“We live in times of crisis and uncertainty, but times of crisis are also times of opportunity, and in uncertain times the impossible can become merely difficult, and the difficult can become feasible.” (Ife, 2003,p.7)
This paper is based on field experience. Disasters, natural or man-made, affect the lives of individuals, families and communities. Drawing on field experiences both from India and Australia, the author illustrates various phases and social processes that the communities go through to re-establish a sense of community following disaster. Drawing from personal experiences and associations with various disasters like, Bhopal Gas tragedy (India,1984),Gujarat earthquake(India,2001), fire, frost, floods, and drought (South Australia, 2006), and recent Cyclone Yasi (Queensland Australia, 2011), the author examines the relevance of the conceptof community development. Response to natural disasters occurs from various corners of the society. In this article, highlighting the community recovery work initiated by someschools of social work in India, the author discusses the relevance of community development education in social work and implications for practice in a global context. This paper was originally presented at the international conference on Eco-social Justice: Issues, challenges, and ways forward:Kerala,India,in November 2011.
Key words: Natural Disasters, Community, Recovery, Resilient Community, Social Work Education.
Note : The purpose of this paper is to introduce some of the contemporary approaches and practice frameworks in community development to the social work practitioners in India and to initiate further dialogue and researches in the area of community participation, engagement and development with an emphasis on documenting such experiences.
In this paper I intend to discuss the nature of community, approaches to community development work, reflections on personal experiences of how a community responds to tragic realities, the process of rebuilding communities, and how lessons learned from the field could be incorporated into social work education to prepare social workers to effectively contribute to recovery work using a developmental approach. For this purpose, I have drawn on experience and lessons from Australia and India. Hence, the focus here is on social work practice and education in the light of my practice experience in these two countries.
Disaster has struck many countries and each country’s experience has been quite unique and different. While I base this discussion solely on my practice experience, I will also draw upon the experiences of other practitioners, educational institutions, and agencies to provide a broader view of the issues that could be addressed by the social work profession.
Approaches to community development
The term community was coined by the merging of two Latin words--com and munis.The English meaning of these two words are together and to serve. Therefore community means to serve together. Most of the definitions of community refer to a group of people living in the same place, having a particular characteristic in common, or a group of people living together and practising common ownership. The main point here is place, neighbourhood or common interests that bring people together. The term community is used for different purposes in sociology—particularly in the description and analysis of society. However, in social work literature, it is used to denote a particular spatial or geographical unit (Siddiqui, 1997). It is also popularly employed in such descriptive phrases as “a sense of community,” meaning an attitude of co-operation (Harper & Dunham, 1959).Heller (1989, p.3, as cited in Taylor, Wilkinson & Cheers, 2011) suggests that community is based on a location such as a neighbourhood, town or city. Furthermore Heller (2011) describes people’s connection to each other and the community. We also notice a sense of connectedness and belonging in the communities. Wilkinson (1991), based on social interaction theory, argues that a community comes to existence due to a ‘natural process of social interaction in a location and that these interactions happen between people in a given locality. Hence “bothlocation and interactions are fundamental to the interactional perspective of community” (Taylor, Wilkinson, &Cheers, 2010, p.23). Social interaction has been found to be a key element of the definition of community.
In this article I emphasise the importance and need of community development principles in recovery initiatives. What then, is community development? Kenny (2011) argues that community development can be understood as a ‘method of organising for social and political change. It is understood variously as an occupation,a community practice and a political activity,all of which are based on particular philosophical understanding of the world‘(P.2). While Wilkinson (1991) defines community development as local people working together across sectors and interest lines in the interest of community betterment.
People from various disciplines and professional backgrounds work with communities in the context of specific philosophical frameworks and principles. In social work literature, we see a great emphasis placed on working with people rather than working for people. Kenny (2011) defines community development as a method for empowering communities to take collective control and responsibility for their own development. Shields (1991) takes a different approach, according to this author community work is about “…building a sense of mutual commitment to each other, a willingness to assist each other’s empowerment, to foster honest, caring relationships that are not just task oriented, but rather ones that are interested in the wholeness of each (community) member” (p.29).
