Post-disaster Recovery

In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Alicia Sliwinski
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Post-disaster recovery is a complex process at the crossroads of environmental, social, and infrastructural dimensions. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines recovery as the “restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and ‘build back better,’ to avoid or reduce future disaster risk” (UNDRR). Recovery comprises the short-term restoration of basic services and facilities, which is called rehabilitation, and medium- to long-term reconstruction activities, which relate to the construction environment and social systems and livelihoods.

In the past, recovery was seen as the last phase of the disaster management cycle and it emphasized the reconstruction of infrastructure, subsuming social considerations. This linear understanding also informed sequential typologies of post-disaster shelter and housing provision. It can be correlated to the defunct, event-centric, “hazards view” of disasters–where the goal of recovery meant a return to the status quo, albeit with improved technological fixes–and to the “engineering view” of resilience, which defined a system as resilient when it returned to its former state after a disturbance.

Contemporary approaches to recovery have debunked this “physicalist paradigm” and instead adopt integrated and multidisciplinary lenses. They underscore the importance of prevention and planning through comprehensive vulnerability and resilience assessments, and much research is being done on how to best articulate recovery to sustainable outcomes to minimize future risks. Many models of disaster recovery exist: some foreground safety, others sequential phases or sectors of intervention; some focus on organizational logistics and others on linkages with development. They are all “approximations of reality” (Davis and Alexander 2016: 41). Recovery is not a uniform process because certain areas, groups, and sectors may recover faster than others, depending on a disaster’s impacts and people’s capacities/assets to overcome them. Recovery is multiscalar, in that it simultaneously involves individual, household, community, national, and global processes. Social recovery is influenced by factors relating to market incentives, political ecology and economy, governance, timeliness and effectiveness of search and rescue activities, and appropriateness of emergency assistance, socio-cultural values and belief systems, strength of civil society, institutional capacity, and questions of transparency, trust, and accountability. No doubt, recovery is greatly enhanced or hindered by its predisaster context–thus the emphasis on prevention and preparedness. Moreover, many studies have shown the wide range of competing interests that characterize the window of opportunity that post-disaster recovery opens.

Specific issues have garnered sustained attention from researchers and practitioners alike. This is namely the case for community participation (Marsh et al. 2018), the role of social capital and networks (Aldrich 2012), and gender (Enarson and Chakrabarti 2009). Studies have approached these topics under normative frameworks to facilitate operationalization and through critical analytical lenses to show the limitations of policy rhetoric. For example, community-based disaster management is a significant area of intervention for capacity-building, although many scholars have shown that community cohesion and completion are elusive. Furthermore, because of their complexity and resistance to quantitative forms of valuation, significant dimensions of social recovery, such as culture and local knowledge, remain unevenly addressed (Krüger et al. 2015), although culture has always been the starting point in the anthropology of disaster (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2002).

Today, as the field of post-disaster recovery seeks to better implement sustainability principles, and while more longitudinal studies become available, questions of environmental justice, fairness, and ethics, as well as affect, creativity, and memorialization are enriching our understanding of what a successful recovery means. Recovery will always entail a mix of technical and social processes requiring collaboration, inspiration, and resolve.


  • Aldrich, D.P. (2012) Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery. University of Chicago Press.

  • Davis, I. , Alexander, D. (2016) Recovery from Disaster. Routledge.

  • Enarson, E. , Chakrabarti, P.G.H. eds. (2009) Women Gender and Disaster: Global Issues and Initiatives. Sage Books.

  • Krüger, F. et al. (2015) Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction. Routledge.

  • Marsh, G. et al. eds. (2018) Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery. Routledge.

  • Oliver-Smith, A. , Hoffman, S. (2002) Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. School of American Research Press.

  • UNDRR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction). Recovery.

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