For many communities around the world, a major disaster presents a considerable setback in the healthy development of local infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods and economic growth for years to come. For these populations, disaster management is not a standalone issue, but one that must be incorporated into the broader activities of the community as a means of promoting ongoing recovery and prevention. Unfortunately, for small rural communities, the resources needed to undertake this type of management typically exceed what the community is able to muster itself. In Nepal, however, an effective response to this problem has been the formation of community-based networking organizations (CBNOs), which work with local communities to create a regional network that collectively takes ownership over a range of development initiatives. The linkages formed by such a network enable communities to leverage their human, economic and political capital against that of the wider network. These linkages in turn not only play a major role in disaster recovery, but also offer an effective response in mitigating against ongoing risks.
CBNOs are established and operated with the democratic principle of people-led development, putting local individuals and communities as the primary stakeholders at the forefront of their own development through their direct involvement in the planning and implementation of related initiatives. This approach, which brings together communities with similar needs and diverse capabilities, has demonstrated positive results for improving livelihoods, realizing rights and responding effectively and quickly to disasters. When, on the contrary, plans are imposed on a community by an outside actor, there is a high risk that the recipients will not take ownership of them, diminishing the prospects of successful implementation and sustainable results.
Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal, a networking organization operating throughout Nepal, focuses on uniting highly marginalised and disadvantaged people who have little access to resources. These marginalised individuals—members of lower castes and classes, Muslims, women and minorities—have lower indicators in health, education, literacy and awareness and lack access to state resources and facilities. Although these groups technically have rights formalized by the government, the lack of accountability within and instability of the political system in Nepal has failed to create functioning mechanisms and institutions for their realization. From the rights-based perspective, then, the role of CBNOs is critical, as it not only signals a break from the historic tradition that saw lower-caste individuals at the mercy of their rulers, but it also demonstrates that all citizens have the right to a better life.
In a CBNO, members from different community organizations elect representatives to lead the overarching networking body, an important characteristic that highlights one of the strengths of this model—that each member organization of the CBNO remains in its constituent community, thereby ensuring strong accountability to its primary stakeholders. In bringing together different communities, the CBNO is able to provide a broader scope for self-help through building social capital on a regional level and mobilizing resources on a larger scale.
By linking the household to the community to the region, the network rekindles the traditional spirit of cooperation in the wider society. The sharing of resources not only enhances the ability of any one constituent community to implement strategies that reduce vulnerability to disasters and improve the community’s overall wellbeing, but also motivates individuals to evaluate their own needs and be involved in seeking solutions.
This approach has made CBNOs key partners in disaster response, owing
to the fact that they have an established system that channels information and resources among member communities. Thus, when disaster strikes, the CBNO is able efficiently to assess the impact and quickly respond with the help of other community groups in the network. Additionally, the CBNO has connections to larger organizations and government bodies which provide a path for disaster-affected communities to receive assistance from sources outside their communities that they otherwise would not be able to access.
When a settlement of landless agricultural labourers in Banke district, located in south-west Nepal, was gutted by fire three years ago, the CBNO, Janajagaran Samajtook, mobilized a response from the wider network of communities that it represented. While the affected community focused on meeting its immediate needs, the network sought support to cover the more substantial expenses linked to shelter reconstruction. Thus, the CBNO approached district-based committees, organizations and development agencies, seeking aid for the rehabilitation of victims’ homes. Ultimately, Janajagaran Samajtook initiated a partnership with Mennonite Central Committee Nepal, on behalf of the affected community, for the provision of hazard-resistant construction materials that were not locally available. When the materials were received, 42 damaged houses were reconstructed within six months, with the local community contributing the majority of the labour.
As the previous example highlights, a CBNO’s strength in disaster response is the ability quickly to mobilize the assets of a wide network of communities that ensures a rapid assessment of and response to the immediate needs of affected members. By drawing on the local capacity of members for disaster response, CBNOs are able to gain information and resources quickly that allow for an immediate response to the physical and economic impacts of disasters. Within a short amount of time, communities are able to marshal resources and begin advocating with local governments and organizations to attend to urgent needs identified by the affected community that would otherwise go unmet.
Bal Krishna Maharjan is the Executive Chief of Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal,
a community-based networking organization in Nepal.
Learn more by reading the fall issue of Intersections – Community-based disaster managment.