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close this bookRehabilitation and Reconstruction - 1st Edition (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - Disaster Management Training Programme - United Nations Development Programme , 1993, 47 p.)
close this folderPart 3 - Assumptions, dilemmas and guiding principles
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDangerous Assumptions
View the documentDilemmas and alternatives
View the documentGuiding principles
View the documentSummary

Dilemmas and alternatives

There are many dilemmas that decision makers face in planning for rehabilitation and reconstruction. Each set of actors involved in the process, such as the central government, local authorities, various sectors, a large variety of professionals, donors, NGOs and different segments of the community, is likely to have different priorities and perceptions and subsequently would like to act according to their own preferences. There are always alternatives, and before a decision is made on a course of action their short-comings, advantages and long-term implications need to be evaluated. Failure to recognize these conflicts and alternatives can create resistance by one group or the other and can ultimately hinder the progress of decision making. Some of the likely dilemmas and alternatives in rehabilitation and reconstruction planning cover the following issues.

Rapid damage survey versus accurate technical surveys

A rapid damage survey is essential in defining and prioritizing the rehabilitation needs. It also helps to reduce eventual distortions that may occur in the scale of damage. However, initial surveys may not involve the necessary range of expertise to accurately define the losses. Consequential losses from damage to agriculture or business premises may require evaluation by economists; accurate definition of building damage require inspection by structural engineers. Detailed damage assessment can also help to determine the causes of damage, and the sources of risks and vulnerability. As this level of information becomes available, planning tasks can be more precisely defined. The dilemmas concerning detailed technical surveys usually relate to the time it takes to complete the surveys, and the appropriateness of this information for the user.


Following the El Asnam earthquake of 1980 in Algeria, geological and seismic studies took three years to start and two years to complete. This delayed rebuilding considerably. The studies have been turned over to local authorities for use, and often they do not understand how to use them.

- From: Rebuilding After Earthquakes, William Spangle and Associates, Inc.

Repairs versus rebuilding

Restoration of services and lifelines through repairs after a major disaster is a high priority as rebuilding can be delayed considerably and requires high levels of investment, and sometimes technology. Quick repair of buildings, especially domestic buildings, on the other hand, is usually discouraged by the authorities who prefer detailed technical inspection, improved codes and identifying the safety of land.

The dilemma is the trade off between rapid repair of rebuilding to higher standards, which may take longer to plan. Quick repairs, however, can alleviate some of the need for temporary housing and public facilities. In fact, domestic repairs are often carried out by individuals if decisions are delayed.

Training, technical and material support to families and builders can be effective in improving safety as mistakes are often carried over into repairs. This will be particularly useful in marginalized settlements and rural areas as they will have limited access to technical expertise. Rapid assessment of areas where repairs can move ahead without engineering evaluation, emergency codes and streamlined procedures to issue building permits, should be considered as alternatives to facilitate rapid reconstruction.

Immediate repair: response and restoration activities were undertaken within 72 hours of the disaster. Here, in Montserrat, a tarpaulin cover is being spread over a roofless house.

UNDRO News, Sep/Oct 1989, page 21.

Creating a clear picture of the situation for decision-making involves collecting reliable information on each sector by experienced staff.

Safety standards versus rapid reconstruction

Evaluation of the causes of losses, risks and vulnerabilities after a major disaster can be complicated, expensive and time consuming. Yet they are essential for improving the safety standards against future damaging events. Lack of safe land to build on and setting new safety standards can equally delay reconstruction decisions. Without security of land and tenure it will also be wrong to expect people to invest in safety.

Pre-disaster planning for post-disaster reconstruction must address land use issues in advance. Existing general information can be useful in identifying where reconstruction can begin without further studies. Phasing in decisions and prioritizing areas for different safety standards can help to start reconstruction. For example, certain sectors or parts of a damaged settlement can be reconstructed more rapidly while others may need further investigation and planning.

