Communities are key to managing risk. The principal resource available for mitigating or responding to disasters is people themselves, and their local knowledge and expertise. Community-based disaster risk reduction and management (CBDRM) plays a vital role here: it responds to local problems and needs, capitalises on local knowledge and expertise and strengthens communities’ technical and organisational capacities. External agents alone cannot deal with the diversity of risks facing vulnerable populations. Local people bring a wealth of resources, especially knowledge and skills, to help reduce risk. Working closely with local people helps professionals to gain greater insight into the communities they seek to serve, enabling them to work more effectively and produce better results. Transparency, dialogue and collaboration between DRR organisations and communities build and strengthen their relationships, enabling projects to endure and expand.
Participatory approaches in CBDRM enable people to explain their vulnerabilities and priorities, allowing problems to be defined accurately and appropriate interventions to be designed and implemented. Participatory work takes a multi-track approach, combining different activities, hazards and disaster phases. It is therefore well placed for dealing with disasters and the diverse factors affecting people’s vulnerability to them. Participatory risk reduction initiatives are more sustainable because they build on local capacity, ideas can be tested and refined before adoption, and they are more likely to be compatible with long-term development plans. They may also be more cost-effective in the long term than externally-driven initiatives.
CBDRM empowers people by enabling them to tackle challenges. The process of working and achieving things together strengthens communities. CBDRM reinforces local organisation, building up confidence, skills, capacity to cooperate, awareness and critical appraisal. In this way, it increases people’s potential for reducing their vulnerability. It also empowers people more generally by enabling them to tackle other challenges, individually and collectively, through advocacy as well as action. Community participation in planning and implementing projects accords with people’s right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. It is therefore an important part of democratisation in society, and is increasingly demanded by the public.
Although many agencies have adopted CBDRM as an approach, there are wide variations in the way they implement it, depending on the agencies’ own understanding of what CBDRM is, their ways of working, and local contexts and needs. Many ‘community-level’ projects are ‘community-based’ – that is, they rely on the participation of the people who will benefit. However, this is not always the case: some offer few or no opportunities to participate. Even when community members do participate in projects, those projects are not necessarily managed by the communities: they may be directed by others. CBDRM should be both community-based and community-managed.
The nature of participation in CBDRM also varies widely, according to the geographical, social and institutional context, the different communities and external agents involved, the scale and nature of the problems to be addressed, and the type of project work that is proposed or undertaken. Broadly speaking, participation can be seen as ‘a right held by all people to engage in society and in the decisions that impact their lives’.+Institute of Development Studies: http://www.ids.ac.uk/team/participation. It is more a package of theories, methods and experiences guided by some broad principles than a single ideology or way of working. The term ‘participation’ is used in a variety of ways in practice: for example, it may refer to self-help, volunteerism, civic debate, public consultation, political/administrative decentralisation, delegation of responsibility, formal partnerships between groups or organisations, or community planning.
Approaches to participation likewise take many forms, and the degree of community control also varies considerably (see Figure 6.1: Levels of community engagement and participation), but participation is sometimes grouped more simply into two main types: guided and people-centred. Guided (or instrumental) participation seeks to include people in projects, mostly in implementation and sometimes planning. However, although there may be public consultation, projects are still initiated, funded and ultimately controlled by external agencies and professionals; in some cases, community participation may be limited to undertaking prescribed tasks. People-centred (or transformative) participation aims at empowering communities by involving them in defining problems and needs, deciding solutions, implementing agreed activities, evaluating the results and sharing the benefits. In practice, things are often less clear-cut: individual projects may contain elements of guided as well as people-centred participation. Nevertheless, the ideal is to involve community members in discussion, decision-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation to the greatest extent possible.
C. H. Davidson et al., ‘Truths and Myths about Community Participation in Post-disaster Housing Projects’, Habitat International, 31: 100–115, p. 103. See also S. R. Arnstein, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, 1969/2004, http://lithgow-schmidt.dk/sherry-arnstein/ladder-of-citizen-participation_en.pdf.
Community participation in disaster risk management can be challenging and difficult to manage – indeed, to attempt to ‘manage’ the process too much may defeat the purpose. Good facilitation is needed, and facilitators need to have skill and sensitivity. There may have to be a shift in attitudes in order to achieve mutual respect and understanding between professionals and community members. Training in participatory principles, approaches and techniques is therefore essential, and agencies should aim to build up a cadre of suitably trained staff.
Building community capacity for organisation should be a central objective of DRM projects. Organised communities are better able to assess problems, work out and implement solutions, share ideas and techniques, take the initiative, support and encourage their members, negotiate with other stakeholders and obtain a stronger voice in arguing for change. But capacity development of this kind is generally a long-term, even ongoing, process that does not fit neatly into project timetables.