Recovery: the missing element

What is often missing form most disaster recovery programs? Believe it or not, recovery itself.

Recovery includes but goes beyond emergency response and physical reconstruction. It is the human element where people who have lost everything are helped to get back on their feet.

Some people, the most resilient, do this all by themselves. Others are helped by their own local communities. Charitable organisations also step in to fill many gaps.

Meanwhile, the great emphasis of government agencies and local emergency services, despite appearances to the contrary, is on the physical rather than more general human factors. This makes sense in the emergency phase where preserving life and property are in many respects one and the same. But as the emergency passes, the balance needs to shift to longer-term recovery of the people themselves.

As I moved around speaking with people involved in the recent Moe fires in Victoria, including some local community leaders, the question I was most asked is: what can we do for people who have faced crisis after crisis to the point where their resilience has all but worn out? The frank answer is: nothing much at present because our disaster management capacities are more geared to the physical rather than the human dimensions.

The question, however, led me to think back over how we managed the human factor in Aceh.

To begin with, the Indonesian Government created a one-stop shop in a single, ad hoc recovery agency with the power to run the entire reconstruction program. It was centralised. This made it useful for the many donors, NGOs and bilateral agencies that needed a single point of traction for their own contributions but it had three distinct flaws.

The first was that NGO demands in particular were too great for a government agency like our own to handle in the usual way. We fixed this by creating an account management function with dedicated people assigned to each client NGO.

The second was our distance from the many affected communities spread along 800 kilometres of coastline plus many inland areas that had been devastated by the tsunami and the wrenching earthquake that gave rise to it. We fixed this by creating a range of regional and sub-regional offices to get close to the communities we were trying to help.

The other was that it gave a focal point for concentrated political attack by corrupt community leaders chasing a quick, dishonest buck. We handled this by targeting the hot spots to relieve the tensions there and hence the pressures.

All three had one thing in common—focused, direct, hands-on coordination. Coordination is a simple word but a tough job. Some of our people were bashed when attempting to work directly with communities wanting more than the available resources permitted. Some had knives held at their throats by individuals demanding special favours. And that was just the locals. Some in the international community played their own games with no less muscle although a good deal more finesse.

The point of all this is that coordination really does work but comes at a cost in its own right. It includes communication but goes well beyond it to some serious heavy lifting and push back. It involves getting as close to the action as possible through regional networks, liaising directly with clients and creating account managers who would take direct responsibility for crashing through organisational barriers to solve their many problems.

But coordination is also despised by many of those being coordinated. My direct experience is that everyone else will take credit for your work and blame you for their problems. That is the politics of coordination. Still, hands-on, local coordination works and, from the perspective of disaster victims, delivers quicker and better results than its absence. It is central to their recovery and needs to continue until they have recovered.

This is the final article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs


About Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol

Bill Nicol is an international government and business speaker and strategist with long experience in crisis management. He helped plan, design and lead Indonesia’s post-tsunami recovery operations in Aceh before writing a six-volume analysis of this and post-disaster operations across Asia and in Haiti—Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures in Disaster Management. He continues to advise the international community on post-disaster operations and recovery architecture, and promotes a greater integration of non-government and private-sector services in these areas. A former print, radio and television journalist and published investigative author, he writes poetry in his spare time and occasionally blogs on management and leadership. He is increasingly drawn back to his roots as a current-affairs television reporter to explore concepts of self and organisational management in an audio-visual format. You can find him at

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