Sunday, 14 October 2018

Nihilism and Disaster Risk Reduction

In cultural-historical terms, Sicilians divide people into two kinds: furbi and fessi - cunning and gullible. No one wants to be considered fesso. Indeed, not many people are happy to be labelled as furbo either. It is a hard distinction, but dura lex, sed lex. Such is modern democracy that, in Britain for instance, elements of the population have developed a tradition of voting against their own interests. Many who voted for the party of Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 1980s voted themselves out of a job and into penury: dura et falax lege. In the Americas, in the Middle East, in Russia, democracy currently enables the electorate to vote against democracy.

This is nihilism. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following as its second, practical definition of the term: “Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning. Also more generally: negativity, destructiveness, hostility to accepted beliefs or established institutions.” It is not quite the same as anarchism, the hostility to government, but, as Alan Bennett once wrote: "We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but the people wouldn't obey the rules." The curious thing about anarchism is that it requires organisation to destroy organisation in this way. Nihilism is an innate phenomenon that requires nothing except hostility, grievance and an urge to destroy. It is a form of political self-harm.

In previous posts I have discussed the need to interpret disasters in terms of context. I have made the point that some of the most relevant context has nothing to do with disaster risk reduction (DRR) at all. If people are vulnerable, abating vulnerability to disasters will not necessarily make them any less vulnerable. This is the ‘egg hypothesis’, in which DRR is the yolk and context the white. Sometimes it is a well-fried egg with sharp boundaries between the two parts.

Modern capitalism and neoliberalism have led to a concentration of wealth, as never before, in fewer and fewer hands. Democracy, the means by which we control our own collective future, has rarely if ever seemed more futile. Community, a much vaunted concept, has been comprehensively criticised and on occasion it has been cited as the means by which people are kept in order and their creativity and self-determination are kept in check (Titz et al. 2018). Nihilism is a reaction fo the failure of politicians and political parties to act with probity and resolution in order to improve the living conditions of the electorate. It is a product of ignorance and anger. It cannot be described as rational.

My point in this short essay is a simple one. I hope it will become an agenda for research, but the challenge is a difficult one. Nihilism is extremely important in current affairs at the moment and in the future it will probably have a more profound effect on our lives than many other preoccupations of the current moment. It severely weakens the strength of democracy and the ability of people to respond collectively to stresses and threats as these arise. Klein (2008, 2015, 2018) and Loewenstein (2017) have documented in great detail how disasters are used to impose anti-democratic measures when people are weakened and preoccupied by catastrophe. Nihilism makes this worse and can fatally undermine resistance.

As threat, risk, impact and aftermath, disasters must be dealt with democratically. Decision making in disasters must not be separated from the consensus values that democracy requires of it at other times. Yet there is a highly complex relationship between democracy and disasters (Platt 2012). Nihilism is not the way to simplify it. Let us study the effects and the prognosis for nihilism and disasters, and on the basis of our data and our analysis, let us join the fight for a rational, equitable system of values to replace the nihilism.


Klein, N. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 576 pp.

Klein, N. 2015. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 576 pp.

Klein, N. 2018. The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 88 pp.

Loewenstein, A. 2017. Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. Verso, New York, 384 pp.

Platt, R.H. 2012. Disasters and Democracy: The Politics Of Extreme Natural Events. Island Press, Washington DC, 344 pp.

Titz, A., T. Cannon and F. Krüger 2018. Uncovering ‘community’: challenging an elusive concept in development and disaster related work. Societies 8(3): 1-28. doi:10.3390/soc8030071

Friday, 28 September 2018

Submit a Manuscript, Encounter a Bias

An article in Times Higher Education (Pells 2018) discusses the presence of national, racial and gender bias in academic journal publishing. It prompted me to write my thoughts on the matter, as follows.

