Crisis or Mitigation?: The role of relationships between institutions and communities in disaster recovery assistance


Foto: SIU

Foto: © SIU

In this brief article, I would like to review the anthropological complications of disaster recovery policy and practice as they were confronted by institutional actors and affected populations in the reconstruction of two resettlement communities in Southern Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. What I mean by anthropological complications in these cases is the way recovery policy and practices can articulate assumptions about the nature of people, society, and communities that are either not relevant or enhance social inequities in the contexts where they are applied. This is an issue that has been thoroughly investigated in the fields of urban planning and development (Caldeira and Holston 2005, Escobar 1995, Ong 2006) but that remains to be fully explored in disaster studies (Maskrey 1995). For the reader, this may seem like an uninteresting point of departure. One may easily say: “Of course NGOs and government agencies are aware of the necessity of making culturally sensitive policy decisions,” but, what I would like to demonstrate in this article is that, while this is easily recognized in theory, the cultural implications of disaster recovery policy are much more difficult to recognize in practice.

Second, one may say that there is more to the application of policy than such a focus could lead one to believe. Whether disaster recovery policy is culturally sensitive or not, it is never a totalizing force. As a number of anthropological studies of disaster have demonstrated (Fortun 2001, Oliver-Smith 1986), people are always resourceful agents who navigate the social and material circumstances that emerge in postdisaster settings, making new meanings and creating new relationships to take on the tasks at hand. Indeed, the cases I will review will demonstrate that this is the case. Even in the most dire of circumstances, disasteraffected populations strive to cope with institutional rigidity and the unintelligibility of aid distributed in arrangements that do not match local patterns of resource use, sociality, and symbolic value. Still, the reviewed cases will also demonstrate that there can be variable outcomes to disaster recovery efforts, that institutional policies can cause unnecessary hardship on populations who are already at the brink of emotional, social, and logistical collapse, and that there are occasions when institutional resources can be used in alternative manners that help meet the objective of mitigation in a more efficacious manner.

The case study: Choluteca, Honduras

Limón de la Cerca and Marcelino Champagnat are two resettlement communities constructed 7 miles east of the Honduran city of Choluteca after Hurricane Mitch. These communities, I would like to argue, displayed dramatically different reconstruction outcomes three years after the storm, one featuring conditions of social crisis and one making important strides toward mitigation. I would also like to argue that in the case of the community in crisis (Limón de la Cerca) these conditions were the result of the articulation of three variables, which included: 1) the position of disasteraffected families in the broader social topography of Choluteca – Limón residents were categorized as clase obrera, “working class” – 2) the rigid mobilization of expert knowledge on the part of housing reconstruction program managers and local government officials that limited the capacity of residents and program managers to transform reconstruction aid into arrangements that were culturally relevant and environmentally adapted, and 3) the epistemological limitations of major international donors who could have provided oversight of reconstruction projects, but were incapable of doing so due to the constraints of their knowledgemaking systems. In the case of Marcelino Champagnat, in contrast, housing construction program managers established different relationships with the community leaders, relationships in which expert knowledge was mobilized as a non-negotiable part of reconstructing affected communities.

The differences between the two communities included:

  1. The proliferation of adolescent streetgangs called maras in Limón, while, in Marcelino, these gangs remained subordinated to a tightly-knit group of community leaders.
  2. The construction of 900 homes whose dimensions and aesthetics were not readily recognizable by residents as houses (residents routinely referred to the houses as matchbox houses) and whose structural properties were not suited to the local environment in Limón, while 330 more spacious and culturally-relevant houses were constructed in Marcelino Champagnat.
  3. In Limón, land distribution patterns on the part of the municipality deprived the site of a significant element of its leadership and fractured important social networks that were an important means of securing childcare assistance, protection from robbery and violence, and of creating the sentiment of “hallarse” (to find oneself at ease). Hallarse was the criterion used by residents to determine the collective success of reconstruction programs.
  4. The incompletion of infrastructural projects in Limón, such as electrification, while similar projects had been successfully completed in Marcelino less than two years after the storm.

The information presented below was collected during a 13-month ethnographic study from June of 2000 to July of 2001. What was interesting to me as an ethnographer was how, in the course of ethnographic interviews, NGO project managers and consultants routinely explained the differences between the two communities in terms of essentialized properties of community residents.

Limon residents were referred to as an urban, marginal, and dependent population, incapable of self-governance, while Marcelino Champagnat was represented as a community composed predominantly of a rural population, with a history of community organization. The completion of 160 household surveys and 40 ethnographic interviews, however, revealed a different story. Residents from both communities originated from the same 9 neighborhoods that lined the Choluteca River and had, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, attempted to act as a single community. Moreover, my ethnographic research revealed that the different conditions in the two communities were not due to the internal properties of disaster survivors (dependency, marginality, urbanism), but were the product of the social relations established between disaster survivors, NGO project managers, and local government officials.

