Graham Marsh, Iftekhar Ahmed, Martin Mulligan, Jenny Donovan, Steve Barton

Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery reflects a wide array of practical experiences in working with disaster-affected communities internationally. It demonstrates that widely held assumptions about the benefits of community consultation and engagement in disaster recovery work need to be examined more critically because poorly conceived and hastily implemented community engagement strategies have sometimes exacerbated divisions
within affected communities and/or resulted in ineffective use of aid funding. It is equally demonstrated that well-crafted, creative and thoughtful programming is possible. A wide collection of case studies of practical experience from thirteen countries around the world is presented to help establish ways of working with communities experiencing great challenges.

The book offers practical suggestions on how to give more substance to the rhetoric of community consultation and engagement in these areas of work. It suggests the need to work with a dynamic understanding of community formation that is particularly relevant when people experience unforeseen challenges and traumatic experiences.

Focused on the concept of community in post-disaster recovery solutions—an aspect which has received little critical interrogation in the literature—this book will be a valuable resource to students, scholars and practitioners in disaster management as well as humanitarian agencies.

The key lessons emerging from the book’s diverse case studies point to a set of guiding principles for good policies and practice for the future, all of which hinge on the need to be context sensitive. These principles for effective post-disaster community engagement include the following:

  • Remembering that people with the best intentions can sometimes trigger or amplify tension or conflict within traumatised communities.
  • Making as few assumptions as possible. Everywhere is unique. Being informed is important—through reading or consultation—about the history, culture, structures of authority and dynamics of communities being worked with. Confirming that understanding with the people with and for whom the work will be undertaken.
  • Remembering that all local communities include sub-communities or interest groups which may have external linkages and are constantly evolving, so there is a need to proceed cautiously and consult widely.
  • Recognising the landscape of influence, and identifying people who can represent groups of people within the community or communities, even if they do not hold formal positions.
  • Looking for people who have particular skills or abilities which can create better options for those people and/or their community at large.
  • Proceeding patiently, in case the work causes unforeseen resentment or resistances.
  • Ensuring that the criteria being used to address particular needs are always made known to the community.
  • Being aware that people, families and groups may face difficult choices about their futures after a disaster, and therefore avoiding the cultivation of expectations that are unrealistic or may close down options.
  • Looking for creative and culturally appropriate ways to help build an inclusive sense of community for those who have been traumatised by a disaster.
  • Remembering that community consultations and engagement are processes over time rather than discrete events. Outside participants are likely to only see the process of recovery for a relatively short time. They may give it a momentum that might either make it easier or harder for the community(ies) to progress down the road to recovery.
  • Outsiders can also have the ability to change expectations and cultivate hope. Without it, locally generated recovery becomes much harder.

To conclude: there is a lot to be learnt by examining practices in a wide range of geographic, social and cultural settings to reveal what has proved effective and what hasn’t helped people overcome the impacts of disasters. However, perhaps a more important message is not so much about techniques that may prove useful, as about the underlying approach needed to assist recovery and renewal. All communities are unique, influenced by geography, social processes, the momentum of history and the unique perspectives, experiences and capacities of the people who make them up. By extension, all places are experienced by people who hold a diversity of views and values and are tied to each other and their physical surroundings in many different ways, making the notion of a single community in a single place unreliable.

Consequently, whatever techniques are used, the practitioner should not assume once a community has been identified that this is the only community. Care needs to be taken to search out and respect the perspectives of others besides those most loudly put.

Furthermore, disasters are by their nature extraordinary events, disrupting the familiar and often challenging the landscape of authority in the places where they occur. They destroy the social and physical fabric of the people impacted by them.

If outside experts are to help these people to go down their own paths of recovery, then these experts should remember that what worked elsewhere may not work here. To paraphrase the Australian academic Trevor Budge: “Once you have seen one disaster, you have seen one disaster”. The practices outlined in this book revealed that there are some underlying principles for good practice which are context-sensitive, but there are no universal models. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for humility, patience and an ability to listen to a wide range of voices.

Photo credit: Iftekhar Ahmed