Healthier Democracies is a new initiative by Public Agenda to gather promising global examples of democratic innovation and community engagement, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and identify practices and reforms that improve democracy in the United States. Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the initiative seeks to help us understand how to establish more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships between citizens and governments. The International Perspectives blog series, authored by a variety of guest writers who are leading thinkers in international democracy reform, speaks to specific initiatives in countries outside the U.S. that make an impact on engagement and democratic participation.
Before President Joe Biden rolled out his economic plan to “build back better” in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, this slogan has long been familiar to communities recovering from disasters. A report by the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for tsunami recovery and former U.S. president Bill Clinton identified key lessons of “building back better” in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which placed emphasis on the role of families and local communities in driving their own recovery.
In the Philippines, “build back better” has been a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of families affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Haiyan was one of the world’s strongest storms, displacing over two million people and leaving at least 6,000 dead. The typhoon was so powerful that it breached the maximum of cyclone intensity scales. If a storm of the same size were to happen in the United States, it would engulf the entire state of Florida.
In my fieldwork in Tacloban City—the ground zero of the disaster—I witnessed how building back better was an uneven experience. I observed businesses that were quick to get back on their feet and build hotels, and the speedy rebirth of bars and car rental services to meet the demand of humanitarian organizations setting up shop. For many, however, post-disaster recovery has been a case of “building back bitter.” The resentment comes from years of government neglect as seen in housing resettlement projects that have yet to be completed seven years after the disaster and promised cash aid that never arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic added yet another layer of vulnerability for those living in cramped makeshift homes with poor access to water.
Beyond stories of bitterness, there are stories that bring the principles of “building back better” to life. Worth spotlighting is Pope Francis Village—an in-city housing resettlement site considered a global role model for post-disaster reconstruction. The village is home to over 500 climate-resilient, two-story row houses built by the people who will occupy the houses themselves. It is a stark contrast to the resettlement sites the government and corporate foundations developed in the outskirts of the city, which effectively left residents in food deserts and far from employment opportunities.
Pope Francis Village serves as a role model for people-led recovery. Its example offers lessons that are applicable to many different communities in the United States and around the world that seek democratic ways of giving voice to low-income residents while building their capacities to engage with policymakers. Three lessons in particular are worth highlighting:
First, people-led recovery means involving disaster-affected communities at every step of the project. I have witnessed residents taking the time to learn about the complexities of urban housing projects and deliberate with their neighbors before making decisions. They deliberated on the selection criteria for beneficiaries, the type and make of houses, the color of the paint, as well as street names. Women are active participants in the process. Some provided (wo)manpower in construction, others learned accounting and entrepreneurship to create sustainable livelihood opportunities in the village.
People-led recovery means involving disaster-affected communities at every step of the project.
Second, all these achievements are made possible through the democratic labor of community organizers. Community organizers come from Urban Poor Associates (UPA), an NGO based in Manila with more than two decades of experience campaigning for housing rights. They organized the relocation of a low-income coastal community in a tsunami-prone area to safer ground. Their mission was clear—to give the poor a fair share of power. To do this, community organizers worked with residents to develop their skills in deliberation and collective decision-making and strengthened their capacity to aspire for better futures.
I met a resident who contrasted the sustainability of community organizers with humanitarian organizations who just parachute in and out of the disaster zone. “None of them stayed,” one resident told me, referring to humanitarian workers who visited them, conducted a survey, and then “packed their bags and left” the minute red tape in government made it difficult for them to operate. Community organizers, meanwhile, have a clear understanding of the obscurities of urban politics. They trained residents to develop their own voice, clarify their demands, and negotiate with the government to provide roads, electricity, and water. In one of my visits to UPA’s headquarters, I saw young women clutching sharpies and hairbrushes as if they were microphones and role playing their upcoming negotiation with a city councilor to reconsider her position on no-build zones.
This observation underscores that people-led recovery is not equivalent to abdicating state power. Quite the contrary, building back better means building back people’s confidence to demand better treatment from the governing institutions.
People-led recovery is not equivalent to abdicating state power. Quite the contrary, building back better means building back people’s confidence to demand better treatment from the governing institutions.
Finally, I noticed how people-led recovery, while empowering, still poses barriers to some. Not all people wanted to be part of this agenda or found it possible to be part of it. I met residents in the shoreline community who opted out of joining deliberations about the housing project because of time commitment and child care issues. “What [UPA] is asking is difficult for people like me,” said one housewife, who spends most of her time looking after her three toddlers, while her husband worked as a driver for a burger joint instead of volunteering in constructing houses. She felt hurt that her neighbors talked behind her back for refusing to join the meetings and stigmatized her decision to opt out of the housing project as selfish and lazy. Indeed, active citizenship is a demanding form of citizenship. It is important to understand and consider these challenges in order to develop and design more inclusive people-led recovery efforts.
Building back better is more than a slogan. It is an approach to rebuilding communities after a tragedy, whether it is disaster, economic crisis, or a pandemic. Successful cases of people-led recovery serve as inspiration to communities that have limited resources but enough resolve to do things differently this time. The observations above should also be a guide for governments who are poised to lead community and public engagement initiatives. The lesson to take away is that when governments listen to and include people of all levels of society in decision-making processes, the results are more equitable and sustainable for a larger segment of the population. But to build back better, we also need to ask critical questions to strengthen these acts of solidarity. Better for whom? Better how? And how can we make recovery better for all?
Nicole Curato is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra and the editor of the Journal of Deliberative Democracy. An extended discussion of this piece can be found in her latest book Democracy in a Time of Misery: From Spectacular Tragedy to Deliberative Action (2019, Oxford University Press).