Syndicate content

Haiti earthquake: Out of great disasters comes great opportunity

Abhas Jha's picture
A collapsed building in Port-au-Prince. Photo by IFRC/Eric Quintero under a Creative Commons license.

The scale and magnitude of the earthquake in Haiti has shocked, saddened and horrified us all. But there is a silver lining to this great tragedy. Looking back in history, great natural disasters are often a catalyst for huge, positive change.

The great fire of London in 1666 led to a massive rebuilding effort, better building regulations and, in the end, a safer, cleaner city that maintained the medieval street plan that is still visible, to some extent, today. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting discussion of how the impact of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon led to the creation of a new metropolis with earthquake-proof buildings, wide thoroughfares and a sewer system. The massive reconstruction financing required after the great fire of Copenhagen of 1795 led to the creation, in 1797, of Kreditkassen for Husejere i Kjøbenhavn (The Credit Association of Copenhagen homeowners), the precursor of modern mortgage markets.

The 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and the province of Aceh is a similar, recent catastrophe from which we can draw valuable lessons and some challenges in the long haul ahead in the massive reconstruction effort that will be needed to rebuild Port-au-Prince. The tsunami claimed about 167,000 lives and destroyed schools, houses, churches, roads and livelihoods.  The Multi-Donor Fund (MDF) managed by the World Bank with contributions and guidance from 15 other international donor partners is considered by many a model for success. The greatest success of the MDF was the strong partnership with the communities, placing them front and center in the entire reconstruction effort. The biggest challenge today, however, has been the successful transition and hand-off of to the local authorities as well as a transition from a “pure” reconstruction effort to a longer-term sustainable and viable development strategy.

So what are the lessons for the authorities in Haiti? By a somewhat tragic coincidence, the World Bank has just completed its Handbook for Housing Reconstruction after Disasters based on an in-depth assessment of the reconstruction effort after major disasters over the past two decades.

While avoiding being prescriptive (each major disaster is unique) the Handbook has ten major principles that should be at the core of the reconstruction effort. These include putting in place early a reconstruction policy that is inclusive, equity-based, and focused on the vulnerable; having reconstruction policy and plans that are financially realistic but ambitious with respect to disaster risk reduction; and understanding that people affected by a disaster are not victims; they are the first responders during an emergency and the most critical partners in reconstruction.


Submitted by Anonymous on
Interesting. 3 exemples in Europe and 1 in Asia. Apparently no natural desaster in Africa to show that "Out of great disasters comes great opportunity".

Submitted by Abhas Jha on
Dear Anonymous-I do not know Africa well enough to give examples of disasters leading to building back better or improvements in systems that save people's lives but I am sure they are there. Perhaps you or other readers can provide such examples?

Submitted by CS Sinha on
What is your thought on the "No Excuses" model which posits that it is not relevant to understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty or to respect local culture. The development model is to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance. See article in NYT Does the tragedy in Haiti and the persistent failure of past efforts call for this rather radical approach?

Submitted by Abhas Jha on
CS_I liked Brooks' article very much and I think he is on to something. But it really goes back to the point of putting the communities in charge along with effective and "no excuses" leadership on the ground.

Submitted by Anonymous on
This is about the fourth piece I've seen this weekend (Washington Post, New York Times, etc) that verges on saying how lucky Haiti is to have had an earthquake, because rebuilding is such a good opportunity. I must be missing something, but each piece has struck me as absolute bunk. As just one blindingly obvious point to those of us who have worked in Haiti, (I have) is that London, Lisbon and Copenhagen were each capitals of flourishing economies, whereas Haiti was struggling before the quake, and not yet recovered from four hurricanes. Katrina can hardly have been seen as a "glorious opportunity" for New Orleans, or if it was, apparently one of the most educated, economically powerful and free-enterprise friendly societies on the planet hasn't shown how easy it is to seize it. I don't mean to insult Americans or Haitians, I'm just saying we would all really be better off without such opportunities, and without kidding ourselves about the desperate situation in which Haiti finds itself. By all means, lets put our shoulders to the wheel, individually and as an organization, to support the people of Haiti as best we can...but let's not kid ourselves that this is a golden opportunity, for brilliant development planners such as ourselves, (and suitably likeminded Haitians) to "solve" Haiti's problems. ' If I am in fact missing the point, then I suggest a new use for the stockpile of nuclear weapons lying around unused....we could kickstart global growth and reform pretty easily!

Submitted by Anonymous on
I cannot agree more with the comment above. In sight of disaster there is something rather ghoulish about rubbing one's hands in anticipation at the opportunities thrown up by rubble of a tragedy - of any proportions. Because a corpse may be used as a cadaver for dissection in a medical college, hospital should we applaud a death? Even for development professionals, are there limits to cold-blooded clinical analysis?

Submitted by Abhas Jha on
Dear Anonymous, Nobody is saying that having a disaster is a good thing. What we are saying is that great disasters have profound consequences, a few of which may be, paradoxically and counter-intuitively, positive. Some of the poorest countries in the world have used the aftermath of disasters to reform policy and build back better. Bangladesh's early warning systems and Pakistan's investments in enforcement of building regulations are two good examples.

Submitted by Chandan on
Abhas - Consequences of disasters are often profound but unlikely to be positive - especially to the immediate victims; otherwise these events would not be disasters. Response to disasters may, and should, be positive - as are the examples you have cited. Yet consequence is impact, while response is reaction. The distinction deserves respect.

Submitted by Anonymous on

great. especially the last part. if disasters are so great letss get some going.

Submitted by Anonymous on
There is always the proverb "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." Then again, to make use of a crisis or a destruction, the human element is key - human ambition, human resources, human capital. Can things be turned around so rapidly to expect a profoundly different result? Don't think so. It's best to have realistic expecations and realistic "lessons" for the authorities.

Submitted by Abhishek Bhaskar on
Dear Abhas- Well written! It is interesting to see some of these very passionate comments. However, with all due respect to everyone's unique experience and beliefs, I think the sentiment of this note is being misunderstood. It is a fact, that a disaster of this proportion, that changes the geography of the local area and the lives of the local community, does present an opportunity to re-build. Now, how we achieve it, who we involve and whether we are able to achieve that objective successfully, are questions that depend upon a lot of factors. As I understand it, the blog addresses the first part and I fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the note above. As for the second part, I am sure we will be ready with our sharpened pens to review the progress in the coming years.

Add new comment