Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 220 | Noviembre 1999



NGOS and Natural Disasters: Gaps and Opportunities

The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch helped focus the attention of many international organizations on the subject of natural disasters in countries of the South. The British Red Cross, inturn, decided to study how NGOs in particular have reacted to natural disasters in four particular countries, among them Nicaragua. We present here an edited version of that case study.

José Luis Rocha and Ian Cristoplos

For several years now the international community has been paying increasing attention to the impact and recurrence of natural disasters in different areas of the world. Terms related to forces of nature when they act in a devastating way, such as vulnerability, risk management, disaster prevention and disaster mitigation, have frequently cropped up in debates and in the context of measures that governments and international institutions have tried to apply, particularly in countries of the South. There is still a need to systematize the different experiences, however, to consider how widespread they have become and how effective they have been, and to develop a greater level of awareness over this complex subject.

In an attempt to start filling in these gaps the British Red Cross, with the support of the British Government's Department for International Development, decided to implement a two-year research project in four countries: Bangladesh, the Philippines, Peru and Nicaragua. This study on Nicaragua was carried out in July 1999.

The objective was to examine NGO participation in the prevention and management of natural disasters. The study analyzes the nature of the activities developed by NGOs in this area, using the findings to suggest practical and operational guidelines to help NGOs incorporate the issue of natural disasters into their project designs.

A permanent state of emergency

Nicaragua has been described as a country in a permanent state of emergency. Between 1972 and 1996 alone it suffered eleven disasters that seriously affected its socioeconomic development. Of these, nine were caused by natural phenomena: the Managua earthquake in December 1972, intense rains followed by a drought in 1982, Hurricane Joan in October 1988, the Cerro Negro eruptions in April 1992 and November-December 1995, the tsunami that hit the Pacific coast in September 1992, tropical storms Brett in August 1993 and Gert in September 1993, and Hurricane Caesar in July 1996.

These eleven disasters--prior to Mitch--left a total of:
107,118 dead
123,071 hurt and injured
6,533 disappeared
656,011 evacuated
571,600 displaced
1,861,002 homeless
They directly or indirectly affected 3,201,734 people, the equivalent of over 77% of the country's current population.

Despite the country's natural propensity for disasters, however, Nicaragua still has no law regulating emergency situations. Furthermore, the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters has been notably absent from the country's political and economic agenda, probably because they do not have the great electoral appeal or attraction of certain development projects. Such a project is further doomed by the short-term vision so characteristic of Nicaraguan culture. Disasters are only considered and acted upon during the actual emergency period. Once the danger and a certain period of rehabilitation have passed, however, no measures are taken to tackle future disasters, even though each disaster is followed by a series of forums, workshops and seminars aimed at promoting a culture of disaster prevention.

NGOs have also contributed to this short-term vision for various reasons. When a disaster strikes, for example, most NGOs work on rehabilitation, providing food, household utensils, basic construction materials, medicines, shelters and the like. Their attention to the affected population has consisted of actions such as the repair and construction of houses, the provision of latrines, the cleaning and construction of community wells, local road repair and the provision of seeds or fertilizers. But they have done little in the area of prevention, limiting their actions to certain agro-ecological practices and the creation of brigades to design land plans that identify areas susceptible to disasters and evaluate risk levels. To date, however, the proposals provided by such plans has not led to any concrete activities.

A new awareness and...

Although successive Nicaraguan governments have created structures and rules for disaster prevention and attention that have survived the country's political changes, these have not been taken advantage of fully. The absence of a law determining and assigning different functions is the main obstacle to NGOs being able to plug their participation into a general plan. The Coordinating Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America (CEPREDENAC) plays a leading role in this area, but a number of obstructions need to be removed to fully exploit its potential and make room for the different NGOs in its strategy. The fund provided to CEPREDENAC by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) following Mitch is promising and NGOs could implement certain programs in line with its general characteristics. The general politicization pervading all projects, strategies, relations and funding in Nicaragua is the major obstacle that NGOs will have to negotiate in order to access resources and programs.

NGOs in Nicaragua have been gradually getting more involved in disaster prevention and mitigation activities, especially in the wake of Mitch. They are doing so either because the state is less interested in it, or because this is one of the many areas from which the state--which is increasingly streamlining its activities to reduce the fiscal deficit in line with the IMF-dictated structural adjustment program--has felt it can withdraw and leave the field to foreign cooperation.