I have been an international academic journal editor for 33 years and have seen more than 10,000 papers into print. When I deal with manuscripts I struggle to be objective, balanced and fair. However, one of my principles is that my loyalty is to the journal, not the authors, whoever they are. My aim is to build a better journal, in which authors will recognise the quality and want to publish their work. This means being strict about the quality of what I accept for publication. If there are patterns in quality, the contents of the journal will reflect them. That may seem very simple, but there are two other issues. The first is that there is a thread of serious bias among referees. I first noticed it in 1985 when I started my editorial role. Willingness to review papers is related to gender, national origin and whether or not European or North American men are among the authors. In the 1980s and 1990s I termed it ‘academic racism’: that may be an overstatement but it is certainly part of the ‘clannisness’ of academic life. It is not by any means universal, but it is a highly consistent phenomenon. I find papers from authors in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and India take much higher than average effort to get reviewed. This may be because of a record of poor science and scholarship in these countries, but it is particularly hard on good and aspiring authors from such places, who must struggle harder to achieve recognition. Fairness means that even second-rate papers need to be reviewed and their shortcomings (gently) pointed out to the authors so that they can improve their work, which will benefit us all. Not many academic referees operate on that principle. The second issue is competitivity. Universities put pressure on their employees to compete, especially in research outcomes. The result is a failure to help struggling academics elsewhere. For instance, westerners, by and large, are reluctant to give positive, constructive help to Africa authors. Some good work is coming out of African universities and it is a struggle to give it the recognition that it deserves. It is also a struggle to ensure that African authors feel included in the international research endeavour. It should not be.

Ultimately, present trends in academic publishing are unsustainable. The best research should involve collaboration in many different ways, and exclusionary policies and actions should be reduced. Fostering a community of scholarship means taking positive action to include those who would join it, and fairly recognising good work, whoever may be its author. I fear that requires a different model of university.


Pells, R. 2018. Male editors ‘more likely to accept papers from other men’. Study finds further evidence to suggest peer review process riddled with gender and racial bias. Times Higher Education, 28 September 2018.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Disasters and the Lessons of History

On 15th August 1495 in Modica (the former Arab Mudiqah) in south-eastern Sicily, Christian fanatics slaughtered 360 Jews in the name of the Virgin Mary. The entire population of the city’s ghetto was wiped out, a fact that was extraordinarily convenient to the murderers, many of whom had imprudently let themselves become heavily indebted to local Jewish money lenders. In the 21st century Modica is embarrassed at this episode of its history and on summer evenings it organises tours of the former ghetto, with a rather apologetic commentary by a local official. History does not repeat itself, but it does repeat its lessons. Modica today is a tolerant and enlightened place, but the lesson of the massacre resonates elsewhere in Italy, Europe and the world. Fanaticism and pragmatism are a potent and dangerous combination - and a very up-to-date one. I mentioned the Arabs and, by the way, Saladin was distinctly more tolerant than were the Normans.

Strictly speaking, history is not cyclical, but there is something cyclical about it. Combinations of circumstances, policies and attitudes occur and recur. Perhaps the main reason that this is so is because of the failure to absorb and practise the lessons that it teaches. For this reason, the present is a particularly dangerous period. Population increase, climate change, environmental transformation and the excessive concentration of wealth are all part of the danger. What makes the present period especially risky is that, more than ever before in the recorded past, we live in an ahistorical age. Technological change has, at least partially, decoupled us from our own history. However, the feeling of freedom from the burden of the past is both dangerous and illusory.

The Baroque period of the late 1600s and first half of the 1700s had many parallels with the present day. Baroque was a culture, and a distinctly European one. I am not referring to the Enlightenment because that was not the whole story. Instead, Baroque culture was built upon the tension of opposites: Enlightenment and Inquisition, for example, or ostentation and extreme poverty. The tension stimulated the creative energy, but it also imparted a massive destructive impulse: generatio and corruptio, as the Ancient Greeks would have had it, but unrestrained. Pluralism is usually lauded, but extreme polarity is not a good thing, or so history tells us. Similar conjunctions of circumstances mean that we live in the New Baroque Age. That gives us the opportunity to ponder the juxtaposition of opposites, especially the tension between enlightenment and ignorance.

Many of the lessons of history are thoroughly uncomfortable. With the shallowness of the technocratic age, commentators tend to call upon them only when they are convenient. As so many lessons are far from being convenient, they tend to be manipulated to make them so. Technological change has severely blurred the margins between fantasy and reality. History, if it appears, is the stuff of revisionism. In the struggle to see the world as it is, to master the great tide of data, information and events, can one achieve vision, or is it merely a mirage? Is the world we experience a reflection of some hard reality, or merely of our own predilections and prejudices?

Since the end of the old Baroque period there has been a constant division and subdivision of knowledge, eventually using the codification, or model, furnished by 19th century pedagogy. The paradox is that, in the age of superabundant information, never has it been harder to see the overall picture. The rigidity with which the subdivisions of knowledge are maintained, the keenness of the defence of intellectual territory, makes it even harder.

