Tsunami recovery evaluation: looking back, taking stock of change -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Tsunami recovery evaluation: looking back, taking stock of change

By Kathryn Reid

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami made history as the largest international humanitarian response. At Habitat for Humanity International, it galvanized support for making disaster response a part of the organization’s agenda.

Just as the tsunami put Habitat on the world map with other international humanitarian actors, hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 brought disaster response home to the organization’s U.S. identity.

Four years later, Habitat is in a new place in terms of its ability and commitment to respond to disasters.

Looking back to judge how far we have come in disaster response and how we got here is the purpose of a tsunami response evaluation to be completed by HFH during 2009 in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The study will highlight ways in which disaster response has influenced Habitat programs as well as focus on changes in Habitat’s approach to disaster response and the growth in its capacity to respond.

The tsunami ranked high in what makes a catastrophic event “newsworthy”—numbers of lives lost, dollar amounts of damage—but the international response was much greater than the level of devastation would have predicted.

Different aspects of disaster response such as food relief, medical supplies and services and non-food aid are typically underfunded by 30 percent to 60 percent. The tsunami, with damages estimated at a little less than US$10 billion, was actually oversubscribed: International aid organizations pledged US$13.5 billion, and that didn’t include funding from church groups, private donations and nongovernmental organizations’ fundraising.

Habitat for Humanity received US$66 million in funding to carry out its tsunami recovery housing program, which has so far served more than 20,000 families in four countries with housing solutions and disaster mitigation.

The tsunami was not only the best-funded international disaster response; it was arguably the most thoroughly studied. Among the most prominent evaluations of relief and early recovery phases of the tsunami response was done by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, known as TEC.

In February 2005, a group of funding organizations, UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations (including CARE and World Vision) founded TEC to provide learning and accountability over the unprecedented humanitarian action.

Out of the TEC report came four main recommendations for improving international humanitarian response. They make a good backdrop for reflecting on Habitat tsunami response and subsequent disaster work. Paraphrased, the recommendations are:

Reorient aid so that it supports rather than undermines community efforts at relief and recovery. Local initiatives are the most important for saving lives and rebuilding communities, the TEC study concluded. While responding to the pressures for speed and scale inherent in disaster response, Habitat nevertheless preserves its commitment to community-based action.

Increase capacity and links with other actors. The tsunami highlighted shortcomings in the international humanitarian system and taxed responders’ staffing, logistics and financial management capabilities. It accelerated United Nations reform; the UN instituted its cluster system in 2005, which calls for coordination of agencies working in shelter as well as other relief and recovery “clusters.” At the area and national organization levels, Habitat has increased training and capacity building in disaster response and concentrated on working in partnership with other nongovernmental organizations and government entities.

Set professional standards for humanitarian action and provide for accountability. Humanitarian standards and codes of conduct are being fleshed out in the context of UN cluster development. At national, regional and international levels, Habitat staff are participating in shelter cluster management and helping formulate the process for constructing onsite transitional shelter, which is much preferred over tents and temporary, barracks-style shelter.

Improve the equity, transparency and flexibility of funding to exemplify good donorship. Responses that show good donorship are based on needs assessment, not politics. And they involve beneficiaries at all stages, include mitigation and contribute to long-term development. That sounds like Habitat. Through the exigencies of responding to disasters, Habitat has added to its knowledge and improved its practice in development, as well as disaster response.

Kathryn Reid works in HFHI’s Disaster Response department. She wrote about Habitat’s tsunami recovery work during 2005 and 2006, and about hurricane recovery on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2007. She is a candidate for a master’s degree in disaster management and sustainable development.