It should also be remembered that the speed of recovery is not solely a technical problem. Control of resources by influential local interest groups, limited institutional and economic capacity of the less powerful, political preferences of some authorities for some areas or groups may all result in different speeds of recovery, sometimes even in the same neighborhood.

Relocation versus reconstruction on the same site

This is a major dilemma that decision makers have to resolve after most disasters. The idea of starting afresh is assumed to resolve all the inherent problems attached to rebuilding in a vulnerable place and/or a damaged environment. However, past experiences reveal that there are several reasons why this option may not be desired by the communities or successful in the long run:

Safer land is often unavailable.

The vulnerable site may also be essential for the economic livelihood of the communities, such as flood plains or fertile volcanic ash areas; tourism or fishing etc. Proximity to work and markets can be critical for those with limited economic alternatives. In other words, the benefits of the original site may outweigh the risks.

Cultural, symbolic and historical value of the damaged site to the nation or the inhabitants cannot be easily transferable to a new site.

attachment to the place, neighbors, friends may be more important than safety.

relocation requires substantial investment in infrastructure

relocating a community or a settlement can affect local and regional balances negatively; for example, relocation of a market town may create problems of transport etc. for villages to sell their products.

Relocation may be desirable in some specific situations where:

The proposed area is sufficiently close to the existing settlement to enable livelihood patterns to be retained.

The original area is under frequent threat of damaging events with high losses.

Risk reduction measures are too costly and difficult to implement for the area.

The benefits of relocation outweigh the advantages of rebuilding the original location; communities refuse to live under threat.

Psychological impact of the event associated with the original site might be too strong on the community.

The area has been under considerable decline before the disaster, for example, due to environmental degradation, pollution, economic changes etc.

Participation versus rapid response

Public participation is essential in planning for reconstruction. Often this is seen by the authorities as a lengthy process. Where this has happened, such as in the reconstruction after the Friuli and Mexico City earthquakes, it took time and organizational capacity, but the resulting reconstruction was widely accepted and successful. Rapid reconstruction at the expense of public participation may have an initial inertia but can result in delays in the process of rebuilding due to public opposition or apathy.

Planning for reconstruction and actual reconstruction may require international and central government support but ultimately they are local functions. Positive interactions among decision makers, local authorities and affected communities increase the chances that plans will be carried out.

Special organization versus existing organization

Existing Organizations

New Organizations

A wide range of organizational structures for rehabilitation and reconstruction have been used after major disasters. Existing organizations often have the staff and resources but may not have the procedures to act rapidly. Emergency powers granted to existing institutions can expedite decisions concerning rapid rehabilitation. Reconstruction on the other hand can take a long time and requires a clear structure, resources and authority to oversee the work. Sometimes one agency, department or ministry can be designated with support from others. However, more often some new organization is needed to plan and manage rebuilding. The dilemma is that the existing organizations will have staff and other resources which a new organization has to create. But the new organization will have the special authority and power to handle reconstruction more independently and rapidly. A further problem with the creation of a new organization is that pre-disaster collaboration and coordination of various groups and institutions for better rehabilitation and reconstruction preparedness will be limited. Ultimately, the choice will depend on the specific conditions in each country and in each situation. The critical issues in any organizational structure will be the co-ordination of all relevant agencies and institutions and the mobilization of resources. A high level Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Commission (e.g. in the Prime Minister’s Office) can be effective. It should also be remembered that in some special situations such as conflict-induced disasters or where loss of life among the officials is high there may be a need for rebuilding the capacities of necessary institutions.

Public versus private investment

Public funds are usually available for rehabilitation and rebuilding of public facilities, but they can also extend into supporting rehabilitation of the economy and domestic losses such as buildings or assets. However, public investment alone is never sufficient to bring about full recovery nor does it necessarily help to develop an effective strategy for rebuilding.