Disaster studies are, or should be, the epitome of interdisciplinarity. However, that is not the issue at stake. The issue is not how to combine disciplines, or even how to transcend them, in order to understand disasters. Instead it is how to see disasters in the context of other things. A very simple illustration of why that is important is as follows. Poor communities have high and rising vulnerability to hazards. Ignorance and lack of resources are attributed as the causes of this. Education programmes and investment in hazard reduction schemes are implemented. In reality, hazards are not a priority because they are not the most important problems that the poor communities face. After decades of efforts to mitigate hazards and reduce vulnerability, we need to ask why has success been so limited? The answer is that it is the context, not the hazard, that needs to be mitigated. Throughout the world, public austerity measures have been accompanied by a mass transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. When people’s general resistance is weakened, no amount of targeted programmes to reduce the impact of disasters will solve the problem. Like the hydra, it will pop up again every time it is annihilated.

Disaster occurs in the context of fiscal stringency, wealth transfer, proxy-wars, insurgency, murderous alternative economies, corruption, environmental degradation and the struggle to master technology before it masters us. In many instances, the root causes of disaster need to be sought outside disaster itself. This tends to make them less tractable. One of the biggest challenges is to understand how factors that have nothing directly to do with disasters affect them. For instance, what price reduction in vulnerability to floods when the real problem is the prevalence of murder? What price safety against earthquakes when the real problems are exploitation of labour and shortage of work? Obviously, an even bigger challenge is to solve the contextual problems and cascade the solution into disaster reduction.

One reason for mentioning history is that the problem of the context of disaster consists of two parts: practical aspects of survival and ideological aspects of the attitudes that determine people’s predilections and choices. The second of these is the most prone to the pseudo-cyclic nature of history. Hence, we need to ask what the connection is between history and the future? As we look back on what were once futures, we can see that there is a connection between the past and what is to come. Not only is it composed of the momentum imparted by decisions taken and actions completed, but it is the sum of mind-sets, and also the resurgence of old ideas in new forms.

The defining issue of modern life is humanity’s relationship with the technology it has created. It is this that leads us into the New Baroque Age, characterised by the tension of opposites. This is my model of it.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Egg Hypothesis

The desire to conceptualise disaster is strong. Hence, there are many models. Disasters  are large, chaotic, dynamic events in which there is bound to be unpredictability. They also tend to lay bare the inner workings of society. By virtue of their explanatory power, good models can act as a ‘road map’ of disaster. Things that appear to be chaotic are often a replication of what has happened in previous events. Models are relational, in the sense that they carry over past experience, codify it and apply it to new instances. By definition, a model is a simplification of reality in order to make it more comprehensible. To use a favourite old analogy from electronics, a good model filters out the ‘noise’ in order to emphasise the ‘signal’.

At the time of writing this, a debate is in progress among renowned experts in the field about whether the ‘disaster cycle’ is still a valid model: mitigation, preparation, emergency response, recovery and reconstruction. It has survived for 86 years (Carr 1932) because (a) disasters are repetitive, if not cyclical, (b) it is a simple and robust approach, (c) it has its uses in planning and teaching, and (d) it is not usually contradicted by the facts of a hazardous situation or place. Frustration with the model seems to come from the fact that it is not in any way developmental, other than having a sector of the wheel devoted to mitigation and risk reduction. The disaster cycle goes round and round and it does almost nothing to lift up the enterprise of dealing with crises, emergencies and calamities. Other common over-approximations of the cycle were dealt with years ago by Neal (1997).

One reason why models of disaster can be unsatisfying, especially in the modern age, is that many of them focus too exclusively on the phenomenon of disaster itself. To its credit, the‘pressure and release’ model (Wisner et al. 2004) does not do this, but considers “underlying risk drivers”. It is probably the most widely used theoretical conceptualisation of disaster.

I would like to introduce a very simple idea. I cannot really present it as being very novel or innovative - it is too simple for that. This is the ‘egg hypothesis’ (if, indeed, it is a hypothesis - you decide, gentle reader). We have moved into the age of resilience. Now this is also a simple concept, although it is one that, in the course of about 2,070 years has acquired many shades and overlays of meaning and interpretation (Alexander 2013). Resilience is variously a property, a goal, an aspiration and a political tool (Birkland 2016). Yet at its heart resilience is a simple matter of resistance and adaptation.