Despite the fact that their involvement in disaster management is still embryonic, NGOs have at least engaged in some reflection on the issue and there has been a notable change of direction. In the 1980s the points stressed were purely technical, such as that planting trees would reduce vulnerability. Nowadays, the institutional problem has been gathering increasing importance. The emphasis is on organization, coordination and concern over who is responsible for what in the emergency period when a disaster strikes.

...a notable change of direction

Mitigation is the key aspect of natural disaster management. Many NGOs view environmental protection projects as the way to do that, but a diffent type of mitigation work is now gaining wider attention: the promotion of agro-ecological practices within agricultural development.

The drought in recent years caused by El Niño and the landslides, erosion and crop losses brought by Mitch's floodwaters have added grist to the mill of those who have long promoted these practices. And the idea seems to have caught on. During several forums and seminars organized to reflect on Mitch, all development projects, without exception, were presented as ways to mitigate natural disasters, and changes were even introduced to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's technology transfer proposal, although their actual contents were not specified.

Such reflections and policy changes were not unjustified. The same year that Mitch struck also turned out to be the worst year ever in terms of forest fires, and it is known that forest cover improves the drainage capacity of the soil. Questioning the predatory activities of the current agroexport model and the liquidation of woodland caused by extensive cattle ranching, the most prestigious ecologists in Nicaragua insisted on the need to promote a socially equitable and ecologically sustainable development model. According to the organization World Neighbors, conventional agriculture with its unsuitable agricultural practices aggravated Mitch's catastrophic effects, and it carried out a study to demonstrate its theory.

Do agro-ecological practices work?

Following the hurricane, 45 research teams from 19 institutions did "equivalent observations" of 440 plots of land with and without agro-ecological practices. Each team consisted of one technician, two peasant promoters and the two owners of the plots being studied. The teams worked in 181 Nicaraguan communities located in 30 municipalities of 9 departments and 7 regions, observing areas ranging from the island of Ometepe, which only recorded 250 mm of rainfall during Mitch, to Somotillo, which recorded 1,780 mm. The study was designed to ascertain whether the agro-ecological or the conventional parcels of land resisted the hurricane better and which combinations of agro-ecological practices were most effective in reducing the damage.

The study found that the peasant plots with sustainable agriculture practices appeared to have suffered less damage than neighboring plots with conventional practices. According to the data gathered from hundreds of surveys done, superficial erosion was three times higher in the conventional plots. Among the most common agro-ecological practices employed in Nicaragua are live fencing (using plants) or dead fencing (using rocks) to reduce soil erosion, and the growing of trees to improve the soil's drainage capacity and shore up soils that are susceptible to landslides.

Key proposals and open questions

World Neighbors then proposed that water and soil conservation should be socially recognized and rewarded through monetary remuneration, bearing in mind that soil conservation is a service that hundreds of farmers provide to the whole nation. Those who practice water and soil conservation could thus be granted a certificate entitling them to guaranteed prices and other forms of subsidy. It also proposed that negative environmental externalities should be subject to fines, given that erosion, river contamination and deforestation imply costs for the whole nation. In Europe, all of this is fined and Nicaragua should start to import policies that encourage development as well as Coca Cola.

The Central American Program for Sustainable Slopeside Agriculture (PASOLAC) has stressed the mitigating effect that agro-ecological practices have on disasters. PASOLAC's priority proposal is to promote reforestation programs that improve soil conditions. Its extensive network of NGOs and trade associations enables it to widely disseminate agro-ecological techniques, although then linking these to natural disaster mitigation depends on each particular NGO's specific policy and discourse. The Alejandro von Humboldt Center has led the way in promoting environmental measures through lobbying and in having the greatest overall impact, particularly in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region's indigenous communities. It has recently begun to link these measures to natural disaster mitigation in its discourse. Although not all organizations that promote agro-ecological practices now intend to put themselves forth as standard bearers for disaster mitigation, many have started to take up this argument following Mitch.

In normal circumstances, agro-ecological practices do play an important role, but the specific impact that each specific practice has on phenomena the magnitude of Mitch is still not known. One study carried out for Swedish cooperation proposed that future research aim to determine the real effectiveness of these practices when rains exceed certain levels. Were the landslides and drastic increases in river levels caused by Mitch the result of deforestation and the absence of soil conservation work? The answer is still not clear. Mitch-style precipitation levels always cause damage, as demonstrated by the fact that landslides occurred in areas with abundant tree cover. The few conservation works constructed in the mountains of the dry zones proved effective in areas with more gentle slopes but could not resist the force of the currents in areas with more pronounced slopes.

