Why does true collaboration with people and communities – before, during and after a disaster – sometimes seem to be so difficult?
On p22 Arjun Katoch outlines early lessons from the response to the Nepal earthquake: “The humanitarian community lived in a self created psychological, professional and physical bubble,” he says. “… Whether UN agencies, NGOs or donors, they are most comfortable in their own little world of clusters, meetings and jargon. They are not comfortable interacting with affected governments, the military, police, civil society and vernacular NGOs, but these are the very entities that actually do the most work among the communities.”
On p42 Mostafa Mohaghegh calls for better understanding of the social environment: “Traditionally, people and communities have been considered more as targets or beneficiaries of disaster risk management programmes, with little or no role in the entire DRM process.”
Dr Jemilah Mahmood, Head of the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, says that working in the most disaster and conflict affected parts of the world has taught her the importance of listening to the affected people and local organisations as they know their needs best (p86).
Communities can defy the narrow categorisations that some organisations like to work with. This is because communities are made up of people, with all their attendant flaws: they can be messy, contradictory, partisan, truculent, cynical, disorganised… But people can also be visionary, passionate, caring and inspirational; and are indisputably the foremost experts on the areas in which they live and work.
As CRJ has cautioned before, community engagement means avoiding giving prominence to those who shout the loudest – marginalised groups, including women, youth and the elderly, are vitally important and must also be heard. People are not ‘targets’ or ‘beneficiaries’. They are part of the whole resilience process.
It takes boldness to step out of carefully constructed comfort zones, to abandon the cult of insularity, to eschew stage-managed discussions and to venture forth, unscripted, to talk to people. It takes even greater courage and humility to listen to what they have to say.
This comment appeared in CRJ 10:1, June 2015.