Public policy during a crisis: 3 Lessons learned from Ecuador’s earthquake

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Guest blog written by Sandra Naranjo Bautista

Last October, I was a guest lecturer at Harvard’s Executive Education ProgramBudgeting Through Crisis. I talked about my experience as a minister during Ecuador’s 2016 earthquake with Salimah Samji, Director of the Building State Capability Program. Our conversation brought up memories that motivated me to write this blog. You can also listen to the podcast.

I’ll share 3 lessons from my experience dealing with a crisis. I also prepared a cheat sheet with additional information and examples that complement this blog. You can download it here.

Ecuador’s 2016 earthquake 

In April 2016, Ecuador was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the strongest earthquake in nearly a century. The epicenter was between the coastal provinces of Manabí and Esmeraldas, around 200 Km away from the capital, Quito. At the time I was Minister of Planning and Development. That night, as the reports started to arrive, I could literally feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. The next morning, the scale of damages became clearer and the severity of the situation started to sink in. Homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and major infrastructure had been destroyed. More than 600 lives were lost, and damages and losses amounted to US$ 3 billion (0.7% GDP). 

Lesson 1: Have your priorities clear

Emergencies are unexpected and their effect can surpass government’s installed capacity to respond. There can be confusion about what to prioritize and how to find the required resources. Breaking the process into manageable steps can help to avoid becoming overwhelmed. 

1.    Identify your financing gap

I know it’s obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. You could use the below as a checklist to make sure you are not missing anything and reassess as frequently as required. You need to be clear on:

  • Available funds: From your own emergency funds, budget reallocations, contingency lines, and from creditors and donors. It’s important to identify the availability and the conditions, if any, for the use of those resources. 
  • Required funds to respond to and manage the crisis. Not only the immediately relief efforts, but also the recovery and reconstruction. I expand on these phases here
  • The financing gap: Identify the amount of resources required for each phase as well as the timing of those requirements.  

2. Prioritize your interventions

In a crisis, the pressure of scarcity is exacerbated. There aren’t enough resources for all your needs. This helped me to categorize projects into three buckets: 1) projects that should be done, 2) those that are desirable, and 3) those that were not a priority. Once that initial triage is in place, rank your projects in terms of priority for the first two categories. Even if you don’t have the available resources now, it is important to have an assessment of your overall needs and a list of your priorities, if and when additional resources become available.  

3. Sequence your interventions

During the earthquake, we divided our actions into three phases: (i) Humanitarian response (the immediate relief effort); (ii) recovery response (short and medium-term); and (iii) reconstruction (longer term measures). In the cheat sheet I’ve added a graph we used for the earthquake and examples of how we used it (download it here). 

Keep in mind that while there are many things that need to be done, not everything has to start at the same time. Furthermore, not everything is ready to go at the same time. For example, rebuilding a collapsed hospital was a priority for Ecuador. However, soil and structural studies were required before the construction. A clear project flow will improve your cash flow management. 

Lesson 2: Meet citizens where they are 

Citizens’ well-being is your main priority. Yet, it’s easy to get caught in the urgency to act and forget who are you working for. Make sure to create mechanisms to listen to people and to understand their priorities and needs. If a program is not working, or an action you are taking is not functioning, ask yourself if there is something that you could be missing. 

Here is a quick example from the earthquake. Contrary to our belief, the idea of closing temporary shelters after the earthquake created tensions among the earthquake’s victims. At first, we couldn’t understand why. By talking with them we realized that for vulnerable families the shelter was better than what they had before. Furthermore, they had 24-hour security, food 3 times a day, child care during work hours, and activities for the children on the weekends. A better understanding helped us reframe the message and explain better that we would only close the shelters to move them to their new houses (I discuss more about this here). 

Another example, this time from the COVID-19 pandemic. Compliance with lockdowns have varied across countries. Not surprisingly, household’s available income and living conditions play a key role. What I found interesting is the innovative approach some countries took to address these issues. Argentina, for example, replaced the ‘stay home’ policy with a ‘stay in your neighbourhood’ measure to respond to overcrowding and poor access to public services in slums.   

Lesson 3: Institutionalize lessons learned

A crisis imposes challenges on a country, but it also provides valuable lessons. Some come from the need to innovate and adapt existing systems. Others come from the things we wished we would’ve done differently. In either case, one of the biggest takeaways from the earthquake was the need to institutionalize the lessons learned. This includes ensuring that the systems and mechanisms are in place so that you are better prepared for the next emergency. Korea is one of my favorite examples of learning from past failures (read more here). 

The pandemic has forced governments to set up new mechanisms to respond to the crisis: software to report new cases, solutions to digitalize public services, and improvements of existing programs. Peru, for example, adapted its cash transfer program, targeted to poor populations in rural areas, to include vulnerable populations in urban areas. They had to find a way to register new beneficiaries and expand their payment mechanisms. Being able to institutionalize those mechanisms will be essential for future programs and for a faster response in an emergency.  

Final thoughts

Crises are really tough. Both, at a personal and institutional level. While it’s hard to see it when you are in the middle of the storm, it’s important to think of what you can learn and how those lessons can help others, too. In Ecuador’s case, some of the most valuable insights we had to improve our response to the earthquake came from Chile’s lessons. From the earthquake, I learned the value of having clear priorities to make better decisions. To challenge my own assumptions and listen to what people have to say. And finally, to learn from the past and establish the mechanisms to institutionalize those lessons. 

This article is part of a mini-series regarding responding to emergencies. This first blog discusses lessons learned from Ecuador’s response to the earthquake. The second one talks about housing reconstruction, and in the last one I share tips to improve communication during a crisis


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