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Multi-Organisational Coordination for Disaster Recovery

by Marcus
Tamil Nadu

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery: The story of post-tsunami Tamil Nadu, India.

Coordination during disaster recovery is one of the most neglected areas of disaster risk management, as the majority of literature on coordination focuses on disaster response. The purpose of the study is to investigate the factors affecting coordination for long-term recovery. For this purpose, the study uses semi-structured interviews with different actors involved in the recovery process of the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu, India. The study highlights five key factors that affect coordination in long-term recovery: (1) the need to coordinate; (2) the role of the government; (3) knowledge networking; (4) mandates and goals and (5) coordination at the donor level. Finally, the study indicates a potential for applying a governance perspective on disaster recovery coordination, which needs to be further researched.

1. Introduction

There is a clear agreement between scholars and practitioners on the importance of coordination in disaster situations. Scholars have time and again highlighted the challenges and problem areas of coordination in different disasters, but the majority of their studies have focused on coordination of disaster response. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was one such case that attracted massive attention. However, coordination in contexts with many actors is complex and has not been equally researched for disaster recovery.

This is highlighted by a general lack of literature focusing on disaster recovery coordination, which may undermine the understanding of coordination in this context, and thus also effective policy and practice. With this, the purpose of the present paper is to investigate factors affecting coordination of post-tsunami recovery in Tamil Nadu, India. To meet that purpose we intend to answer the following research question:

What do different actors involved in the tsunami recovery express as factors affecting coordination during long-term recovery?

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

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2. Background

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was one of the worst disasters to have affected India. Tamil Nadu was the worst affected mainland state, after the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Following the immediate impact of the disaster, coordination structures were established at the district and state level to facilitate the relief and recovery activities. Some of the most prominent of these coordination structures are mentioned here, to serve as a background to this study by indicating the complexity in terms of number and organisation of actors involved.

There were two main coordination structures at the state level. The Tamil Nadu Tsunami Resource Centre (TNTRC) was a joint venture of seven organisations, including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the state government. The main role and functioning of this platform was to ensure coordination, policy advocacy and information dissemination. It provided sectoral dissemination of information and a platform for dialogue and negotiation between the involved organisations.

The role of TNTRC was, in other words, beyond operational coordination. It was also a state level policy hub that linked field level issues with the different layers of state administration. The TNTRC was established to bring the variety of stakeholders to coordinate efforts and facilitate recovery at the state level. In addition to the TNTRC, the United Nations (UN) established the United Nations Team for Recovery Support (UNTRS). This structure was funded by six UN agencies (UNDP, ILO, FAO, WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA), with the mandate to coordinate all UN activities in the post-tsunami recovery, in an attempt to bring the various UN agencies under one umbrella for disaster recovery.

In 2005, the UNTRS office was set up in Chennai (Tamil Nadu) with a team of professionals along with the UN tsunami coordinator. These professionals brought with them different expertise such as education, health, livelihoods etc. This framework was established with the objective to combine efforts from different UN agencies into one programme. Further, the aim was to create a system of common operational services.

Nagapattinam was the worst affected district in Tamil Nadu. Following the tsunami, the NGO coordination centre was formed to facilitate a coordinated response in the district. This was initiated by three local organisations. Later, the government administration established a relationship with the NGO Coordination Centre. As many NGOs started to register with the NGO Coordination Centre, there was a need felt to coordinate information on the tsunami response in the district. The NGO Coordination Centre was transformed into the NGO Coordination and Resource Centre (NCRC).

At the district level, one of the most prominent structures for coordination was the NCRC in Nagapattinam, the district that this study focuses on. NCRC was formed within a week after the tsunami struck the district, and brought together the government and major NGOs. Over a span of more than three years, it began a transition into an NGO in itself and is now called Building and Enabling Disaster Resilience of Coastal Communities (BEDROC). Similar coordinating structures were formed in the other affected districts of Tamil Nadu.

The Tsunami Rehabilitation Information Network (TRINet) was formed as a voluntary network of likeminded groups and organisations during the tsunami response, which were involved and had long-term interests along the coast. TRINet was formed as a voluntary network to facilitate information flow between organisations involved in tsunami response and recovery. It continues to host information on its website related to the coastline with a changed name: The Resource and Information Network: for the Coast.

