriminately, the impact of death and injury can have a gender bias. Disasters can also provide women with space to provide leadership and direction for their communities that was traditionally not possible.
  • Communities have strengths that must be recognised and utilised. In the initial stages after the disaster, it is local survivors who first respond to the medical and emotional needs of other survivors. Later phases of reconstruction ought not to overlook the contribution that survivors made in the initial response.
  • The politics of needs assessment is very important in any reconstruction process. It involves issues around who decides what the needs are and what needs should be prioritised. Needs assessment must be approached carefully. If it takes too long, people become disaffected and cynical. If it is too brief, then aid is often poorly directed and undermines faith in the whole reconstruction process
  • Religious and cultural beliefs of the affected community are important to any reconstruction effort. Religious beliefs can impact the affected community’s understanding of why the disaster occurred, which should inform how agencies plan their response.
  • Communication is central to effective responses. In large disasters it is very difficult, but important, to maintain some overall communication strategy as part of coordination efforts. This minimises errors and the extent to which activities are replicated.  A continually updated databank of the progress of all reconstruction efforts is necessary to aid coordination. Strategic options need to be clear, as do criteria for choosing specific strategies. Exit strategies need to be developed and communicated amongst all stakeholders. 
  • Finally, it is important to remember that reconstruction cannot be a reinvention of the ‘past’. Reconstruction does not mean a return to the original ‘normal’. A ‘new normal’ is required. Building this new normal requires substantial funding in order to obtain strong outcomes. This is of course a long term proposition that further demands on-going funding commitments.
Street in downtown Banda Aceh after 2004 tsunami

These lessons are drawn from the positive and negative experiences of Aceh’s reconstruction and will be relevant to the planning and execution of future responses to those 400 events that affect hundreds of communities each year.

While we may no longer be reading much about these events just a few days after they occur, the reconstructions are long lasting. We must learn from past disasters and ensure that the funds raised are spent effectively and efficiently. It is the least that those affected deserve.


*Professor Matthew Clarke is Head of Centre, Centre of Humanitarian Leadership – a joint initiative of Deakin University and Save the Children Australia. This piece draws on the volume Post-Disaster Reconstruction: Lessons from Aceh edited with Professor Sue Kenny and Professor Ismet Fanany.