- From Strangers to Neighbors: Post-Disaster Resettlement and Community Building in Honduras by Ryan Alaniz
Hurricane mitch hit central america over 20 years ago. A powerful and unusual Atlantic hurricane, its eye stalled for several days over Honduras. Onto an already saturated landscape, Mitch dumped an estimated 25 inches of rain in a 36-hour period alone. In and around the capital city of Tegucigalpa, the results were catastrophic. Informal settlements, which had been creeping up the hillsides for decades, were washed away, as were the low-lying slum settlements along the city's rivers. Some 10,000 people were estimated to have been killed by Mitch in Honduras alone.
The storm was followed by an outpouring of international aid, a significant share of which was spent on shelter for those made homeless by Mitch. Part of those funds went to the construction of entirely new communities, far outside the city, on land donated by the government. Ryan Alaniz, an associate professor of sociology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, began visiting several of these new communities in 2009-10, when most were many years into their establishment. He returned during 2011-12, intrigued by the question: Why were some of these resettlements thriving, while others were struggling? "If residents and infrastructure of both resettlements were similar, what strategies enabled one reset-tlement to produce better outcomes than another?" (p. 1). By studying this natural experiment, Alaniz hoped to identify the key attributes of successful post-disaster reset-tlement programs, particularly as they are implemented by international and domestic non-governmental organizations. The result is his book, From Strangers to Neighbors.
Alaniz studied several communities, but his book focuses primarily on the two that had particularly divergent outcomes. Almost a decade after its establishment, Suyapa (583 homes built), whose construction and development was overseen by a Honduran Catholic NGO, was thriving, with a coherent populace that was proud of its community and regularly interacted in an active market and park space; before 2014, the settlement had never had a murder. In contrast, Pino Alto (1,285 homes built), created and initially run by an international non-denominational NGO, experienced over two dozen murders. Gangs were a problem, public spaces were [End Page 299] under-used, and while tight-knit neighborhoods did form, the settlement as a whole never quite gelled socially, and developed a bad regional reputation.
Chapter 1 sets up this contrast, and Chapter 2 puts their stories in the context of post-Mitch Honduras. To help unpack the processes that led to these different settlement outcomes, in Chapter Three Alaniz turns to theories of community-building from the disaster literature that is converging out of such diverse fields as hazards, community development, and social-ecological vulnerability/resilience. Finding that this corpus offers a hodgepodge of approaches, he describes, in Chapter Four, how he developed his own rubric to measure successful resettlement. A notable contribution, this rubric goes beyond the piecemeal assessments of the disaster community, offering social health as a measure of, and conceptual approach to, resettlement success, based on a blend of indicators such as crime rates, social capital (mutual trust and reciprocity among residents), collective efficacy (forms of informal social control in which community members cohere around a common goal), community participation (voting rates, participation in civil society), and the existence of a shared vision for what the community should be. Alaniz then deploys this rubric effectively to explore each study community in detail (Chapters Five and Six), from the conditions of their initial founding to their current struggles.
These detailed local explorations are the highlight of the book: the communities are fascinating, and Alaniz's lucid and evocative writing engagingly conveys the essence of these places. In fact, one wishes that he had unleashed more of his ethnographic talents and really gone beyond the mere glimpses he offers here. Certainly, Suyapa and...