3. Theoretical framework

A synthesis of disaster recovery research by Oliver-Smith and Tierney highlights that the initial thoughts on recovery pertained to a focus on the re-establishment of the built environment. However, at present “notions of recovery have evolved in ways that recognise the non-linear and often iterative character of recovery”. One of the key issues in recovery post-Mitch in Nicaragua on behalf of the international community was a failure to understand local institutional frameworks. Recovery literature has noted that top-down institutional approaches may not be viable for recovery, whereas inter-organisational relationships are crucial.

A key guiding principle highlighted by UNDP post-disaster recovery guidelines relates to coordination. As there are no distinct boundaries between response and recovery, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 showed that it is important to “improve coordination between a wide range of local, regional, national and international partners” during the transition. In this process, an Oxfam study post-tsunami highlights that communities urge to be equal partners in recovery.

Further the study reveals that “local knowledge, capacity and priorities were overlooked”. Disaster recovery is one of the under-researched subjects of disaster research. Also, as stated earlier, the subject of coordination in disaster recovery is much neglected as it has been an area of study in disaster response. Therefore, this paper is an attempt to highlight the factors affecting coordination in long-term recovery.

Although there are numerous definitions of coordination, it is here defined as “aligning one’s actions with those of other relevant actors and organisations to achieve a shared goal”. This definition is pragmatic and indicates that coordination is about “the harmonisation of activities among diverse actors” and is a collaborative process of interaction between organisations to meet common objectives.

The theoretical review below highlights three main areas of thinking about response coordination that may have applicability for coordination of disaster recovery as well. These are (1) the roles and responsibilities of different actors, (2) the functioning of coordination structures, and (3) factors affecting the effectiveness of coordination, and are used to guide the data collection and analysis described in the next chapters.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

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3.1. Roles and responsibilities

Disasters bring together multiple actors who often differ in terms of sector, expertise and nationality, as well as in terms of their abilities, values, norms and goals. These actors may be forced into new and unplanned roles and responsibilities by the unfamiliar, complex and dynamic character of the situation. Quarentelli outlines the various characteristics of catastrophes as heavy impacts; local officials’ inability to perform regular tasks; community functions impacted; and aid arriving from members outside the affected community.

Quarentelli’s work on emergence highlights that in such catastrophic situations “plans cannot predict all eventualities”. Catastrophic situations may witness emergent groups. Wachtendorf  highlights the role of improvisation during disasters. Further, “to discount the importance of pre-disaster planning is not only short-sighted but ignores the important role planning plays in enabling improvisation”.

Not only do the established actors have to improvise their efforts to meet the needs of the situation, but also take into account the range of other actors forming or entering in the disaster context, such as community groups, new NGOs, private sector initiatives and volunteers. Managing such assorted resources is likely to be challenging, especially as this mix of actors involves very different roles and responsibilities. It is however not the different roles and responsibilities themselves that cause problems, but actors neither having sufficient understanding of their roles and responsibilities, nor of the roles and responsibilities of others that they must coordinate with.

3.2. Functioning of coordination structures

When many different actors converge in a disaster situation, there is a need to set up some structure for coordinating their activities. Boin et al. state that the initial chaos during disaster coordination “can do without rules”. By this Boin et al., may imply that with variety and number of stakeholders in disaster situations, it may be chaotic where the initial response may still function without coordinated efforts or ground rules. Although we may not agree on that statement, we do agree with their claim that “successive phases require a few rules that facilitate the interaction between various actors and structure information flows”. Other influential scholars develop that second claim further and state that such coordination requires “a clearly articulated goal, a shared knowledge base, and a set of systematic information search, exchange and feedback processes”.

Regardless of the general objective of such coordination structures to gather actors onto one mutual platform, there are numerous examples of parallel structures being created in disaster situations. In addition to actually being connected to each other, actors must also be willing to coordinate with each other. Looking at Comfort’s definition of coordination above, there are several ways of “aligning one’s actions with those of other relevant actors and organisations to achieve a shared goal”.

The most basic activity to facilitate coordination is to share information with each other. Although information sharing is vital for coordination, it has limited effects on the overall efficiency of the total operation if not combined with more collaborative efforts. Examples of such collaboration are when different actors perform a specific task together (e.g. joint assessment or convoying), share resources; open up ones’ trainings for other actors, etc. Although these are examples of a deeper level of coordination, each actor is still mainly planning and implementing their own activities more or less by themselves. The deepest, most beneficial and also most difficult level of coordination is joint planning and programming. Here, actors join forces more completely, not only sharing information and helping each other to solve particular tasks, but planning and implementing joint activities to reach joint goals.

