Thursday 6 February 2020

Community Resilience or Community Dystopia in Disaster Risk Reduction?

In disaster risk reduction circles, there is an almost desperate reliance on 'community' and a strong growth in studies and plans to "involve the community" in facing up to risks and impacts (Berkes and Ross 2013). The intentions are laudable, as DRR needs to be democratised if it is to function. However,'community' is contentious concept (Barrios 2014).

The many places in which I have lived have had highly varied levels of expression of community. For example, I spent many years frequenting a small town in the mountains of Southern Italy. It was founded 3,770 years ago and has suffered many vicissitudes over the better part of four millennia. The current urban form was largely given to it by Norman invaders 940 years ago. It is an architectural paradise of which the inhabitants are, rightly, fiercely proud. Yet, faced with natural hazards, relative isolation, economic deprivation and cultural decline, it badly needs social solidarity, and that is something it lacks. Boredom and the accumulated malaise of centuries of oppression, envy, division and exploitation have divided the community into invisible factions. It may be an exaggeration to talk of Edward Banfield's 'amoral familism' (Banfield 1958), but in such an environment community cohesion is a highly relative phenomenon.

At the other end of the scale, I reside in the most multi-ethnic and politically homogeneous district of London. It is an area with a shifting population of migrants, students, temporary workers and those who soon move on to greener pastures. Unfortunately, some of its most defining characteristics as a community relate to drugs, homicide, homelessness and terrorism. In this, I do not exaggerate, as the record of recent events in London demonstrates the connections quite clearly. Community can just as well be defined negatively as positively.

Several arguments can be marshalled against the idea of community resilience:-
  • The concept of 'community' has no inherent geographical scale. A group of like-minded individuals spread across the globe might just as well be a community as a collection of people in a local neighbourhood.
  • If some form of social cohesion defined communities, they do not necessarily have it.
  • In modern cities, neighbourhoods may well have a shifting, rootless population that lacks common ground.
  • Identity politics can split communities (considered as the population of an area) into factions.
  • In a local area, the population may have different, perhaps conflicting objectives
  • 'Community' is not an efficient way of using people's skills.
With regard to the last of these points, it is worth considering the criticisms of the concept of social capital, which is often used in conjunction with community-based DRR (Haynes 2009, Inaba 2013). I need not repeat them here.

Moreover, in many places the 'community' is dominated by the most powerful people in the area, or indeed by a single person. The manifestation of community may simply be an expression of the will of the powerful. The weak and the marginalised may be deprived of a voice or not listened to. In the worst cases, they are effectively invisible outside their own circles. Hence, 'community' is about influence. At its most benign, it is about relative influence (Barrios 2014).

The struggle to create community resilience pits organised collective action against individualism. The latter was perhaps best articulated by Margaret Thatcher in an interview in 1987. "There is no such thing as societeigh", she said in that false plummy, slightly hectoring, distinctly overbearing voice (Tice 2010). She went on to make that pronouncement a self-fulfilling prophecy by conducting war on social institutions until they failed or were dismantled. To soften the blow, she added "It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours." The door had been left open for voluntarism to compensate for the retreat of the state. Altruism had been put in its place. Queen Elizabeth II said in one of her Christmas addresses to the nation that, in a lifetime of visiting and meeting, the happiest people she had encountered were those who were helping others. Does this confirm the Thatcherite view of the social order or contradict it? A more useful question for those who wish to create community resilience might be "what stands in the way of collective action?"

Sociologists have long known that disaster creates community by spontaneously knitting people together into a social grouping that they term a 'disaster subculture' (Granot 1996). This is an association of people from diverse backgrounds whose cohesion derives from an overwhelming emphasis on a common aim. For example, the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 are united in their quest for justice and decent living conditions. But how does this translate into community resilience?

In any manageable geographical unit there are likely to be associations of citizens: faith groups, voluntary associations; recreational, political and business groups. But do they add up to a community? Perhaps under the disaster subculture, they do, but that does not help preparedness.

And then there is community dystopia. 'Community', a word apparently absorbed into the English language from French after the Norman invasion, is the subject of numerous definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Many involve the idea of a shared destiny or common ground. Some require uniform ethnicity or belief, or some form of fellowship. At least one makes a distinction between officialdom and the laity (i.e., ordinary people). Community-based DRR necessarily requires the two parties to collaborate, but what if the relationship is antagonistic rather than symbiotic? And what if the community is fragmented? How does one initiate a dialogue with the community if it has no centre, no identifiable single representation? Who leads the community in a crisis?

From this we may conclude that the community, if it exists, is heterogeneous, not homogeneous. It is likely to be polycentric (hoping that I am not taking too metropolitan view of the phenomenon). It may be therapeutic or it may be dysfunctional.