Not everything mitigates disasters

According the statistical analysis of the historical series done by the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER), the precipitation levels Mitch brought will recur about every 150 years. This means that we can expect the agro-ecological practices to be effective during the normal precipitation periods, while constantly bearing in mind that erosion and landslides, are very different phenomena and are not mitigated to the same degree by such practices.

Agro-ecological practices are quite varied and not all of them reduce erosion and landslides. One of the most widely used practices in Nicaragua and Central America is the cultivation of the “fodder bean” (mucuna pruriens), a variety of nitrogen-fixing legume whose rotation with maize is highly recommended. This bean is very competitive and eliminates weeds, thus also acting as a kind of natural herbicide. But clearing the soil of greater vegetable cover and allowing the land to soften up, which facilitates its oxygenation and drainage, also leaves it more susceptible to landslides, as has been more than amply demonstrated.

This is an obviously complex issue and it would be wrong to presume that all development programs reduce vulnerability. Viewing all economic improvements as contributions to disaster mitigation blurs the specific elements involved in reducing vulnerability and denies the importance of risk management in preventing natural disasters. The problem is not only that disaster mitigation would be subordinated to development as a component or accessory feature and would thus be seen as a byproduct of development projects. An even greater problem is that disaster mitigation could become a rhetorical adornment added onto NGO programs, thus avoiding any serious reflection about the specific nature of disaster handling and management.

The food-for-work formula

Food security is defined as “access to food to provide a healthy life for all people at all times.” It is part of the philosophy of many NGOs that “food security necessarily requires environmental sustainability, accessible rural credit and pro-peasant agrarian policies, thus reducing dependence on food importation.” NGOs working in the rural sector present the provision of access to safer and more fertile land, working and investment capital and technology as their fundamental contributions to food security. In fact, food security is probably one of the issues most extensively and successfully covered by Nicaraguan NGOs.

Although natural disasters such as Mitch endanger food security and carry the threat of starvation, it is not such macro-disasters that most worry NGOs as they are not the most frequent kind. Orlando Núñez is the former director of the Sandinista government's Research and Study Center for Agrarian Reform (CIERA) and current director of CIPRES, an NGO specializing in rural development. According to Núñez, if the temporary and repairable damage caused by Hurricane Mitch is compared with the constant damage that producers suffer due to the low prices fetched by the basic grains they produce, the latter actually represents a greater structural disaster. Other NGOs point out that droughts, pests and blights are the most frequent disasters and have greater impact on food security.

The issue of economic development is constantly prioritized over that of mitigating disasters, either structural or one-off. The main concern of many agricultural development programs is not food security in itself, but capitalization of the producers. Even those working with the poorest agricultural sectors do not refer explicitly to food security so much as to strengthening small producers, reactivating the small peasant economy, etc. Food security only appears as a specific program in the discourse and work of NGOs after natural disasters, during what is known as the rehabilitation stage.

Specific food security programs during emergencies are generally supported by donations from the World Food Program (WFP) of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the wake of Mitch, the WFP started up a two-year program channeling food through local mayor's offices and NGOs such as Save the Children. The program intent is to support the reactivation of farms by providing food in return for reconstruction work such as the erection of fences, crop sowing and the removal of sediments. However, this program has faced fierce criticism. After Mitch, the abundance of food aid in coffee growing areas discouraged agricultural workers from seeking work as coffee pickers, though this probably also helped increase the wages of those who did.

Paid work is more dignified

A world expert in agriculture who visited Nicaragua and Central America in the aftermath of the hurricane proposed the more careful and limited management of food donation programs. Among his reasons were that it would avoid an even greater drop in food prices that would discourage national producers, and would reduce consumer and government dependence on many foods, particularly imported ones, that reinforce consumption patterns based on commercial colonialism. One example of such patterns in Nicaragua is wheat. Although wheat cannot be grown in Nicaragua and thus must be entirely imported, breads made with wheat flour are increasingly edging out corn-based products such as tortillas, even in popular Nicaraguan culture.

