Download Chapter
Asian Development Bank

Chapter 6.2 Communities and participation

Communities and community action

Photo: Asian Development Bank

6.2.1 Understanding the community

Each CBDRM project takes place in a distinct context. Disaster managers often view communities in purely spatial terms, as groups of people living in the same area or exposed to the same hazards and risks. The spatial dimension is an essential element in identifying communities at risk, but it must be linked to an understanding of other significant dimensions of ‘community’, to do with common interests, values, activities and social structures.

It can be difficult to identify clearly what a ‘community’ is. Communities are not single, homogeneous, entities: they are complex and varied. There are differences in wealth, social status and labour activity, and divisions according to gender, ethnicity, age, religion and caste. Tensions always exist. Divergence in needs and priorities can create or worsen divisions. Individuals can be members of more than one community at the same time, linked to different factors such as their location, occupation, economic status, gender, religion or recreational interests. Communities are also dynamic: people may join together for common goals and separate again once these have been achieved. CBDRM programming should consider all of these dimensions. This requires skill, insight, patience and flexibility. (For the specific challenges of understanding and working with communities in urban and conflict settings, see Chapters 13 and 15.)

6.2.2 Community actors and actions

Local people and organisations are often the main actors in DRR, even in the most hostile environments. In low-income countries, where the capacity of the state to protect its citizens may be limited, communities often have to rely on their own local knowledge and coping mechanisms to deal with hazards (see Chapter 7). When a disaster strikes, the immediate response – search and rescue, dealing with the injured, traumatised and homeless – is carried out almost entirely by family members, friends and neighbours. It might be many hours or days before professional emergency or relief teams arrive. In the case of small-scale hazard events, there may be no external support. When it comes to rebuilding homes and livelihoods, communities are often left to their own devices.

Traditional social support structures can play a significant role in disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Projects often create new community organisations dedicated to disaster management or to a particular aspect of it, such as preparedness and response (for example, see Case Study 6.1: Setting up community DRM projects). This is not always necessary. Establishing new groups or organisations generally requires considerable time and effort. It is often much more effective to build on existing community structures, institutions and social capital. Although relatively few communities have formal disaster management committees, many have other established groups for dealing with communal issues, such as water management or the regulation of disputes. Such groups can provide an entry point for outside facilitators and a basis for establishing sustainable local-level organisational capacity to assess and counter risk.

Case Study 6.1 Setting up CBDRM projects

CBDRM takes many different forms and each new initiative should be appropriate to its context. However, to ensure a degree of consistency and replicability some agencies have drawn on their field experiences to develop broadly standardised models and approaches. One example is the Gestão de Risco a Nível da Communidade (community risk management) or GERANDO method in Mozambique, designed by World Vision in collaboration with Eduardo Mondale University, which was piloted in over 30 projects from 2006–2010.

GERANDO is a process for supporting local capacities to identify, predict and manage hazard impacts. The process consists of six inter-related stages, each of which is facilitated by a trained member of the local community:

  1. Establish a local DRM committee in each community (the GERANDO facilitator is usually the community coordinator, who then leads the committee and community through the next five steps).
  2. Identify the significant shocks and stresses that the community faces.
  3. Carry out a vulnerability and capacity assessment.
  4. Identify scientific and traditional or indigenous early warning indicators.
  5. Develop and implement mitigation plans.
  6. Where appropriate, draw up a community disaster preparedness plan.

The full cycle of six steps takes roughly a year to complete. Communities then repeat the process again from step 2, identifying new or growing threats to focus on: this exercise also provides them with the opportunity to consider the effectiveness of their previous interventions, and how to adapt their strategies and activities.

Evidence from the pilot projects showed that community ownership of the GERANDO process stimulated more widespread participation and action in several areas of DRR. But there was a need to improve links with government agencies in order to ensure that their plans were informed by local assessments, and more effort was needed to integrate CBDRM into development programming. It was also important to provide capacity-building support to local facilitators in the first 2–3 years of each initiative.

World Vision UK. See also Community Based Disaster Risk Management: Facilitator’s Manual (and Annexes) (Maputo: World Vision Mozambique, 2011),

Official disaster management organisations tend to undervalue the potential of informal social organisation or networks, such as neighbourhoods, families and kinship groups. Actions by affected communities or groups (e.g. search and rescue, giving out food and water) have even been viewed as irrelevant or disruptive because they are not directed by the authorities. But in fact, in crises in high- and low-income countries alike, there will be a variety of spontaneous, largely informal responses by self-organising groups within communities, before official organisations are able to mobilise. These ‘emergent’ groups carry out a variety of activities including search and rescue, first aid, damage assessment, handling the dead, distributing relief supplies and presenting survivors’ grievances.+T. Drabek and D. McEntire, ‘Emergent Phenomena and the Sociology of Disasters: Lessons, Trends and Opportunities from the Research Literature’, Disaster Prevention and Management, 12(2), 2003, pp. 97–112. Well-known examples include the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, where nearly 10% of the city’s population took part in voluntary work of some kind, and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, where a strong contingent of volunteers emerged to assist in the response. The 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, saw the emergence of the Student Volunteer Army, mobilised largely through social networking, which was active in clearing up silt and debris and distributing assistance.+E. L. Quarantelli, ‘Organizational Response to the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985: Characteristics and Implications’, Natural Hazards, 8(1993-38), pp. 19–38; L. Comfort, Self- organization in Disaster Response: The Great Hanshin, Japan Earthquake of January 17, 1995 (Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, 1996),;

Social capital has an important role in CBDRM. The term ‘social capital’ refers to the social resources which people draw upon to pursue their objectives: these comprise networks and connections between individuals, membership of groups and relationships of trust and exchange. It is a foundation for collective action, but is just one of several types of capital or assets on which individuals, households and communities may depend for their security and livelihoods (for other forms, see Chapter 9). Communities use their social capital in self-organising to manage natural resources, adjust to environmental hazards and deal with disasters. The benefits of strong social networks are evident in emergency response and disaster recovery, where communities and groups with high levels of social capital appear to recover more quickly. Crises can also bring people together and stimulate stronger and lasting social connectedness.