Despite concerted effort at both the international and national level over more than 20 years, activities in support of disaster risk reduction, which emerged with the aim of reducing the human and economic cost of disasters, have failed to flatten the continuing upward curve of disaster losses. The impact of disasters is felt most keenly at community level where small-scale recurrent ‘everyday disasters’ carry a greater human cost than more widely publicised ‘mega disasters’. The Global Network for Disaster Reduction has been carrying out local level social surveying since 2009 through its ‘Views from the Frontline’ programme and evidence from these surveys has identified factors accounting for the limited success of top-down approaches. By identifying characteristics of community led resilience, this contribution to the CIVICUS State of Civil Society report sets out enabling factors that would strengthen local resilience, highlighting the critical role of local civil society actors in creating a complementary bottom-up approach to disaster risk reduction.
Wide recognition of the increasing human and economic costs of disasters led to the emergence of a new thematic area within humanitarian response, disaster risk reduction, heralded by the launch of the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in 1990. It reflected the belief that preparedness would drive down the impacts and costs of disasters. While there have been notable successes over the last two decades, and statistics show a reduction in lives lost, they also show that the human and economic cost of disasters continue to escalate (EM-DAT, 2011). What is of particular concern is that losses from ‘everyday disasters’ – the smaller-scale recurrent disasters that are referred to technically as ‘extensive disasters’ – continue to increase.
These are the regular events, whether natural, social, or economic, which repeatedly knock back communities. Seasonal floods, droughts, local famines, diseases, fires, landslides, price hikes, fuel shortages, social instability, violence and conflict all take a continuing toll (UNISDR, 2011).
The recognised data for disasters and disaster losses is known to under-report the impact of everyday disasters. These often slip under the radar because the individual events are small-scale, often uninsured and under-reported. For example, a study of the impact of landslides (Petley, 2012) drew on several sources of data to demonstrate that the recognised data from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) under-reported true losses by over 400%, partly because they ignore any event in which the loss of life is small. Even the United Nations International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is turning to sources other than EM-DAT to find out what is really happening at this level (UNISDR, 2011). By looking at local level data from sources such as DESINVENTAR, UNISDR is also finding that the real picture at local level is far bleaker than the EM-DAT statistics suggest. Losses from everyday disasters have a far greater impact than was previously recognised, most often on people living in poverty.
Evidence from the frontline
Since 2009 The Global Network for Disaster Reduction (GNDR) has been gathering evidence from the ‘frontline’ – local communities, CSOs and local government in urban and rural locations exposed to disasters – asking what local level perceptions reveal about trends and possibilities for action. GNDR is a network of over 500 CSOs in over 70 countries in the global South, who contribute to the Views from the Frontline (VFL) programme. VFL is a participatory multi-stakeholder local level survey designed to monitor, review and report on critical aspects of disaster risk reduction and progress in building resilient communities. The survey has been conducted in 2009, 2011 and 2013, gathering responses from over 20,000 people in 70 countries for the 2011 survey.
Why is it the reality at local level that extensive and recurrent disasters – though largely unnoticed and underreported by authorities, statisticians and the media – are taking a bigger and bigger toll on peoples’ ability to build better lives? Evidence from VFL (2009) indicated a policy-implementation gap. Many policies intended to drive progress in disaster risk reduction are primarily created and then implemented in a top down way. They are led from an (often external) institutional and governmental level, depending on plans, leadership, knowledge and expertise far removed from the local scene. The result is a gap between high-level policy and practical implementation.
The 2009 survey also suggested that whilst there was significant local capacity and expertise, this capacity was disconnected from local and particularly national levels of government, who tend to regard local people as passive beneficiaries. Although many programmes and projects include participation as an element, in practice this often turns into co-option, failing to achieve local engagement or empowerment.
Views from the Frontline’s analysis suggests that the missing ingredient that would drive real progress in disaster risk reduction, building resilience at local and ultimately national level, is an active citizenry, which have responsibilities as well as rights. To investigate this notion GNDR members turned their focus to what they saw as a key factor in strengthening resilience at local level: local organisation and partnerships – essentially, a focus on governance. The analysis (VFL, 2011) found that bridging the gap between top-down and bottom-up approaches demanded stronger local level governance through participation of all those concerned at local level. The study went on to show that good local governance depends on good local knowledge and the key ingredient for local governance based on local knowledge is an active citizenry. Data and case studies demonstrated that where citizens exercised their responsibilities in knowledge creation, decision-making and action, local level resilience was strengthened (AFL, 2011).