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How Rihanna’s foundation is rethinking disaster response

The Clara Lionel Foundation is giving to help the victims of Hurricane Dorian, but it’s trying to make our response to disasters proactive, by making the Caribbean resilient enough that we don’t have to scramble to give every hurricane season.

How Rihanna’s foundation is rethinking disaster response
Rihanna at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Barbados. [Photo: courtesy The Clara Lionel Foundation]

After Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas, destroying entire neighborhoods, the Caribbean-born singer Rihanna’s foundation announced that it would give emergency grants to nonprofits providing food and medical kits to survivors. But the foundation is also separately rethinking the traditional approach to disaster response. As climate change makes disasters more common around the world—from hurricanes to wildfires—the organization wants to help communities become more resilient, rather than only rushing to respond after every event.

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The foundation, called the Clara Lionel Foundation in honor of Rihanna’s grandparents, gave repeatedly in past disasters, from Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which together caused $380 billion in damages and killed thousands of people, to Cyclone Idai in East Africa. The team saw the challenges with the way the system currently works. Donors poured in support immediately after each disaster, but quickly lost interest, even as communities were still struggling to rebuild. Multiple organizations tried to help without coordinating with each other, duplicating efforts. And when the next disaster happened, the cycle would repeat.

Hurricane damage on Great Abaco Island, The Bahamas. [Photo: Direct Relief/courtesy The Clara Lionel Foundation]

“It just felt like we were feeding a system that was really broken,” says Justine Lucas, the foundation’s executive director. “So we decided—given our track record of engaging and successful advocacy and the power of Rihanna’s voice to move culture—how can we play a role that moves the space into climate resiliency? Accepting that climate change is here, and it’s going to cause an increase in frequency and severity or natural disasters, how can we respond now—respond year-round, and invest in preparedness and resiliency efforts?”

In 2018, the foundation decided to begin testing a different approach, focused on proactively making buildings, infrastructure, and social systems stronger so that they would be most likely to survive future storms, preventing damage rather than repeatedly rebuilding. In a first pilot, the foundation is working with International Planned Parenthood Federation and Engineers Without Borders to make reproductive health clinics in the Caribbean more resilient to disasters.

A BFLA clinic in Belize City. [Photo: Erika Morillo/IPPF/WHR/courtesy The Clara Lionel Foundation]

The team is starting with the clinics because it recognized that women were disproportionately affected by events like hurricanes. “One thing that we found, and the research shows, is that women are often not accounted for at all in terms of the giving that happens in the immediate aftermath after a natural disaster,” says Lucas. “We saw reproductive health clinics in Puerto Rico that were just starting to get up and running over a year after the disaster.”

[Photo: courtesy The Clara Lionel Foundation]

Engineers Without Borders is currently assessing several clinics across the region (none of which were affected by Dorian) to determine which have the most need for changes—from roofs that won’t fly off in a hurricane to water storage tanks or solar microgrids that can provide power when the grid is still out. “What we focused on with this partnership is looking at what preparedness means in the lens of making these clinics resilient and retrofitting them now, so that when a hurricane or another event like a flood or even earthquake happens, that they’re able to be responsive and open up to serve their clients very quickly after one of these occurrences,” says Kevin Andrezejewski, senior program manager of the engineering service corps in the U.S. chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

The nonprofit recognized, like the Clara Lionel Foundation, a need to approach disaster response differently. “Agencies seem to always not be prepared, and then just continue to do that cycle of building back the same way instead of looking at a proactive approach,” Andrezejewski says. He says that the paradigm is beginning to slowly change; after this year’s devastating cyclones in Africa, for example, in work with the United Nations, Engineers Without Borders was asked to help assess how building codes could change so that new buildings could be built to better withstand storms.

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A BFLA clinic in Belize City. [Photo: Tochtli Garcia/IPPF/WHR/courtesy The Clara Lionel Foundation]

It’s challenging to shift “the entire emergency response mechanism into believing it’s okay to support vulnerable communities before a disaster occurs,” says Lucas. Donors, too, are more likely to be interested in giving immediately after a disaster—even if giving in advance might prevent more death and destruction. “I think there’s an opportunity to really realize that climate change is going to affect vulnerable communities now. And with those investments, we need to shift the way that we’re spending philanthropic dollars.”

As the pilot project retrofits the clinics in the Caribbean, aiming to make them more resilient before the 2020 hurricane season, it will also begin to use what it learns to apply to other projects throughout the region, and, later, the world. “The ultimate goal is how can the Caribbean become a climate-resilient zone that is a model for the rest of the globe,” says Lucas.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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