Culturally Sensitive Disaster Response Work

Group photo of Earthbag Building in Nepal – Community Outreach Meetup
Group photo of Earthbag Building in Nepal – Community Outreach Meetup

I had a great talk the other day with a freelance journalist who travels and documents things such as the earthquakes in Nepal. One of our common concerns is how NGOs, and foreigners in general, respond to disasters. Aid work is fraught with well-intentioned people and innovative solutions that often go terribly wrong. Remember the emergency food dropped to war refugees by US military planes? It was unrecognizable to them and so they ended up feeding most of it to their animals.

The main reason I bring this up is because I’m currently doing earthbag training in Nepal, and naturally I want the training to be successful. That includes making sure all aspects of the training program, building techniques and related ideas are culturally sensitive (as well as safe, affordable and effective).

For one of countless examples, see my previous blog post about the dome homes in Indonesia. The concrete domes in Indonesia represent foreign aid gone horribly wrong in my opinion. The domes are now black with mold and laced with hundreds or thousands of cracks. (See the Comments section in the link above to see how the domes actually look today.) Key parts of the internal supports are broken. One more quake could bring them down. Was this part of some evil, greedy company trying to scam people? I don’t think so. It was probably a half baked idea that didn’t work as planned.

Why concrete often fails in poor countries: Concrete tested under laboratory conditions is mixed under ideal conditions. The sand and gravel are washed. The cement is fresh. The correct amount of water is used. Everything is perfectly controlled. Working in field conditions in an underdeveloped country after a major disaster is completely different. The unwashed sand and gravel are probably coated with a thin layer of clay that hinders the bonding with cement. If near the sea like the domes in Indonesia, there may even be some salt in it which will greatly weaken it. Unskilled workers often add too much water to the concrete mix. After the water evaporates, the concrete has thousands of air pockets, sort of like Swiss cheese. The end result is weak concrete that’s far below properly prepared concrete. It can snap like a cookie under stress. That’s probably why most of the concrete buildings in Yogyakarta collapsed, while some older thicked walled timber framed buildings have survived numerous quakes over many years.

Many organizations like the Red Cross just hand out food, water, tents and tarps and say good luck. There has to be a better way.
Many organizations like the Red Cross just hand out food, water, tents and tarps and say good luck. There has to be a better way.

Another case in point — After receiving 500 million dollars to help rebuild Haiti, the Red Cross only built 6 houses in Haiti after the earthquake there. That’s all – only 6 houses. Where did the rest of the money go? No one seems to know or at least are willing to tell the public. And besides, temporary disaster relief tarps only last a few weeks. They are not a viable longer term solution.

We heard of a group who recently built an earthbag dome in Nepal. Obviously they didn’t work closely with the family. When the family saw the finished dome, they refused to live in it. This is another example of why relief work must be culturally sensitive.

One last quick story: The photo journalist mentioned above told me about a community that was promised an earthship home made with rammed tires. Every day more and more tires, cans and bottles were dumped on the site. The organizers didn’t communicate their plans well and to the community the site was turning into a dump. Locals were perplexed and probably angry why anyone would expect them to live in a house made with trash.

So what’s your nightmare NGO story?

Image: Earthbag Building in Nepal – Community Outreach Meetup

2 thoughts on “Culturally Sensitive Disaster Response Work”

  1. I am very curious how you are working and building in Nepal? It sounds like it can be a lot of hard work trying to get people to help themselves. I believe the payoff might be great but I know that anybody just can’t hop on a plane and start building homes in other countries. Matt


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.