The functioning of coordination structures can in other words be summarised as facilitating clear and common goals, effective continuous information sharing, concrete inter-actor collaboration and joint planning and programs.

3.3. Factors affecting coordination

There are numerous factors that affect coordination presented in the available coordination literature. As already highlighted in the introduction, disaster situations bring together multiple actors and the sheer number of actors affects coordination. In addition to this, these different actors have different organisational mandates and goals, and are thus engaged in various activities. For instance, Quarentelli highlights the government and private actors may have “different interests, tasks and goals”. This may also affect coordination as these various mandates and goals may be unknown to other actors or even conflicting, while high equality between actors has been shown to have a strong impact on coordination.

Drabek and McEntire highlight that “emergency managers should not try to impose the command and control managerial model” with the reason to influence the participation of various actors. The authors of this paper re-iterate “institutional integration” as “multi-agency collaboration is crucial to effective decision making in all aspects of disaster risk management”. Disasters may have pressures “that encourage centralisation and standardisation of disaster norms”. However, it is important to realise the tension between centralisation and decentralisation. Enough space for organisational autonomy has to be created along with the capacity of organisations to improvise during disasters.

Coordination is a voluntary process with its prospective strength in consensus while maintaining the autonomy of individual organisations. Also, a potential weakness may be “poor performance of just one agency can compromise the effectiveness of all others”. Kruke and Olsen state that the lack of authority in coordination is a challenge in complex humanitarian emergencies, while Dynes and shows that control may not be the most appropriate way of coordination. Coordination may in this latter view be described as “mutually agreed upon cooperation about how to carry out particular tasks”. Hence, emphasising the mutuality of the relationships between actors involved in coordination. It has also been indicated that shared values, accepted behaviours and norms complement the more structural coordination mechanisms .

Donor related aspects, such as funding and project expectations, are also highlighted as factors affecting coordination. Moore et al. exemplify this in their study of coordination in the great Mozambique floods in 2000, when stating that “international NGOs were sometimes under significant pressure to spend money in a short period of time, thus leading to ‘short-term’ thinking and fewer relevant projects with long-term benefits”. Common incentives have been suggested to have a strong impact on coordination, further indicating that donors have a substantial influence on the effectiveness of coordination. Although the response to the 2004 tsunami has been the focus of numerous evaluations, which at least in theory may represent a shift towards greater accountability, evaluations of the response to and recovery from later disasters indicate that there has not been sufficient progress since then.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

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4. Methodology

Considering the outline of the research question, case study research comes out as a particularly suitable methodology. Case study research is also useful as it is, “in many ways, ideally suited to the needs and resources of the small-scale researcher”. Although case studies often are criticised for allowing biases to influence them, this is not a weakness of case studies per se since potential biases must be dealt with. Another common criticism is that case studies offer little basis for generalisation, which holds for statistical generalisations but not for analytical generalisations.

The chosen cases are in other words not sampling units, representative of a bigger population, but more like the cases chosen for making experiments. The purpose of the individual case studies is thus not to represent the world, but to represent the case itself. Knowledge developed from one case study cannot be generalised “through abstraction and loss of history and context”, but may be made applicable to other situations through “conscious reflection on similarities and differences between contextual features and historical factors”. In other words, while studying the case of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Tamil Nadu, this case study may present interesting results that could be compared to other disasters.

Data was collected through qualitative semi-structured interviews conducted in February 2010, March 2011, and October 2012. This method helped gathering rich experiences of respondents, who have worked with coordination during disaster recovery in post-tsunami Tamil Nadu. A total of 23 respondents were interviewed for this study. More than two rounds of semi-structured interviews were conducted with three of the respondents, two rounds of interviews were conducted with four of the respondents and one round with the others. All interviews were conducted in person, except one in 2012 that was conducted via Skype. The respondents represented different actors working in the post-tsunami recovery, and included:

  • Three respondents from the Nagapattinam district Coordination Centre (called NCRC then)
  • Five respondents from organisations working at the Nagapattinam district level, three respondents from the former Tamil Nadu Tsunami Resource Centre (TNTRC)
  • Four respondents from the former United Nations Team for Recovery Support (UNTRS)
  • Two government officials from two severely affected districts
  • Five respondents from NGOs working at a regional/state level (of which three were involved in TNTRC)
  • One respondent from TRINet (originally Tsunami Rehabilitation Information Network)

The respondents were selected using purposive snowball sampling in order to identify the respondents who would be able to provide the needed information. As many of the respondents have changed jobs over time, snowballing helped to identify and engage these respondents. The respondents were in other words identified based on their experience of the phenomenon under study [52], as they had been actively involved in coordination with a variety of actors since the tsunami response started. All the respondents were involved with long-term post-tsunami disaster recovery, either at the state or the district level.

