Why representation matters in disaster recovery

by Roger Few, Chandni Singh, Vasudha Chhotray, Nihal Ranjit, Garima Jain, Mark Tebboth, Hazel Marsh and Mythili Madhavan

The British Academy
Number of pages


Disaster impacts are never short-term. The crisis does not come to an end when the immediate physical effects of a hazard cease or when the last survivors have been rescued, buildings have been made safe, relief supplies have been set in place, and the news cameras have moved elsewhere. Impacts on lives, livelihoods and wellbeing extend through time. In some cases and for some population groups, restoring economic resources, utilities and welfare services can take many years. Individual trauma and social disruption of course can last much longer. Recovery from disasters is an inherently prolonged and uneven process.

Yet, across the world, long-term recovery is typically a lower-priority aspect of disaster management policy and practice. Improvements in early warning systems, emergency preparedness plans and response protocols are seldom matched by coherent, multi-sectoral recovery plans and protocols. Where recovery is included in planning, it generally is limited to short-term reconstruction rather than long-term intervention. In its absence, it is perhaps inevitable that the political recovery ‘space’, the virtual arena in which priorities for recovery emerge and are promoted by different actors, becomes rife with different visions and motivations. The creation, circulation, reinforcement and subversion of such ideas is what we refer to here as the ‘representation’ of recovery. We argue that these representations play a crucial role in shaping what is done post-disaster, who benefits and how.

In this document we present an argument for why the representations that are created around recovery can be so influential and why understanding them is important if we are to strengthen recovery processes, especially for the most vulnerable and/or marginalised within society. We do so by drawing on a set of case studies from three states in India – Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – where we have undertaken research relating to disaster events that have occurred in recent memory. The three states are distinctive in their politics and social structure, and provide a flavour of the highly diverse national context that India presents. Nevertheless, experiences across the case studies reflect issues arising in disaster recovery processes across the globe. The research, carried out primarily through the project Recovery with Dignity, funded by the British Academy, combined policy review and media analysis with interviews and participatory work in disaster-affected communities

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