Different disciplines see resilience in different ways. For example, it has a long history in child psychology (Luthar 2006), also in materials testing and network analysis. One consequence of the multi-faceted nature of the concept is that disaster resilience may be ‘short-circuited’ by lack of resilience in other respects. The egg hypothesis stems from the very simple observation that it may be a waste of time to create resilience against specific forms of disaster if people are not resilient in other respects. For example, in the United Kingdom, efforts have been made for a long time to bring the floods problem under control (Wheater 2006). At the same time, the welfare state has been partially but systematically dismantled in the name of ‘austerity’ (Taylor-Gooby et al. 2017).

Given the almost obsessive interest of scholars in the shades of meaning of terms such as ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, it is extraordinary how little attention is given to ‘welfare’.

I would define ‘welfare’ as follows: “the provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves.” I do so here because it is strangely difficult to find a straightforward definition of the term in the literature, or at least that branch of the literature that refers to disasters. My definition is dreadfully easy to criticise, and no doubt full of loopholes, but to strengthen it what we need to do is to look at what welfare is not, not merely what it is.

And so to the egg. The yolk is disaster risk reduction (DRR), and the white is general risk reduction, or alternatively disaster resilience and general resilience. The point is that it is difficult to create resilience against disasters for people, communities and societies that are not resilient against other threats, hazards and misfortunes, including exploitation. subservience, marginalisation and induced impoverishment. If the context of DRR is marginalisation, community dystopia and impoverishment, then disaster mitigation is unlikely to work.

If this idea is worth taking forward, it needs to be developed in terms of how things change dynamically. It has been suggested to me that the egg needs to be scrambled, so that DRR is fully integrated with a general endeavour to improve people’s living conditions, especially in terms of security and livelihoods. And where is the eggshell? Is that resilience? I would rather draw back from eggy metaphors and leave the comestibles fried without breaking the yolk, as in the diagrams.

The other important factor in the egg hypothesis is that the context influences the process of seeking resilience against disasters. The yolk is the yolk because the white is around it. One thing that cannot be overemphasised is that we need to look more closely at how contextual factors affect vulnerability to disaster, even factors that are not obviously connected with disaster risk. Now that is something to get eggcited about.

Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13(11): 2707-2716.

Birkland, T.A. 2016. Conceptualizing resilience. Politics and Governance 4(4): 117-120.

Carr, Lowell Juilliard 1932. Disaster and the sequence-pattern concept of social change. American Journal of Sociology 38(2): 207-218.

Luthar, S.S.  2006. Resilience in development: a synthesis of research across five decades. Chapter 20 in D. Cicchetti and D,J. Cohen (eds) Developmental Psychopathology: Vol. 3: Risk, Disorder and Adaptation (2nd edn). Routledge, London: 739-795.

Neal, D.M. 1997. Reconsidering the phases of disasters. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 15(2): 239-264.

Taylor-Gooby, P., B. Leruth and H. Chung 2017. Where next for the UK welfare state? In P, Taylor-Gooby, B, Leruth and H, Chung (eds) After Austerity: Welfare State Transformation in Europe After the Great Recession. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 48-66.

Wheater, H.S. 2006.Flood hazard and management: a UK perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 364: 2135-2145.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis and 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters (2nd edition). Routledge, London, 496 pp.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Leadership: An Address to Students of Disaster Risk Reduction

Good morning, students (students, that is, under paragraph (a), sub-section 4, section 11, Schedule 3 of the Immigration Act of 2014, as related to sub-section 2, section 4, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992). You will be pleased to know that the definition of your role as students is whatever the Secretary of State wants it to be (as confirmed by Paragraph 2, Section 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992), but (according to sub-section 1, section 5, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992, as confirmed by sub-section (c), paragraph 5, Schedule 2 of the Immigration Act of 2014), your university is required by law to certify, in your regard, whatever that might be. This applies whether you were born in Patagonia to parents from Outer Mongolia or Downing Street to a lineage that has been in England since Norman times. In any case, because you are a student, the Secretary of State may require you to certify any information of any kind that she wants, regardless of what it is (for confirmation of this, please see section 2, paragraph 1, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992). So be of good cheer, for this fundamental freedom under democracy is your precious gift to enjoy!

My take on leadership is very much that of W.S. Gilbert’s renowned Duke of Plaza Toro: “In enterprise of martial kind / When there was any fighting, / He led his regiment from behind / (He found it less exciting). / But when away his regiment ran / His place was at the fore-O / That celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza Toro.”

