One year later: the critical role of NGOs in Puerto Rico’s recovery
By Isabel Beltrán
One year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island remains on the long path to recovery from more than $90 billion in damage. As civilians attempt to rebuild their lives and return to a semblance of normalcy, communities are relying on nonprofit and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now more than ever.
Amid strained resources and a delayed federal response, the nonprofit sector has been instrumental in providing basic services and filling a gap in recovery assistance, in addition to delivering much-needed expertise to fuel a more resilient and sustainable future for Puerto Rico’s cities and beyond. In the immediate days after the double hurricane shock, NGOs were in many cases the first to respond; mobilizing volunteers, redirecting services and resources, and serving as vital distribution and support centers in the immediate aftermath.
Just weeks after Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, three leading national philanthropies – The Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation – came together to support a locally-led effort to build back an island that is physically, socially, and economically resilient for the future.
The first of two main interventions, the philanthropies supported the creation the Resilient Puerto Rico Advisory Commission (RPRAC). Led by distinguished Puerto Ricans, the commission is working to help the island rebuild to be stronger and more resilient, with effective strategies for a sound future. The commission set to work to develop an ambitious and pragmatic plan to build back the island, holding 77 meetings across the territory and collaborating with more than 750 stakeholders, including community leaders, government officials, nonprofit associations, business leaders, and professional associations. RPRAC leveraged this expertise, along with technical support from 100 Resilient Cities, to outline cutting-edge, yet practical recommendations for resilient recovery, spanning sectors from housing to energy to economic development. The resulting ReImagina Puerto Rico report, released by the Commission in June, presents 97 concrete actions designed to be implemented through cross-cutting partnerships spanning the public, private, and NGO realms.
A second source of support focused heavily on strengthening local philanthropies and NGOs. This has proven to be of vital importance to the on-the-ground response. Successful recovery efforts hinge on ensuring local NGOs receive the necessary support to continue their work. By investing in La Red de Fundaciones de Puerto Rico’s pooled fund, Fondo Adelante, as well as La Red’s core operations and staffing, significant progress has been made toward fortifying the network’s coordination, strategic grant-making, and communications capacity. To date, the fund has grown to nearly $6 million in commitments from a range of local, national, and international foundations, as well as hundreds of individuals. La Red has distributed almost $1 million of this funding to 24 local nonprofits across Puerto Rico. These organizations – made up of individuals living and working in the communities they serve – are best-equipped to ensure that recovery and redevelopment efforts move forward with a dedication to equity and long-term resilience.
As Puerto Ricans climbed out of the hurricane damage, nonprofits and NGOs filled an institutional void and took initiative to drive local recovery. They assumed new roles, created new partnerships, self-organized, and became first responders. In some cases, local organizations continue to be the only source of support.
As we move forward in Puerto Rico’s recovery, it will be important to maintain investment in the island’s nonprofit infrastructure in order to develop local leaders, organizations, and networks. The road to recovery may be long, but we must get it right today if we are to ensure a more resilient tomorrow.
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