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December 2005/January 2006
From Banda Aceh to New Orleans: A Global Perspective on Local Recovery

The Satya Interview with Diane Johnson

 

Diane Johnson.
Photo by Cassandra Nelson

Disaster relief and recovery is nothing new for Mercy Corps director Diane Johnson, who has been coordinating programs in Afghanistan, Sudan and post-tsunami Indonesia. What is new for Mercy Corps is working in the U.S. and for Diane Johnson, in her hometown of New Orleans.

Almost one year after the devastating tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean, Mercy Corps is applying some of their international expertise in the Gulf Coast post Katrina. After checking on her home and family in New Orleans and before heading back to her work overseas, Diane Johnson had a chance to speak with Sangamithra Iyer about aid and the importance of empowering local people in their own recovery.

You have a wide range of experience in disaster and humanitarian crisis relief elsewhere in the world. What are some lessons learned from these situations that you feel are most important to share?
One is the need to have a government liaison to constantly pay attention to what all different levels of government are doing. It is a full time job to find out what the local policies are, how they are interfacing with the state and federal government. That’s always a huge issue. Certainly in post-tsunami [Indonesia], we had a full time person just paying attention to government relations and policies.

Also, people always go home sooner than we think. Normally, we only see small percentages of people who stay in [shelters] for long. They go home as soon as they can, even if it is going home to a mess or something that is less ideal than before. People want life to start up again. It will be interesting to see if that holds here in America.

Thirdly, we always make sure local communities have a big voice in their own recovery. We find ways and space for people to organize, [voice their concerns], and help them structure solutions. We typically give a lot of support and sometimes grants directly through local organizations. We are doing the same in the Gulf and finding that it seems to make the most sense. We are finding who naturally is responding, between NGOs, church groups and community-based organizations, and [try] to give them kind of a leg up.

Going back to the importance of having a good government liaison, reports seem to suggest there has been a lot of disorganization and miscommunication between government agencies, national groups and grassroots organizations in the Gulf. Can you comment on the situation?
Because we haven’t seen this scale of a disaster in America before, those coordination channels really weren’t worked out ahead of time. In an international disaster there is some [structure] that people really respect. The United Nations usually plays a coordinating role and the international NGOs, host country government, and the donors will typically know the set up. There will be an agreed upon structure for how we all pass information. But this has been a real question in the South. The UN may not be the most appropriate [agency] to play that role, but then who is? I know there has been a lot of work in Baton Rouge to set up a coordination council. A lot of those efforts were driven by international NGOs because our normal mechanism through the UN was not there, which really hinders the flow of information and at times is going to make contradictory information.

What are some of the parallels you’ve observed between the situation in the Gulf and the situation in Indonesia last year after the tsunami?
When you look at the aerial views, some of the destruction, particularly in Mississippi, looks very similar. The wall of water that rose 20-30 feet and washed miles inland did similar damage. The real difference is in the death toll. In the tsunami, there wasn’t enough prior warning and people didn’t know how to react. You had over 200,000 people die. In the Gulf Coast, I believe the count is around 1,000 now, which is horrible, but there was more of a warning system in place. Even though it didn’t work as well as it could have or should have, it still kept an astronomical death toll from happening.

Because of the need for airlift capacity and logistical expertise, the need for a heavy military presence initially to provide aid was also really similar. Some of the things that needed to be done were not something local groups could do—airdropping of food, evacuation of people, big engineering projects. The role of the military is being discussed further in the U.S. Is that going to be a way in which we structure the national emergency response rather than having it go through the National Guard or some of the more normal channels?

Difficulties with layers of government are also extremely similar. In Indonesia, they had a federal central-based government out of Jakarta, state province-wide government, and then local officials, and the difficulty in getting those communications channels open is very similar [to what we are seeing in the Gulf].

In post-tsunami Indonesia, the recovery was really very local and grassroots led. It’s just around now—nine months [after the tsunami]—that the big central blueprints and large government infrastructure projects are coming through. Whereas two, three weeks after the tsunami, local people were returning, rebuilding their houses, and picking up the pieces. So it will be interesting to see [in the Gulf] how much and how far local communities go on their own, versus how much they need or choose to wait for the centrally planned government blueprint.

What will be interesting in both cases is how that reconstruction is done. Is it going to be large contracts going to Halliburton and those kinds of companies? Or is it going to be more of a local-based employment generation process?

In addition to your international expertise, New Orleans is your hometown. What are some of your local concerns as a resident as well as a relief worker?
My biggest concerns are how much local businesses can do on their own and how fast local government structures and schools can open up. That is going to make a big difference for how soon people can return and fully engage in their lives.

