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How can more holistic approaches to disaster risk reduction help communities build back sustainably (part 1 of 2)?

In part one of this two-part series, Sustainability and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) expert Jonathan Essex and Associate Director of Governance and Peace Sensitivity Zahed Yousuf explore social cohesion in DRR programming.

Tuesday 24 November 2015, Private: Jonathan Essex, Private: Zahed Yousuf

Almost universally, international agencies respond to disasters with a ‘build back better’ approach, which the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) defines as ‘helping people rebuild their infrastructure so that they are safer than they were before the natural disaster struck’.

This approach can increase a community’s resilience to natural disasters, strengthen social cohesion, and promote environmental sustainability.

However, climate change is causing increased fluctuations in weather patterns and is hampering societies’ ability to adapt to ecosystem degradation, so the effects of disasters are increasingly pervasive.

‘Building back better’, then, must not only rebuild disaster-resilient infrastructure, but must also build disaster-resilient societies.

Currently, post-disaster responses tend to focus separately on relief and re-establishing critical public services, and then on reconstruction efforts that build more disaster-resilient infrastructure.

Due to this separation, environmental sustainability and social cohesion are not prioritised, so reconstruction efforts are more difficult, as social dynamics have already broken down and environmentally sustainable solutions are not given much-needed attention.

There is an opportunity here for all programmes to take an approach that not only ‘minds the relief-reconstruction gap’ but addresses what are often viewed as competing priorities, together.

Addressing climate change (mitigation and adaptation), ensuring development is inclusive, and creating sustainable livelihoods will all improve disaster resilience.

Therefore, DRR programmes should make the bridge from disaster to development by better-integrating these issues from the outset. And this requires such interventions to bring different stakeholders together—government, private sector, civil society, and communities—and by harnessing their common socioeconomic, political and environmental interests, securing the commitment to approaches that ensure longer-term social and environmental sustainability.

Harnessing social cohesion with effective DRR programming

Build-back-better programmes must often deal with many challenges under significant time pressures and budget constraints such as complexities of competing interests, structural factors that continue to marginalise vulnerable groups, and weak(ened) state institutions that struggle to deliver adequate quality of services.

While people and communities affected by disasters are generally the best at identifying shocks and formulating appropriate responses, the priorities of the most-vulnerable groups are not always fully considered in planning and implementation of these programmes.

Although disaster preparation is often undertaken by those who exhibit control, connectedness and coherence, people’s reference groups often shrink during crises to immediate peers and community leaders.

Consequently, the people most suited to preparing for a disaster may not be the same people that communities trust during a crisis. DRR programmes, then, must understand the roles of different community actors and improve their suitability to perform critical roles during disaster responses.

Programmes can do this by:

  • helping to promote trust and dialogue across all sections of communities and nearby communities
  • helping marginalised groups to analyse and act on resilience issues so they can be integrated into coherent plans
  • working with local leaders and government officials to enable them to take a more active leadership role in building resilience and responding to a disaster in order to promote sustainable long-term growth and stability.

There are however, challenges to consider in using DRR programmes to harness state-citizen relations. A lack of government staff and funding can result in reduced government presence during the disaster preparedness and planning phase, which limits the capacity to understand communities’ vulnerabilities and to build resilience.

DRR programmes, then, have an opportunity to build trust by enabling NGOs and government officials to participate in community development plans so they can understand communities’ vulnerabilities.

This trust can be supplemented by nationwide stakeholder forums that draw from lessons learnt and can provide training capacity for the local NGOs and government officials that can also provide a platform for improving engagement and facilitating the scaling up process.

Overall, every build–back–better programme should first understand how DRR interventions transform societies, how this transformation can increase the risk of vulnerability, and how DRR interventions can support existing efforts to resolve these vulnerabilities.

Photo above available courtesy of the Asian Development Bank under a Creative Commons license.

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