Disaster resilience – what does it mean for charities?

It is time for charities and community groups to claim their role in the most important challenge facing Australia – the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.

Disaster resilience – what does it mean for charities? Pro Bono News, 21 April 2022

One of the many election announcements over the past fortnight is that the ALP will back Disaster Relief Australia (DRA), a fully-Veteran led organisation which has been working since 2016 to provide relief to communities in the wake of natural disasters, deploying hundreds of veteran volunteers across Australia and the world. 

Under an Albanese Labor government, Disaster Relief Australia will receive $38.1 million over three years to expand this program. The funding will allow DRA to add another 5,200 volunteer veterans to its ranks – a total of 6,700 veteran volunteers able to provide over 13,600 volunteer days per annum. The funding covers costs relating to deployment, recruitment, equipment, and training. No sooner had this been announced than the Coalition agreed to back the same program.

Most people will welcome this commitment. There is no doubt that having additional organised and trained volunteers on hand to help out after a disaster can only be a good thing. And yet, it seems to many of us who have worked at a community level that there is so much more we could be doing to build resilience in the thousands of at-risk communities across Australia.

Even the most ideologically driven ignorant climate change denying groups seem to now concede that Australia is becoming a more difficult place to live with climate change increasing the severity of disasters.

As I have previously highlighted, most of Australia’s emergency response organisations promote the idea of community resilience; this includes groups like Emergency Management Australia and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. Most have mission statements incorporating their intention to invest in ensuring communities are better prepared for more extreme weather and disasters.

In practice these same groups invest less than 5 per cent of their expenditure on resilience – they typically spend more on running their own organisations.

It is not only the lack of expenditure on resilience within our emergency management organisations, but where the expenditure is directed that poses a challenge for charities. Almost all resilience expenditure is focused on physical infrastructure.

There should be more investment in important physical infrastructure to make mobile phone coverage, power supplies, roads and bridges, water and sanitation, food and fuel, healthcare, housing and emergency shelter all more stable and resilient within communities at risk of floods, fires, drought and other disasters. There is also more that should be done to streamline the provision of emergency payments to those in need.

What is invariably not factored into the limited resilience expenditure is community connectedness. This is despite what we already know from many inquiries into natural disasters, community resilience and recovery. It is community connectedness that drives real resilience when confronting dangerous and difficult conditions. It is community connectedness that drives recovery. Where there is stronger community connectedness, the community responds better to disasters and recovery happens faster. 

The recent floods were yet another demonstration that community connectedness saves lives.

Politicians from all the major parties are often effusive in their praise for communities in their response to disaster, usually highlighting how brave people put aside their own interests and wellbeing to offer support to others in difficult times. But it is hard to find any evidence that politicians or governments positively support the critical community connections that enable the lifesaving rescues to happen. 

Imagine if we invested the time and energy needed to map community connectedness in areas where disasters are likely to occur? Imagine if we then offered to strengthen and expand existing connectedness through investing in the people and the organisations that are already part of the social web of information and support? What if we were to offer organisations that are already facilitating community connectedness additional funding to provide free information, training, and increased resources to strengthen their capacity to support each other and respond in an emergency? Imagine if there were resilience grants directed solely at improving social infrastructure? 

What is much more likely than investment in social infrastructure is that governments will continue to apply old models of bureaucratic resilience building focused on physical infrastructure and telling communities what they need to do. Worse still, governments tend to make it complex and often competitive to do what the government is insisting needs to be done.

The inability of key government emergency response organisations to focus on and support local community driven initiatives is despite all the lessons we have learned during the COVID pandemic, the bushfires, and the floods. It seems government agencies in the disaster management spaces are still wedded to the top-down command and control centralised government responses that we know are likely to miss the mark in responding to what is really needed within local communities.

Most charities have a strong focus on connecting people to create stronger communities. Charities create hope and opportunity by bringing people together. This kind of connectedness is also at the heart of disaster resilience and recovery.

Australia is becoming a more difficult place to live, and it will only get more difficult, even if we are globally successful at slowing the rate of climate change. Many communities will need to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather. So, what are we doing about it? And why are we not offering more support for all those organisations who are already demonstrating they can and do create resilience within communities?

It is time for charities and community groups to claim their role in the most important challenge facing Australia – the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change. 

As the last two years have demonstrated, leaving community resilience to governments who continue to adopt a business-as-usual approach is no longer an option. There must be change, within governments and beyond.

Read on Pro Bono News: disaster-resilience-what-does-it-mean-for-charities