Build Back Better Principles for Economic Recovery:
The Victorian Bushfires Case Study
Author 1: Sandeeka Mannakkara (corresponding author)
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Author 2: Associate Professor Suzanne Wilkinson
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
The University of Auckland, New Zealand
This paper looks at developing Build Back Better (BBB) Principles for economic recovery using
the 2009 Victorian Bushfires in Australia as a case study. The concept behind BBB-based
economic recovery is to rejuvenate the economy in disaster-affected communities along with
rebuilding to create resilient sustainable communities. A review of the literature identified
several principles that can be applied to economic recovery to build back better. Data was
collected in 2010 and 2011 by conducting semi-structured interviews with stakeholders who
were directly involved in the Victorian Bushfires recovery efforts, along with reports and other
documentation. The recovery in Victoria displayed the use of BBB-based initiatives for
economic recovery. The successes and shortcomings contributed to the creation of a modified
list of BBB principles for economic recovery including: creating an economic strategy based on
thorough data collection; providing effective funding through grants and flexible low-interest
loans; establishing business advice and mentoring services; providing incentives for businesses;
assisting speedy rebuilding of business buildings; providing subsidized employee training and
up-skilling programmes and promoting local businesses through advertising.
Key words: Build Back Better, Economic Recovery, Victorian Bushfires, Business, Community
The Victorian Bushfires disaster, also referred to as ―Black Saturday‖, took place on the 7th of
February 2009. It was the worst bushfire event in the history of Australia; 173 lives were lost,
430,000 hectares of land destroyed and 78 communities affected. The bushfires in Victoria had a
large economic impact on the affected areas, which were mountainous high country lands,
forests and pastures where the key industries were agriculture, forestry and tourism. The fires
caused damage to 2000 properties, 55 businesses and 3550 agricultural facilities (1).
The Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority (VBRRA) was created several
days after the fires to coordinate and oversee the recovery process. VBRRA established a
recovery framework which identified the local community; safety, health and wellbeing of the
people; reconstruction; economy; and the environment as the key areas of focus (1).
This paper explains the concept ―Build Back Better‖ (BBB) in the context of post-disaster
recovery and looks at how principles developed on the basis of BBB can be used to enhance
post-disaster economic recovery of affected communities. BBB principles identified in
international literature are presented along with data collected on the post-disaster recovery
following the 2009 Victorian Bushfires in Australia. The bushfires case study is used to evaluate
the initiatives put in place for economic recovery in Australia, whether BBB concepts were
incorporated, and the implications of their recovery decisions over time. The successes and
challenges faced in Victoria are reviewed and used to compile a set of BBB principles to assist
future post-disaster economic recovery practices.
Economic Conditions in Post-Disaster Environments
Disasters cause damage to the economy of communities with the disruption of businesses and
income-generating industries leading to issues such as high inflation rates and poverty. The
adverse effects of disasters on the economy can also impede the overall recovery of a city.
Hurricane Katrina shows a disaster‘s long-term impacts on higher education and health care in
New Orleans, which were the foundations of the city‘s economy, eventually leading to a decline
in population numbers as people moved away in search of better opportunities (2).
Post-disaster recovery efforts to date have shown support for economic recovery with strategies
such as: ―cash-for-work‖ programmes, provision of business grants, ―asset replacement‖
programmes to provide industries with necessary resources, and training programmes to up-skill
locals and help them find work (3-5). In Aceh, Indonesia tsunami-affected people were trained
and employed in reconstruction to provide them with a source of income alongside the
opportunity to become involved in their own recovery (6). In Japan following the 2011
Earthquake and Tsunami, the Government decided to consolidate smaller fishing markets into
large fishing centres to enable fishermen to support each other (7). The Christchurch City
Council‘s Central City Plan proposes fast-tracking of building consents for businesses to allow
faster repair and construction work (8).
Despite the implementation of such initiatives such as that mentioned above, post-disaster
economic recovery is reportedly slow and below pre-disaster levels (2, 9, 10). The lack of success
in economic recovery initiatives can be attributed to insufficient backing from policies and
legislation for employment creation and lack of consideration given to the needs of affected
communities (11). Kennedy et al. (6), Pathiraja and Tombesi (12) and Potangaroa (13) described
cases where relocation of coastal communities for risk reduction following the Indian Ocean and
Samoan tsunamis resulted in the loss of traditional livelihoods such as fishing and tourism.
