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Equity and Catastrophe: How Can Resilience Programs Support Vulnerable Populations?

January 13, 2021

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

On a day-to-day basis, vulnerable populations suffer from inequities in health, wealth, and education. These same people are then disproportionately impacted by catastrophes ranging from hurricanes to COVID-19, which only serve to underline the great and urgent need for equity across race, gender, and income. In this episode of The Intersect, Madeline Colety and Lorine Giangola discuss how Abt’s housing and resilience work is helping clients promote equity.

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Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi and welcome to The Intersect; I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening—and maybe even fun—to pair up colleagues from different disciplines, so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues. This is Lorine Giangola's second visit to The Intersect. She manages the international and U.S.-based projects that provide technical support to governments, Native American tribes, and communities for natural resources, restoration management and climate change adaptation planning, and financing. She leads Abt's cross cutting resilience initiative.

Madeline Colety is an expert on housing, community development, and general planning. Her extensive work experience includes managing disaster recovery projects for housing planning and housing needs assessments. Welcome!

Madeline Colety: Thank you, Eric.

Lorine Giangola: Thanks for hosting us, Eric.

Eric: Today, we're going to talk about resilience and equity for traditionally vulnerable populations, how we can ensure there's equity in resilience planning and how, moving forward, we can promote equity through policies and activities intended to build resilience. Now, I just used “resilience” three times in that last sentence so, Lorine—to paraphrase Raymond Carver—what are we talking about when we talk about resilience?

Lorine: Well, Eric, resilience is the capacity to recover from an impact. And that concept is probably most concrete and tangible in the context of natural or human-caused disasters. For example, governments, communities, and individuals prepare for disasters by implementing measures to reduce the severity of disaster impacts and limit the scope of recovery. Then, after a disaster, we try to rebuild communities in a way that makes us better able to withstand and recover from future disasters. So, in other words, we increase our resilience to disasters by taking measures, to reduce the severity of impacts and then building back better.

Abt provides technical support to households, communities, institutions, and national and sub national governments to help build resilience to a variety of impacts, including disaster impacts, climate change impacts, other environmental and ecological impacts, public health impacts, and economic and financial impacts. So, for example, in response to COVID-19, Abt is working in the U.S. and internationally to help governments strengthen health systems to better prepare for and respond to outbreaks and pandemics.

And another example: Abt works with federal and state governments and Native American tribes to develop ecological restoration projects and plans to help ecosystems recover from spills or releases of contaminants. We also provide technical assistance to developing countries around the world and national climate change adaptation planning to help strengthen management of natural resources, public health, and economies under our climate change [project work].

So, none of these projects has “resilience” in the title. And many of our projects don't have “resilience building” as a stated objective, but Abt takes an approach that we think of as “everyday resilience.” In other words, the technical approaches we use to meet our primary project goals have co-benefits of building resilience to a variety of impacts. For example, our work to strengthen health service delivery systems supports community health very broadly, but it can also reduce the spread of disease and reduce the scope of recovery from a future pandemic. Restoring coastal ecosystems makes them healthier and better able to provide ecosystem services, but also makes them more resilient to storm impacts.

And one critical aspect of our resilience-building work is a focus on vulnerable populations and the differential impacts that these populations often experience. For example, in many countries where we work, climate impacts have greater effects on women's livelihoods because women often have fewer resources to adapt their livelihoods to changing conditions. And public health crises can have a disproportionate effect on people who are already ill or people with low income or people who lack access to healthcare. Economic crises have a much greater effect on people with low income who have little savings or a capacity to seek out alternate incomes. So Abt works hard to ensure that our technical work and guidance accounts for these differential needs.

Eric: Great, thanks. And Madeline, you've been doing some work in Houston that puts this intersectional approach into practice, right?

Madeline: Yeah, Eric. We have been working with the city of Houston for the last year and a half or so. The city has been trying to recover from Hurricane Harvey and using those disaster recovery funds to further fair housing. So what they've done is essentially, take a look at the city's patterns of segregation in historical discrimination against certain populations and how trying to use their recovery funds to roll back some of those practices and tap into those funds in a different sort of way where they're layering policy objectives. So, in addition to recovering from the hurricane itself, they want to do so in such a way that it does not continually impact the populations that tend to be effected over and over with climate disaster.

So for example, the city is taking a look at some of the areas where there might be high populations of people of color and looking at whether or not there are barriers to people living in areas of the community which might have a tendency to bounce back quicker and more effectively from hurricanes.