Taylor et al. (2008), locate community development as one of four conceptual approaches to working with communities,alongside contributions, instrumental, and empowerment approaches. There are four conceptual approaches to working with communities that are apparent in community development (Taylor et al., 2008). Each differs considerably with regard to leadership; decision-making processes; the respective roles for communities, governments, and practitioners; and each may be effective given the policy context, the task to be achieved, and the community (Taylor et al., 2008). These concepts are discussed in brief here to provide an overview of the conceptual frame work that can be applied in community work. This conceptual clarity in turn will be useful for social workers or human service professionals to conceive, develop, and initiate community development or recovery work. It is also important to review the appropriateness of each approach before attempting to implement them in the workplace. Each approach can be adopted by incorporating local wisdom and the needs of the area, depending on the desired outcome and particular context.
The contributions approach
The contributions approach considers participation by the community primarily as voluntary contributions to a project, rather than decision-making about a project. Professionals—often external to the community—usually lead participation. This approach is based on voluntary donations of time and expertise, reciprocal relationships are valued and community is seen as contributor rather than active participant. Often this approach is not sustainable for the long term as ‘community participation may not be sustainable’. (Taylor et al., 2008, p.93).
The instrumental approach
The instrumental approach is the dominant approach in community health and social care in Australia today. This consists of services and a set of practices that encourage competition among potential contractors: a high value is placed on cost efficiency, and there is development of criteria to measure efficiency and effectiveness around programme design, budgets and costs (Taylor et al., 2008). There is a general feeling that consultation with the community is not complete and often power does not transfer from the professionals to the communities (Rifkin, 1996). In this approach Community participation is according to a pre-determined strategy which is led by professional who would have led the design objectives, strategies, etc. The main purpose is to achieve pre-determined outcome. ‘A distinguishing feature of this approach is that is undertaken using methods consistent with a professional power-base and process are activated and directed by professionals’. (Taylor et al., 2008,p.95)
The community empowerment approach
“The community empowerment approach seeks to empower and support communities, groups and individuals to take greater control over issues that affect their health and wellbeing. It includes the notions of consciousness-raising, personal development and social action and giving power or authority to an individual or group”(Williams & Labonte, 2003, as cited in Taylor et al., 2008.p.88).Rifkin (1996,) describes it as “community participation as the result of community of people, essentially the poor, gaining information, access to resources, and eventual control over their own lives rather than being dominated by the authorities by whom they have been exploited”(p. 82).Local people become involved in solving problems, increase their knowledge and skills, and achieve a sense of control over their environment.
The developmental approach
The developmental approach conceptualizes health and social care development as an interactive, evolutionary process, embedded in a community of place or interest. Local people, in partnership with professionals, have a role in decision-making and in achieving the outcomes they consider important. The developmental approach is underpinned by principles of social justice. In this approach – local people are actively involved in a project over which they can exert some influence. Cheers and Luftoff (2001, p. 135) describe the developmental approach as “enhancing the quality of life of the whole community—socially, economically, culturally, spirituality, and ecologically—by increasing community agency, primarily through broadly based local participation.”
Models and perspectives of community work
There are many different models and perspectives of working with communities. There is no definitive or right way to engage in community work, as we all see the world in our own ways and so some things may resonate more than others. The theoretical understanding provided in this paper will not only enrich our response to realities, but will also provide support in developing strategies to address recovery work. It is not intended here to look at each of the models and analyse them but rather to orient readers to this important aspect that will help shape the way we design and implement recovery efforts. The reason why we emphasise working from a particular model goes back to what we discussed earlier—the clarity of purpose, the context in which a desired result is expected. If we are not clear about the principlesand the context of our practice; our work may be fragmented, ineffective, and we may not be able achieve the desired outcome as planned. Therefore, it is vital for practitioners to examine the theoretical perspectives and approaches to practice before launching any developmental initiatives. Following are some perspectives that practitioners can draw on.
An ecological perspective concentrates on environmental and social sustainability. The goal is to build sustainable communities using sustainable methods. This approach is very holistic, as it examines the entirety of the issue and determines the most sustainable way to approach practice. This looks at which resources are available to the community and makes sure that community benefits are long term. This also takes into effect the inter-generational effects of community development—how will future generations be assisted or impacted. This should also place the community into its wider environment—a part of the global ecological perspective (Ife & Teserio, 2006).