Another postulate is that "the rural poor should have opportunities for paid work, and the creation of such opportunities implies offering protection to small-scale basic grains producers against excessive competition from imported and subsidized cereals, supporting the sustainable labor-intensive systems of small agricultural producers and promoting appropriate rural industries." This is the philosophy guiding the rehabilitation work done by the Juan XXIII Social Action Institute. Its post-Mitch strategy consisted of paying for the work of reconstructing productive plots of land with money rather than with food as in classic food-for-work programs. This method avoids price drops, allows the beneficiaries to save money and subsequently invest it in areas of their own choice and encourages local demand. Monetary recognition makes the peasants feel that their work is dignified and worth something.

A similar idea was at work behind the loan and seed donation programs carried out by CARE and the Red Cross. These aimed at guaranteeing basic agricultural inputs to the peasant farmers to ensure that they would be able to plant new crops in the agricultural cycle following the hurricane and not continue depending on donations. Sometimes these programs were combined with the distribution of food from the WFP.

Putting their eggs in different baskets

One of the main and perhaps most effective elements of development projects--now also presented as disaster mitigation projects--is productive diversification. Alternative agricultural credit programs have always insisted that people should not put all of their eggs in one basket, and various studies on the impact of nonconventional credits indeed show that the more diversified producers are best able to keep up with their repayments, while peasant farmers who depend on one or two subsistence crops tend to fall behind. Another important question in this context is the extent to which the cultivation of nontraditional export crops is having an impact on peasant efforts to diversify their sources of income and thus reduce their risks. NGOs have become actively involved in this debate, which is connected to the wider one between those who propose diversifying peasant production toward nontraditional products just to increase exports and the national GDP, and those who also propose improving the quality of life of rural producers.

The idea of diversification through industrial activities has been less discussed, although many Nicaraguan researchers working for NGOs have defended it. In a country where over a fifth of the population lives in Managua, some economists propose that small cities be developed and small industries be installed there as a strategy for both development and the reduction of vulnerability. These interesting proposals have yet to be translated into concrete measures, however.

One issue that has been inadequately dealt with in NGO studies is that of migration. Some NGOs present this phenomenon as a causal factor of vulnerability, but this approach does not seem satisfactory. Migrations are another strategy used by the poor and, in the case of an emergency, the family remittances help diversify poor people's incomes and reduce their costs. Remittances are also increasingly helping to maintain demand on the national level.

Good and bad projects

Following Mitch, NGOs became very involved in the construction of houses and infrastructure works. Some particularly emphasized disaster mitigation, for example through the construction of various devices to slow the flow of water down hillside gullies and thus contain erosion and landslides. Some of the food-for-work programs were aimed at this kind of project.

In other cases, such as that of various NGOs coordinated by the Ocotal mayor's office, the aim was to design and implement a model housing project. The houses in that complex were constructed with great care right down to the smallest details, taking into account the risks from water currents and earthquakes. To make the adobe blocks--which the poor use instead of concrete blocks--more resistant than usual, traditional techniques were combined with more up-to-date knowledge. One of the project's secondary effects was the transfer of technology as many building workers were trained in new construction techniques.

But Ocotal was an exception. The normal practice has been to forget disasters as soon as they are over and adopt no measures aimed at preventing future catastrophes. Even in areas highly susceptible to earth tremors, most of the houses constructed after Mitch were erected with no thought for that particular risk, precisely because the projects were geared around the hurricane, the last disaster to have hit. In August 1998, earth tremors in the area around the Momotombo volcano destroyed a series of new houses erected for Mitch victims. This incident neatly demonstrates the problem of NGOs that have no institutional memory and work with a short-term vision.

Preparing for disasters: the technical aspects...

NGOs tend to talk more about preparing for disasters than preventing them. In this respect, there are two different areas of work, one focused on technical aspects and the other on institutional ones.

On the technical side are efforts concentrated on the design of local plans, the mapping of risks and vulnerability and territorial planning. Oxfam UK and the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Promotion (INIFOM) did the most ambitious studies on the national level, while on the local level certain mayor's offices drew up small maps and proposals with the help of various NGOs. In both cases, the at-risk areas were identified and the degree of danger established. In the best of all possible worlds, according to the NGOs, these plans should lead to a redistribution of the population. In the real world, however, which is far from the best, the plan runs up against numerous obstacles. In today's Nicaragua, private property is untouchable and no lands are available for such relocations. The fact that many properties have not been legally registered for many years now along with the current re-concentration of agrarian property serve to reinforce an already almost insoluble situation.

