Making a Difference: Recupera Chile

You Are the World Experts

by | Sep 9, 2013

Photo of damage to homes from earthquake and tsunami in coastal Chile in 2010

In February 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated coastal towns in Chile. Not much later, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Doug Ahlers traveled to Chile to explore how his university could assist in community recovery. DRCLAS Regional Office staff member Marcela Renteria and I accompanied Ahlers on a trip to the Bio Bio Region to meet with authorities and disaster victims disaster to determine the areas where we could be helpful. His approach has led to stunning results.

Ahlers had led teams of Harvard students and faculty in the now famous Broadmoor Project in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. One of the world’s top experts on disasters, he has provided advice on disaster recovery in places like Haiti, New Zealand and Indonesia. He focuses on the most difficult aspects of the rebuilding process: reviving local economies, reestablishing communities and integrating new built spaces. His experience has led him to novel approaches to disaster recovery.

In our first meetings in Chile two years ago we invited entire communities to meet in Dichato, Cobquecura and Perales, three towns where badly needed assistance was needed. Ahlers’ opening remarks in the first meeting in Cobquecura are indicative of his approach.

“You are the world experts about Cobquecura, tell us how we can help,” he said.

The reaction of the communities was enthusiastic. They had been accustomed to international organizations telling them what was needed. They were finally being asked.

There was an immediate need to generate employment opportunities. The breakdown of the local economies caused by the disaster erased most means of livelihood. For example, in Perales, a family that depended on its lone cow—dead in the tsunami—for the sale of milk to its neighbors had no resources to buy a new one. In Dichato, the local entrepreneur who managed a newsstand had no working capital to replace it and pay for the publications lost in the tsunami. The owner of a small market saw her store smashed by the earthquake.

Unemployment combined with inadequate temporary and overly crowded living spaces in the refugee camps led to severe community dysfunction— violence, alcoholism and psychological problems, especially among children. Formerly picturesque coastal towns of houses built with adobe were in ruins, eliminating the normal tourist trade.

Based on our first meetings, and help from a number of experts in Chile, including several Harvard alumni, a plan took shape. By January 2012, Doug was leading a team of faculty and students to the area to begin the program. Students worked in teams in the three communities helping to build business plans, awarding 40 business development grants. Through these efforts, additional local entrepreneurs received working capital from a special fund set up by the Chilean government. Judy Palfrey, the Master of Adams House and former president of the American Society of Pediatrics, began a comprehensive program of child mental and physical health with colleagues at Universidad de Concepción. MIT professor Miho Mazereeuw set the stage for introducing new technologies in adobe construction to revive spaces attractive for tourists as well as people from the community.

Two years have passed by now, and the program has contributed enormously to the recovery of these three towns. Families have been able to return to work, children are receiving professional help, teachers in the local schools are being trained, entrepreneurs are starting new businesses, small-scale farming is returning, and construction plans are in place. Looking toward the future, plans include re-establishing shellfish beds that had been wiped out by the tsunami, and encouraging tourism with added attractions such as ATM machines, free Internet, and even a microbrewery.

Doug Ahler’s statement, that the communities themselves are the world experts on their own towns, has been the blueprint for the program, resulting in success after success as people advance with the right kind of outside assistance.

Spring 2013Volume XIII, Number 1

Ned Strong is the director of the DRCLAS Regional Office in Santiago de Chile. For more information, visit:

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