Grant and loan schemes introduced for businesses usually come with limitations which are not
attractive enough for business owners (14, 15). Lyons (16), Khasalamwa (17) and Birkmann and
Fernando (18) observed inequities in the provision of financial and material aid to different
community groups as a result of influence and politics in Sri Lanka. Silva (3) stated that the
―politically powerful groups harnessed advantages of the aid programmes‖ and that
―disadvantaged people have been further fragmented and marginalized‖. Florian (19) reported
that in Indonesia sectoral livelihood recovery programmes led to parts of the community being
overlooked showing how poor coordination and coverage of livelihood programmes inhibit
What is “Build Back Better”?
―Build Back Better‖ (BBB) is a concept that was introduced to improve post-disaster
reconstruction and recovery. ―Build Back Better‖ was officially established following the 2004
Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster which impacted 14 countries at an unprecedented scale. BBB
entails using reconstruction to not only rebuild damaged structures and infrastructure, but
encourage a holistic approach towards improving physical, psycho-social and economic
conditions of affected communities to improve overall resilience (17, 20, 21).
Build Back Better-based Economic Recovery
The former United States president Bill Clinton published a guideline containing ten propositions
to guide BBB-based recovery: ―Key Propositions for Building Back Better‖ (20). The guidelines
stress that ―a sustainable recovery process depends on reviving and expanding private economic
activity and employment and securing diverse livelihood opportunities for affected populations‖.
Thus the uniqueness of BBB comes from the integrated approach it proposes by giving economic
recovery as much importance as reconstruction and aiming to provide solutions to suit local
dynamics and preferences (17, 20, 22, 23).
Lessons learnt from post-disaster experiences worldwide have provided recommendations which
form a list of principles for economic recovery leading to BBB:
The first step is to obtain accurate information about the local population through data
collection and consultation with local governmental authorities.
A comprehensive economic recovery strategy must be created that is to be tailor-made to suit
each different community based on data obtained.
Where applicable, attractive and flexible low-interest loan packages must be provided.
Where applicable, business grants and resources to support livelihoods must be provided.
People should be encouraged to engage in low-skill reconstruction activities.
Diverse and sustainable sources of income must be introduced to communities if they are
unable to continue with their previous livelihoods.
New livelihood options introduced must be based on locally available skills and resources
and sustainable long-term.
Training programmes must be held to support people in improving their existing livelihoods
or acquire new skills.
Mechanisms must be put in place to monitor and support ongoing livelihood activities to
maintain and strengthen economic recovery.
Victorian Bushfires Data Collection
Qualitative data was collected by visiting the impacted areas in Victoria on consecutive years in
2010 and 2011. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with stakeholders who were directly
involved in the recovery operations and from reports and other documents published about the
disasters with more focus on Marysville, one of the worst bushfire-affected towns in Victoria.
Interviewee details are presented in table 1. Participants were asked to comment on the
implementation, implications, challenges and recommendations of socio-economic recovery
activities in the post-disaster practices.
The stakeholders interviewed included officials from the recovery authority established to
oversee recovery and reconstruction activities including rebuilding, psycho-social recovery and
economic recovery (VBRRA and FRU), government officials in charge of community recovery
(DHS), officials involved with structural regulation changes (Building Commission), rebuilding
advisors who helped the community with rebuilding (VBRRA and FRU), builders, local council
who provided the local council perspective, town planners who were developing the new urban
plans (VBRRA), and representatives from local community organisations who were involved in
grass-roots level activities such as community consultations and economic recovery (Marysville
CRC, Marysville Chamber of Commerce).
Table 1: Profiles of the interviewees in Australia (Source: Author)
P1 – P9 9
Reconstruction and Recovery
Department of Human Services
Fire Recovery Unit (FRU)
Office of Housing, DHS
Department of Planning and
Economic Recovery, FRU
Marysville Chamber of
P10 & P11
P14 & P15
P16 & P17 2
Post-disaster Economic Recovery in Victoria
The economic impact of the bushfires in Victoria was great, with interviewee P1 from VBRRA
commenting that building the economy back up would be a difficult task: ―the economic team
would have the roughest job of all‖. Various types of support were provided to restore
businesses and re-establish people‘s disrupted livelihoods. In spite of the support provided for
businesses the locals displayed some hesitancy in taking up the services provided. The
prominent factors that shaped the resulting economic recovery can be categorized under:
Business-owner decisions; Rebuilding businesses; Resource and skills shortages; and Economic
Business-owners in the affected towns had a difficult time making decisions regarding the future
of their businesses. Interviewee P10 explained that the bushfires had resulted in a considerable
evacuation of the towns and business-owners were hesitant to re-establish themselves in a place
with no residents to use their services. In turn, home-owners were hesitant to settle in a
community with no shops, which resulted in a ―dead-lock‖ situation. Interviewee P25 added:
―There was no one unlocking the deadlock. If I‘m a business owner I wouldn‘t go and invest
$50-200,000 for a business to restart if I‘ve got no one living here‖.