Eric: So, you mentioned a traditional issues with segregation. Do you want to talk a little more about what we’re solving for in those instances?

Madeline: Yeah, sure. So as we know, fair housing is a term that I think people have heard, but it kind of can be a little difficult to grasp exactly what it means. These days, and with the rollout of the Obama era rule, the Fair Housing Act has taken on new meaning, which is that it is not only that we can't discriminate, but that communities have a responsibility to what's called affirmatively further fair housing. So that means that they are to look at historical patterns of segregation and how they've landed us where we are today.

So, under the Obama administration, there was a new fair housing rule put out, which required that these would look at patterns of segregations and these historical roots, and think actively about policies and actions that cities could take to open up access to opportunity areas or other areas. So I think the key with fair housing is that you want people to have choices in where they live. So they want to be able to access good schools, good transportation networks, employment, healthy environments, areas that are not polluted or have high particulate levels because it's next to a waste management dump or something like that, so that they can live with a high quality of life and be able to provide for their family just as much as the next person.

Eric: Madeline, to your last point. We know that there's high concentrations of people with low income and people of color in areas where there's a lot of particulate matter. So I guess what we're saying is, then, that this is an opportunity to sort of rectify that as you're addressing what happened in Houston, right?

Madeline: Exactly. I think, in Houston, it's a unique opportunity in that the city has experienced disaster, which damaged infrastructure, damaged housing and needs to rebuild. And at the same time, is receiving funding from the federal government to do so. So if you want to look at, if I dare even say it's a silver lining of disaster, it can be a fresh start in some ways. So if cities want to think about and reflect on past practices and look at this opportunity to rebuild, to rebuild back better in a way that services its residents so that they can have their... Again, if we're talking about resilience, that they can also have lives that are more resilient, not only from climate change, but also economic resilience as well.

Eric: So Madeline, what exactly are we doing with Houston?

Madeline: So the Department of Housing and Urban Development asked us to work with the city of Houston to think about how they can use their disaster recovery funds to further fair housing, to kind of break down some of those barriers that are prevalent in this city. And how we've done that is having high-level discussions about what it means to further fair housing through disaster recovery. So help them kind of provide a framework for what it is that they're trying to do, and also look at their programming.

So with any disaster recovery program, cities or communities will design programs to address whatever it is that the disaster has impacted. So, for example, a housing rehabilitation program might be a common activity. Infrastructure improvements might be another. And so what we've done is kind of worked with the city to kind of apply what we call a fair housing lens to their programming, to think about how their program designs can be adjusted in ways that could also further fair housing at the same time.

A very specific example would be that we worked with the city in designing a multifamily housing development program, in which the city would distribute funds to developers to build apartment units. And we thought about what the criteria were, where in the city should those developments be built? What are specific things that we want to make sure that these developments who would help people with lower incomes, where they could be cited so that they have access to transportation networks, they have access to amenities such as grocery stores, they have access to good quality schools. So we worked with the city to kind of develop criteria by which they would evaluate proposals for housing developments so that they were being very thoughtful and intentional about where those developments were cited.

Eric: Great. So Lorine, hearing all that, what are some other areas you think we could be applying this approach to in terms of resilience and equity?

Lorine: Thanks, Eric. Well, Madeline, thanks for the explanation. I think it sounds like such great work that Abt is doing in Houston. And as you were talking, Madeline, I was thinking about almost taking a step back and thinking about all of the projects that we do that help individuals or communities or governments build resilience. And in the U.S., we're working with federal or state or local governments, and we generally have very strong systems for developing high quality information that can help communities and individuals prepare for and respond to disasters. We also have really good systems for distributing information in a lot of different formats and a lot of different means of communication and then multiple languages. But where we sometimes run into problems is in determining whether the people who receive information about recovery or Madeline's example about accessing resources like fair housing or emergency assistance to help them recover, whether they understand that information and then whether they have the capacity to act on it.

And that could be related to financial issues, whether they have the ability to cover the costs that might be involved with helping them recover. And it could be an issue of a physical illness or disability that could inhibit them from taking action on information they receive that's related to accessing emergency services or resources. And there could be a whole range of other reasons. And that's a challenge for governments or communities to try to understand the root of that problem, to make sure that we're reaching the people that need help the most in the context of a disaster recovery, and how do we get them information in a way that they understand, and how do we make sure that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities are able to take action and access the resources that they need to recover. And so I think that's a problem that transcends a lot of the issues and a lot of the contexts that we work in, but it's certainly one that governments and communities are putting efforts to try to solve.

