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Identifying ways to strengthen community resilience to disasters

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A call for more investment in local community groups, so they are better equipped to play a key role in building community resilience ahead of climate, natural disasters and other disruptions, is among the series of recommendations to come out of a three-year research project.

Led by the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) in partnership with Resilience NSW and researchers from the University of Sydney, the ‘Get Ready Disaster Resilient: Future Ready (DR:FR) pilots project’ worked with three diverse NSW communities to explore how best to ensure that rural communities are more disaster resilient and future ready.

The ‘Get Ready DR:FR pilots project’ was a structured program that brought groups in each community together to share knowledge and encourage collaboration to identify ways to increase disaster resilience. The program supported co-created initiatives and actions identified by local residents with funding and other support.

The action research component of the project was designed to investigate, understand and measure activities, processes and structures that enable, or hinder, communities in disaster resilience building. Particular attention was focused on measuring how community energy and momentum was sustained or blocked.

Natalie Egleton, FRRR’s CEO, said that the Foundation initiated the project back in 2017, in light of the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters. An alignment between FRRR’s DR:FR initiative and the Resilience NSW’s Get Ready program enabled the project to be piloted and researched in three NSW communities.

“Every year, we see more and more disasters, which places enormous pressure on Australia’s social, economic, environmental, and policy systems. We need approaches that strengthen social capital and create room for innovation and ground-up solutions that communities can adopt and adapt to better prepare and respond to these events, especially in remote, rural and regional areas,” Ms Egleton said.

“That’s why we developed the DR:FR initiative. It creates space, facilitates processes, builds relationships and provides resources for community-generated resilience conversations and initiatives to be held at a pace and style that is appropriate for each local community,” Ms Egleton explained.

A key finding of the research was that for disaster resilience to be impactful and meaningful, affected communities need to be actively engaged and involved in the process.

“While the core principles for building disaster resilience are consistent, the research confirmed that one-size-fits-all frameworks and models are not effective. Resilience-building must be community-led and tailored to each community, and communities must have the support and resources to allow them to create their own resilience-building approaches.”

The research clearly demonstrated that when community members worked on projects and activities co-designed by them, adaptive local resilience building was evident. This is an important insight and consideration for agencies and organisations that are designing and implementing resilience building programs with a shared responsibility philosophy of disaster preparedness.”

While the study found that the approaches to disaster resilience and the actions in each community were different, there were seven key factors that are critically important in community-led resilience: communication, networks, self-organising systems, decision-making, information, resources, tools and support and inclusion.

Some other important findings included:

  •  Social capital plays a critical role in disaster preparedness, not just response and recovery – and needs to be consistently invested in. Community knowledge, skills, time, commitment, capacity and relationships fundamentally underpin disaster resilience.
  • Shared responsibility – and actively engaging communities – are critical to successfully building community resilience. Where there was shared dialogue, shared decision-making and increased and shared support for community-led resilience building, communities were significantly more engaged and prepared for disasters.
  • Communities need ongoing support to build and maintain momentum for sustained community-led resilience building and they need to be resourced and included as key local players at all phases of the emergency management cycle. Relying on good will and volunteer time alone will not provide adequate capacity to maintain efforts and participation between and during disasters.
  • There is a need to invest for the long-term in local capacity and systems, outside of the cycle of relief and emergency response, so that there is sustainability beyond the life of a program or project.
  •  Resilience is not something that individuals or communities can achieve on their own. It requires combined and intersecting structures, processes, formal and informal networks and supports in communities working together.

The researchers made nine recommendations:

  1. Community led approaches must move to the centre of resilience building efforts.
  2. Communities should be regarded as equal contributors in disaster resilience work.
  3. Shared responsibility must translate into increased and shared support for sustained community-led resilience building.
  4. Disaster resilience building needs to reflect the experiences of communities and recognise that preparedness, response and recovery are fluid, and sometimes simultaneous.
  5. The times between disasters is an ideal opportunity to engage communities in complex discussions and hear their ideas.
  6. Communities should contribute to and contextualise disaster information (outside of warnings and alerts) to local needs, building trust and ownership of information and communication.
  7. Community-led approaches are valuable, and must be matched with sustained cross-sector and cross-community investment, including recognising the value of community time, skill and effort.
  8. Resilience building programs and projects must be designed and implemented within a systems framework and acknowledge the complex array of relationships involved, and the time required.
  9. Further work should be undertaken in supporting practical links between local community organisations and self-organising networks and groups in supporting sustained resilience building in local communities.

You can read the Summary Research Report online at www.frrr.org.au/DRFR.

Meanwhile, FRRR has already leveraged the research insights, findings and recommendations from this research to iterate its methodology, approach, and activities for the next phase of the national expansion of the DR:FR initiative. The Foundation is currently working with a group of Victorian communities who wish to explore and work together in different ways to strengthen their resilience over the next two to three years, with the support of the DR:FR initiative.

FRRR acknowledges the support of the Joint State and Commonwealth Natural Disaster Resilience Program for the action research component of the pilot project. FRRR also appreciates the support of our donor partners in the rollout of the broader DR:FR initiative across Australia, including Sidney Myer Fund, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, Maple-Brown Family Foundation, Simon Kucher and Partners, Ronald Geoffrey Arnott Foundation and the Doc Ross Foundation for their support of the broader DR:FR initiative across Australia.

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