The leadership of the emerging community of disaster survivors in post-Mitch Choluteca was composed of neighborhood and religious leaders who, in the face of a slow local government response, took a proactive role in the search for a permanent solution to their displacement status. These residents identified a suitable locality for housing reconstruction seven kilometers to the east of the city along the Panamerican Highway, a major international road. The site was known as El Limón de la Cerca after a nearby peri-urban community of the same name (figure 1). Because of the sluggish municipality response, the grass-roots leadership of disaster survivors decided to organize a protest to exert pressure on local government. The protest was seen as a divergence from the expected role of disaster survivors, who were expected to be passive and grateful, not pro-active and assertive. As Mary Douglas (1992) and Emma Crewe and Elizabeth Harrison have noted, this is a common expectation on the part of donors and institutional actors in relief programs. Consequently, the municipality intervened by deploying the local police department, arresting protestors, and organizing a municipality landcommittee. The land committee reduced the size of the land parcels from the 400 square meters originally desired by the community leaders to 200, and randomly distributed the land through a raffle. For disaster survivors, 400 square meters were deemed an adequate size for land parcels, as many families practiced animal husbandry and used their gardens to grow fruit trees and vegetable gardens that supplemented household incomes and diets. For municipality and NGO officials, in contrast, disaster survivors were perceived as urbanized populations, for whom minimally-sized land parcels should be sufficient. The leaders who organized the protest were excluded from the raffle and left without lands. The excluded leadership, then, proceeded to invade a neighboring land, and founded Marcelino Champagnat in early 1999.

The random distribution of land parcels by the municipality land committee implicitly conceptualized Limon’s residents as alienated subjects who can transform minimal investments into a fruitful resettlement zone. These implicit assumptions, however, resulted in the fragmentation of important networks through which Limon residents guarded each other’s homes in Choluteca prior to Mitch, and assisted each other with child care. The raffle created conditions of anonymity, which opened a social space that was filled by adolescent gangs called maras, who, in 2000 moved with impunity during night time hours in Limon. While street-gang graffiti was ubiquitous in Limón during the course of this ethnographic study (figure 2), not a single example of mara graffiti was observed in Marcelino Champagnat.

Conditions of social fragmentation were combined with home construction practices on the part of NGOs that were not suited to the aesthetics, kinship structures, and environmental conditions of the site. In Limon de la Cerca, 1200 homes were constructed, the majority of which (900) followed a basic floor plan: single room 25 square meter structures (Figure 3). The median household size according to our survey was of 7 persons, making the structures crowded at nighttime hours and with limited possibilities for expansion due to the small size of the house lots. The structures were built without reinforcing columns on their corners (Figure 4) and tin roofs that were easily lifted by the semiarid plain’s winds (Figure 3). The houses were delivered to their owners without ornamental embellishments such as plaster or paint, and their bare cinder-block walls gave the community a drab uniformity during the course of this study. Twenty seven percent of interviewed male residents reported construction work as their primary employment and demonstrated knowledge of construction techniques. Although these residents requested alternative construction practices, NGO architects and project managers insisted that these requests could not be implemented due to cost-benefit constraints. Ironically, the cost to implement some of the resident suggestions, such as the construction of reinforcing columns, would have increased costs primarily in terms of labor, not materials, which was predominantly provided by the disaster survivors themselves.

At the same time, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project evaluators noted that considerations of cultural relevance had to be made secondary to the institutional requirement that reconstruction funds be spent within the fiscal year. Spending money on time was a primary challenge for the agency, while residents were denied alternative arrangements of reconstruction resources under the auspices of cost-benefit constraints. It was through this paradox that power was articulated in the reconstruction of Limón in such a way that community residents found themselves challenged in their capacity to transform aid programs into environmentally and socially adequate arrangements. Furthermore, USAID, which funded housing and infrastructure projects in Limón, relied on fiscal transparency and the requirement of integrated solutions (the expectation that reconstruction communities be in the vicinity of roads that connect them to labor markets and educational facilities and that they be equipped with sewage and electric infrastructure) as its mechanisms for determining whether reconstruction programs were progressing successfully. These requirements, however, were not capable of recognizing the conditions of social marginality emerging as a result of reconstruction practices on the part of local government and NGOs in Limón.