An interview guide was used when conducting the semi-structured interviews. The open questions of the interview guide helped to keep the interviews within the scope of the study by directing them towards talking about (1) the roles and responsibilities of different actors, (2) the functioning of the coordination structures, and (3) factors affecting the effectiveness of coordination. The interviews allowed the respondents to speak freely within these broad topics and the interviewer to ask probing questions to clarify ideas and to seek more in-depth information as the interviews progressed.

The interviews were transcribed and the data analysed by identifying and coding important statements and details from the interviews that contribute to explaining the coordination phenomenon. These codes were later categorised into themes by clustering several statements with common patterns. These themes are presented in the next section on empirical findings.

5. Empirical findings

The tsunami of 2004 was one of worst disasters Tamil Nadu has ever seen. It attracted massive attention internationally and was one of the highest funded disasters ever. In this context, coordination within and between multiple actors, from the government, UN agencies and NGOs, became a major challenge. The findings indicate that while on one hand some of the factors influenced the coordination of recovery activities positively, some others acted as barriers for the same. It is important to note that the five themes presented below are the results of the analysis and not preconceived categories. The findings organised under the five themes represent both facilitators and barriers to coordination. The initial part of each finding highlights the facilitator role while the other half elucidates the role played as a barrier.

5.1. The need to coordinate

The majority of the respondents, fourteen of them, highlight that coordination was generally much spoken about in the tsunami relief and recovery efforts. These respondents identify a range of factors that stress the need for coordination from different angles. First of all, the sheer magnitude and impact of the tsunami across the Tamil Nadu coastline alerted various actors to coordinate with each other, and a majority of the respondents identify the need to coordinate to avoid duplication of activities at the field level. Also, as one of the respondents puts it “the local wisdom of the people involved in the coordinating bodies” affected coordination positively.

This respondent implies that the experience of actors from other major disasters in India, such as the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, highlighted the need for coordination at various levels. On the contrary, a respondent from a local organisation highlighted “what was done during initial response is-replacement of assets like houses and boats without understanding the local context. Distributing boats to all affected families irrespective of their need could have a long-term impact in the community. Long-term and holistic planning was not considered”. Another respondent notes that “however, with the local organisations involved in the recovery process, these issues were being discussed”.

Another respondent on local wisdom notes “perspectives between organisations differ. Organisations must have clarity of contextual factors”. According to another respondent, a government official, the need to coordinate arose to map capacities of responding organisations at various levels and to channel the available financial resources for recovery. One of the respondents states “during disasters, there are situations with an overlap or duplication of activities and sometimes even a gap that may not have been filled by any of the responders”. According to this respondent, the coordination platform took up this task of identifying these areas of duplication and gaps in various sectors that needed attention.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

Image: Multi-Organisational Coordination for Disaster Recovery

A few respondents also identify that coordination structures were planned to serve as advocacy forums in the sense of providing a platform for not only discussing operational issues, but also to advocate for increasing the attention of the government towards neglected issues in recovery. One of the respondents from the state level coordination structure (when TNTRC existed) summarises its functions as coordination at different levels, information dissemination and formation of core groups. The respondent notes that different core groups were formed based on expertise and objectives of the involved actors, and that their functions also included standardizing procedures across the region in the form of guidelines and to act as a resource centre for information, staff training and policy advocacy. However, according to a majority of the NGO respondents, coordination was merely an exchange of ideas and information without playing a strong role in advocating central issues for long-term recovery.

Although the need to coordinate was commonly recognised, it was in other words not free from challenges. For instance, as one of the respondents says “understanding the concept of coordination itself was a challenge to many organisations”. All five respondents from NGOs at the district level note that during disaster response, a majority of the actors that came in with resources were channelled and distributed in a way to avoid duplication. However, during recovery, most of these respondents describe that housing was the only sector focused in coordination meetings. Some of the respondents explain that a potential reason for this could be that housing coordination is comparatively easier, attaching it to the tangible aspects of housing reconstruction. They also add that results from many other sectors, such as education, livelihood and health, take longer time periods to generate in relation to the established aims of a given project.

