Disaster as opportunity? Building back better in Aceh, Myanmar and Haiti

Research reports and studies
November 2013
After disasters strike, can homes, communities, and institutions be ‘built back better’? This report examines the concept ‘build back better’, and seeks to understand the aspirations, implications and resulting impact of the term on recovery and reconstruction in three disaster responses - the Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in Haiti.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was a disaster of unparalleled proportions, prompting an international response unprecedented in its scale. The response sought not just to reinstate what the tsunami had destroyed, but to leave the communities it had affected better, fairer, stronger and more peaceful than they had been before the disaster struck. This aspiration – encapsulated in the phrase ‘build back better’ – quickly became the recovery effort’s mantra, guiding principle and enduring promise.

Since the tsunami, build back better has been advocated in many other disasters, including the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

But can such disasters be made into opportunities for change? Build back better raises several uncomfortable questions for the humanitarian community: what does ‘better’ look like? Better for who, where, how? Is it ethical in humanitarian terms to exploit people’s vulnerability after a disaster to drive social change? And to what extent can questions of inequality be addressed by humanitarian aid at all? This paper seeks to address some of these questions and dilemmas.