Madeline: Actually, if I could jump in, this brings up some of our work in Houston, which has evolved from kind of what I mentioned previously to really looking at program design, to currently we're working with them on designing equity self assessment of their programming. So, to get at some of the issues that you just described “Are we reaching the right people in our marketing of our programming?” “Are there gaps in how information is getting out to the community?” Whether that's materials in appropriate languages or that the materials are not available. They may be available online, but do people have access to online materials? And that sort of thing. As well as kind of internal biases potentially, or how things are getting processed. So the city itself has undertaken this effort on its own, just to take a look at not only kind of at the policy level—how this is trickling down, how some of the policies trickled down to further for housing or equity—but also at the individual level in terms of how programs are reaching the people that need the assistance the most, and whether they are actually reaching those people.

I think a big piece of the work is also how to engage communities in program design. So how to engage the people who will be recipients of the programs in the actual design of the program itself. One thing that is very challenging in the disaster recovery world is the speed at which things need to happen. The recovery process in the United States involves FEMA coming in to shore things up, put blue tarps on roofs, and do that immediate disaster response work. And then HUD will come behind FEMA with disaster recovery funding. And that's the pot of money that Abt has been working with in places like Houston and the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico.

And in those program designs, there are timelines that need to be met. So while there is a big effort in our work, we encourage community engagement as much as possible to help inform that design, to be able to identify any barriers that individuals may have in accessing programming, there is also, on the other side, intensity and speed and urgency in which these programs need to roll out. So communities often will fall back on old program designs or models from other places and implement those just because the need is so great to just get people housed. And so I think it's hard in a disaster recovery setting at least I think in the United States is all I can really speak to, to kind of balance kind of some of the higher level policy objectives that maybe Houston is trying to do with breaking down barriers for accessing and get the money out and addressing the need really quickly all at the same time.

Eric: Well, let me see if I can tie that together with what Lorine was saying about ensuring people have the resources to take advantage of a resilience programs because I know that our HUD TA team helped with sort of rapid response with cities and counties that were trying to wisely invest their COVID-19 grant money. Is that an approach that we could be taking in the future, helping certain counties with other resilience programs?

Madeline: I think we’re on the cusp of a lot of conversations around taking programming further than communities have in the past to achieve goals around equity. I know that the homelessness team has had a lot of conversations and they have been spurred not only internally by the SNAPS office HUD, that SNAPS has paid a lot of attention to the inequities that are apparent in homelessness in this country and how the rollout of any assistance through COVID is an opportunity to start to chip away at those inequities. I think, Eric, we're in a place now where there's the topic of equity and equitable programming and not only that people have equitable access to programming, but also how do we use these programs to promote equity in society? I think these are conversations that will continue to evolve over the next few years.

So I feel like we're really at a point in time where there will be more conversations around “What does equity mean?” And I think also tying that into resilience in a sense that, when we talk about equity and opportunity, we necessarily have to think about resilience because it's really about how people are able to tap opportunities, respond to economic disasters. I think one thing that's kind of coming to mind when I think about this is how people have fared under COVID. And how differently people have fared depending on your socioeconomic status, potentially where you live. And I think this all speaks to resilience and how equity in our communities or lack thereof speaks to our individual or familial resilience in times of crisis.

Lorine: I really liked how Madeline phrased that, that we're on the cusp of a lot of conversations about equity and ensuring that we are accounting for and addressing needs of the most vulnerable populations. And Madeline gave us some really good examples from the U.S. context. And I was thinking, as she was speaking, about the parallels with a lot of international work that contributes to resilience building.

And we're seeing—particularly with USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is our biggest client for our international work—this is getting to be what we call mainstreamed into USAID's work. In other words, this consideration of vulnerable populations and the gender equity and social inclusion aspect of our work is now getting to be integrated into all of our projects. And it's a critical consideration, whether we're proposing new work to our international clients or whether we're integrating the concept into existing projects and programs. This is getting a lot more attention and a lot more pressing attention, I think. And I think that there's a shift in the tide now that is very promising and I think will make our work a lot more comprehensive, ensure that the benefits are more fairly distributed.

Eric: Well, as you both said, it's great that these conversations are happening now. And I'm glad you were both able to join me for this conversation. Thank you.

Lorine: Thank you, Eric. Thanks, Madeline.

Madeline: Thank you, Lorine. My pleasure.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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