Rebuilding Communities after Disasters: Lessons from the Tsunami Disaster in Sri Lanka

Disaster management literature is inundated with rhetoric about ‘community participation’ or ‘community-led recovery’, yet the studies on how to achieve this have been unconvincing, displaying a shallow understanding of what ‘community’ means. Development scholars often argue that better preparation for ‘extreme events’ can prevent them from becoming ‘disasters’, but a string of recent disasters – from Haiti to Japan – reminds us that the world community will continue to be called on to help rebuild shattered communities. This article reflects the findings of a major study of social recovery from the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka that set out to identify and analyse examples of good practice with regard to community-led recovery. It aims to elaborate what a community development approach to disaster recovery might look like as part of a more ‘deliberative’ and patient approach to long-term social recovery.

Disaster response agencies need a much more sophisticated understanding of community participation and engagement.
A specialist UN agency should be set up to promote and co-ordinate better practice in post-disaster social recovery. The specialist UN agency should be given responsibility for creating an accessible repository of well-researched and well-communicated materials focusing on post-disaster social recovery strategies and practices.