Monday, November 5, 2018

Embracing local capacity to deal with disasters

This is an English language version of an article published in Tia Sang magazine (in Vietnamese) on 06/10/2018 by Jason von Meding - original here


Disasters reveal the best of human nature. Most people affected come together in genuine displays of solidarity when the safety and security of their family and community is threatened.

In the first two articles (here and here) in this series we have explored this underappreciated aspect of human behaviour in disasters - deep down, people are GOOD. In a disaster, we often see a temporary halt to hostilities between people that do not see eye to eye. A window of opportunity opens, where something better can be built - not just physically but socially.

At the core of this phenomenon that we observe in the aftermath of disasters is human connection and relationship. People by their very nature want to help each other. Despite what our economists might claim, we are not born to compete but to share. But the narratives that we routinely accept from our rulers (and the media that serves them) tell us the opposite - they position us against each other (for example the narrative that young people are entitled) and against the planet that sustains life (for example the narrative that the environment must be sacrificed in favour of economic development).

These popular narratives are a major barrier if we want individuals and communities to be safer and stronger against threats, and if we want to avoid decisions that lead to the creation of risk (discussed in the previous piece). If we accept negative stories about each other, we choose to believe a lie about who we are. We choose to underestimate what we are capable of.

The result is that we can mistakenly believe that we need to rely on someone else to “save” us, because we cannot be trusted to help each other; that we need someone to provide for us, because we do not share; that we need someone else to make decisions, because we are uneducated; that we need help, because we are helpless.

But this is not the truth. Communities in Vietnam and around the world - often those with deep set vulnerabilities - can be dynamic and strong and possess knowledge and skills that “experts” often undervalue and belittle.

Why is local capacity so important?

Communities and the individuals that inhabit them often face risk, both chronic (everyday vulnerabilities) and acute (triggered by rapid onset hazards). External development actors (for example the government of Vietnam) must come to terms with problems that are mostly defined by local socio-economic, political and environmental conditions.

If the people that will experience the impact of development decisions are not consulted in the first place, there will be a lack of trust between local people and the government. The Vietnamese government has made efforts to enhance participation of local communities in governance at commune level. This can lead to successful outcomes when participation actually breaks down inequalities, injustices and power disparities.

But if true participation is lacking, invariably it is the voice of the local community that is drowned out. A bureaucrat from outside and above cannot usually understand these local conditions - and how important embracing local capacity can be.

Capacities are the individual and collective knowledge, skills and resources that are shared and combined in a community. Tapping into local capacities can both help a community prevent disasters occurring, and help them to recover from disasters that do occur. In the research literature, we see many excellent examples of this approach elsewhere in Asia; Taiwan and the Philippines come to mind.

Research shows that an active, empowered and connected community is a resilient one. When people have access to resources and opportunities, and a sense of belonging, they thrive. Humans crave connection. Well being - physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual - is central to how a community can become stronger in the face of 21st Century threats.

When we look at how disaster impacts are increasing in Vietnam, and how more and more people are in need of assistance, it might appear that community capacities are decreasing. But the factors that make communities thrive have often just been forgotten or neglected for a time. The idol of economic development has for many become a universal measure of the success of a society - a position it never warranted - and well being has been overlooked. We cannot afford to continue this delusion.

We must also acknowledge that in large part BECAUSE of rapid economic development, inequality is increasing in Vietnam. All communities have derived some economic gains - this cannot be questioned - but these gains have been distributed unevenly and this contributes to a decline in well being, especially in marginalized communities.

The government is of course not intentionally creating additional disaster risk. But in trusting in the economic status quo and the current development paradigm, it ensures that the strongest economic actors prosper at the expense of others. Building wealth always comes at the expense of somebody, somewhere. And where wealth is being accumulated, people are becoming more vulnerable to disasters.

Working WITH communities, not FOR communities

In the most marginalized communities of Vietnam, the government response is often paternalistic - bureaucratic decisions are made with the intention of promoting the best interests of the dependent community - while autonomy, true community participation and ownership of the process is not part of the prescribed development pathway.

This is why “development” does not benefit everyone equally. Projects should not be proposed FOR marginalized communities but WITH them. This is the way to empower and strengthen. It is actually a great opportunity. Projects can build upon the capacity of communities to contribute - this can ensure appropriateness, long-term sustainability and stakeholder buy-in.

In a 2017 research project that we carried out in Dong Hoi, we investigated how urban flooding impacted schools in the city and how different stakeholders could practically contribute to making schools safer and ensuring that the education of children is not disrupted when a flood occurs.

Dong Hoi has suffered extensively from storms and floods in the past - and 2016 was particularly devastating. The floods in October of 2016 led to the deaths of 7 students in Dong Hoi, and extensively damaged school supplies and equipment. Local schools fell behind by several weeks compared to the national schedule. There were also severe socio-economic impacts on the community more broadly.

Our research highlighted why it is important to involve different groups and individuals in the process of preventing disasters. In our project, we talked to not only school administrators and those implementing government policy, but to students, parents and teachers. What we found was that even the people most at risk in Dong Hoi were able to leverage their capacities to lessen the impact of flooding.

In this example, schools plays an essential role in the life of a community. Not only do they facilitate the education of children and youth, but they are a social gathering place. They help to create connection and belonging between families.

In Dong Hoi, we found that the local community was able to mobilise support for post-disaster relief after the 2016 flooding before any other aid arrived. This mirrors the evidence from around the world, that shows that communities are first responders.

"Last year when our family did some charity work after the flood, some of the people we visited were 90 and 87 years old. When we visited them, they hugged us and cried.” [Parent, Dong My Primary School]

The community was able to support each other. We heard about families that shared their homes and their resources until they were able to recover. People were genuinely concerned for each other, confirming what we already know about human kindness.

Communities do act in solidarity. But many will ask, what is the role of government in all of this?

There are certainly improvements that can be made from a government perspective. It is essential that communication and coordination between different levels of the government and school stakeholders (administrators, teachers and parents) is improved. This alongside policy measures that promote the reduction of everyday vulnerabilities would go a long way.

But a conversation about vulnerability takes us back to questioning the economic status quo - in which inequality only increases - and which those in power are not interested in challenging.

While we wrestle with this - what we might call potential “system change” - and hold the government accountable for its policy decision within an admittedly flawed framework, communities can and do take action. Spontaneous initiatives continue to emerge from collectives of people with shared vision and values.

This action needs to be supported. One of the best things that the government can do is to locate these community-led initiatives, provide whatever resources are requested, and simply get out of the way.