I was one of the lucky ones and my home is okay. My concerns are with my family who are there. I am going to go down again this week to take a look and let my family decide when it will be okay to return—when they can get their livelihood back.

It’s always about economics. It’s less about the physical space to live than about being able to make a living. New Orleans is a large tourist town with a small amount of jobs unrelated to the tourist industry, unless you are a professional. Are the lower and lower middle classes going to be able to return and have any kind of livelihood? That’s the biggest concern I have.

With Bush’s suspension of the Davis Bacon wage determinations, it seems like it is going to be the opposite of the New Deal, in terms of job creation.
Yes. There is going to be a big of need for employment locally. Do we facilitate that by giving jobs to local people or is it more of a centrally controlled heavy presence that just kind of does it quickly and then leaves? That can have very long-term effects on who is able and who chooses to come back to stay.

It would be very strange and very sad to have New Orleans be like a movie set, where there is a certain part of town that people visit, but it not be a real city again. I think there is a possibility of that.

Like many other disaster situations, poor people are often the most vulnerable. While aid often addresses immediate needs, do you find that rebuilding efforts fail to address the root causes of these vulnerabilities?
Well, that’s the trick to doing good aid work. When you go in, you want to build back better or try to address the real root causes by helping the most affected lead their own recovery.

That is the difference between what we would consider “truck and chuck”—just dump supplies on people—and transition programming—getting people involved in their own relief so that they can lead to recovery. Eventually it ends up being a better development program.

New Orleans is the kind of town that we [should] have gone in years ago to do health and education programs, like we do in many parts of the world, because the standards were so below what they should have been. But we didn’t. Now there is a real opportunity, if done correctly, to not just give relief to people but involve them in this transitional period.

[Mercy Corps is] not so much focused right now on meeting basic needs. We are looking at economic programs and how we can get the banks to give loans to lower income people and how we can help local communities help salvage parts of their communities or houses that might be culturally or historically relevant so they can rebuild with those pieces or sell them to some preservation society. Those are the kinds of programs Mercy Corps is working on right now, but all of those things require some sort of government approval, and it’s a real labyrinth trying to find the right people to sign off on these things.

There are a lot of decisions and policies being made by the federal government right now regarding reconstruction. Can you comment on this?

I was watching the news this morning and there is very little on the hurricane now. We are back to terror alerts, Iraq and the things that keep everybody on the edge of their seats with fear. It is at such periods, when people stop paying attention, when a lot of these longer-term policies get changed and they are no longer in favor of local communities.

Knowing that and having seen that pattern in countries all over the world, part of the role in being an international aid agency is to keep those kinds of issues on the radar and to keep community groups and our representatives in Washington talking about them.

There are potentially a lot of things getting passed in the name of doing better next time in emergencies, but it may not address what is really needed—local capacity.

It is crucial to keep sustained attention on what kind of structural changes happen at a state and federal level over the next six months that are possibly ignoring what the local level wants and needs. We need to make sure they are in favor of real people.

As you mentioned, there is often an initial attention and outpouring for immediate needs, but not enough follow through for long-term needs. How is the situation in Indonesia one year later?
The recovery there is amazing in terms of what it looks like now compared to what it looked like after the tsunami. Obviously there are still huge needs. They are just now getting to the heart of reconstruction of roads and bridges and schools. There is a huge amount of local capacity developing.

We are also working on programs for arts and culture—having local culture festivals. Most people don’t need therapy, they just need some kind of semblance of normality to process as a community. We do a couple of these “softer” programs, coupled with the reconstruction. In New Orleans that will be needed as well. People are going to need Jazz Fest next year, even if it seems to be frivolous. I think it is really important to do those kinds of things.

What can we expect one year from now in the Gulf?
I really don’t know. I think that local businesses and community groups will do a lot more on their own, but there are many places where they can be totally overrun. There are many unknowns, but I believe that in the next couple months the situation will become clearer. But there will be long-term needs. It is America, and it [may be addressed] faster than in some countries just because the resources are there and because there is a political risk.

If there was one concern you’ve heard from displaced residents that you could share with our readers, what would it be?
I think people want access to good information. The one thing I’ve heard from people in New Orleans and the surrounding area is the real lack of solid information on a regular basis. The broad pictures people are getting on CNN and Fox are not really telling the whole story. People are feeling they don’t have good access to information to make decisions.

I’ve learned in my job not to trust the media. At a time when they said you couldn’t get to New Orleans, I drove in, easily. But that’s not everyone’s initial reaction—to do what you are told not to do. So there is an [uncertainty] of what’s going to happen and how it will affect them.

To learn more about Mercy Corps visit www.mercycorps.org.

 


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