Views on challenges for disaster management research, policy and practice: a call for new perspectives

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer and Programme Director MSc International Disaster Management, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.
E: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk, Twitter: @BillyTusker
This post originally appeared on the HCRI blog.

Disaster management, in theory and in practice, is complex to say the least. While there are many things that are done well and are well-understood, many challenges remain for researchers, policy makers, and emergency practitioners. Even as a Lecturer in Disaster Management and Programme Director for a Masters programme specifically focused on International Disaster Management, I do not purport to be an expert on most aspects of the field. Drawing from my own research and wider reading, teaching, observations made at academic and industry conferences, and experiences with emergency organisations, my aim for this post is to reflect on four aspects of disaster management that I think are problematic, challenging for the field, or in need of improvement for more effective disaster management. These words are merely one academic’s musings on where further research and/or policy attention may be warranted, and I welcome any comments or discussions from others.

  1. Can we bounce past resilience yet?
    The concept of resilience has come into vogue in disaster research and practice over the past decade and now dominates policy agendas throughout the world (e.g. Sendai framework). Resilience has great merit in application to disaster management in theory.  It is not difficult to see how either of the most popular conceptualisations of resilience can be useful in aiding understanding of disasters; resilience as the ability of a system (or community, or individual) to either absorb stress and resist significant disruption (social-ecological perspective), or to ‘bounce back’ to normal functioning following a shock (engineering perspective). However, the application of these concepts to disaster management, both in policy interpretations and in practical measures to ‘build’ resilience, remains a challenge.There are numerous extant critiques of resilience in the disaster literature, many of which I agree with. These include, among others, a lack of consensus over what resilience actually is, that resilience definitions routinely combine elements of both ecological and engineering resilience (such as the definition adopted by UNISDR) but these are actually somewhat contradictory ideas, that measuring resilience is too difficult, and the question of whether it is appropriate for people to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-disaster conditions, which for many may be a highly vulnerable and undesirable state. The counter to this last critique has been proposals of revised interpretations of resilience as ‘building back better’ or ‘bouncing forward’.

    For me the central problem with resilience lies in a series of disconnects. I perceive a disconnect between what resilience refers to in academic conceptualisations and how these are interpreted and applied in disaster policies, and I see a further disconnect between resilience in policy and what it looks like, or how it is implemented and/or achieved in practice. I have heard numerous emergency practitioners in Australia and the UK say in public forums that they do not know what resilience is, or that the field is struggling to comprehend resilience approaches, yet these are the people responsible for implementing (and often devising) policies centred around resilience. I myself often find it difficult to see concrete connections between the theoretical understandings of resilience in academic literature and ‘resilience building activities’ in practice, which often appear to be increasingly about shifting the responsibility of emergency agencies over to the public. It is often unclear in resilience policies how one should go about actually implementing ‘resilience building’ at all. This, I argue, causes confusion, and without clear means for achieving the goals of resilience policies, they remain ineffective and draw attention away from developing more meaningful approaches.

    Whether resilience is just a buzzword, or whether or not policy interpretations and implementations align with academic theory may or may not be important, if whatever the strategies are in practice achieve their aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities. But in terms of the amount of attention given to the concept in research and in practice versus the measurable benefits for reducing disaster impacts, perhaps it is time we moved the debate on and bounced right on past resilience (in theory, at least).

  1. Can we more meaningfully include the public in disaster risk reduction?
    Coupled with the growing resilience agenda has been a push to increase community engagement in disaster risk reduction, with research demonstrating that information dissemination alone is insufficient for meaningful risk reduction and disaster preparedness action. Approaches centred on community engagement are becoming increasingly present in emergency organisations, likely with varying success (the Tasmania Fire Service’s Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods programme appears to me to be one of the better ones).

mapping Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods community engagement activities: participatory mapping (image credit: Billy Haworth).

In Australia and elsewhere, the push for increased community engagement presents in concert with broader policy agendas of shared responsibility. As a policy shared responsibility emphasises that the burden of emergency management and risk reduction should be shouldered by all parties involved, including national, state, and local government, as well as other stakeholders, businesses, communities, households and individuals, while recognising that the weight of responsibility and expected tasks looks different for these different groups. Similar to my thoughts on resilience, I argue there are differences between shared responsibility and community engagement in theory and policy and how they appear in practice. Scholars have critiqued shared responsibility as being more akin to the public ‘doing what agencies want them to’ (like creating their own emergency plans in order to better-help themselves), rather than sharing of much at all, and state that in order to share responsibility for disaster resilience, control over risk management decisions, actions and processes also needs to be shared. In disaster management at present, this largely doesn’t occur.