When the idea was raised of relocating survivors of the mudslide from the Casitas volcano in Posoltega, which buried around 2,000 people, local landowners saw this tragedy as a unique supply-and-demand opportunity to sell their land at a tremendous profit. Their going price was around US$3,000 per hectare, ten times more than its registered tax value. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the issue of disaster response has shifted from the technological sphere to the institutional and political ones. As a result, since the land problem is politically-based, the solutions have concentrated on and been limited to emergency plans.

It should be highlighted that some NGOs also moved into the issue of emotional impact for the first time after Mitch, helping--with varying degrees of success--those affected in certain zones to overcome the post-traumatic crisis caused by natural disasters.

...and the institutional ones

On the institutional side, three main types of activity have been developed: the design of emergency plans; the organization of emergency brigades and committees; and training in evacuation measures, provision of attention for emergency shelters and first-aid and fire-fighting methods.

The Civil Defense System, which is actually part of the army, is responsible for drawing up emergency plans, but several NGOs, including FACS, CEPAD and the Red Cross, have been involved in them. Since Civil Defense began operating in the 1980s, only 35 emergency plans have been designed, and those have largely been imprecise: 11 in different municipalities of the departments of León and Chinandega, 10 in various municipalities of Granada and Rivas, 8 in the department of Managua, 5 in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region and 1 in a municipality of Chontales. This adds up to a very limited national coverage, representing less than a quarter of the country"s 147 municipalities and excluding certain ones chronically affected by flooding and where Civil Defense arrives very late during emergency situations. Although some NGOs have attempted to extend the coverage of the emergency plans, Major Mario Pérez Cassar, second in command of Civil Defense, admitted that "the implementation of the National Civil Defense System rests on very poor and obsolete foundations. This is a problem we are trying to solve by means of a suitable law, considering prevention activities to be a main aspect."
Following the end of the war and the subsequent end of the army's protagonism in national life, the reduction in the Civil Defense"s budget, equipment and personnel has been alarming. The creation of a national disaster system in which Civil Defense would play a leading role is a hope that reemerges with every disaster, only to be quickly forgotten along with the disaster itself. Some NGOs recall with justified nostalgia the collaboration they achieved with Civil Defense, in the middle of a war, when the devastating Hurricane Joan crossed the entire width of Nicaragua, from its Caribbean to its Pacific coast in 1988.

Organizing the community

NGOs have concentrated most on community organization and have achieved their greatest successes in this area. Several organizations that have been working in disaster-affected areas for many years now have created their own networks of promoters to help them channel aid more quickly and effectively, thus having a positive influence on the local organizational capacity. Other NGOs have attempted to build their specific disaster training on top of already-existing local organizational structures. Such is the case with the Community Committees, also known as Rural Community Committees or Rural Community Development Committees, depending on the NGO concerned. When these committees act to manage natural disasters, they assume the title of Emergency Committees.

During Mitch, these committees proved to be very effective in evacuating the population and distributing aid. The committees emerged in the 1980s to support the municipalities and in many places their presidents are considered to be representatives of the mayor's office, although in reality collaboration between the mayors and the committees varies according to political affinities. As the committees are generally made up of the most active people in the communities, the NGOs seek those involved as collaborators, liaisons and promoters either individually or in their capacity as committee members.

There is a consensus among NGOs that investing in organizational aspects has proven to be very cost-effective in the implementation of different projects. This investment becomes strategic during disasters, since destruction of the road network and the lack of transport leave many communities isolated. In certain zones, particularly those most affected by the armed conflict of the 1980s, there is already an installed and consolidated organizational capacity that enables locals to successfully tackle different problems. The extent of these capacities was demonstrated during Hurricane Mitch in Wiwilí and Jalapa, for example, where evacuation was done rapidly and the mobilization of provisions and organization of emergency shelters was very effective. This openly contradicts the theory that civil society is at its weakest in war-torn areas. The radio communication network belonging to CEPAD, the ecumenical Protestant NGO, complements this community organization capacity, particularly in rural areas, and can be used to alert the population in emergencies or to educate people about disasters.