A social justice and human rights perspective highlights equality and empowerment, ensuring that human rights are upheld and all people are respected and encouraged, regardless of race, gender, disability or age. Here we would be looking at challenging the dominant structures and attitudes that oppress and marginalise people. Respect and inclusion are primary within a social justice and human rights perspective (Ife & Teserio, 2006).
Feminist perspectives look at our society and challenge the structural issues of oppression, which are primarily dominated by men and quite rigid. The feminist slogan “the personal is political” is certainly applicable to community development. What feminist theory demonstrates is that the personal aspects of our lives have context in wider society. Collectivism and the encouragement of social action and participation drive this perspective (Ife & Teserio, 2006).
Strength-based approaches identify and build on the positive strengths that are present within individuals and the community rather than highlighting problems, while emphasizing social justice, respect, inclusion, and self-determination (Pulla, 2012; Francis, 2012). Identifying strengths and community capacity is an important element in community practice. These approaches to practice/ strategies equalize power relations and bring about change by promoting strengths. Social work has been defined by the International Federation of Social Workers as a “profession [that] promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work” (IFSW, 2012). For Cowger and Snively (2002, p. 106), “the empowerment perspective is central to social work practice and…client strengths [provide] the fuel and energy for that empowerment.” Miley et al. (2004, p. 91) write that a “strengths-oriented social work practice incorporates empowerment as both a concept and a process.” In the context of disasters and recovery this “approach empowers the community as it enables local participation, active choices, and control of their own destinies”(Tan,2009,p.4).
Further, I will focus more on the initiatives by communities and groups in responding to natural disasters in their own respective places and in their own ways. It would be advisable for a practitioner to be clear about the ideological principles and practice frameworks before committing to being part of a community recovery process.
Natural disasters and community recovery
Natural disasters have become a very common part of life and each community responds to these realities differently based on their specific needs, location, and the intensity of the disaster itself. After a disaster, individuals and communities often go through identifiable phases of recovery, including distress, relief, disillusionment, resentment, reconstruction, and reframing, although not always in the same order (Herman, 1992). The first stage of disaster recovery is one of distress and disorganisation—this happens when the crisis event or disaster strikes and panic and confusion occur. Distress is followed by a sense of relief when rescue and safety occurs, and an engendered ‘heroism,’ sometimes described as a euphoric ‘honeymoon,’ takes place. When the reality of the new life sets in, after this period of relief, the people and community may go through a difficult time marked by disillusionment and anger. Resentment of others and of society’s lack of care and provision may create strife and conflict. In the reconstruction stage, individuals and groups retrace the past, reframe it as a meaningful event, and re-evaluate future goals, both privately and publicly (Tan, 2009). In each of these phases, community development workers can assist communities in accepting reality and be patient listeners to the affected people.
During disasters, the usual patterns of social bonds and interactions are suspended in favour of new interactions and relationships. This development is known as ‘de-bonding’ and is a central concept in community recovery planning. The social process of community organisation in the aftermath of a disaster is known as “fusion” (EMA, 2002, p. 115 as cited in Taylor et al., 2008).
Natural disasters destroy the peaceful co-existence of nature, people, communities and societies. They disintegrate communities instantly, but an unknown gravitational pull brings them back together to face the uncertainties again. This is what we are exploring in this paper—the question of what brings people together again. This will be illustrated with case examples from the field. I will provide here a brief outline of the disasters that I am personally aware of, and have been associated with in the last 2 decades. This bird’s eye view description will capture the nature of the disasters, response from the field, and will address the issues that need further action from the field.
1. Bhopal Disaster (1984)
The Bhopal disaster (commonly referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy) was a gas leak incident in India and considered one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes. It occurred on the night of December 2, 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries, including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries. As many as 25,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster in recent estimate (Bhopal gas tragedy, n.d.). This tragedy caused a number of problems in the community—many people died due to the incident, many more became subject to severe medical conditions, and this led to significant mental health issues in the communities. Because of the impact of the disaster, many people moved away from Bhopal. Greif and loss permeated the environment and families. The problems caused by this incident have not been resolved and thousands of people are still struggling to grapple with the outcomes of this tragedy.