5.2. The role of the government

According to nine of the respondents, the government supported the idea of establishing coordination structures at the state and district level given the scale of the disaster. All respondents from the former Nagapattinam NGO Coordination and Resource Centre (NCRC) explain that the NCRC was established to achieve mutually perceived benefits between the government and NGOs during response and long-term recovery. One respondent from NCRC further explains that the leadership from government officials, at both the state and district level, contributed to the effectiveness of the coordination structure. The respondents note that the government officials were always willing to listen to various issues that needed their attention. One respondent from the UNDP states that “coordination is a process, not a tangible institution”, and continues by explaining that the process would not have worked without the involvement of government officials.

The respondents from the coordinating bodies at the state and district level share similar opinions about the ownership of the coordination process. Although one respondent highlights that “coordination is a process”, five respondents state that the government should have the mandate to take necessary steps to institutionalise the coordination structures. These coordination structures can, according to these respondents, only facilitate coordination if the government has the ownership and authority to ensure accountability of the actors involved. According to respondents from the district level, another factor adds to this, namely the fact that not all organisations had registered with the coordinating agencies. To ensure that no duplication of efforts takes place through the entire span of response and recovery, respondents note that coordination structures should be part of the government mandate and structure.

Although the respondents note that government officials were willing to pay attention to the issues raised by the coordination platforms, they also note challenging factors within the government structure. Furthermore, the respondents from the coordination structures at state and district level identify a challenge in changing governmental structures over the course of disaster response and recovery; both in the sense of changing the actual setup of the structures, and in the sense of staff turnover of key governmental officials. According to them, if the coordination process had been properly institutionalized, a change in government officials would not affect the coordination processes to the extent it did. When there is a change in governmental structure, the entire process of coordination has to be redefined along with its relevance and role to the new officials. The respondents from government highlight that there are no guidelines for coordination in long-term disaster recovery, but that the coordination process is dependent on the leadership involved at state and district level. Therefore, they also agree that changing governmental structures hamper coordination during recovery.

5.3. Knowledge networking

Fourteen of the respondents spoke about different aspects of information and knowledge networking related to gathering information, availability of information from the coordination structures, and timely information dissemination, as key factors that contribute to effective coordination. The respondents from the district level coordination structure explain that having staff members spread across the entire affected district, helped in collecting and collating different sets of information throughout the response and recovery process. At least eight of the respondents representing different actors explain that the value of information being available at all times on specific issues of different sectors during recovery contributed to coordination.

The respondents from the state and local level coordinating structures express a common view that information was being gathered and also triangulated from various sources as most actors, on both implementation and policy level, were connected to at least one coordination structure. The coordinating structures at the state and district level contributed to a continuous newsletter during the recovery process, with issues related to policy, implementation and recovery strategies. These newsletters gave different actors an idea of ongoing and coming activities across the affected region and across various sectors of implementation.

Specific examples of information in the newsletter is that each issue had sector specific themes that shared information on NGOs and case studies that were relevant to the tsunami recovery process in Tamil Nadu; information on policy-level decisions; briefs of meetings between government and other agencies involved in the recovery. A respondent from TRINet further explains that their role was to ensure timely information to the affected communities, enable access to information on the web and ensure that this information reaches the many actors involved in the long-term recovery process.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

Image: Multi-Organisational Coordination for Disaster Recovery

As stated earlier, almost all the respondents express that there is great value in coordinating with multiple actors involved in disaster recovery. According to almost all of the respondents from NGOs, the exchange of ideas, experiences and effective recovery strategies from different sectors in the field had a positive impact on coordination. Exchange of ideas and experiences implied sharing best practices and lessons learned from various disasters in many other parts of the country and also from different districts affected by the tsunami.

One of the examples for sharing ideas cited by the respondents is the technical expertise of both policy-makers and practitioners that was pooled in for designing houses. Other benefits according to the respondents included-avoiding duplication; having all information available at one resource centre; coordination helped in having a wide coverage to collect and disseminate information; having access to technical expertise from different sectors on the coordination platform. They express in different ways that coordinating with other organisations brings an opportunity to network and provides an insight into ongoing discussions across the affected region. According to the government officials, coordination brought an added value by facilitating mapping of capacities and financial resources for investment in disaster recovery.

Four of the respondents from the government, NGOs and the UN agencies express that both formal and informal networks and connections among actors from various organisations contributed to coordination. They express that actors involved in long-term recovery built an effective network of information exchange and contributed to building not only a knowledge base but also a pool of expertise for different aspects of disaster recovery in Tamil Nadu. However, respondents note that actors only coordinated for exchange of ideas and information, and independently implemented their projects in the absence of a collective recovery agenda.