When citizens are engaged in disaster management and have been involved by their own volition, they are often seen as problematic or disruptive by authorities, as has been the case with some instances of spontaneous volunteering or the public’s use of social media during crises. While a policy shift has occurred from response to disaster risk reduction and resilience building (community engagement) over the last decade or so, I believe considerable cultural change in emergency organisations is still required to more meaningfully value and incorporate citizens and their knowledge into disaster risk reduction.

The field of citizen science offers important lessons learnt of relevance to disaster management. Citizen science refers to the practice of engaging members of the public in scientific research. Thanks to citizens observing, collecting, sharing and analysing data, a vast range of high-quality scientific research has been completed, much of which would not have been possible otherwise. If disaster management valued community knowledge like citizen science does, protocols and systems could be established to promote and encourage the most useful citizen practices and allow for improved harnessing of citizen action and community-supplied information.

  1. Can we better-incorporate and appreciate gender and sexual diversity in disaster management (policies, organisations, and research)?
    Here, there are three areas I believe need further attention: 1) considerations of gender and sexual minorities in responding to and managing disasters, 2) diversity of personnel in emergency organisations, and 3) diversity in research and teaching. Sexual and gender minorities are commonly recognised as a vulnerable group in disaster policies. Yet, research into LGBTIQ experiences in disasters highlights significant policy and practice failings (such as the lack of planning and provision for the safety of transgender people when using bathrooms in evacuation or refuge centres). These failings are often due to hetero-normative assumptions around things like what a ‘family’ looks like (e.g. a family with two mums may not be recognised in the same way as a family with male and female parents in policies in some jurisdictions). Heterogeneity within groups such as ‘gender and sexual minorities’, and that disaster risk is also experienced unequally within vulnerable populations, also needs further recognition in disaster policy (and in research!). Lesbians, bisexual women and queers of colour, for instance, were more vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina than white middle-class gay men due to lower incomes and the neighbourhoods where they lived being subject to increased flooding. Lastly here, and quite simply, failure to recognise people as anything other than male or female in disaster policy terminology highlights the shortfall between operational disaster management and the actual needs and makeup of contemporary societies.

blue diamond.jpg The LGBT+ rights group Blue Diamond Society in Nepal established a camp for LGBT+ people following earthquakes in 2015, as neither the UN nor the government delivered non-binary aid, despite Nepal legally recognising transgender people (image credit: Blue Diamond Society).

Emergency organisations have made concerted efforts in recent years to increase diversity in their ranks, particularly related to gender. But these efforts have largely been flawed (or at least limited) from the beginning in that they frequently consider gender diversity as an issue concerned only with increasing the proportions of women in organisations. While this is certainly needed, there is no question (in many societies at least, and especially in the West), that there are people who do not align with or identify as either of these binary terms. So, why is the discussion around gender diversity so often limited to male or female? I have witnessed a number of disaster management conference sessions and panels on “Diversity” that have not only focused almost solely on gender in the absence of other diversity challenges, such as increasing representation of sexual minorities, racial and ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, religious affiliations, or people living with disabilities, but have based diversity discussions on quotas for number of women in organisations. Such a narrow framing of diversity has a range of negative implications.

For issues of trust, risk communication, and the heeding of warnings, it is important that the people serving a community ‘look like’ the community, and thus in increasingly diverse societies, there needs to be greater representation of diversity in all forms in emergency organisations. In Australia at least, it is no secret that disaster management in practice is dominated by older straight white males, which may be difficult for many in communities to relate to. A lack of diversity also impacts the amount of and types of people who volunteer in disaster organisations. Volunteers are vital to many organisations, but again, if organisations don’t represent them, community members may not be inclined to join. Significantly, if the people designing and implementing disaster policies do not represent or at least appreciate the diversity of populations they are working for, disaster management in policy and practice will remain limited in its ability to adequately deliver its aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities (as per my first point in this section).

In academia, I believe we can do better here too. Emergency organisations are not unique in their often narrow binary framings of gender. In terms of further work, we need more research into experiences of gender and sexual minorities in disaster management in general, and into more nuanced and specific questions in a variety of contexts, such as exploration of differences between groups under the LGBTIQ umbrella, and further, between individuals within each of those sub-categories. In teaching on disaster management we could look to include perspectives from a more diverse range of scholars from various backgrounds. While I haven’t surveyed the suggested readings for my courses, my feeling is the author list is likely dominated by cisgender males, probably Caucasian and heterosexual too.

