February 3, 2010

Resilient Despite Disaster

Understanding how people cope with calamities like the earthquake in Haiti might help alleviate suffering and speed recovery

By Taylor McNeil

Astier Almedom Photo: Alonso Nichols

What gives people the ability to withstand disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti and not sink into despair? Since 2001, Astier Almedom has been investigating how communities and individuals cope with natural and manmade calamities and still manage to function normally, and at times even thrive. She was born and raised in war-torn Eritrea, educated at Oxford and has conducted research on resilience around the world. Almedom directs the International Resilience Program at Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership and is a professor of practice at the Fletcher School.


Tufts Journal: Why do you focus on resilience?

Astier Almedom: Because it is about sustainability, taking longer-range perspectives to bear on humanitarianism—the art and science of helping our fellow human beings when disasters strike. I first came to recognize resilience in families whose children were surviving and even thriving against the odds in the most deprived shantytowns of Addis Ababa, where there was almost no intervention from outside.
Later I traveled to Eritrea, another place that had made it against the odds, and I came to realize that long-range thinking is at the heart of resilience. I was meeting with internally displaced mothers with young families close to the border with Ethiopia. Their resilience was high, in part because they had received effective and coordinated—even if quite limited—humanitarian assistance at the right time. It was clear to me that first the survival instinct kicks in, and people are programmed to get up and stand on their own feet.

How do you define resilience?

There is more than one definition, depending on whether we are talking about people or our natural environment, the ecosystem. Resilience is the capacity at different levels—individual, family, community or even an entire country—to anticipate and engage with calamity and adversity by maintaining normal functioning, without losing your identity. People can still recognize me as me, or Eritrea as Eritrea, or Haiti as Haiti.

People who study ecosystems say that resilience is the capacity to absorb shock and remain functioning. If the ecosystem reorganizes itself to remain similar to the way it was, it is recognizable, resilient. Some measure this type of resilience by the amount of time it takes an ecosystem to recover and look like it used to before the shock it received, such as a tsunami or a fire. It’s dynamic, part of the process of reorganizing and transforming to become better able to absorb shock and manage transitions from crisis to recovery.

I’ve read reports that only a few days after the earthquake in Haiti, kids were playing soccer in the streets, vendors were selling goods, life was somehow returning to normal. Is that part of the process of resilience?

People do seek to maintain some normalcy. They adapt and improvise to remain active. This is especially true for children. Over the years, I’ve seen mothers and others caring for the young ones say that the first thing they want is to have the schools running again, because then children will be positively occupied. And once children are doing something every day, you are really well on the way to making life in the community normal.

I read an interview with a woman in Haiti who said the people there have “learned through the decades to survive.” Does that make sense to you?

Yes, Eritrea was the same. They would say, “We always had to stand up and rely on our own resources during the struggle for independence.” That lasted 30 years. People have this in their cultural DNA. Maybe people adapt, and the more they adapt and learn, the more they sustain the same characteristics of knowing what to do in an emergency.

Another factor is the sense of social cohesion. Disasters can bring out the best—and the worst—in people, and it is important to build on the positives. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, people say, “We’re in this together, and we just need to pull together.” In Eritrea, I found that was what kept them going. It’s only when you’re on your own and isolated would you find it difficult.

It’s also about shared norms and values that build trust in a community, so when they experience a disaster, they can draw on the trust they have in one another. In Haiti, episodes of looting and violence were reportedly rare, but the media has been highlighting them, and that’s eroding people’s resilience, giving the impression that Haitians are disorderly and uncaring, but actually that’s not so. Media attention to the more common acts of courage and compassion would build people’s resilience.

There have been several devastating earthquakes in the last decade—in Gujarat, India, in 2001 and in Bam, Iran, in 2003. Were there any lessons learned from those experiences?

Yes, indeed. The Gujarat earthquake taught us that the most vulnerable can be the most resilient if they organize at the grassroots level and assert their rights in the democratic process. For example, the self-employed women’s association in Gujarat was rated better in responding to the earthquake than international NGOs, according to Tony Vaux, a former Oxfam emergencies coordinator who evaluated them. The association members were the poorest of the poor. But union membership gave them access to credit straight away.

The disaster response teams arrived two weeks later—they set up tents for shelter, but the self-employed women needed secure housing where they could keep their belongings safe when they went to work. They had not planned on sitting in tents, waiting for food aid.

The way humanitarian assistance is delivered can set people either on the path to recovery or to long-term dependency. My concern has been with the long-term prospects of the affected communities, how to ensure that they maintain and build on their pre-existing resilience.

The 10th anniversary of the 1995 Kobe earthquake galvanized the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, whose mission is to build resilience as outlined in the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015). Many countries are signatory to Hyogo, but progress has been slow.

In Haiti now, how do you go about promoting resilience?

In Haiti I would tread carefully. The temptation is to storm in and save people and take charge, but the humanitarian sector needs to listen more. Of course it is most critical and urgent to give medical assistance as there is overwhelming need for antibiotics and other medicines that go along with surgical operations. I am talking about longer-range needs and priorities. The knowledge is on the ground, with the people there. If you’re listening, and people say this is what we need, trust them—they do know.

We may be tempted to say, we know what your problem is and we can solve it. But we don’t know half as much as the Haitians—they’ve lived it. This arrogance is still present. If you’ve been to university and have a degree, and these people are housewives or self-employed women selling fruit and vegetables on the street, it’s very difficult to accept that they know more about their situation than you. Who owns the knowledge, who owns the crisis—these are profound questions for the humanitarian community.

And it affects the outcome?

Yes. Imagine your house was flooded, and half of it is gone, and immediately someone from outside comes in and sits in your living room and tells you, “We’re going to make an assessment of the problem and tell you what to do.” But you would say, “This is my house, and I may not want this repaired in this way—I want to have it done the other way.” And you’re told they need six months to investigate first. But you know already—you’ve lived there 20 years and know what needs to be done immediately. In six months, it will be a bigger problem and you may not survive the damage.

We need to think of it in that way. We cannot anymore think, yes, we have trained our students, and we’ll send them there, and we’ll solve Haiti’s problems. We wouldn’t allow it ourselves if foreign teams were to come here and take charge of our problems. It’s the basic lesson: do to others what you’d want them to do to you. Promoting and building resilience begins with a fundamental recognition that those affected by disasters want to stand on their own feet and we can help them on their terms, with long-term prospects in mind.

Does religion play a role in resilience?

It does, very much so. Two students of mine and I have been looking at New Orleans after Katrina, and the data seem to show clearly that people maintained their resilience in part through their religious affiliations. Spirituality plays a critical role in making meaning, a component in the sense of coherence scale, which is how we measure resilience.

If you are religious or spiritually connected, you are more likely to find a way of coming to terms with adversity and make some meaning out of it. You are also more likely to find functional social support through membership in faith-based groups that may give access to emotional and material support. People always find some positive meaning out of really bad events, and they may do that more if they are religious. Hope is also linked to resilience, not only hope for this life, but because they believe in an afterlife, thinking that people who have perished are in a better place.

These kinds of things may help Haitian communities make sense of their losses. It may sound unreasonable to expect resilience to this disaster, but we can certainly talk about promoting and building on the resilience that is there, in the aftermath. Lessons learned will help rebuild a more resilient Haiti, if we pay attention to the way the Haitian people are responding. 

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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