According to all the respondents, one of the main added values of the coordination structures was that of building a knowledge base for all aspects of disaster risk management where recovery is part and parcel of the process. The knowledge base was contributed by different stakeholders involved in the tsunami response and recovery. All the major policy recommendations of the government; studies on risk, vulnerability and disaster recovery after the tsunami; lessons learned from various sectors of the tsunami recovery by different stakeholders and many other topics contributed to the vast documentation.

According to the majority of the respondents, this need was identified not only by the coordinating platforms but also by many stakeholders involved in disaster risk management. According to them, though the tsunami was one of the first disasters of that scale, it opened a new possibility of establishing a state level resource centre for disaster risk management. Five of the respondents explain that the state level coordination structure could not continue to hold its value for sharing information or serving as a coordinating agency in the long run. They attribute this to political reasons as one of the respondent states “the government was not willing to encourage a long-term coordination platform” and therefore a breakdown in the process of institutionalizing the coordination structure.

The respondent further explains that the government was taking a reactionary mode of “we shall see when the need arises”. The respondents from government and many others explain that the tsunami related resources and documentations were the product of an investment of money, time and efforts of many people. However, they note that these resources are no longer available, neither online nor in physical form. In contrast, the TRINet and the NCRC websites continue to host all the information since the beginning of the tsunami related efforts, and NCRC has transformed into a long-term player in recovery and risk reduction in Nagapattinam and continues to serve as a resource centre.

5.4. Mandates and goals

Eight of the respondents from the NGOs highlight that the mandates of different actors are different from each other. This leads, according to them, to a situation that hampers coordination, as it becomes difficult to identify common interests, as well as to plan and implement joint activities. Many of the respondents from NGOs and one from the government note that there was no understanding of a transition between disaster response and recovery, even given that the boundaries are unclear.

According to them, many actors had problems with understanding concepts being used such as early recovery, sustainable recovery, etc. According to them, the differences in conceptual understanding arose between the local organisations and the international organisations. One of the clear ways that inhibited communication according to the respondents is that local organisations may not have followed all the concepts used by international agencies due to lack of training in specific issues of disaster risk management. One of the respondents states “the term coordination had different meanings to various agencies”.

Coordination meant sharing information among many of them and to some of them was to only attend a meeting and share their specific work. By this the respondent highlights that it is crucial for organisations involved to understand each other and use the same conceptual notations for better communication. This lack of mutual understanding posed a common problem to coordination and to designing recovery strategies. A small minority of the respondents, although representing different types of actors, note that actors not having a local presence, or not planning to stay for long-term recovery activities, did not engage much in coordination. Another respondent, representing the government, highlights the gap in formally mainstreaming recovery activities, as well as in setting rules for coordinating recovery.

This respondent gets support from another representing the district level, when stating that it is essential that coordination has the affected community at the centre of its discussions and decisions. Among the respondents from NGOs and the UN, at least five state that different actors have changing priorities from disasters to development issues, as well as climate change issues. However, they note a gap between and within these actors in arguing for an integrated recovery approach, which has posed a serious challenge for long-term coordination.

5.5. Coordination at the donor level

All five respondents from NGOs at the district level state that there have been single beneficiary communities of the same type of recovery projects from more than one external actor at the same time. This is, in view of the respondents, a clear symptom of lack of coordination between donors. One of the respondents added an interesting view about the challenge in convincing donors about mainstreaming recovery, risk reduction and development. This arises due to the fact that donors considered Tamil Nadu to be higher on the Human Development Index (HDI) compared to other Indian states, and not eligible to the same extent for development funds. Therefore, the challenge was to ensure that the projects are not solely development oriented but tightly coupled with recovery and disaster risk reduction.

6. Discussion

The study indicates that there is a common view among the respondents concerning the need to coordinate disaster recovery, although voiced in various ways. This is perhaps not surprising considering the immense focus on coordination and coordination challenges in the current disaster risk management discourse. The study also highlights the massive scale and magnitude of the 2004 tsunami, as well as experiences of past disasters, as contributing factors for the rapid consensus that coordination was key to the effectiveness of the ensuing operations, especially as the number and variety of actors skyrocketed. Although respondents identify other key aspects of coordination, such as advocating for neglected issues and prioritising resources, the study indicates a more or less complete focus on information sharing and not much on more concrete collaboration or joint planning and programs. In other words, coordination is deemed vital, but mainly limited to only the most basic type of coordination activities.