How did the community respond to this tragedy? This type of question has always compelled me to critically examine the practices and literature on community development. Reflection on this disaster reveals that a great sense of belonging and connectedness was seen during this period and has contributed to the ongoing social action in the community. The aspect of “locality and social interaction” was quite evident in this context. This again helps us to understand the processes involved in community development and some important lessons can be drawn from this incident, particularly in understanding the bonding, de-bonding and re-bonding experiences of communities. Although there have been a number of efforts by government and non-government agencies, initially their main concern was to provide relief to the affected communities.
The discussion here is limited to cover the concept of recovery and peoples’ engagement. During this period of disaster, I was a social work student, and I was also involved in some aspects of the recovery work. As a student, I can now reflect on the tremendous impact this tragedy had on me both personally and professionally. What I observed during this period was that the entire community came together irrespective of caste, creed, religion or ethnicity. Human kindness and compassion were visible everywhere. People from all walks of life came together to support each other and what united them was a state of emergency, a need for protection and a sense of caring for the affected. This was very evident in the way people quickly organised after the disaster. I also observed the emergence of local leadership and community involvement in the recovery efforts. One thing I still remember is the way in which the community provided emotional support to grieving families. This organised community spirit was later transformed and manifested in the way of local social action projects.
2. Bhuj earthquake, Gujarat, India (2001)
The Bhuj earthquake that shook the Indian Province of Gujarat on the morning of January 26, 2001 was one of the most deadly earthquakes to strike India in its recorded history. One month after the earthquake, official Indian government figures placed the death toll at 19,727 and the number of injured at 166,000. Indications are that 600,000 people were left homeless, with 348,000 houses destroyed and an additional 844,000 damaged. It was a major tragedy for the whole nation(India). The questions in my mind at the time were—how can we respond to this social reality affecting millions of people in the country? Do we share a sense of loss? What can be done?
During this time, I was a social work lecturer at Delhi University and the immediate response of the faculty was to organise the students to engage in community campaigns and initiate fundraising activities. Students from the college organised local communities to respond to the needs of the community in Gujarat. I could see the emergence of local leadership, especially among university students in action in the response to the natural disaster that occurred in the country. The students later visited the site along with professionals and activists to carry out the recovery work. Again, what I observed was the spirit of wanting to help people in crisis. On reflection, I see that this was indeed a relevant response from the social work department, which not only took proactive steps to mobilise the students but also allowed the students to use this experience for critical reflection and learning in social work practice. It is in this context that I introduce the work of the Delhi school of social work as they responded to the crisis in Gujarat. A project titled UDAI (University for Development Action and Integrated Learning) was conceived and implemented under the leadership of Prof.Sanjai Bhatt,Department of Social Work, University of Delhi and became a movement in addressing similar situations in the country.
The UDAI Response
The Department of Social Work at Delhi University in India very quickly and effectively responded to the emergency situation after the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. The University for Development Action and Integrated Learning (UDAI) was born to address the needs of the people in Gujarat. Students from various departments were trained and sent to the earthquake-affected areas to undertake relief work along with faculty members. While some of the students were in the field, the students in the city mobilised funds, resources, and other materials to be sent to Gujarat. This generated a lot of community response in and around Delhi in support of the cause and the UDAI continued to support some of the long-term rehabilitation plans. Based on the experience of working in the earthquake recovery efforts in 2001, the UDAI initiated its second phase for the flood affected people in Bihar (2008).It was one of the most disastrous floods in the history of Bihar, a state in India, which occurred on 18 August 2008. The river changed course and inundated areas which hadn’t experienced floods in many decades. The flood affected over 2.3 million people in the northern part of Bihar. UDAI Phase 2 had twofold objectives:Tocontribute to relief and rehabilitation of flood affected victims on a long-term basis, and to bring back experiences of learning into the knowledge system of the university.The UDAI team worked at three levels—immediate relief, long-term post-rescue relief, and long-term rehabilitation. The team was led by the social work faculty along with students (UDAI, 2008). This experience provided students with on-site exposure and an opportunity to develop their skills in working in such demanding situations.
