A study by the Humanitarian Practice Network completed five years after the huge earthquake in Gujarat, India in 2001 entitled “Housing reconstruction in post-earthquake Gujarat: A comparative analysis" is well worth reading. It reports findings from interviews with residents of housing projects that were built through several different management strategies, including contractor-driven (in this case NGOs working with construction firms) and owner-driven approaches. (See also these other reports by HPN on lessons from other disasters.)
Because each project site was different from the other sites (sometimes in important ways), it is hard to know how much of the resulting differences in satisfaction can be fairly attributed to the management techniques which varied by site. The sample sizes were somewhat small for some cases, too.
Nonetheless, some differences in satisfaction and costs of the reconstruction were fairly dramatic, and the report provides substantial details on each site so that readers can take away their own conclusions. The report’s warnings are especially worth reading for projects that are looking to build housing on new sites. In particular (page 24):
Contractor-driven construction ex nihilo differs from in situ reconstruction in that, instead of rebuilding the village on the same site, the new houses are relocated to a new site. The advantage of this approach is that it does not require the removal of rubble to clear the site, and the reconstruction plan is not constrained by any buildings that survived the earthquake. However, there is a growing awareness that resettlement is a traumatic experience, and may have a
significant negative impact on people’s livelihoods and social relations.
From the conclusion (page 25):
It is perhaps ironic that the project that enjoyed the least appreciation among its beneficiaries was on average by far
the most expensive, costing around three times more than
the non-contractor projects. …
This study provides empirical evidence that the growing
trend towards financial support to owner-driven post-disaster
housing reconstruction is socially, financially and
technically viable. It shows that, in a context where people
are traditionally involved in building their own dwellings,
given adequate financial and technical support they have
the capacity to construct houses that are more likely to
respond to their needs and preferences than houses
provided by outside agencies. The study confirms many of
the drawbacks and risks associated with a contractor-driven
approach: inflexibility, cultural insensitivity, failure
to adapt to local conditions, and a tendency to introduce
external construction materials ill-suited to the local
climate, and which are difficult to maintain and upgrade.
These conclusions are not based on project evaluations by
‘experts’, but on what affected people themselves thought
about different post-disaster housing reconstruction
approaches. The clear conclusion is that the cheapest
approach to post-disaster housing reconstruction was the
most effective in reaching the most neglected communities,
and addressing their housing requirements.
Conversely, the most expensive approach may have made
the rich richer, and the poor more vulnerable. Funding
agencies and NGOs should reconsider their role in post-disaster
housing reconstruction and support people’s own
initiative, rather than providing them with what outside
agencies believe is good for them. Cash-based approaches
are viable in emergencies, are more empowering and more
dignifying. These goals are fully in line with most NGOs’
objectives, but need to be translated into operational
strategies. We hope that this study, by allowing hundreds
of people to tell us what they needed to restore their
livelihoods, will encourage agencies to look again at how
they respond to housing needs after disaster.
Unfortunately, the report provides little detail on the differences across methods in the suitability of the houses for surviving future earthquakes; the author simply states that owner-driven construction appeared safe and that these residents appeared to understand the construction issues at stake.
Overall the report is very favorable to owner-driven programs. However, it is hard to tell if this tendency is a result of their findings or of the author’s pre-existing beliefs. For instance, on the pros and cons of owner-driven processes (page 10) they mention few cons and dismiss what may be a large problem (safe construction):
An extensive review of different post-disaster housing reconstruction approaches by Sultan Barakat points to a number of advantages associated with owner-driven approaches to housing reconstruction.3 The most tangible benefits are that the costs may be lower,building may be incremental, allowing occupancy before the house is fully finished,and occupancy rates tend to be higher. There are also a number of intangible benefits.Encouraging the active participation of disaster affected communities in the reconstruction of their homes may be a useful way of restoring a sense of pride and well-being in people who have been through a trauma. Building activities provide structure to the day, and can keep large numbers of community members gainfully occupied. An owner-driven approach allows people to reconstruct their houses according to their own preferences and requirements, and may strengthen local building capacities. With adequate financial and technical assistance, self-built houses are likely to be more sustainable. People, if given an option, tend to choose building materials and techniques that are familiar to them.Accordingly, they may be in a better position to provide for future additions and repairs. Finally, an owner-driven approach may contribute to preserving the local architectural heritage and vernacular housing styles,features fundamental to a community’s cultural identity. In particular, in relation to the devastating experience of a disaster, it is important to give people some sense of continuity.
An owner-driven approach also entails some risks and drawbacks. It raises questions about the degree of assistance more vulnerable sections of the community should receive to enable them to engage in reconstruction.People may be too busy pursuing their livelihood activities to spare the time to participate in or supervise construction work. Safety may be a concern where traditional construction practices are held responsible for large numbers of collapsed buildings. These risks can be overcome through the introduction of building codes and adequate technical assistance.
Still, even with these caveats, this report looks like required reading.