Rioting and looting occurred in London in 2011 and in Concepcion, Chile, after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Such behaviour is a result of the spontaneous abandonment of both property norms and the canons of reasonable behaviour (Alexander 2013). It does not stem from inability to involve community in DRR, but it can be fuelled by a general sense of marginalisation and lack of justice. Once again, involving people in DRR will not solve such problems, as the broader context has to be addressed. That is why rioting has continued in Chile, a decade after the disaster.

In many modern cities, the development of a collective consciousness is hampered by the problems of urban living: expensive, sub-standard housing, which is in short supply; exploitation through poor, badly remunerated working conditions; pollution, overcrowding, and so on. Social participation often decreases when people are under duress, although communal protest may revive it.

Another factor to consider in any assessment of community-based DRR is culture. Britain has long had a culture of secrecy, especially in official dealings. This is allied with the pervasive concept of "leave it to the experts" that only recently has been challenged. Despite attempts at openness, for example by passing laws about disclosure, secrecy has survived remarkably well, and it is strongly backed by Draconian libel and slander laws. The UK Official Secrets Act (1989) defines vaguely what information is protected but is quite clear about the consequences of sharing such information: "the person into whose possession the information, document or article has come is guilty of an offence if he discloses it without lawful authority knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that it is protected against disclosure" Cultural change is a slow, progressive process that requires much persistence and prodigious resources. Britain needs to be levered out of its obsession with secrecy towards a form of emergency management and disaster risk reduction based on disclosing information, not withholding it. That is the route to the democratisation of DRR. Secrecy has its place, but that place should be well circumscribed–by common sense, a spirit of openness, and a desire to share information for the betterment of society. Progress has been made, but much more is needed.

Another aspect of culture is its role in creating community identity. In London it is now extremely rare to hear someone speak with a London accent. In Florence, by contrast, there is a living, active concept of fiorentinesimo. Various well-patronised websites promote it through reviving dialect and other traditions, many ceremonies and cultural events promote it as well. Individuals such as the actor Roberto Benigni give it a high profile. This should be a point in favour of defining the community. However, it is as well to note that in Florence there are two quite separate communities: Florentines and others (including tourists).

In my opinion, initiatives that rely on trying to inculcate or promote community resilience are hanging their strategies on the wrong hooks. Rather than searching for the 'community', I advocate identifying, utilising and developing specific mechanisms. The DRR community has to be created, not discovered. It will be hard work, and even more hard work will have to go into making the result sustainable as society continues to change at an ever accelerating rate.
  • Alternatives to 'community engagement in DRR' do exist:-Organised voluntarism can be incorporated into the official civil protection system.
  • The vigorous promotion of equity, and a greater degree of equality, would make society healthier and happier.
  • Working with specific groups and networks will encourage participation and ensure that it fits with DRR needs.
  • The barriers to positive action between official and unofficial forces need to be reduced.
  • The social groups involved in DRR need to be recognised by officialdom.
Returning to Thatcher, I would argue that there is such a thing as society but in many places "there is no such thing as community". Nevertheless, DRR requires social democracy and social participation. It is the antithesis of neoliberalism and rank individualism. If 'community' is to overcome the factionalism of identity politics, there must be a shared identity and a sense of shared destiny. This must be stronger than factionalism in the constituent population. The challenge of the 21st century is to involve people and organisations in managing their own risks.

[This is a publication of Sceptiques Sans Frontières (SSF), home of the Rapid Scepticism Force.]


Alexander, D.E. 2013. Looting. In K.B. Penuel, M. Statler and R. Hagen (eds). Encyclopedia of Crisis Management. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California (Vol 2): 575-578.

Banfield, E.C. 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Free Press, New York, 188 pp.

Barrios, R.E. 2014. 'Here, I'm not at ease': anthropological perspectives on community resilience. Disasters 38(2): 329-350.

Berkes, F. and H. Ross 2013. Community resilience: toward an integrated approach. Society and Natural Resources 26(1): 5-20.

Granot, H. 1996. Disaster subcultures. Disaster Prevention and Management 5(4): 36-40.

Haynes, P. 2009. Before going any further with social capital: eight key criticisms to address. Ingenio Working Paper no. 2009/02. Ingenio (CSIC-UPV), Polytechnic University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain, 22 pp.

Inaba, Y. 2013. What’s wrong with social capital? Critiques from social science. In I. Kawachi, S. Takao and S.V. Subramanian (eds) Global Perspectives on Social Capital and Health. Springer, Berlin: 323-342 (Chapter 13).

Tice, A. 2010. 'No such thing as society'. Socialist (25 November 2010), p. 10.