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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



This part of the module will acquaint the reader with some of the common erroneous assumptions, dilemmas, and basic guiding principles of post-disaster planning. After reading this part you should be able to:

Identify several common “dangerous assumptions” in recovery planning.

Apply these assumptions to your own situation or community.

Address dilemmas regarding post-disaster planning in light of the experiences of others as presented in the text.

Use the 12 guiding principles presented here as an aid in new program design or as a model for testing existing programs.

Dangerous Assumptions

“Any assistance provided in disasters can only be useful if it is based on correct views or assumptions of what actually occurs (during the emergency period). If the assumption is wrong, the assistance may well be misdirected, unnecessary, inappropriate, or simply duplicate what is already available.”

E.M. Quarantelli

Quarantelli was referring to the dynamics of an immediate post-disaster situation when making this telling statement. However it is equally appropriate to the longer term recovery context. While the literature on post-disaster response is thin, knowledge of recovery/reconstruction is even less developed. Therefore, until there is better documentation of recovery/reconstruction, officials have to act on the basis of assumed behavior. The following assumptions are commonly made, but they may be incorrect, over-optimistic or unrealistic.

Political support will be maintained throughout the period needed for recovery.

Support will be at its highest in the aftermath of the disaster and will gradually decrease in time. Pre-election time often increases the political will to act swiftly. Effective leadership and organizational capacity at the local level can put pressure on the authorities for the sustainability of political support. Better media coverage beyond the initial relief phase can also help to put pressure on the authorities. Ways of keeping the interest of the media to follow up progress with recovery needs should be sought. Professional bodies and community organizations can also be considered among the pressure groups to maintain political interest.

There will be continuity of funding support throughout.

Most national and international funding will be available during the relief and sometimes rehabilitation periods. As reconstruction needs increase, often available funds are decreased. At this stage local income generation, revolving funds, and private sector support and other funding possibilities are essential.

The above assumptions can be represented in graphic form which indicate that paradoxically, political and media support needed to maintain funding for reconstruction is apt to decline just as implementation gets under way, just when it is most needed.


Therefore, the implications are:

Incorporate recovery planning into preparedness planning.

Act swiftly after the disaster while ‘political capital’ is still available.

Maintain interest of the influence groups.

There will be synchronization of perceptions, expectations and capacities of the parties involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction processes.

The complex nature of the recovery phase, the large number of actors involved from the press, donors, various authorities to the different interest groups at community level often result in conflict of perceptions, concerns and values not to mention difference of opinions among the technical community. This will run through the whole process from the needs assessment to the final stages of reconstruction. These conflicts can delay the recovery process considerably, and if not resolved by active collaboration of all parties, may result in unsatisfactory programs.

There will be adequate levels of competency to undertake the required rehabilitation and reconstruction tasks.

Depending on the scale of damage and the country’s level of development, there may be lack of skilled human resources and administrative capacity to facilitate the necessary actions. The import of external expertise can help fill the gap in the short-term but may not be maintained in the long-term. Training and education will improve the situation but pre-disaster investment in human development will be the key. Maximizing the local capacities in self-reliance rather than depending on external support and aiming for programs that can increase local involvement will also reduce the need for ‘expert’ inputs in some aspects of recovery.

Recovery is confined to physical reconstruction and it must precede economic and social recovery.

As already noted in this module, physical, economic, social and psychological recovery are all linked and inter-dependent processes. They are not normally sequential, however it is important to recognize that if economic recovery occurs rapidly this can provide the necessary impetus to support physical reconstruction. It needs to be emphasized again that successful recovery is not only a product oriented exercise measured in numbers but must also address local organizational capacities and long-term economic and social development concerns.

Rapid reconstruction is possible without any sacrifice in quality or safety.

Reconstruction can provide extensive work opportunities with the potential for profits for building contractors. Unless authorities maintain effective quality control and enforcement, there is a real risk that the seeds of the next disaster can be sown at this time. Delays in reconstruction decisions, land allocation, micro zonation, new codes, provision of materials and expertise etc., can also result in the public taking its own actions to repair or rebuild without proper guidance and control by the authorities. In such situations it may still be better to make some sacrifices and act from available information and emergency codes rather than delay all actions for more thorough scientific studies. Likewise, mitigation measures that are acceptable and affordable by the vulnerable groups may have a chance of reducing future risks more than sophisticated measures that cannot be implemented or maintained by the affected population.