Regardless of the focus on coordination in the current disaster risk management discourse, the study indicates ambiguities about what the term coordination meant for different actors. Such Babylonian confusion of conceptual and terminological vagueness is undermining the effectiveness of coordination, regardless if rooted in ignorance or professional imperatives, and is contributing to explaining the focus on information sharing presented above. If not knowing what coordination could entail, it may be easy to focus on what feels familiar and certain. This challenge with terminology is unfortunately not limited to the concept of coordination, but included a whole range of concepts that altogether created a jargon jungle that many actors had difficulties navigating through. Hence, their restrictions in being able to communicate with each other further reduced the possibilities to coordinate.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

Image: Multi-Organisational Coordination for Disaster Recovery

It is also interesting to note that the coordination that did take place started to dwindle as the immediate needs were met and focus shifted towards recovery. The study indicates that housing issues were more or less the only focus of these later recovery coordination meetings. There may be different reasons for that, e.g. housing being a tangible and costly sector, but the consequences for coordination were significant. Actors stopped attending coordination meetings, funding for coordination declined and coordination structures were terminated. It seems, however, that actors that were more embedded into the local context, having a long-term local presence, were more likely to take an active part in coordination over time.

Coordination was also complicated by the plethora of different coordination structures that mushroomed in the wake of the tsunami. Although not found in the study, when comparing with the theoretical framework above, it is clear that parallel coordination structures on the same administrative level are likely to undermine the effectiveness of coordination. First of all, “aligning one’s actions with those of other relevant actors and organisations to achieve a shared goal”, entails having a shared goal and a common interface for communication. In short, to harmonise activities among diverse actors requires a common platform for dialogue and action, which is restricted by having parallel platforms without very refined links between. However, it is interesting to note that common goals were not only difficult to produce between the different coordination structures, but also within each structure itself.

Mitchell  notes that leadership during emergencies may be a complex subject as a leader’s role is dependent on circumstances. These circumstances Mitchell attributes to the timing of a leader holding a key position in the government during the time of a disaster and therefore being confronted with the need to perform. Although respondents have mentioned the need for strong government involvement, it must be clarified that it implies such involvement at all levels of the government (including the decentralised form of local governments).

Furthermore, the study also identifies the possibility of a side-effect of too much government involvement being a barrier to flexibility. Therefore, it is necessary that though the government has an active role in coordination, it must ensure the autonomy of other organisations. Also, communities have to be at the centre of any decision-making as all decisions would have impacts on the affected community.

The study indicates that regardless of the government perceiving coordination as important and playing an important role at least initially, it did not engage actively in taking ownership of the process at all levels. It also indicates that the ownership of the government to coordinate was generally less, although unclear if this was due to lack of willingness or capability. This may be due to unclear roles and responsibilities, where it is not clear to all actors what to expect from each other. It is also interesting to relate this to the tension between authority and mutuality highlighted in the theoretical framework. Coordination was further complicated by lack of institutionalisation of the coordination structures in general and the governmental parts in particular. This allowed constant changes in the governmental structures and high staff turnover to continuously undermine the progress made in coordination over time.

It is clear in the study that a lot of money, time and effort were invested in creating a common knowledge base to be shared with all actors participating in one or more coordination structures. Although this is an important factor for coordination, as described in the theoretical framework, we argue that it is equally important to sustain these results in creating an institutional repository for long-term learning in disaster recovery. There are good examples of this, such as the NCRC, but these are unfortunately more of exceptions than rules, and vast amounts of vital information have been lost, or ceased to be updated, as coordination structures dwindled and died. The study also indicates that it is not only information that is lost, but also vital knowledge and lessons learnt (or at least lessons identified), i.e. knowledge and lessons that could have been used to facilitate better response and recovery in the future.

It is clear that the recovery after the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu has involved, and continues to involve, numerous and very different actors. We have already discussed the lack of common goals above, but turn now our attention to the effects of having different goals and mandates in more detail. The study indicates that different mandates do hamper coordination, which is fully in line with the theoretical framework presented earlier. Although there may be different mandates behind, the study qualifies this as at least partly a challenge for finding common interests or defining common activities.

In short, if one actor is fully focused on one sector, or one type of activities, it is difficult to get their attention on other important issues. Such narrow interests of many actors also reduced the results of the overall operation, as the full challenge was not addressed in a holistic way. For instance, not mainstreaming risk reduction into housing reconstruction, or not engaging with the local communities to find out what they need in relation to housing to be able to go on living their lives. It is therefore particularly interesting to note that it was precisely the housing sector that showed most collaboration between different types of actors, with close links between governmental and non-governmental actors. Although organisations seek autonomy, coordination seeks shared values.