  1. Can we encourage more comprehensive and better-informed media reporting of disasters beyond crisis response?
    Mainstream media reporting on disaster management largely focuses on immediate response to emergencies. I appreciate this may make for a more exciting news story, but this presents a limited view of disaster management, which is complex and involves so much more than emergency response. Promotion of activities like disaster preparedness in news stories may be helpful for achieving some of the policy objectives mentioned above, such as disaster risk reduction and community resilience. Further, disaster impacts do not stop when the journalists move on, and the effects of disasters extend into the future, often for years. Yet, disaster recovery stories are rarely told (there are exceptions of course, e.g. Al Jazeera produced a number of follow-up stories in the years after the Haiti earthquake in 2010).Media tend to over-report the experiences of ‘home citizens’ in disaster areas, for example the stories of British citizens impacted by Hurricane Irma in the United States, or Australian and British tourists in areas impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. My colleague, Gemma Sou, has written on these and related topics, and calls for greater recognition of the impacts to local people in disaster regions. Further to this, I argue that increased emphasis on home citizens in the media discourages people at ‘home’ from relating risk to themselves (by ‘home’, I mean the country the media outlet is largely reporting to, e.g. BBC to Britain). Reporting on tourists in disasters contributes to a mentality that disasters happen ‘over there’ and people who go ‘over there’ are at risk, but they are safe at home, which is not an accurate narrative.

    Finally, western media could present a more global picture of disasters (particularly those claiming to deliver ‘world news’). During Hurricane Irma in the US, for instance, there were several ongoing disasters with impacts on populations comparable to Irma that received substantially less coverage (e.g. cholera outbreak in Yemen, floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a mudslide in Sierra Leone). Alluding to my points in section 3, media could also present stories on and from more diverse perspectives in delivering more global pictures of disasters (Research has shown LGBTIQ narratives are rarely told in mainstream disaster reporting, for instance, and news media influences both public understandings and disaster policies). Of course, I recognise the commercial impetus that influences what and how journalists and media outlets report on disasters, and the reality of providing content that will satisfy readers (paying customers). I would question, however, the role of national, largely government (or tax payer) funded news broadcasters. Are national broadcasters like the BBC or ABC (Australia) presenting the kind of balanced coverage of disasters we (I, at least) might hope for from a non-commercial service?

These are just some of the current research, policy, and practice challenges I perceive for disaster management, and of course there are many more. While we continue to conduct our work and engage in this field, whether it be through policy and practice, academic research, or studies at HCRI and elsewhere, I encourage us to be aware: aware of our relative positions and perspectives, and to increasingly consider the perspectives of others. I started this post by saying that disaster management is complex, and I will finish in recognition of that by calling for greater integration between individuals and sectors involved in disaster management, including academia, government and disaster organisations, the private sector, and, significantly, citizens from all walks of life, because complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions.

Advertisements

Contributions of digital volunteering to community disaster resilience (BNHCRC Showcase, and AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some aspects of my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The research in the poster is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed as part of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) Research Showcase event in Adelaide, July 2017, and will also be presented at the AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 annual Fire & Emergency Management conference in Sydney, September 2017.
Download the full high-res version here (7MB): 79._billy_haworth

HAWORTH_bnhcrc-poster-2017

Research summary: DIGITAL VOLUNTEERING IN DISASTER RISK REDUCTION: AN OPPORTUNITY OR A CHALLENGE?

Recently I undertook the useful but challenging task of summarizing my ~70,000 word PhD thesis into a few hundred words for the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC Hazard Notes publication (Download pdf).

It was a useful task because science communication and research dissemination are important to me, particularly to areas outside the world of academic journals, and a 2-page research summary can be more effective for reaching emergency management practices, policy makers, or even the general public. It can also be easily shared and re-shared on social media to even wider audiences.

It was also a challenging task though, as my PhD research is still relatively fresh, it was difficult to choose just a few *key* findings to share. “But it’s all such excellent work! Why wouldn’t everybody want to read every word!?” Hardly :p 😉
That’s not entirely true. I did (and do) have a pretty clear idea of what my key major findings are, and so I should having only recently completed the work and distilled it into presentations and journal articles. Nevertheless, it was a challenge to summarize large volumes of diverse content into very, very tight word limits. Its a challenge I highly recommend others take up, not only to increase the accessibility of your work, but it also helped me further clarify for myself what exactly are the important messages from my broader research, and, importantly, why. For me, these vary depending on context and audience, and they may for others too.

Hazard Note 28 covers my PhD research findings into the role of volunteered geographic information in fostering community engagement in disaster risk reduction. In recent years, information from community members contributed online has proved highly useful in emergencies. Information sharing activities by private citizens using social media, smartphones, and web mapping tools have been termed volunteered geographic information (VGI), or digital volunteering. This research examined the potential role of VGI in fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation.