The power of local leaders

Some NGOs are constantly investing in training to strengthen community organization and provide the community with a role to play during a disaster, although for now their training is only in the specific area of disaster preparation. Local inquiries reveal that this initiative is still in an embryonic state. The methodology employed is participatory, in line with the popular education model developed by Paulo Freire. In contrast, the actual operations carried out during emergencies have been characterized by the hierarchical style of Civil Defense, made up as it is of military personnel who have only recently passed over to this area of army operations and have little experience dealing with the civilian population. As one former Civil Defense official put it, "The members of the army are more used to subordination than collaboration."
This problem has been resolved at the local level by the decreasing participation of Civil Defense and the growing leadership displayed by local leaders. It is obvious that all problems tend to get resolved better where there is a local, charismatic political figure, bearing in mind that the Nicaraguan population tends to gather behind strong local chiefs and to follow charismatic leaders for emotional reasons.

Such local leaders are often the ones who have created the necessary consensus to coordinate efforts to tackle and react to disasters. These leaders can deal more easily with the politicization and polarization at the local level, which is sometimes less intense anyway. In any case, the local leaders have as far as possible made up for the lack of a judicial framework that could define, regulate and distribute functions during emergencies. This context probably even benefits the local leadership figures as they gain additional institutional weight.

New opportunities and an obsolete cliché

Despite the embryonic state of the NGOs' disaster management work, real possibilities have opened for them due to the negative consequences of the shrinkage of the state apparatus with respect to providing an effective response to disasters. On the one hand, this cutting back has deprived the state of certain people who specialize in some of the tasks required during a disaster. On the other, although some of these people have become NGO officials, which could enable these NGOs to offer certain qualified services during a tragedy or to collaborate with the state, the lack of NGO attention to the specific issue of disasters and the excessive politicization of the country have blocked greater consensus between NGOs and the state in this area.

It would seem logical that NGOs would prioritize the issue in their dealings with the government following Hurricane Mitch, particularly in light of the evidence of how little disaster prevention and mitigation work exists. This has not happened, however. Apart from the IDB's generous donation of $2 million to CEPREDENAC for disaster prevention and several seminars organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the specific issue of disaster prevention and mitigation was rapidly replaced in the national debate by the controversy over different development models. Many reports and recommendations of requirements for post-Mitch Nicaragua totally ignore the role of natural disaster management in development.

So why has this happened? One reason is the idea that the devastating effects of natural disasters are simply a sign of underdevelopment and that only the poor suffer during disasters due to their levels of underdevelopment, a cliché widely employed in Nicaragua to justify the lack of specific disaster prevention activities and put forward “development” as the “total solution.”

Economic or human development?

The Nicaraguan experience of natural disasters gives the lie to that cliché. In the Mitch disaster the poor were the most affected in some areas because they had built their houses on land exposed to risk, which was the only land available to them. But this was not the case everywhere. In Jinotega and Matagalpa the best-irrigated lands belonging to relatively capitalized farmers were destroyed, while the low-quality slopes cultivated by the poor were less affected. On other occasions, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have not only affected the poor population. In other words, whatever the model adopted, development does not eliminate risk.

The controversy over development models has dominated post-Mitch discussions and various groups use Mitch to reinforce their positions. Both sides in the debate mention economic development more than human development, however, and both the government and many NGOs take insufficient account of the human disaster when focusing on the economic one. In most post-Mitch projects the human aspects have almost invariable been masked by the economic impact and the victims' viewpoint has been relatively ignored in official reports and surveys. This absence has made it easier for many observers and planners to jump to the conclusion that there is no better answer to disasters than economic development. One notable attempt to make the victims' voices heard has been the Social Audit carried out by the coordinating body of NGOs known as the Civic Coalition for Emergency and Reconstruction (CCER) created following Mitch.

Underdevelopment, ecology and institutions

In some post-Mitch discussions, NGOs pointed out that agriculture has been increasingly losing its influence in the Central American economy, with the Central Americans working in the United States contributing more foreign currency to their countries than all agricultural exports combined. This does not mean that agriculture is unimportant or that sustainable development makes no sense; on the contrary, sustainable agriculture currently has more opportunities than ever. What is lacking, however, is a broader vision of sustainable agriculture that also embraces such issues as rural housing, water and environmental surroundings. So far, sustainable agriculture has been limited to ways of improving productivity on individual plots of land over time. The right strategic shift would be to center efforts on the family and the environment with a longer-term vision.