Interviewee P25 who had made the decision to purchase and operate a business in Marysville
spoke about the difficulty some people were having on making decisions about their future
because of emotional reasons. He however added that the opening of some businesses
encouraged others to follow: ―When the supermarket opened 10 months after the fires, shortly
afterwards the petrol station opened, then the café, then the school, a takeaway shop etc. All
little increments of improvements and changes built more confidence‖.
The physical rebuilding of places where businesses can operate from was an important factor for
economic recovery. Interviewee P1 felt that more support could have been given to help
businesses rebuild: ―Businesses could have been allowed to rebuild with fast-tracked permit
procedures‖. There was also a shortage of skilled builders due to the high workloads in other
areas and the remoteness of the bushfire-affected locations which slowed down the rebuild.
Interviewee P20 recommended that the rebuilding industry and commercial industries such as
hotels and motels could support each other, and provide subsidized accommodation to attract
trades to rebuilding work.
Resource and skills shortages
Interviewee P19 commented that the sudden rise in construction activities also impacted on the
economy: ―The sudden demand for building work after the bushfires drove prices up. Since
there was a lot of work and not enough contractors, the contractors put their prices up‖.
Interviewee P18 said that resource shortages and price rises are inevitable in post-disaster
environments as it is a matter of ―supply and demand‖. Resources and skills shortages impact on
economic recovery of businesses driving up costs of replacing infrastructure.
Interviewee P22 said that a shortage of suitable staff for other types of employment in the
affected towns impacted on economic recovery, and that subsidized training programmes have
been set up as a counter-measure.
Economic recovery strategy
Grants and funds were provided for immediate restoration and loans of up to $200,000 at
concessional interest rates (1). A ―Business Information and Support‖ service along with a
―Small Business Mentoring‖ service were also set up with free professional advice and
counselling for business owners (24). A temporary retail centre was established in Marysville to
provide temporary retail spaces whilst permanent locations were being rebuilt (24). Interviewee
P22 explained that the retail spaces were provided for a heavily subsidized rent. Marysville
resident interviewee P25 shared that ―the Government was very good in getting everything to
happen‖. A ―Back to Work‖ programme was also launched to help people to return to work with
assistance provided on writing resumes, job seeking, interview preparation and accessing skills
training (4, 24).
The FRU official from the Economic Recovery team said that new economic strategies were
being introduced in 2011 based on observations in the previous years (25-27). A large conference
centre project was being introduced in Marysville for tourism whilst also attracting other
businesses such as retail shops, gift shops and accommodation. More flexible low-interest loan
packages were also introduced replacing stricter loans. The new loan package provided a
concessionary loan with 50% subsidy on the interest rate for 5 years. Interviewees P16 and P10
pointed out that a significant proportion of Marysville‘s income was from rental and
accommodation businesses which were not sufficiently supported during the rebuild. Marysville
resident interviewee P12 said ―Less than 10% of the bed and breakfasts have been rebuilt. Most
rental property owners have also given up which is a significant concern for the town‖.
Interviewee P22 said that the new flexible loan package introduced in 2011 would also benefit
the rental industry encouraging business owners to build new rental properties. Interviewee P22
explained that merging two distinct business recovery groups that had formed in Marysville was
another approach taken to support economic recovery.
From a Government perspective interviewee P22 said that there was some indecision with
regards to how business rejuvenation was approached: ―There was a question of who‘s going to
make the first move. Do you get the smaller businesses in and that‘ll attract a bigger one? Or
are people waiting for a bigger one to come in before they make their decision?‖
Although interviewee P23 said that the Government support being provided was directing people
back to the normal pre-disaster streams of support, the closure of VBRRA caused some concern.