There are many opportunities, challenges and implications of VGI in emergency management, much broader than just bushfire. Findings show that VGI is more than just technology – it is about people sharing their knowledge and mapping collaboratively as a social practice. It presents opportunities for citizen empowerment in line with shared responsibility, but also challenges with power moving away from the traditional command and control of emergency services.

This research provides a clearer path for emergency service agencies to best-utilise these technologies for and with communities, helping to increase volunteering sustainability, community engagement and disaster resilience.

Using participatory mapping to increase community engagement in bushfire preparation (AFAC/BNHCRC 2016 conference poster + presentation + award)

Recently I was fortunate to attend the annual Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council/Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AFAC/BNHCRC) conference in Brisbane, Queensland. I gave an oral presentation and presented a poster from some of my PhD research. And here the poster is for you to look at for free and keep forever!

Download Pdf: haworth_2016_afac_poster
The extended abstract for the oral presentation is also available to download: haworth_afac16_extended-abstract

haworth_2016-raf_afac_poster

At the conference I was also awarded a Special Recognition Award from the BNHCRC for promoting the organisation and emergency management research in Australia and overseas; effective science communication through exceptional industry relationships, active blogging and social media activities; and a willingness to support the CRC and other students, often leading by example. It was unexpected and I am very thankful for the acknowledgement. True to the spirit of the award, I thought I should include it in a blog post. 🙂

And here is a couple of stills of me presenting taken from a video summary of the conference.
slide1

slide2

Seminar presentation on PhD research: volunteered geographic information and bushfire preparation

Below is a recording of a 20 minute presentation I recently gave on my PhD research as part of the Thinking Space seminar series in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

‘Community’ and emergency management: A problematic construct

Image courtesy of alphacoders.com

We hear the term ‘community’ used widely in a variety of contexts. We talk about communities being defined geographically (a town as a ‘local community’, for example), we talk about communities being defined by shared interests (an online gaming community or a sports community, for instance), and we talk about communities as groups that share some characteristic somewhat outside of chosen interests, such as a group impacted by a natural disaster, perhaps.  We talk about the ‘sense of community’ that particular places or groups, such as organised religion, may provide. We even talk about community as something we can build.  Sometimes we choose to be part of these communities and sometimes they are chosen for us, either by others in that particular community or society in general.  Here I’m thinking about things like homosexual individuals being considered by others around them as part of a ‘gay community’ whose interests and values they may in fact identify very minimally with.  Thus it may be the case that we see individuals as part of a particular community, but if asked, they may not see themselves that way.  So I question, how can one term adequately cover all these vastly different circumstances?

I find the term ‘community’ somewhat puzzling and I feel I’m not the only one.  Yet, the term is employed practically and ubiquitously without much question (including by me in my own research).  What does the term ‘community’ actually mean?  Is ‘community’ measurable?  Where does the term have value and where is it problematic?  And in the cases that it is problematic, is there an alternative way of thinking we should adopt?  There are many issues to explore here, so I am going to focus on community in the context of emergency management, partly for a framing of my thoughts, and partly because having ties to this industry through my research has highlighted to me some of the ways I think the term is useful and some of the ways I think it is problematic in this context.

Defining ‘community’ in emergency management

Emergency management in policy and practice utilises a range of key concepts that are in part defined by the term ‘community’.  The ‘community safety approach’ involves empowering communities to share responsibility for risk management, focusing on preparation and planning and developing partnerships between communities and risk management agencies (McLennan & Handmer 2012).  ‘Community resilience’ is a set of characteristics describing how a social system responds and manages disruption (Foster & Hoy 2012).  ‘Community engagement’ is an organised process of working with specific groups of people connected by a geographic location, special interest, affiliation or identity to address issues affecting their well-being (Department of Sustainability and Environment 2012).  Even considering just these three examples gives me a slightly blurry impression of what community means in an emergency management context.  Is it about partnerships or responsibility of risk?  Is it a social system?  Is it a group connected by location or interests?  Is it all these things at once or does its meaning change?  If we are to base emergency management on the community, and if we are to engage the community in planning and self-protection, we require a clear and accurate sense of what is meant by community (Buckle 1999).