Multi-organisational coordination for disaster recovery

Image: Multi-Organisational Coordination for Disaster Recovery

Closely related to issues of goals and mandates, is the issue of lack of donor-level coordination. Although field-level coordination is vital for facilitating efficient use of available resources and for limiting potential duplication of efforts, donor-level coordination is equally vital as there may be other driving forces influencing actors’ behaviour than the overall effectiveness of the operation. For instance, competition over funding between actors may be fierce and result in many actors wanting to work in the area and sector with the most intense mass media attention regardless of other areas and sectors that are equally or even more pressing. Such funding seeking behaviour is understood for the survival of each actor in the field, but is undermining the overall effectiveness of what the entire community of actors try to achieve, much like the famous prisoner’s dilemma. This calls for closer donor-level coordination and for developing other less mass media driven mechanisms for distributing funding.

When looking at what factors affected coordination during long-term recovery in Tamil Nadu, it is interesting to note a rather close connexion to those concerning response coordination found in the literature. The context may be different, but the challenges remain and even increase, as the sense of urgency and attention drops and the variety of involved actors increases. Conventional knowledge concerning balancing authority and mutuality for coordination seems to be applicable here as well, but there may be reasons for shifting the balance more towards authority. By this authority, we imply the role of the government to facilitate collaborative strategies, thereby ensuring accountability of organisations involved. This is because time is less of an issue, in relation to rescue and relief activities, allowing for a well designed and institutionalized coordination structure that address the overall challenges as well as facilitates sectoral coordination. Unfortunately, the reality is rather the opposite, with dwindling and dying coordination structures after the most immediate response needs are met.

Considering the findings of this study, highlighting the amount and diversity of actors involved, as well as the lack of clear and common goals and mutually understood mandates, roles and responsibilities, it may be appropriate to approach coordination as a governance problem. This has been suggested for addressing risk issues in general and fits the context of recovery well, especially as disaster recovery is also highly complex. A governance approach may be particularly suitable for grasping and facilitating coordination of recovery, also since it is widely accepted to be a “window of opportunity” for implementing risk reduction and closely linked with development. Although governance is not the main focus of this paper, the authors identify it as an important umbrella for disaster recovery coordination in their analysis. It may thus be crucial to highlight the polycentric nature of governance in this context, as “there are many overlapping arenas of authority and responsibility for disaster risk reduction and post disaster intervention”. However, Tierney indicates that “governance is a new concept in the study of disasters” and “research on governance issues related to hazards and disasters is in its infancy”. Developing a governance approach to coordination in general and recovery coordination in particular is in other words an interesting area for future research.

7. Conclusion

The study highlights that although coordination is deemed vital, coordination activities are mainly limited to information sharing, and dwindle as immediate response needs are met and focus shifts towards recovery. Similarly, the government is very important for the coordination of recovery and needs to take clear ownership of the process and to institutionalise one coherent coordination structure that facilitates both holistic and sectoral coordination over time. It is equally vital that information, knowledge and lessons learnt are sustained in an institutional repository that outlives the overall recovery operation, which is also vital for addressing terminological confusion of unclear and diverse use of key concepts.

To lift coordination above mere information sharing, it is vital to formulate common goals, at least overall goals, and to make sure that each actor is aware of her/his own mandate, role and responsibility, as well as of the mandates, roles and responsibilities of the other actors involved. Closer donor-level coordination is crucial for more efficient use of resources to meet the overall recovery needs, as well as new and less mass media driven mechanisms for distributing funding between the involved actors.

Although the findings of this study provide only a limited snapshot of a vast and complex operation, it may be interesting to compare its results with other cases to seek out any potential generalisations that would further increase our ability to guide future recovery policy and practice. Finally, the study indicates that knowledge about response coordination in many ways is applicable to recovery coordination, but with contextual differences in balance and focus.

It suggests developing a governance approach to coordination in general and recovery coordination in particular could be an area of future research. Further, future research on disaster recovery coordination could explore the dimensions of shared goals and map interdependencies between various stakeholders in disaster recovery. Also, an interesting and beneficial area of research could be to explore the challenges of coordination for recovery while intersecting with long-term development.

By Emmanuel Raju, Training Regions Research Centre, Sweden.

Published with permission from the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

Published in Science Direct, where you can view the full list of references.

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