In Marcelino Champagnat, in contrast, relationships between residents and NGO program managers took on a different quality. Resident leadership in this community became renown for its resistance to aid that was deemed inadequate. Marcelino residents, for example, opted to remain living in canvas tents rather than accept temporary housing units, which they feared could become a permanent living arrangement. In the same way, they resisted the intentions of the NGO CARE to build 100 single room 25 square meter structures. At the time of this ethnographic study, residents proudly retold their encounter with CARE housing program managers. “We told them we did not want their matchbox houses!” a resident commented during an interview.

In contrast to the experience of Limón residents with NGO housing program managers, CARE staff negotiated the dimensions and floor plans of houses, changing their proposed project to the construction of 80 houses with 35 square meter floor plans with internal partitions for bedrooms, ornamental plaster on the front façade, and reinforcing columns on their corners. While in Limón housing program managers mobilized expert knowledge in the form of narratives of cost-benefit to resist resident requests for alternative housing construction practices, in Marcelino, CARE staff responded to resident resistances in a creative way, negotiating housing design and revising their proposed budget to accommodate the requests of community residents. The CARE program manager reported using architectural blueprints from a nearby reconstruction community, Renacer Marcovia, that allowed for larger dimensions and internal partitions. Using this blueprint allowed him to cut the cost of hiring costly architects. The program manager also opted to use the labor of disaster survivors

Conclusions and Recommendations for Practice

In the case of Limón, we see the perpetuation of the social effects of disaster through the kinds of relationships established between local government and disaster survivors (relationships marked by class difference and cultural expectations on the part of institutional actors that disaster survivors be docile and grateful recipients of minimal aid packages), the rigid application of expert knowledge on the part of NGO program managers (narratives of cost-benefit articulated by NGO architects and project managers were presented as non-negotiable elements of disaster-recovery practice), and the limitations of the knowledge-making mechanisms of agencies such as USAID. At the same time, the case of Marcelino Champagnat demonstrates the importance of resistance in the shaping of relevant community reconstruction programs. The social leadership of Marcelino became renown for its opposition to aid packages and practices that they deemed irrelevant if not potentially marginalizing. This stance, which was originally seen as a threat that had to be contained by the Choluteca municipality and police department (the deployment of police to disband the protest over the delayed municipality response is a case in point), was an important element of crafting disaster assistance programs that were adapted to the specific social and environmental necessities of the reconstruction site. This observation may very well frustrate the practitioner and policy-maker who insists that it is logistically impossible to predict the cultural and environmental contingencies of disaster recovery projects. Social theorists Andrew Pickering (1995) and Pierre Bourdieu (1977) would agree, the practitioner never knows the contingencies that will be encountered in the moment of practice, and this is why the application of reconstruction policy must follow a principle of flexibility and adaptability as one of its central tenets (see Bankoff and Hilhorst 2004).

Reconstruction program managers must maintain an awareness for the possibility that all reconstruction policies and practices inevitably will make assumptions about the nature of personhood, community, and social wellbeing, and that some of these assumptions may not be adequate for the particular locality where a project is to be implemented. These assumptions, although perhaps inevitable, do not have to result in the perpetuation of the social impacts of disasters.

Project managers who develop a disposition that allows them to negotiate their projects with disasteraffected populations, as in the case of CARE housing project managers in Marcelino, stand a greater chance to mitigate the impacts of disasters than those who do not. Finally, project managers must maintain an awareness for those principles of reconstruction (cost-benefit narratives, secondary housing markets, equity through random resource distribution) that are upheld as non-negotiable elements of policy, as the rigid application of these “non-negotiables” is likely to act as a limiting factor in the mitigation of a disaster’s effects.

Works Cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bankoff, Gregory and Dorothea Hilhorst. 2004 Introduction: Mapping Vulnerability. In Mapping Vulnerability. Gregory Bankoff and Dorothea Hilhorst, eds. Pp.1-9. London: Earthscan.
  • Caldeira, Teresa and James Holston. 2005 State and Urban Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, eds. Pp. 393-416. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Douglas, Mary. 1992 Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge.
  • Escobar, Arturo. 1995 Encountering Development: The making and Unmaking of the Third World
  • Princeton: Princeton University Press. Fortun, Kim. 2001 Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Maskrey, Andrew. 1995 The Semiotics of Technological Innovation. In Developing Building for Safety Programs: Guidelines for Organizing Safe Building Improvement Porgrams in Disaster-Prone Areas. Aysan Yasmin, ed. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
  • Oliver-Smith, Anthony. 1986 The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Ong, Aihwa. 2006 Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Pickering, Andrew. 1995 The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

For furter information please contact:
Roberto Barrios
Departamento de Antropología
Southern Illinois University Carbondale