DRR can learn from the experience of agencies working in sustainable development and humanitarian programming, where there has been a growing emphasis on dialogue with communities. Many, if not most, organisations now accept that they have to listen to vulnerable people, and that problems and solutions must be identified collectively. The emphasis therefore needs to shift from one-way information dissemination by specialists to genuine communication (i.e. dialogue and exchange of information) between specialists and communities. Participatory methods (see Chapter 6) have played a central role in this change of approach.
This way of communicating is not universal, but it is becoming much more widespread. Nevertheless, more effort is needed to incorporate the dialogue approach into DRR communications. Some disaster management professionals persist in the belief that they alone understand and assess risk and risk management objectively (i.e. scientifically). They assume that people do not fully understand the risks they face or how to deal with them, and that popular understanding of risk is subjective or even irrational. From this they conclude that people must be better educated about risk; where existing messages are not understood, they simply need to be repackaged to make them easier to understand. This approach sees risk education as a kind of public relations exercise, where messages are transmitted from small groups of experts to the uninformed masses. The result is that knowledge sharing remains top-down, driven by DRR professionals and their institutions’ agendas, whereas it should be more responsive to communities (and to whole communities – communication must be inclusive, with multiple communications channels to reach different groups). We have also seen (in chapters 3 and 6) how important it is to involve communities in the entire process if projects are to be relevant and sustainable.
The dialogue approach to communication is not easy. It often involves ‘cross-cultural’ communication between outsiders (disaster professionals) and people at the grass roots. Outsiders and local communities can express themselves in very different ways. For local people, visualisation and talk are often important in analysing and transmitting knowledge; for outsiders, especially educated and professional people, the written word is dominant. For outsiders, precise and quantifiable calculation confers weight and authority on information; for local people, comparing is often more important than measuring, especially for practical purposes.
Professionals also like to arrange their information into definable categories, where it can be subjected to recognised methods of quantification and analysis. It can be hard for them to understand the complex, diverse and dynamic realities of community life, and equally difficult to translate that information into projects that tackle a variety of interconnected risks. Dialogue is often a messy business. It involves discussion, debate and sometimes argument between different stakeholders. Consensus cannot be guaranteed. Dialogue can also be time-consuming – and therefore resource-consuming.
Even where there is dialogue, outsiders will often find it difficult to understand the community’s environment, needs and points of view. The process of dialogue requires some humility on the outsiders’ part: they have to recognise their ignorance of other people’s lives and accept that they can never fully understand the vulnerable person’s point of view. Vulnerable people can explain their perspectives clearly to outsiders if they are given an opportunity to do so.
Developed and adapted from B. Rohrmann, ‘Effective Risk Communication for Fire Preparedness: A Conceptual Framework’, Australian Journal of Emergency Management,10(3), 1995, pp. 42–46.
A. Burke, Communications and Development: A Practical Guide (London: Department for International Development, 1999, http://www.sswm.info/sites/default/files/reference_attachments/BURKE%201999%20Communications%20&%20Development%20A%20practical%20guide.pdf, p. 24.