So you want to be a leader? Well, the first thing you should learn about that is how to write. Despite all the advances in technology, despite the fact that the Finnish Government has declared that it will stop teaching children to write, writing is what you will have to learn. How long does it take to learn to write? About 100 years, plus or minus a decade or two. This means, first, that there is a long apprenticeship and secondly that one never stops learning to write, one never arrives at the end of the journey. Ah, what beautiful, well-delimited clauses, and they show that I know we say ‘first’, ‘secondly‘, ‘thirdly’, in English, although I have never bothered to memorise Fowler’s explanation of why that is the case. Fowler, by the way, is one of your guides, so I advise you to find him quickly.

My apprenticeship was much influenced by someone else’s. All writers have their mentors. One of mine was French, and her autobiography, Mes apprentissages, also published as Paradis terrestre, is so lucid that its prose sparkles in translation almost as much as in the original. Elegantly it tells of Colette’s travails dans le vie.

I was taught to master the triple cadence, with diligence, insight and perseverance, by E.M. Forster, whose pen was a sharp sword indeed. A decisive lesson came from J.B. Priestley. He is out of fashion now, perhaps because his writing tends to vary irritatingly from the pompous to the ponderous. Yet he had one great gift: he know it was so. Reflecting on his career, he wrote an essay called, with characteristic Northern bluntness, Making writing simple. In this, he managed to decry his own attempts to exude the airs of a learned and authoritative sage. Hemingway is another worthy influence. William Faulkner once said of him, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." Hemingway retorted, "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

If only scientists wrote in the deep, sonorous prose of Conrad, the lexicological equivalent of highly polished mahogany, as solid as it is beautiful. And English was, not his first, but his fifth language!

As an academic, I have not been villified since, when was it?, ah yes, last Friday. One of my reviews came back from the author plastered with angry red exclamations. In fact, I had overstepped the mark and forgotten a very useful principle. Writing must be honest and it must have a basic humility. Now perhaps you can see why I say that it takes 100 years to learn, or perhaps, errare humanum est, as Cicero wrote, I am the fool who will never learn: nisi insipientis perseverare in errore.

(Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.)

We write to communicate: repeat it a thousand times. How do you communicate? How is your effort, one hopes, your honest effort, to communicate received by your readership?

Good writing is the fruit of wide reading, particularly in the liberal arts. Even people who have no knowledge of the proper rules of English (in other words, most Anglophone people) will have a vague perception that something is written well--if it is. It not only communicates, it convinces.

If you want to lead, another thing you will need to do is see. Pierre Bonnard once said that many people look and few of them actually see. Bonnard is one of my favourite painters, and in the depth and subtlety of his colours and brushstrokes it is quite clear that he could see. Painting has been likened to silent poetry. His pictures of Marthe de Maligny, his secret wife, are truly poetic. But this did not mean that his vision was an idée fixe. Instead, in later life he occasionally crept into art galleries and was observed repainting his own earlier works when he thought no one was looking.

But nowadays, people not only do not see, they have given up bothering to look. The result is appalling visual poverty. People will agree that a certain thing, person or view is ‘beautiful’, but they will not know why, or how, because they will have little basis for comparison. The language of visual communication is now foreign to the majority of people. The first casualty of that is aesthetics. Belief and knowledge are replaced by empty convention. How many of you have got onto a bus and gone up to the top deck for the shear pleasure of riding around London looking at what can be seen above eye level? There is an amazing wealth of detail, much of which is hidden or indistinguishable from ground level. To bury one’s nose in a ‘hand-held device’ is to miss so many of the things that make life worthwhile. Text messages, photographs and videos are no substitute for the real thing. The art  of looking in order to see not only gives an astounding visual education, it prepares one to interpret. Like writing, it is an essential skill for leaders.

Here is a story about leadership that I would like to share with you. It is not a success story, and it comes from a time when I was less than half the age I am now. In the early 1980s I published repeatedly in the journal Environmental Management. I settled on it in 1980 because it struck me as the best produced, most presentable journal on the new publications rack at UCL library. I struck up a working relationship with the founding editor, Dr Robert DeSanto, a practising environmental engineer. In 1985 he invited me to take over the editorship. I was 32 and an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Quaking in my shoes, I consulted Dr Fred Byron, my dean. He said it was OK, so I took one of my Department’s capacious Dodge Ram vans and drove down Interstate 91 to East Lyme, Connecticut. After lunch with Dr DeSanto (somewhat archly, he took me to a restaurant in a historic building that the British had tried to burn down at the time of the American Revolution), I loaded the journal, lock, stock and barrel, into the van and drove it back to UMass. Remember, nothing was done electronically in those days: there was no Internet.

