By Steve Pascoe
Resilience has been the buzz word in the disaster management business for the past decade. It has been the subject of heaps of research and needs to be in the title if you want your grant application or project to be successful. But is resilience the real problem to be solved in addressing our response to disasters?
Humans are inherently resilient. If you spend time in a developing country, you realise that people can tolerate and adapt to terrible circumstances, often without any support from their governments. They love their children, care for their neighbours, manage their threats (as best they can), and develop independent,strong, wonderful communities.
I grew up in a small rural township and when bad things happened, townsfolk would band together to help those who were most in need. Cakes baked, dinners provided, ears lent, shoulders cried on, shelter offered, materials and labour donated. Over the past decades we have witnessed a growing expectation that governments will solve our problems. In disaster management, this has resulted in expectations
that agencies can prevent disasters from happening, that warnings will be provided in real time (and personally!), and that when disasters do happen, government will roll into town, providing all the support required for people to get their lives back on track, in a time that our media thinks is appropriate.
The magnitude, frequency, and complexity of disasters in the last few decades has proven that these expectations are seldom met and that at some point, many communities have come to the conclusion that they are largely on their own. Some communities even find that government and its agencies, rather than solving problems, actually create more stress and challenge. Promises not delivered, competitive grant processes, excessive demands on volunteers, pursuing government outcomes ahead of community outcomes, are just a few examples.
So if the experience from the last decades is that governments and it’s agencies are not great at managing the threat and impact of disasters on communities, why do we persist with this dependent expectation. Who benefits, what are the options, and
why is it hard to change?
My observations and conclusions are that everyone benefits from this dependency arrangement. I even suggest that we are all ‘addicted’ to this arrangement.Politicians and governments get re-elected on promises of fixing everything, government agencies dramatically expand their budgets and power, agency officers develop an unhealthy sense of their own importance, media gets terrific headlines from failure, and tax payers get to do very little and blame everyone else.
Resilience is not the problem. People and communities are resilient. They are capable of managing much of their need. They just need help with the things which are beyond their capacity and a willingness from government and its agencies to collaborate and support.
The benefit of communities managing their own wellbeing, with support from government, goes way beyond managing the impact of disasters. Strong, connected communities grow strong healthy people. They utilise and strengthen local resources. They build skills and knowledge. They maximise the efficiency of government funding. They build a legacy that lasts for decades. And they can use
their lived experience to help other communities at risk, or impacted by disasters
Having worked in different levels of government for a number years, facilitating and supporting communities to prepare for and recover from disasters, I have come to the conclusion that it is the systems of government that make it difficult for them to respond to the needs of communities at threat from, or impacted by disasters.
Policies, reporting lines, timeframes, 24 hour media cycles, responding to ‘squeaky wheels’, all constrain the often good people at the pointy end from being able to respond and support communities in the way that is needed. Over the past decade of catastrophic and complex disasters, many communities have found that they are best served by leading their own disaster preparations and/or recovery. By doing so they are able to harness the inherent strength and resources of their communities to deliver what is needed for their people.
They know their resources and vulnerabilities. They know their past and are invested in their future. They have communication networks. They have amazing skills and resources. And all have extraordinary leaders.
So the future of transforming communities is in reversing the dependency paradigm and evolving a partnership approach to disaster management, where communities are trusted, respected, enabled, and resourced to lead before, during and after
disasters. And government and its agencies ask “How can we help?”. Together we do better.