There will be high levels of acceptance and obedience to the codes and controls that the government imposes.

Government officials and politicians regularly make this assumption. To initiate building codes or land-use planning controls is one thing, to enforce them over time is another. It will be particularly difficult to ensure the obedience of poor families who cannot afford the extra expense of the code requirements or who have no access to safe land. One option will be to link codes and controls with some form of subsidy or incentives, and training for the public as well as inspection to ensure that the resources are available to ensure that compliance occurs. Nevertheless, it will still be optimistic to assume that marginal settlements and most rural areas will benefit from codes and controls without comprehensive planning that incorporates their wide spectrum of needs to achieve safety.

It will be particularly difficult to ensure the obedience of poor families who cannot afford the extra expense of the code requirements or who have no access to safe land.

Effective reconstruction is an isolated process from normal (pre-disaster) planning and building

Officials must recognize that before effective implementation of any reconstruction it will be imperative to look at the administrative system, planning procedures, codes of practice, quality control systems, land ownership, local power structures, general standards of living etc. to see if they need improvements prior to bricks being laid, seed sown or trees planted. The problem that is often faced is that authorities find themselves undertaking a double reconstruction process; they are reconstructing the failures of the system in reducing disaster risk and vulnerabilities, as well as post-disaster reconstruction.


“... when you embark on reconstruction planning everyone you talk to blames this or that problem you encounter on the disaster. But gradually as you proceed it becomes all too apparent that at least 90% of the problems you are confronting were present well before the disaster occurred. All that has happened is that the disaster has acted as a surgeon’s scalpel to expose these latent weaknesses in buildings, the urban fabric, the planning system or the administrative infrastructure.”

George Nez 1975


Q. Of the eight dangerous assumptions listed in the text, which in your own experience are the most likely to threaten the recovery/reconstruction plan if made and unverified?

A. __________________________________________________________


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. __________________________________________________________


Guiding principles

As can be seen from the preceding sections, planning and management of rehabilitation and reconstruction are highly complex processes that cover a sequence of actions from data collection to assessment of needs, planning, implementation and evaluation. Recovery actions embrace numerous sectors of society and involve actions by individuals, communities, governments and international bodies. Although similarities exist between one recovery situation and another, each case has unique characteristics, diverse patterns of damage, different needs, varied constraints and levels of resources Therefore, given such variables, only very general principles can be established. The following list covers a range of critical issues. Principles one to seven are processes to recognize while numbers eight to twelve relate to essential tools required to manage the recovery.

1 The planning of recovery needs to be broad in scope and fully integrated.

Planning has to be wide ranging because the impact of disaster can be felt on all sectors requiring very detailed co-ordination. In addition, planning has to be integrated because each situation is complex, involving various actors risking a fragmented response.

2 A balance has to be achieved between the conflicting yet vital processes of reform and conservatism.

In any major reconstruction process two powerful forces will exist; reformers, who recognize the opportunity to change administrative patterns, introduce new laws, modify urban forms and conservationists, who resist all changes and want to return to what existed before the disaster. Wise officials will seek to balance these opposing forces. Both change and continuity are essential.

3 Reconstruction should not be delayed to await political, administrative or economic reform.

Following major disasters there is a tendency for politicians to introduce reforms at various levels and in varied sectors. However, it is critically important that reconstruction not be delayed until laws are enacted since this will lose vital momentum for action. New legislation is normally essential, and reforms may be necessary, but they can be implemented in parallel with reconstruction to avoid costly delays.

4 Economic recovery should be regarded as a prerequisite for rapid physical recovery.

Officials are faced with many options in recovery management. They could invest in rebuilding the economy or rebuilding structures. If they devote initial resources for economic regeneration this can stimulate physical recovery as well as addressing some of the root causes of vulnerability for the poor and the marginalized.

5 Reconstruction offers unique opportunities to introduce a range of measures to reduce future risks to persons and property.