So here I was, a young Editor-in-Chief of a major international research journal published, with Germanic efficiency, by Springer-Verlag of 175 Fifth Avenue, New York City and produced in Teaneck, New Jersey. In my 17 years as editor, I spent much time in the historic Flatiron Building, New York, home of the publishers, and I had the pleasure of meeting Conrad Springer, the titular Head of the firm. But my first assignment was the worst. Indeed it was the worst I have ever faced in 32 years as an editor. Among the papers I collected from Dr DeSanto was a set of proofs of an article that he had accepted for publication but Springer had pulled from the production line. It was a paper about environmental mismanagement in the Soviet Union, written by a former inmate of a Siberian labour camp. It was a work of great brilliance and insight. However, the publisher objected to certain phrases. I particularly recall one example: “These dams were built with the blood and bones of 200,000 political prisoners.”

The author of the article had escaped from the Soviet Union and found a toe-hold in the American academic system at the University of Connecticut. From his base at UConn he fulminated against Springer, the journal - and me - and he accused us of censorship. This was particularly inflammatory, as, first, in my view he had a point, and secondly, the Cold War was still underway and these things mattered. I tried to mediate and calm the situation. I failed. He published the paper elsewhere - a totally unethical move. He sent us an offprint with a message scrawled on it: “that’s what I think of your censorship!” To cap it all, he then had a stroke and died, no doubt as a result of the physical stress of political prisonership in a cold climate. It was not my finest moment. As with so many failures of leadership, there were no winners: we were all losers.

Yes, I have been an editor for so long that when I started, the Dead Sea was only sick. But let us go back further in time.

Let me connect the concept of leadership to what we do as students of disasters. On the 10th January 49 BC, at the head of the 13th Legion Gemina, Gaius Julius Cæsar, better known as  Julius Caesar, crossed the Rubicon. The Rubicon, or Rubicone, is an 80-km long river that flows into the Adriatic Sea just south of Cesenatico, near Ravenna. His crossing of the Rubicon is history. I have crossed the Rubicon many times (either by train or driving along on the A14 motorway). This is not history. If you can truly answer the question “Why?”, you have the key to why we don’t seem to be making progress in reducing disasters.

I will give you a clue. Julius Caesar was liable to being prosecuted for waging wars in Gaul that the Roman Senate had not approved. A decision had to be made: either he remained in Gaul and defended himself there, or he marched on Rome, coming out of Cisalpine Gaul at its boundary with Italy, namely, the Rubicon River. He chose the latter and won the last and greatest civil war of the Roman Republic. It did him no good, as five years later he was assassinated by 60 conspirators on the steps of the Senate. This led to renewed civil war and the ascendancy of Octavian as the first Emperor, thus ending the Republic.

To interpret this, momentous developments in human social evolution arose from a simple, pragmatic decision to take a relatively banal action. Circumstances conspired, and all that. Underneath the action lies a vast set of interconnected relationships, actions, reactions, facts and ideologies. So it is with disasters.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

A Role in Response: The Place of Voluntarism in Emergency Organisation

There are several reasons why voluntarism is important to emergency preparedness. First, in certain areas of activity, it can compensate for lack of official resources. Secondly, it can help connect the official response mechanism to the beneficiaries, namely the general public. Thirdly, it may give people more of a stake in how local risks are managed. Finally, it may help create a sense of community and encourage people to work for the common good.

Voluntarism can help to connect ordinary people to the system of official disaster risk reduction and emergency response. It can counteract the ‘top-down’ effect, with its potential blindness to local concerns and priorities. It can also help adapt emergency provisions to local needs. In this context, organised voluntarism can act as a link between salaried administrators and the general public, enabling the latter to connect with the emergency preparedness process and voice concerns to the authorities.

It is often suggested that voluntarism is in crisis in various parts of the world. The market-based ideologies of neoliberal capitalism have encouraged, promoted and prized individualism at the expense of selfless collective action. Harsh economic conditions and the rise of the ‘gig economy’ have created financial pressures that discourage people from volunteering, as this would be too great a sacrifice of time that could be spent earning a basic income. Public discourse has become harsher, and civil values have taken a beating. Nevertheless, charity, self-sacrifice and social participation have found new ways of expressing themselves, notably with the aid of social media. In one of her Christmas addresses to the UK nation, Queen Elizabeth II observed that, among the many people she has met during the course of her official duties, the happiest and most fulfilled have usually been those who sought a role helping others. Hence, voluntarism is certainly not dying and doubtless has a rich, varied future ahead of it.

