Disaster Relief and Reconstruction

Akis Kalaitzidis Community Service, Foundation

This week in the Rotary Peace Center of Chulalongkorn University the Rotary Peace Fellows were discussing post-conflict reconstruction. The discussions were led by an expert, from the University of Coventry, Dr. Alpaslan Ozerdem, and the first question was, “among relief or reconstruction operations [in post violent conflict societies], which one is preferable?” It turns out both relief and reconstruction after violent conflicts have their place. Relief is for immediate assistance to people with great needs and often serves as a short time, stop gap method until state actors can take over. On the other hand, reconstruction is a long-term campaign that could take years and should involve three elements, competence, knowledge and attitude. Unfortunately, it turns out, neither relief nor reconstruction are used appropriately in the field and there have been many bad consequences so far.

In the area of competence, relief and reconstruction organizations tend to dismiss the local know-how and go with their own people, despite repeated failed attempts at doing either very well. Organizations fall over each other to be in a conflict zone and help but often end up doing more harm than good. Coordination is absent and people are jousting to get in first. Not surprising, therefore, the larger organizations and those with high contacts get there before everyone else. In the case of Haiti, one US film star flew in with what seemed proselytizing intent. I’m not trying to judge this particular person but in a cue of relief supplies for victims of a massive earthquake, where does denominational persuasion rank?

Knowledge is key if you want to help people, yet relief and reconstruction organizations often seem unwilling to share information with each other, making coordination impossible. In one Kosovo town built by US, British and EU funding there are three different kinds of electrical sockets! You’d think someone would have thought to coordinate the menial and the mundane, but no, not if it means sharing the bigger plan, which the competing organization may steal!

Attitudes can be extreme as well. Let’s start from why organizations bring in their own people who are paid (in local terms) obscene amounts of money, drive large and luxurious cars, usually in the midst of catastrophe, instead of relying on local capacity. In certain situations, with early relief, it is ok to use your own capacity, because it hard to organize from ground up but to bring in contractors to build bridges when the Timorese or Sri Lankans have both the labor and the engineering skills, it seems unethical and corrupt. Relief and reconstruction is now a full-fledged global business which, instead of attempting to eliminate itself, is perpetuating itself. The Rwandan minister of development said once that sixty percent of her time goes to meetings with donors and only small percentage goes to the actual business of her ministry. Donors are very demanding and the assumption is that the country in crisis does not have the capacity to do what is needed. There is also the assumption that the affected country is corrupt as well, so paperwork related to relief and reconstruction is miles long. Some organizations employ more accountants and lawyers than field people. One of the most famous stories from Rwanda, during the genocide that engulfed that country in 1993, was the amount of time it took for military help to arrive due to negotiations between the UN and US Department of Defense over the price of armored personnel vehicles that would be provided to the peacekeeping force going in.

It is disappointing to think how much of the effort of the global community is squandered after we have all decided we need to help people in crisis in some part of the world. The United States, thus, decided that the best way to address these issues is to move away from governmental and international organization-run programs and employ the private sector. After all, the private sector is deemed more efficient and expedient. It turns out, ten years after the Iraq war started, the private sector is neither of these things. Besides the billions of US taxpayers’ money that are as of now unaccounted for, seventy five per cent of all hospitals, built by the US reconstruction force in Iraq are unusable!

I’m not sure I have any answers to these problems, nor could there be any magic solution to such a complex world of actors and activities. Maybe there’s the hope that as people start to realize just throwing money at a crisis helps the professional administrators more than the victims, they will demand better results and maybe even a modicum of cooperation!

Akis Kalaitzidis
Rotary Peace Fellow
Summer 2013