Reconstruction offers a unique opportunity for public officials wanting to improve the protection of people and property. This is due to the heightened public and political awareness following a major disaster, which stimulates a demand for safety.

6 The relocation of entire communities is usually not effective and is rarely feasible.

Despite the risks of populations inhabiting dangerous sites, which can result in extensive casualties and property losses, relocation to safe sites is not normally feasible in social, cultural, developmental or economic terms.

7 Recovery actions can be regarded as a therapeutic process to assist individuals and their communities to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

If the victims of disaster become active participants in the recovery process as opposed to being mere spectators, they can play a valuable role in their emotional recovery. Psychological well being of the affected population and those who are engaged in helping them should be seen as an integral part of recovery process.

8 The basis of effective recovery is the availability and maintenance of an adequate flow of cash and credit throughout the entire process of recovery.

The flow of finance through cash grants and loans is essential throughout the entire recovery process. A particular problem is that the initial political support after a disaster inevitably unlocks resources which decline over time when extensive finances are needed for reconstruction. Public, private and international funds need to be focused to support local level capacities for long lasting and sustainable impact.

9 Successful reconstruction is closely linked to the resolution of land ownership problems.

Within urban areas suffering earthquake or floods there is often a serious pressure on available land, resulting in the occupation of unsafe sites. Governments will need to grasp the difficult issue of making safe land available with tenure for the occupants and enforcing land use planning controls within reconstruction planning. Although land can sometimes be more readily available in rural areas, it may be controlled by the few. Reforms to improve ownership and tenure of agricultural land can be relatively more feasible after a disaster.

10 To aid recovery it is preferable to maximize the use of local resources.

Before planning for external support, it is vital for officials to check whether locally available expertise, labor and products are available in order to regenerate the local economy. It is preferable to use these resources rather than import skills and materials. Strengthening the capacities of affected people will increase self reliance, long-term sustainability of mitigation efforts as well as protect their dignity.

11 Physical recovery is dependent on the development of effective local institutions as well as training and leadership at all levels and in all sectors.

Frequently, political leaders want to see rapid ‘action on the ground’ in response to public pressure for recovery. However, these actions depend on the development and maintenance of committed leadership, staff training and resilient institutions in each affected locality.

12 Political commitment is vital to ensure effective recovery.

Political support is needed from the very highest level of government and right through the political system to ensure that integrated planning, financing and implementation of recovery and reconstruction continue from inception to completion without interruption.

It is not a platitude to state that recovery after disaster poses a challenge. It can easily become a series of lost opportunities: minimal advances in safety, protracted years, even decades of unfinished projects and an economy that has failed to reach pre-disaster levels of productivity. But, with careful planning, conscientious management and the full commitment of a society it can be regarded as a unique opportunity to bring many benefits which can lead to an improved natural and built environment.


Rebuilding after Earthquakes, Lessons from Planners; California, William Spangle and Associates Inc., 1992.


There are several erroneous assumptions made regarding post-disaster situations. These are:

- political support will be available when needed
- funding will last as long as required
- all actors in the process will think alike
- all agencies concerned will be competent to carry out required tasks
- physical recovery must precede economic and social recovery
- there is no trade-off between speed and quality of reconstruction
- codes and controls will be rigidly followed
- reconstruction is an isolated process from pre-disaster planning

There are dilemmas and alternatives which face post-disaster planners. Some of these are:

- survey quickly or survey accurately
- repair or rebuild
- rebuild quickly or rebuild safely
- rebuild or relocate
- respond quickly or invite wide participation
- create new organizations or rely on existing ones
- rely on public or private investment
- pursue physical reconstruction or economic reconstruction
- use local resources or imported resources

There are several guiding principles that can be distilled from experiences in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities:

- recovery planning should be broad in scope and fully integrated.
- a balance must be reached between conservatism and reform
- reconstruction must not be delayed
- economic recovery will stimulate physical recovery
- reconstruction offers opportunities to introduce mitigation measures
- relocation of entire communities usually fails
- recovery efforts can be therapeutic for individuals as well as communities
- effective recovery depends on adequate cash and credit
- reconstruction is closely linked to land tenure issues
- maximize use of local resources
- physical recovery is dependent on local institutions, training, and leadership
- political commitment is vital to recovery