Interviewee P24 from the Marysville CRC said ―I would‘ve liked to see VBRRA go on for
probably another 6 months. It would‘ve helped to finish off a lot of the things that are going on‖.
Analysis of Post-Bushfire Economic Recovery in Victoria
A range of support programmes for economic recovery were displayed in Victoria in-line with
some of the BBB principles identified from literature such as providing funds, assistance and
advice to businesses along with several other initiatives put in place by VBRRA. The Business
Information Support and Small Business Mentoring services were helpful in assisting business-
owners to make decisions and directing them to necessary sources of support. The temporary
retail centres enabled businesses to start up sooner than anticipated. The opening of the
Marysville supermarket within one year of the bushfires was a significant achievement for the
economic recovery of the town which triggered other business to open.
The economic recovery programmes could have been more successful in terms of BBB with
greater consideration given to the needs of the community. The resident versus business
deadlock and the long time taken by business-owners to make decisions about the future became
prominent issues impacting the recovery of towns. It is not economical for business-owners to
set up in a town with a low number of residents, whilst at the same time people are hesitant to
live in a town that does not offer viable livelihood and business opportunities and facilities.
Following a disaster people are always left with the indecision whether to move away or remain.
Advice and support must be provided to guide decision-making, along with incentives to
influence residents and businesses.
Delays in permit procedures which prevented business-owners from rebuilding their business
buildings in a timely manner were discouraging. The inability of business-owners to establish
themselves in permanent locations in a reasonable period of time can compel businesses to
relocate to towns which offer more security and stability. Supporting the rebuilding of
businesses must therefore be an important component of economic recovery strategies. Special
facilitations in permit procedures for businesses, and providing incentives to attract builders for
reconstruction work are ways that business rebuilding can be assisted. The construction industry
boomed following the fires, but the shortage of builders and trades drove prices up which was
problematic for the community. Since controlling the price rise following a disaster is difficult,
Government support is necessary through grants and better insurance options.
The observations of slow economic recovery in the first two years after the fires led recovery
authorities VBRRA and FRU to release revised economic recovery strategies in 2011 with
flexible loan schemes, more support for the rental industry in Marysville and the proposal of the
Marysville conference centre. Introducing a big business like a conference centre can help to
boost the economy by creating new jobs and attracting new businesses, residents and tourists.
The subsidized training programmes introduced in response to the recognized skills shortages
enable the up-skilling of community members and improve their chances of finding employment.
Co-locating the Business Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Chamber in Marysville enabled
businesses to support each other and work together to revive the town‘s economy.
The experiences from the Victorian Bushfire recovery effort have shown the need for a tailor-
made economic strategy targeting the specific needs of different communities. For example,
Marysville‘s recovery may have been improved with better understanding of the importance of
the rental and B&B industries to its overall recovery and delivering more support to revive them.
Economic recovery is a long-term process and residents of affected towns preferred extended
support from VBRRA. However prolonged reliance on external organisations such as VBRRA
and FRU is not favourable for the recovery of communities who need to re-establish their
livelihoods. The responsibility for economic recovery support should be handed over to local
councils to monitor and continue in the long-term, with wider Government support when
Proposed BBB Principles for Post-Disaster Economic Recovery
Successful economic recovery requires strong commitment from the Government.
Recommendations from international post-disaster experiences and the findings from the
Victorian Bushfires case study presented in this paper have been compiled to create a set of
universally applicable BBB Principles for post-disaster economic recovery that can assist
Creation of a tailor-made recovery strategy
Recovery should be tailor-made to suit each different community. Data must be collected
such as people‘s livelihoods, skills, income levels and preferences. Post-disaster practices
can be made more efficient by collating this data in the pre-disaster stage. Local councils are
in the best position to carry this out.
Provision of effective funding
The Government should provide grants and flexible low-interest loan schemes to attract
Provision of advice and support for decision-making
Business support and counselling services should be provided to assist with the economic
Incentives for businesses
―Resident versus business‖ deadlocks should be identified as a real issue and dealt with by
supporting businesses and attracting residents to remain. Providing information, regular
updates and promoting community cohesion can influence residents to stay. Providing
temporary retail spaces for businesses to start up early will encourage other businesses.
Introducing a big business like a conference centre, sports stadium or shopping mall will help
to boost the economy by creating new jobs and attracting new businesses as well as residents
Support for rebuilding businesses