Disaster recovery: Lessons from around the world

Natural disasters and those caused by humans injure and kill thousands of people each year, displace many more from their homes, and can threaten societies and economies. Indeed, the financial costs of disasters have risen for six decades—and will likely accelerate with climate change.

Well-planned and executed recovery efforts can significantly reduce the human, social, and economic costs of disasters. Many factors contribute to success, including recovery design, partnerships, governance, and funding.

Based on our analysis of six disaster recovery programs, we have found that a successful effort accomplishes three things:

  1. Avoids the worst possible outcomes of a crisis, such as prolonged displacement and mass poverty.
  2. Helps make society more resilient and better able to withstand the next crisis.
  3. Uses funding, talent, and other resources efficiently to rebuild systems, infrastructure, and economies.

In this brief report, we use the examples of six disasters (spanning 75 years) around the world to show that societies are more likely to foster successful recoveries if they take steps in three areas.

1. Agree on a holistic vision and clear priorities

Planning is based on a comprehensive assessment of needs that looks beyond broken infrastructure. Sustainable recovery also includes boosting economic growth, reinvigorating social infrastructure—such as health and education—and providing incentives for talent to return. The most successful response and recovery leaders update and adjust their assessments as they learn more about people’s needs and situations on the ground.

A major disaster can overwhelm communities and their capacity to respond, so leaders should identify the most urgent needs and focus efforts and direct resources to benefit affected communities immediately. When goals are clearly defined, leaders can track outcomes; setting goals naturally becomes more effective as more data becomes available. Similarly, priorities evolve as efforts move from immediate disaster response to recovery and rebuilding.

2. Stand up a strong in-country institution to coordinate recovery

Major disasters present unprecedented challenges that local and even national governments may not be fully equipped to handle. Effective responses require the constant coordination of multiple stakeholders, including ministries, local authorities, donors, and other external stakeholders. Project management, prioritization, sequencing, and strong executive capabilities are vital. As the case studies show, an affected country’s government could benefit from deciding to set up a dedicated coordinating institution within existing institutional frameworks to boost critical recovery skills.

3. Coordinate external partners and support collaboration

Quick action is often critical to successful recovery. Early recovery is enabled by the effective use of available mechanisms and can help avoid irreversible consequences for lives and livelihoods in the affected areas. Streamlined collaboration with key external partners is therefore paramount. Building and maintaining trust among fund providers and recipients can help better direct resources, speeding progress toward recovery and improving results.

Steps to take now

Even under the best circumstances, managing a recovery from a major disaster is challenging for any government because thousands of lives have been turned upside down, essential infrastructure and systems are shattered, and uncertainty abounds. Visionary, courageous leaders can help societies get back on their feet and accelerate equitable economic growth by clearly understanding best practices in planning and overseeing a recovery effort, including quick, coordinated engagement with domestic and international partners.

The generational case studies demonstrate that leaders who apply the principles outlined in this paper can increase the likelihood of effective disaster recovery programs and processes.

In this era of global turbulence and uncertainty, governments, international aid organizations, private industry, and other stakeholders can learn from these historical examples to address future natural and human-caused disasters.

Read the full report here.

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