Interview with Dr. Juan Pablo Sarmiento
Shaping urban development in emerging markets

Dr. Juan Pablo Sarmiento is a medical doctor and research professor at the Stempel College ofPublic Health at Florida International University (FIU). He began his career in public health and public admin-istration services in Colombia. Dr. Sarmiento is recognized for his studies of government and public sector interaction with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private voluntary organizations (PVOs). His current position at FIU focuses on disaster risk reduction, mirroring the international trend to move from the response mode to a proactive approach that addresses risk management.

Juan Pablo Sarmiento

What role does physical infrastructure play in reconstruction?

Infrastructure has the ability to shape the urban development process in a community after a disaster. The recovery process is sometimes the only window of opportunity a particular location has to move into development. For that brief moment, you have the political will, the availability of resources, the opportunity to rethink land use, and a common construction standard. The possibility exists to develop a shared vision of the future.

Infrastructure is the backbone of this development process. If you have a clear vision of the social and economic goals for a community—as well as the environmental context—you can picture the outcomes. That’s a very good starting point, because you can begin identifying the type of infrastructure you need in order to get there.

At the international level, infrastructure could serve as a catalyst for change. A large chunk of post-disaster aid goes to contractors, who have a choice: They can build to minimal standards or they can build to higher standards geared toward the long term—with consideration for location, codes, and resilience.

Building to minimal standards typically results in short-term profits, but as the research has shown, the financial benefits of building to higher standards for the long term are clear. This would likely give funders higher return on investment as they incorporate risk reduction into their portfolios.

How can the various public- and private-sector organizations collaborate to reduce disaster risk?

Most regions have a collection of scientific studies about hazards, but unfortunately, the information is recorded in scientific language. This information has not been translated in a way that people—such as the decision makers in a community—can really understand.

And unfortunately, most of these studies are related to the disasters, not to the risks associated with them. To date, we don’t have any standard methodology to measure exposure, susceptibility, or resilience. There are different approaches; in each study, the results are interpreted according to the researchers’ perspective. But work on developing a standard methodology is still under way.

Another obstacle is access: People at the municipal level seldom have the opportunity to access information that technical institutions have at the central level. For example, construction industry studies about soil and land use are rarely shared with civic authorities. This syndrome applies to the international community as well.

The academic community, the private sector, and governments need to work together to assemble a dataset of risk assessment information. This repository could be accessed by interested parties seeking to build or rebuild resilient human, digital, and physical infrastructure.

Do common lessons apply in disaster-prone areas?

We have an interesting research finding that we call “mirror cases.” When a city, state, or even a country is exposed through the media to a disaster in another location that shares similar attributes or types of risks, even though it isn’t directly affected, it begins to assess its own disaster preparedness. The city starts asking, “Are we prepared if that happens here? What do we need to fix? What can we improve?”

After the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, we saw how Kingston, Jamaica, started reflecting on its vulnerabilities. Similarly, after the earthquake in Santiago, Chile, we saw the impact on Lima, Peru; Lima began reviewing its zoning and building codes.

What opportunities exist for resilient post-disaster rebuilding in emerging markets?

After a disaster, you typically see evidence of recovery—more infrastructure, more houses—built within a short timeframe. What we need to address instead are long-term solutions for resilient infrastructure in the event of a future disaster.

International organizations are essential to this kind of long-term commitment—especially when they work with local communities to build more resilient infrastructure using a long-term master plan that incorporates land use management practices, construction standards, and rezoning.

Incorporating resilience requires, at a minimum, transferring knowledge, implementing technology, and building local capacity to maintain the new technology and infrastructure. This is difficult to do with competing agendas at the international, national and local levels. But I am seeing more awareness among the international NGO community of the need to transfer some responsibility to the national and local level.

Opportunities abound for the private sector to assign the local community a more important role in resilient reconstruction. I know of several construction and telecommunications companies that have implemented programs that generate a profit while achieving positive social and economic impact within the local population.

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