This essay briefly examines (or really re-examines - see Alexander 2010) the nature of civil protection voluntarism. This largely means emergency response, although there is of course a role for volunteers in the wider processes of mitigating risks and preparing for future emergencies. In this work, the key question is how best to organise voluntarism so that it provides a valid and valuable service, motivates the volunteers and fits in with the ‘official’ system. As the legal, administrative and social support systems of countries vary widely, no one model is appropriate everywhere. There is a series of options to be considered, as the following section will show.

The nature of civil protection voluntarism

According to sociologists, agent-generated demands arise from the specific nature of the hazard or threat impact and response-generated demands stem from the process of organising and implementing the response (Quarantelli 1982, p. 3). Hence, the need for casualty management is agent-generated, but the need for stretchers and ambulances is response-generated. Volunteers respond to the former category of needs but generate the latter category.

The first question for civil protection authorities is whether it is better to avail themselves of spontaneous volunteers or create the conditions for organised, incorporated voluntarism. Although there are pros and cons on both sides of the dilemma, the world-wide trend is decisively away from spontaneous voluntarism in favour of the organised kind. This, however, may be a process or path, rather than a net distinction.

Spontaneous volunteer forces have been organised by enterprising citizens through use of social media to articulate people’s pressing concerns. Thus people with brooms and plastic sacks went out on the streets of London after the 2011 riots both to clean up the debris and to demonstrate that Londoners still have civic values of tolerance, solidarity and participation. In 2014, similar forces were out on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, to clean up the debris left by the passage of an intense storm.

In Italy, organised voluntarism in civil protection stems from the founding of the Venerable Company of the Misericordia in Florence in 1244. In 2018 it is still in the same headquarters but has grown into a major ambulance and civil protection response service that is federated across the nation. Nevertheless, the dawn of the modern era of civil protection voluntarism in Italy stems from the arrival of many young people in Florence after the 4 November 1966 floods. Equipped with nothing but a backpack and bedding role, they dedicated themselves to the clean-up process with enthusiasm and earned the title of “mud angels”.

Spontaneous demonstrations of desire to help and participate are all very well, but they carry a number of drawbacks. Unorganised volunteers can be a drain on resources and are of limited use. Yet most civil protection voluntary organisations began in this manner. Thus, one could trace a  progression from spontaneous to fully organised and incorporated voluntarism (see figure). Hence, in Italy, 3,600 volunteer organisations are the backbone of the system. The organisations have government sponsorship and their members are protected with legal provisions. For example, they cannot be sacked from their regular jobs if they are called upon to respond to a disaster.

It is a valid hypothesis that voluntarism in civil protection cannot adequately be organised on an unprogrammed basis. Some of the reasons for this are as follows. First, members require personal protection in their response roles and insurance against accident, liability or losses. The complexity of events and increasing professionalism of roles requires systematic training. Volunteers work best in groups or organisations and these need to be accommodated by the system of official emergency response. In fact, given the need to orchestrate the response, it is important for such organisations to have defined roles that can fully be taken into account in emergency plans. Moreover, such roles must harmonise with other roles and tasks in such a way as to cover all anticipated needs generated by foreseeable emergency situations.

The process of building a system of volunteer organisations that is both parallel to the official response system and is harmonised with it involves a series of steps. Associations need to be formed and to acquire identity based on their tasks, roles and constituent members. Association involves working together; organisation involves grouping and readying for action. Training, the acquisition of equipment and operational bases, the formation of communications networks and the creation of procedures for recruitment are all part of the process of maturing and developing organisations. They may then enter on the path to incorporation, in which they gain official recognition and absorption into official structures, with an official role in emergency response or other civil protection activities.

Models of voluntarism in civil protection

When considering how voluntarism could be developed in civil protection, the first question to answer is what can volunteers do? Here is a list of possible roles:

  • urban search and rescue (USAR), regional search and rescue (SAR)
  • marine rescue (lifeboat services)
  • evacuation and the management of temporary shelter
  • mass feeding for displaced populations and emergency responders
  • transportation and humanitarian logistics
  • ambulance service, with paramedics and possibly doctors
  • volunteer fire service
  • medical services, support for people with disabilities, psychological assistance
  • interpreting and translating
  • building and construction skills
  • monitoring, observing and providing information to the public.
In most countries there are probably already volunteer organisations that respond to with some of these needs.