The meaning of ‘community’ may have different meanings for different people.  The Oxford dictionaries (2014) define community as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.  For emergency management a common characteristic may be something as broad as being at risk to a common hazard, such as bushfire.  Buckle (1999) describes community as any grouping of people that have something in common or something shared (and believing that they have something in common and having only that as a communal attribute may be sufficient to define a community).  Frandsen (2012) emphasises that communities are unbounded by physical locale.  In emergency management practice, however, community is often taken as synonymous with the people living within a defined administrative, cultural, or populated spatial unit, for example a local government area, town or locality (Buckle 1999).  Community, it seems to me, particularly refers to members of the general public; rarely have I seen those working in the emergency management industry refer to themselves in official dialogue as part of the communities they are working to keep safe (but perhaps this is just semantic).  What is meant by ‘community’ and whether or not it is an understood concept (in theory and in practice) may have important implications for the success and value of emergency management approaches centered upon it.

‘Community’ as useful

There are benefits in emergency management to considering the community as the simple delineation of groups of people based on geographic or administrative boundaries.  This approach is logistically useful in terms of provision of services and dispatch of emergency vehicles, personnel and resources for disaster response.  For preparation, this approach is useful as those in the same geographic area will likely experience similar risk.  Thus, communication is often directed at localities (Frandsen 2012).  Communicating to groups that they are a ‘community’ at risk further promotes the notion of this kind of community and reinforces the usefulness of considering community in this way for emergency management.

‘Community’ as problematic

If there are observable benefits, there are also important limitations to considering communities as geographical or administrative areas.  Significantly, it encourages overlooking the complexity of groups (Buckle 1999).  Communities as locations is useful for defining physical areas exposed to risk, but it is insufficient for capturing social and psychological diversity inherent within these areas and which influence patterns of associations between those residing within a location (Frandsen 2012).  Further, an individual may belong to a number of different communities that will overlap but are not necessarily coterminous.  Other types of communities may be completely removed from an individual’s physical geographic location but still highly important for emergency management, such as online communities.

I posit that a disconnect exists between the emergency management industry and the general public, or the ‘community’.  Observed in my experiences at least, the community is often referred to as an external entity to which emergency management is working to and not with. Community members are external to discussions and strategies that are supposedly aimed at supporting, protecting and engaging them.  I note this disconnect as problematic for the concept of ‘community’ as an emergency management construct as I feel for community-oriented strategies to be effective, those in emergency management need to consider themselves as part of the community, both to understand relevant local issues and to relate and engage more effectively with others in the community.  Even if we use the flawed notion of community defined by location, it is plausible many of those in emergency management do physically reside in the communities they are referring to and are thus exposed to the same risks.  Yet, often emergency management dialogue overlooks  this.

The idea that emergency management should be considered part of the community and vice versa prompts me to think of two scholarly works: 1) Blythe McLennan‘s work on shared responsibility, and; 2) Muki Haklay‘s on the levels of participation and engagement in Citizen Science projects.  On the first point, shared responsibility implies not necessarily equal responsibility, but that individuals, households, communities, state, municipal, and national agencies must all take some responsibility for managing disaster risk. However, if communities are not involved in processes of decision-making and therefore have no responsibility for determining what is important and why, how should they be expected to take responsibility for the related actions? The responsibility is ‘shared’ in theory, yet, in practice citizens don’t have the same kind of responsibility and are supposed to do only what authoritative emergency management informs they should do. On the second point, the ladder of participation informs as citizens increase their level of involvement in projects, the benefits they receive increase simultaneously. The benefits to citizens of high-level involvement, such as problem definition and analysis of results, are greater than low-level involvement, which may involve a citizen simply volunteering their computing capacity or using their smartphone as a passive sensor. For emergency management, if community members are more greatly involved in emergency management decision making processes, they may similarly receive greater benefits and ultimately be better-placed to manage risk, prepare, respond and recover more effectively to disaster events. I guess what I’m thinking about in arguing for increased involvement of citizens in emergency management decision making with these two works is a model of inclusive governance.

But even if I’m right in suggesting inclusive governance is needed to modify the ‘us and them’ dialogue of emergency management and communities, and that increasing community involvement will reduce some of the ways in which the notion of  ‘community’ is problematic, how could this be achieved in practice? Should community members be invited to participate in conference events and agency meetings? If so, who? Which people and which groups? How would that be determined and who might still be excluded? Should it be the other way around? Rather than increasing community involvement in official systems, perhaps the official systems should adapt to the community. Are these things at all measurable? Perhaps the term ‘community’ should be dumped altogether, if it is indeed problematic to refer to individuals that differ so much as a single, somewhat arbitrary entity. I don’t have answers to these questions, and I feel this is a topic that may be obvious in theory but quite messy in practice. But it seems to me implausible to assign single common ‘community’ goals for varied uncommon networks of people. The way the term ‘community’ is used may need rethinking, particular in emergency management, or at least how emergency management works with ‘communities’.