Community-based disaster management: an introduction

The past few decades have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of people around the world affected by disasters, triggered both by human-made hazards (e.g. conflict, industrial accidents, arson) and natural hazards (e.g. typhoons, earthquakes, drought). Although the average number of annual deaths attributed to these events has decreased by almost half since 1975, the economic losses attributable to disasters have risen more than four-fold over the same time period (The International Disaster Database, 2014). And while the frequency of disaster events suggests that high income and low income countries experience a similar level of exposure, the costs of disasters—economic, social, physical and environmental—are disproportionately borne by the latter in terms of lives, livelihoods and social disintegration. The recognition that these losses  constitute a major set-back in achieving the longer-term development goals of equitable economic growth, sustainable livelihoods and poverty reduction has led to increased attention by governments, donors and development and humanitarian organizations on finding a more holistic approach of analyzing and responding to these calamities.

Disaster management has become the  umbrella term for a range of activities that occur both prior to and following a disaster event aimed at mitigating the economic impact of disasters on vulnerable, low-income communities (see figure 1). Broadly speaking, these activities are commonly grouped together under the two overarching concepts of prevention and recovery. On the prevention side, emphasis is put on mitigation and preparedness, whereby strategies are designed and implemented to reduce the risk of a disaster occurring within a given population and to minimize the impact of such an event when it does take place. Once a disaster occurs, however, attention shifts to recovery, which includes a relatively short-term relief response aimed at addressing the immediate needs of a disaster-affected community, combined with a longer term recovery strategy that ultimately seeks the restoration of the affected community. Ideally, this continuum of categories is cyclical rather than linear, where the recovery activities integrate mitigation strategies that reduce the likelihood and impact of a future disaster.

Figure 1: Disaster management cycle
disaster cycle

Early applications of this framework were predominately implemented through a top-down, command-and-control approach that neglected affected communities in decision making and implementation. The results from these programs were largely seen as ineffective, inappropriate and/or unsustainable. The lessons learned echoed what had long been understood by many practitioners and academics in the development sphere—that genuine community participation is the key to effective programming. Thus the qualifier “community-based” was added to the framework of disaster management, representing the need to put local participation and ownership at the centre of all related programming.

In contrast to its predecessor, community-based disaster management (CBDM) takes a bottom-up approach, recognizing that affected populations are best placed to identify their vulnerabilities and needs, while also acknowledging their agency to respond.

Methodologically, CBDM works through deliberate engagement of community members in a way that empowers them to address the root causes of their vulnerabilities by transforming social, economic and political structures that generate inequality and leave them susceptible to further disasters (Salajegheh and Pirmoradi, 2013). For Mennonite Central Committee, this level of focus and engagement epitomizes the operational approach it strives for through the accompaniment of local community organizations and church partners in a process of mutual transformation.

The articles in this issue examine different aspects of CBDM, drawing on the diverse experience of MCC staff and partners working in unique settings around the world. Though the particular focus of each article varies widely, there are two characteristics that all contributions share. First, each relates to programming that falls within one or more phases of the disaster management cycle presented above. And second, each critically examines the opportunities and/or challenges of empowering local communities to manage the risk of disasters and other humanitarian crises in their settings effectively.

The opening article by Kevin M. Kamuya and Rand Carpenter explores the topic of disaster mitigation, describing the effectiveness of self-help groups among the Wakamba people in responding to the perennial threat of drought in East Africa. In the face of climate change and the increasing unpredictability of weather patterns, the article suggests that the community model, notwithstanding its own challenges, offers the best hope for successful adaptation through local innovation.

In keeping with the topic of prevention, the second article by Riad Jarjour and Andrew Long-Higgins provides a fascinating account of how an inclusive humanitarian response can serve as a powerful tactic to prevent violence and foster trust amongst diverse peoples. Their argument draws on an example from Syria, where a food assistance project implemented by community members of different faiths works to keep a varied network of communities together against significant odds.

In the third article, Ignace Gull and Christopher Ewert investigate the importance of partnerships and, through a case study of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Canada, remind us that effective community-based disaster management requires support of external actors. However, in exploring the community’s relationship with the Government of Canada in response to a series of humanitarian crises, the article highlights some of the challenges communities face when a partnership is characterised by extreme power asymmetries.

In keeping with the theme of government, the fourth article by Bruce Guenther outlines a rights-based approach to disaster management, whereby the state (the “duty bearer”) has a legal obligation to ensure the well-being and safety of its citizens (the “rights holders”). In the absence of effective government intervention, Guenther compares ways in which MCC partners in India, Ethiopia and Colombia are implementing responses to humanitarian crises through educating and mobilizing citizens around their rights to government services.

In the fifth article, Bal Krishna Maharjan explores the effectiveness of community-based network organizations (CBNOs) in responding to disasters in the context of Nepal. In bringing together representatives from multiple communities, CBNOs are able quickly to mobilize the assets of a wide network that ensures a rapid response to the immediate needs of disaster-affected members.

The final article by Kristen Chege, Wawa Chenge and Kurt Hildebrand explores the dilemma that is often faced by international organizations as they decide how best to intervene in the aftermath of a major sudden onset disaster crisis: whether to work through informal structures or to act through more formal democratic institutions. Using MCC’s experience following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Chege examines the opportunities and challenges the MCC team faced in working through informal camp management committees.

Christopher Ewert is a Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.


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