Cultural Factors and Citizen Empowerment

In November 2017, the Work Package 7 'Citizens’ Empowerment' Team, led by LSC, finalized their work on investigating theoretical and actual ways of empowering citizens and communities throughout the disaster management cycle, and provided valuable input for the development of the CARISMAND Toolkit.

Empowered communities and individuals who are proactive in planning, coordinating and re-building during disasters can be assisted to manage their own localities, or they can be more formally involved in large-scale efforts. Numerous case studies demonstrate valuable lessons in how DMAs collaborate with and train communities, years before disaster strikes, to enable them to best design and operationalise a disaster plan themselves. A CBDM approach to disaster management exemplifies this method. The guiding principles suggest that communities, not DMAs are best placed to understand, manage and take advantage of the unique collective way of life of the community, for the best outcomes in a disaster.

Individual citizens can also become critical stakeholders and community representatives working formally with officials to create tailored disaster plans that take account of cultural differences. Community leaders, for example, can act as gatekeepers to the community, influencing decisions and behaviours internally and externally. Locals who can “read” the environment and have adapted their behaviour and land use patterns over generations, as a result of the local “disaster culture”, can also be useful experts in disaster planning and response. Individuals also have existing capacities that can be nurtured and developed to assist in disasters, particularly in the case of the most vulnerable groups affected by disasters. Local communities possess a wealth of often untapped knowledge, skills, practices and capacities that are unique to their local culture. DMAs need to harness these resources to improve the process overall. This is why local disaster prevention plans, in which key citizens or local leaders can and should take part, are important.

There is substantial evidence that involving and empowering local communities to take ownership of the disaster management process, can yield a number of positive results. For this reason, community involvement should not be seen as a conciliatory symbolic gesture that is secondary to the “scientific”, “official” work. For example, apart from saving lives, collaboration can foster long-term trust between DMAs and communities, smoothing response efforts and preventing trust issues exacerbating impacts later on; it can give DMAs access to the local socio-cultural landscape; and it can create a more sustainable recovery.

A thorough analysis of the relevant literature demonstrates that culture itself can be utilised to empower communities and individuals. Paying heed to disaster cultures is the strongest example of this, whereby collective memory, adaptive responses and adaptive practices can all contribute to more effective disaster management. Local identities can also support the re-building of a sense of place and encourage proactive responses in disasters. Families, with their particular value systems, routines and the modes of expression within them, can aid coping skills. Strong social capital increases the chances of survival. Ultimately, it is a mistake to perceive socio-cultural factors as problems that need to be managed by DMAs. Instead, DMAs need to recognise the value of culture as functional and empowering.

Attempts by DMAs to empower and involve communities, to navigate difficult cultural issues and nurture functional cultural attributes may still not be enough to avoid or mitigate negative disaster impacts. Equally, institutional power or circumstances can overwhelm decision-makers’ abilities to hear or involve local communities. In these cases, activism and collective pressure from the bottom up may be one of the most appropriate and empowering courses of action. This can take the form of “whistle-blowing”, advocacy and pressure groups and direct action via social media and other mechanisms.

Stay tuned for the final Work Package 7 task on providing a set of recommendations for disaster managers on how cultural values can be used in their day-to-day practice for enhancing citizen empowerment.

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