In some countries emergency response voluntarism is well developed. In Germany, for example, Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) has almost 80,000 volunteers and 630 bases. It is well integrated into the official emergency response system. In Italy, there are 3,600 volunteer organisations with civil protection roles, some of which are federated into 36 national organisations. The volunteer rescue tradition stretches back 775 years and is fully accepted and well supported by local communities. It is usually a matter of local pride, as well as the prudence of having functional emergency services at close proximity. A corollary is the fact that Italian Law (specifically no. 225 of 1992) identifies the elected mayor of a municipality as the chief civil protection authority, which is a further connection between the official emergency response mechanism and the beneficiaries in the general population. Similar kinds of organisation exist in countries such as Colombia, but with lower levels of development, in part due to lack of resources and in part because of the persistence of conflict situations that have restricted the development of civilian agencies (Salamon and Sokolowski 2001).

In the United States individualism is such that volunteer activity is somewhat limited, although the American Red Cross is a fine example of how a regular institution can be integrated with volunteers. In the more seismically active parts of California there have been experiments with organising neighbourhood-level emergency response, by training and equipping groups of neighbours (Lichterman 2000). In southern Ireland, villages have organised to be resilient against emergencies using social media to communicate and identify indigenous skills.

Voluntarism and communities

The concept of ‘community’ is difficult to define and not necessarily therapeutic. In the first place, it has no inherent scale, It can be conceptualised as any grouping of people with a common agenda, or common fate, from the level of a single inhabited street to that of the entire world, as linked by information technology. Many local communities have expatriate elements, perhaps in the form of a diaspora. Secondly, the mere fact of a common destiny, or common interests, does not automatically make communities a force for social progress. Rather than being therapeutic phenomena, many communities are factional, divided by rivalries or subject to ‘elite capture’, a process in which the common agenda is subverted to the desires of the most influential or powerful members of the community (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Although elite capture is mostly associated with communities in developing countries it is equally likely to occur in rich nations, albeit under a different, more subtle guise.

Despite these reservations, where they can be defined at a local scale, communities are usually rich in human capital (Becker 1994). People have skills and experience, as well as potential commitment. Organising volunteer groups is thus also a question of organising expertise in such a way that it can be exploited in emergency response or mitigation actions.

Another issue concerns how to use existing volunteer organisations, if there are such things, in order to extend their reach to emergency response activities. In the local community, there may be trained figures (such as flood wardens and snow wardens) as well as entire trained organisations. An ambitious scheme would operate at the national or regional level. It would provide a legal framework for operations, including coverage for anticipated risks, funding for equipment and training, and recognition and accommodation within the official system. Once established, the organisation could be incorporated into emergency plans with defined roles under expected emergency scenarios.


Civil protection is made up of the processes and organisations involved in preparing for and responding to civilian emergencies such as natural hazard impacts and industrial accidents. To be effective, it needs the recognition, and perhaps the participation, of the beneficiaries, namely the general public. In many situations, how to connect the public and the system is a major challenge. Encouraging and developing organised voluntarism is one possible way of taking up that challenge.

There is a choice of three possible strategies (which are not mutually exclusive):-

(a) Rely on spontaneous voluntarism and existing volunteer organisations. Seek to guide and direct them more effectively. This means anticipating developments that will occur which may involve volunteers and predicting both how they can be used and how they will act in a crisis.

(b) Make better use of existing voluntary organisations. Understand them, engage with them, seek to change and develop their roles in emergency situations. Seek a better institutional role for them.

(c) Start to develop serious civil protection organisations and a role, accreditation system and institutional framework for them. Templates and procedural and legal mechanisms will be needed.

By and large, the development of voluntarism is one of the possible measures of the maturity of the civil protection system and its path towards a service that is responsive to local needs and priorities, organised from above, but activated from below.


Alexander, D.E. 2010. The voluntary sector in emergency response and civil protection: review and recommendations. International Journal of Emergency Management 7(1): 151-166.

Becker, G.S. 1994. Human capital revisited. In Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education (3rd Edition). University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 15-28.

Lichterman, J.D. 2000. A "community as resource" strategy for disaster response. Public Health Reports 115(2-3): 262-265.

Lund, J.F. and M. Saito-Jensen 2013. Revisiting the issue of elite capture of participatory initiatives. World Development 46: 104-112.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1982. Human resources and organizational behaviours in community disasters and their relationship to planning. Preliminary paper no. 76. Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, 19 pp.

Salamon, L.M. and W. Sokolowski 2001. Volunteering in Cross-National Perspective: Evidence From 24 Countries. Working Papers of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Non-Profit Sector Project, no. 40. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 34 pp.