Hurricane Mitch highlighted the links between underdevelopment, deficient natural resource management and institutional weakness. These three elements are there for anyone who wants to stress disaster prevention and mitigation, though few people link them together to make the issue of disasters a priority.
Another explanation for the lack of interest in disaster prevention and mitigation work is the very negative experience of the dependence NGOs created through their humanitarian aid programs both during the armed conflict of the 1980s and immediately after the war ended. Poorly planned, improvised or experimental initiatives made any programs not explicitly aimed at development very suspect. In their desire to avoid criticism, NGOs have tended to avoid associating their activities with emergency programs.

Identity, coherence and coordination

In Latin America more than the rest of the world, and in Nicaragua more than the rest of Latin America, the role of NGOs is being strongly questioned. NGOs are viewed with great suspicion and are fighting to define their niche in a context where a lack of coherence in many cases between their actions and the ideals they claim to represent is widely recognized. The NGOs' increasing competition with private sector companies in efforts to secure contracts to provide public services helps create an ambiguous identity, which means they need to carefully and selectively choose their priorities.

NGOs are also aware that their capacities are limited and that they cannot assume all of the public services that the government is abandoning. As one NGO official put it, “For every nurse that we place, the Ministry of Health lays off another five.” This makes NGOs wary that getting involved in disaster management could saddle them with massive responsibilities when another disaster strikes.

NGOs are aware that disaster management, while necessary, is too big a package for them to handle alone, but they have been able to find few common spaces for coordination with other NGOs due to traditional rivalries and the competition for funding needed to work and survive. The Civic Coalition for Emergency and Reconstruction, which succeeded in bringing together over 320 nongovernmental and social organizations and networks, is thus a very interesting initiative. Among its achievements has been a Social Audit aimed at monitoring, auditing and evaluating the effectiveness of local participation in and finances used for rehabilitation activities.

Will this effort last? Similar initiatives in the past have not lasted long. An attempt was made in the early 1990s, following two eruptions from Cerro Negro and the tsunami, to create an NGO coordinating body that would work specifically during emergency situations. That institution, known as CONADES, even managed to obtain legal status but it took little more than a period of emergency-free calm to dampen the original enthusiasm. Further- more, several institutions with some experience working in emergencies were never even informed that the project existed. Consequently, this new post-Mitch initiative had to start again from scratch. At other times, such bodies have been set up by a strong funder and only because of a large donation earmarked for coordination.

Without foundations or coordination with the government

These problems with coordination are rooted in the fact that many NGOs do not represent anybody, which contributes to the ambiguity of their own identity. In Nicaragua many people are starting to openly recognize that NGOs are not part of “civil society,” but rather an intellectual elite of middle-class citizens that develop activities for the people, aim to defend the interests of the people and therefore seek to represent the people. The lack of any real foundations explains why they have not managed to create sustained mechanisms that would enable them to act in a common direction, despite having an impressive capacity to confront government policies.

The NGOs are aware that many of their efforts--particularly in response to disasters--require government consensus, which in turn requires coordination among themselves. Despite this, the NGOs stress the difficulties they have in coordinating with the government, emphasizing the institutional aspect in which political polarization represents a fundamental obstacle. According to the NGOs, the government has displayed as little willingness to communicate and collaborate with them in the face of natural disasters as it has in other areas. Furthermore, the fact that the state institutions are suspicious of NGOs because so many of their current officials were linked to the Sandinista administration of the 1980s has led to confrontations and a lack of collaboration between NGOs and the Liberal government. Mutual potential has therefore been sacrificed by the desire to control and by mutual smear campaigns.

This politicization also affects the creation of new NGOs. According to Nicaraguan law, the petition to establish a new nonprofit association, the legal classification under which NGOs are registered, must be approved by the National Assembly, currently controlled by the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party. The government has tried several times to control the funds coming in to NGOs through the Ministry of Foreign Cooperation and to get the General Tax Division to apply discretional taxes on goods imported by certain NGOs, in violation of a law exempting them from taxation.

An unprepared and lawless government

The government's role is ambiguous in many areas, and disaster management is no exception. There is still no legal definition of the role of each institution, and the main weakness in this regard is that there is thus no law defining the different responsibilities and hierarchies and attributing the different functions during emergencies. Disasters and emergencies come and go like links in an endless chain, aggravated by the fact that none of the social actors, particularly the institutional ones, are ever totally prepared for them. And the country's political and economic agenda is so overloaded and littered with obstacles that once the actual moment of emergency has past, concern over natural disasters gets pushed back down the list of priorities, despite the fact that they represent obstacles to development.

