There is no agreed definition of “community participation”. Both terms have been used in different ways when referred to housing, moving from neighbourhood, local NGOs, a slum, etc. in the case of “community”, and partnership, political decentralisation, self-help construction, etc. in the case of “participation”.

The attention to a new approach which put people at the centre of the construction process started in the 1960s, though at that time it was merely a mean to obtain community’s consensus on development projects in order to receive their labour contribution. But it is in the 1970s that the debate took form, particularly in 1976 when John Turner in “Housing by People” put an important and still relevant question “Who decides what for whom is the central issue (...) on housing and human settlement”.

In fact, this underlines the long-standing debate on the different roles covered by aid agencies, local governments, people affected by a disaster, etc. all of which taking part in a “community participation” process. According to past experiences, best results have been obtained when “users” are involved since the early stages of a project and not just as a labour force.

Latin America counts a long tradition of community participation processes. Concerns about persistent inequalities, the neglected condition of the poorest, and the recognition that production programmes didn’t meet popular interests, have created a fertile ground for a participatory involvement in social changes as well as in housing reconstruction programmes.

History teaches us that there is not a correct response to be applied. Depending on the context, different participatory approaches can be viable as well.

Colombia 1999 earthquake

On January 25th 1999, two earthquakes of magnitude 6.2 and 5.8 on the Richter Scale hit the coffee-growing region “Eje Cafetero” in Armenia, Colombia. 1,185 people died, 550,000 were left homeless, and 100,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. It represents the worst disaster in the country’s history not only for its massive damage, but also in terms of economic losses estimated at 2.2% of Colombia’s GDP and occurred in a period of economic recession.

Similar to other Latin American countries, Colombia suffers from unequal distribution of wealth. Rural residents are the most disadvantaged, struggling to survive in a nation where the state seems to be absent in their territories. No land reforms had been done in the decades prior to the earthquake due to a lack of interest, this had led the neglected community to strengthen their abilities, particularly the capacity to organise themselves. As a consequence, they had focused on the coffee industry, their most important activity, and had created a Coffee Growers’ Federation which had the role to manage a network of several organisations, the so-called CGOs.

The system of relationships that had been created over the years through both the CGF and the CGOs, played a key role in the reconstruction of the damaged areas that involved community participation. As a response to the earthquake, the Government decided to delegate to selected NGOs and other organisations the role of managing the post-disaster intervention giving each one of them the responsibility of one of the 32 zones that composed the affected region.

CGF was given responsibility for the rural area. Its main purpose was to avoid a passive attitude of the beneficiaries throughout the process by reversing the traditional scheme that was usually applied during similar interventions. Instead of leaving all important decisions and choices in the hands of one organisation, beneficiaries were asked to approach their local CGO in order to obtain what they needed. It has to be considered that this solution was made possible thanks to the strong relationship that had been set up among rural workers and local CGOs in the years prior to the earthquake.

The intervention was sustained by a fund called FORECAFE with a total amount equivalent to 50 million USD. Thanks to it, three programmes were developed: FORECAFE 1 focused on the affected coffee growers and workers, FORECAFE 2 as a sustain of the non-coffee workers who lived in the rural area, and FORECADE 3 designate for community services.

The reconstruction of the “Eje Cafetero” presents many different resolutions due to the variety of possibilities offered by the NGOs responsible for each one of the affected zones. The CGF programme proposed three options to its beneficiaries: pre-fabricated houses promoted by CGF; houses promoted by other NGOs; individual option.

Whatever option was chosen, each family involved in the programmes FORECAFE 1 or 2 was entitled to apply for the funds administered by the CGOs providing that their proposal was accepted by the organisation. They were free to decide whether to rebuild new structures or to refurbish previous ones. Furthermore, they could invest their money in spaces that could generate incomes (i.e. small industries, stores, etc.). In any case, their design had to be approved by specialists who monitored that each building was resistant to hazards and conformed to environmental standards established by the CGOs. Moreover, during the construction phase, beneficiaries could decide whether to build their house themselves or hiring a labour force.

El Salvador 2001 earthquake

El Salvador lies on two tectonic plates, the Coco and Caribe plates, that regularly collide into one another and generate an intense seismic activity. On January and February 13th 2001 two earthquakes hit the country. The first one registered a magnitude of 7.6 on the Richter Scale, while the second one measured 6.6. Official data reported that almost ¼ of the population had been affected, and this contributed to worsen the living conditions of the rural population who had been affected by Hurricane Mitch three years before, in 1998.

The whole country was affected by the two earthquakes. The department of San Vicente was one of the most hit; therefore the Spanish Red Cross together with the El Salvadorian Red Cross focused their attention on two among the thirteenth municipalities that compose this department: Tecoluca and Verapaz. They proposed a progressive housing approach that enabled the affected community to re-create “a new life” after the disaster. In fact, in exchange of labour involvement in the construction phase, the target people would have become the owner of the house; therefore they would have increased their living conditions. Also, the idea of progressive housing referred to the fact that people could have implemented it in the future depending to their possibilities and needs.

The first step of the process was the selection of the beneficiaries who had to be the most vulnerable among the affected population. The criteria applied considered three main requirements:
1: people had to be victims of the disaster;
2: they didn’t have to own a house;
3: their incomes had to inferior to a monthly salary of 97 USD per person.

Houses were built in the same place as before the quake. The community involvement in the project started since the beginning during the project design where they could take some decisions like the position of doors and windows. Later on, during the construction phase, they helped the construction company as unskilled labour force to build the main structure that had to be earthquake resistant. In the second phase, the completion of the house required an even higher involvement of the community. The last step of the programme was dedicated to the provision water supply and a sanitation system.

The two case-studies stated above show that reconstructions tent to be much more successful if communities play a decision-making role, like the population of the “Eje Cafetero” in Colombia. In this case people had to assume the responsibility of their own choices, evaluating the solution that better suited for them according to the funding available, and trying not to waste their money. Therefore, everyone involved in the programme made a big effort in the reconstruction of its own house, trying to optimise the resources available as much as possible. This led, in some cases, to the recycling of some parts of their previous house like doors, windows, toilets, etc. However, it has to be mentioned that some rural residents that were living illegally in the target area, weren’t involved in the project. These people were usually installed in risky areas; therefore their vulnerable condition should have been in the programme.

On the contrary, in El Salvador community participation was less strong than in Colombia. In this case the recorded frequency of disasters had weakened the population, and therefore a radical intervention in people’s lifestyles was required to increase their living conditions. In order to achieve this goal, the Red Cross monitored the whole process, from the beginning until the end, and it resulted to be efficient and effective. The community involved is composed by a group of people selected according to specific criteria. Their participation on a post-disaster reconstruction process is expressed through the involvement in the construction of their future house. However, the role of the community is not the same throughout the project. In the first part of the process, in fact, external figures like the construction company play a major role, while in the second part people play a central role. At the same time, it was recorded that being part in a building construction as a labour force, enabled the community to learn a job and this increased their future employability in this field.