The Importance of Resources and Responsibility for Community Led Disaster Recovery

Over the past few years the media has been inundated with examples of large scale disasters across the world. As Dale Dominey-Howes discusses in his article, disasters are becoming more frequent and are effecting disproportionately those who are disadvantaged.

With the rise of disaster resilience as a framework for responding and recovering from disasters we are seeing an increasing emphasis being placed on the role of individuals and communities in responding to these extreme events. But questions need to be asked regarding how this is done effectively and fairly, in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequalities.

As we have seen with the recent earthquakes in Nepal, millions of dollars flows into regions affected by disasters. This occurs not only in developing countries such as Nepal through aid agencies, but also in countries like Australia and New Zealand through agencies such as the Red Cross and government assistance funds.

While these funds are undoubtedly incredibly important, particularly for providing immediate needs of shelter, food and water, it is the long process of recovery that follows response which can be particularly tough. In order to better prepare for inevitably long recoveries from disasters, both social and financial resourcing can be put in place to support communities.

Four years on from the earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, many communities are facing the long haul that is disaster recovery. However some of these communities are better placed to cope than others, both during immediate response and long term recovery. The use of disaster resilience has encouraged the responsibility for disaster preparedness and response to be placed increasingly in the hands of individuals, communities and organisations.

For example, the community organisation ‘Project Lyttelton’ which operated out of the suburb of Lyttelton in Christchurch following the February 22nd earthquake was able operate alongside traditional disaster agencies such as the Navy and Civil Defence. Through this relationship, Project Lyttelton was able to use their local networks, particularly their time-bank (an alternative community currency that operates on trading time for services) to co-ordinate a citizen led response that was able to check on all the elderly residents in the town, provide food and childcare to those in need as well as social support. These forms of community led disaster response are increasingly seen to be the ideal way for disaster resilience to be developed.

how time bank works pagosa time bank dot com

The basic principles of a timebank

Disaster resilience itself, is a murky and often contested framework, which depending on your perspective emphasizes a community’s ability to either bounce back, or transform and adapt to new circumstances. The difference in these two perspectives is at the heart of the challenge of engaging resilience in a community disaster response context.

While bounce back disaster resilience originates from an engineering perspective in which the ability to maintain an equilibrium is an important aspect, the socio-ecological frame of resilience encourages transformation and adaptation. The difference here is important in the context of disaster, a bounce back approach would emphasize a quick return to ‘normality’, while transformative resilience would encourage changes to be made to reduce the risk from future disaster events.

When shifting, at least in part, the responsibility for disaster resilience to communities and individuals, the emphasis is often put on encouraging a bounce back return to normal approach. It can be argued that this increases the vulnerability of certain groups as it does not involve adapting for future events or learning from the lessons of past disasters.

It is also worth noting that while the Lyttelton community was able to competently and successfully co-ordinate and lead their response, the organisation has been operating for many years and has funding to employ several part time staff members. Their other projects have supported community spirit, social support and participation in the town and include a highly successful Farmers Market, local seasonal festivals, a community garden and food co-operative.


A community space on an empty lot in Lyttelton post earthquake

These events and others that exist as part of Project Lyttelton and other Lyttelton organisations such as the Lyttelton Community House, provided a backbone that supported the community through the disaster. However, it would be wrong to assume that all communities already have the same levels of support and resourcing.

It would also be wrong to assume that the disaster response and recovery in Lyttelton did not, and does not continue to need, ongoing support and resources. However the danger with the current approach of ‘shared responsibility’ for disaster resilience is that inequalities that exist between different areas, suburbs and community, in both material and social forms may be ignored.

Lorenzo Chelleri

Image Credit: Lorenzo Chelleri

In order to encourage adaptive resilience that allows us to build communities that can respond beyond bouncing back we need to ensure that we are actually empowering and resourcing individuals to support their communities and build strong organisations. Paid positions are an important part of maintain the momentum of community groups and projects, as well as funding for specific community building events and programmes.

Without this support, disaster resilience is running the risk of becoming a hollow concept, which when engaged in this context, could ultimately be used to reduce social spending by governments and local authorities. The danger with this is that it places the responsibility for disaster preparedness, response and recovery on communities without the resources or power which they need, and deserve in order to do so.