Private investment is more likely to happen in areas which are economically strong and are not perceived as high risk. International and public inputs into economic recovery can create confidence for private investors to invest in rebuilding. Such funds can also be useful as loans to pay for reconstruction to be recovered eventually. Even in centrally controlled economies and with paternalistic governments, total reliance on public funds may delay recovery considerably. In fact, such situations may raise expectation, create dependency and bring private investment to a complete halt. Furthermore, heavy government or international assistance may delay or reduce the willingness to take self-help actions.

Total reliance on public funds may delay recovery considerably.

Physical reconstruction versus economic rehabilitation

Governments face a dilemma following any disaster that causes extensive damage to both the local economy and to the physical environment. Both demands require immediate attention and the deployment of extensive resources. In a rich country the two sectors are likely to be fully addressed in parallel, but in a poor country the overwhelming financial and administrative burden may be such that choices have to be made about which should have priority attention and at what stage in the reconstruction process.

There is a growing awareness by many governments and international funders of the need to regenerate a damaged economy - whether agricultural or industrial - as rapidly as possible. The logic is that if the damaged economy can get back on its feet rapidly then this can be one of the ‘motors’ to drive physical rebuilding.


In December 1991 UNDP sent an appraisal mission to Anhui Province in the Peoples’ Republic of China to review actions that the international community could take to assist the Province to recover from the devastating flood of July 1991. The mission examined various options for this predominately rural society and developed criteria for economic investment to assist recovery.

The mission recognized that the rehabilitation of the economy had to address both the flood impact as well as residual unemployment throughout the region. They also saw the need to divide the task into two stages:

- urgent, short-term employment for flood victims, particularly women who had suffered severe losses, and

- longer-term needs.

First stage criteria

1. Generation of work to minimize dependency on the relief ‘hand-outs’, thus a preference for labor rather than capital intensive projects.

2. Cash grants to restore damaged economic enterprises.

3. Promotion of any economic enterprise that produced materials or components needed for reconstruction i.e. (building materials, tools etc.).

Second stage criteria

1. Careful appraisal of the financial viability of a given enterprise. Money should be invested in secure operations although calculated risks might be taken where there have been acute shortages of work or few requests for support.

2. Priority attention to any project that would involve the training of workers to develop their industrial, agricultural or building skills

3. Preference for projects that would produce products for local use.

4. Preference for projects with export potential.

5. Support projects that use locally purchased materials to strengthen a ‘chain of employment’ from producer to retailer.

6. Consider any project for its positive or negative impact on the local ecology/environment.

7. Support projects that could be developed with revolving loan funds (RLF) to maximize initial investments.

8. Evaluate the capacity for replication and sustainability. The latter issue was considered particularly critical since the recovery process is often a time of new inputs, fresh ideas and a willingness for change. However, this conducive climate for enterprise may change rapidly as political will and external resources decline as the disaster fades from memories.

Construction of earthquake resistant homes in Ecuador by locally trained work teams.

UNDP Annual Report, 1989, p. 31.

Local resources versus imported resources

Effective reconstruction requires skill, labor and materials. It also requires them in a vastly greater quantity than normal demand. Therefore, officials tend to look in all directions for the support they need. This is a natural and necessary response, but a dilemma remains whether to select local versus imported people or products.

The advantage of local resources is the obvious need to strengthen the local economy which may have been significantly damaged or disrupted. As noted in the example from Anhui in China, the selection of a local product can have consequences through a chain of producers to retailers. The use of local skills and labor can also provide vital employment and these may enhance local commitment to the recovery due to strong solidarity with their own wider community.

However, local resources may be inadequate for the task, therefore external support may be essential to close the gap between needs and resources. It is also clear that some aspects of reconstruction require expert skills and knowledge which has to come from other parts of a country or from international sources.

Q. This text has listed several operational dilemmas and alternatives which are common in the planning for reconstruction. Which of these are most important to resolve in your own country, community, or organization?

A. __________________________________________________________


Q. Are there other dilemmas that you face in your own situation that should be included in this list?

A. __________________________________________________________