To make matters worse, the predominant neoliberal ideology does not accept that the state has any basic responsibility for public welfare. Defining responsibilities and attributing roles for disaster management would represent implicit acceptance that the state has the greatest responsibility during a crisis. To sidestep admitting this, the Nicaraguan government has opted for the chaos that comes with changing the voice of command with each new disaster. Thus when Cerro Negro erupted in 1992, the presidential offices coordinated efforts, a job left to the Ministry of Transport during the tidal wave, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry during the drought caused by El Niño and the Vice President of the Republic during Mitch. It is not for nothing that some define underdevelopment as nothing more than the incapacity to accumulate experience.

The government never declared a state of emergency during Mitch, arguing that doing so would involve suspending constitutional guarantees. Although experts in constitutional law stated that it was possible to make a selective suspension of guarantees to ensure that Nicaraguan citizens did not lose their rights, the government did not change its decision, preferring instead to declare a “state of disaster,” a term with no legal significance whatsoever.

What was the reason for this absurd decision? It was possibly because recognizing the magnitude of the disaster would have had two consequences the government wanted to avoid. First, the government would have been forced to invest in emergency aid, thus increasing public spending and violating the conditions imposed by the structural adjustment program. Second, it would have had to expose its extremely limited capacity to respond to such situations, which has been further aggravated by the structural adjustment. Therefore, the problem of how to deal with disasters and ensure that future strategies are effective in a neoliberal state continues to be a major point of reflection. Once it became obvious that the Mitch tragedy would attract an avalanche of donations, however, the government realized that it could turn the situation to its advantage and so got deeply involved in distributing emergency aid as part of a populist policy. It even went as far as to distribute food and medicines in bags sealed with PLC-color red stickers and the PLC logo.

Alliance between NGOs and municipalities

The post-Mitch period was characterized by centralized decision-making and a weakening of the already incomplete process of devolving authority to municipal governments. Central government strategy was aimed at retaining control and accessing resources that should really have been handed over to municipal administrations, even though the latter cannot even cover their ordinary costs with their own resources, let alone the costs generated by an emergency. This situation meant that in many cases the disaster was managed through all kinds of novel alliances between NGOs and local governments, given that local actors such as mayors are much closer to the people involved and share their needs. The NGOs found that the local spaces were less politicized than those involving the central government, making it possible to carry out many actions in conjunction with the municipal authorities. Collaborating with NGOs requires the municipal governments to get better acquainted with the responsibilities set out in the Municipalities' Law, especially those related to guaranteeing governance and the protection of the population during a catastrophe.

The leadership assumed by municipal authorities turned out to be an essential factor during the emergency and the post-Mitch rehabilitation. Some institution or leader has to take responsibility for orchestrating efforts during an emergency. Many mayors did so during Mitch, but more as an expression of their natural leadership than as the result of any formally established arrangement. Although local leaders are a basic necessity when it comes to coordinating efforts and activities, a law is needed that establishes responsibilities, hierarchies and functions to legally back up these leaders or to establish them if there are none. This would keep the central government from creating ad hoc bodies and changing those in charge with every new emergency, or, as also happened during Mitch, giving local Catholic priests the leading role just because they are Catholic Church officials, independent of their qualifications to be working on emergencies in a society that is no means exclusively Catholic.

The most serious reflection on natural disasters has probably taken place on the municipal level. In the municipality of Ocotal, a number of citizens got down to the task of drawing lessons from the recent experiences once the waters had cleared and the rehabilitation phase was fully under way; they went as far as to define strategic lessons. Their effort was unique, but one that is also desperately needed in the rest of Nicaragua.

The new collaboration between the municipalities and NGOs born out of Mitch could perhaps help eliminate certain of the NGOs' defects, including structural ones, that get in the way of developing a serious effort in response to disasters. NGOs, for example, tend to work with short-term funds and projects with a limited time scale and to disperse their work both geographically and thematically in an effort to secure more funds, dancing to the tune of their financiers. All of these factors have had negative results. Closer collaboration between NGOs and the municipalities, however, could help improve NGO coordination in the future distribution of roles that should be defined in a future and desperately-required emergencies law.

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