Another initiative is from Tata Institute of social science, Mumbai, in responding to natural disasters in India. In most instances, the Institute has worked closely with state governments and the district administration in responding to crisis situations. In recent years, NGOs have recognised the role of the Institute and its volunteer teams and have sought to collaborate. Following the 2004 tsunami in India and Sri Lanka, the TISS completed an assessment of the loss of lives, property, livelihoods, environment, and infrastructure. It also addressed the rehabilitation and psychological counselling needs of affected women and children in Tamil Nadu in collaboration with 29 colleges of social work in Tamil Nadu, involving 1500 post-graduate student volunteers and over 100 teachers (Tata Institute of social sciences (TISS, 2012).The TISS also sent a deputation of five faculty members to Sri Lanka to train volunteers in psycho social support and trauma counselling.In addition a number of other social work colleges, departments and institutions volunteered to assist in the recovery work when confronted with calamities in India. For the purpose of continuing this discussion, I have only mentioned two institutions (there are many other organisations and Social Work institutions that have responded to disasters in their specific geographic locations) to showcase the trend of social work response in India in responding to disasters.Although there have been responses from social work institutions, the feedback from such endeavours have been around the intensity of planning the interventions and supporting volunteers in responding to situations. This againemphasises the need for preparingsocial work students/human service professionals/volunteers in engaging with communities and very specially in addressing the uncertainties in practice.
3. Drought in South Australia (2006)
A drought is a prolonged, abnormally dry period when there is not enough water for the users’ typical needs. Drought is not simply low rainfall; if it were, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought. Because people use water in so many different ways, there is no universal definition of drought. Meteorologists monitor the extent and severity of drought in terms of rainfall deficiencies. Agriculturalists rate the impact on primary industries, hydrologists compare ground water levels, and sociologists define it on social expectations and perceptions (Australian Government, Bureau of Meteorology, 2012).For the past ten years Australia has been in the grip of a severe and unprecedented drought, with low rainfall in many districts and record low inflows to the Murray-Darling basin. This is having an effect on all members of the community, from rural farmers to residents of many cities and towns, and the situation will not be reversed until significant rains replenish dams, streams, rivers, and aquifers.
This situation has caused many issues for communities, especially rural communities,as they tend to experience a heavier burden of mental illness, and have been significantly more affected by the tragedy of suicide—particularly male suicide—than their city counterparts. Anecdotal evidence suggests there has been an increased presentation of mental health problems and disorders associated with the drought—such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and alcohol abuse. However, there is not yet significant evidence to suggest a drought associated increase in the rate of suicide in South Australian rural communities. The general prevalence of mental disorders affecting men is comparable to that of women, though each gender has “stand-out” issues (Ashfield, 2007).
During this period, I was a social work practitioner and involved in a programme called Men in Communities, which was funded by the Government of South Australia to address the issues of men, rural farmers, and particularly to promote wellbeing in rural communities. This programme had a community focus and has had a great impact in the communities. Again, a commonality with other disasters was that people came together at times of difficulty. People from far and wide supported one another. As a practitioner, I was also involved in developing some community-oriented programmes i.e. community events, support groups for people with mental illness, and community awareness programmes to support people in the rural communities. The lesson I learnt during this period was that engaging with local community is crucial in all aspects of community work: specifically in addressing the needs of the local community. Local solutions need to emerge from the community partnership that the practitioners establish with the wider community.
4. Tropical Cyclone Yasi (2011)
Tropical Cyclone Yasi was one of the most powerful cyclones to affect Queensland, Australia, since weather records began. The cyclone was another blow to North Queensland’s coal industry, banana and sugar cane farming, as well as tourism;just as the state was open for business again after massive floods in December and January, which left 35 people dead. Tropical Cyclone Yasi caused widespread damage when it crossed the Queensland coast. Many communities were left devastated and are still in recovery. As Queenslanders braced for the biggest cyclone in the nation’s history, Prime Minister Julia Gillard told them, ‘’In the hours of destruction that are coming, all of Australia is going to be thinking of [you]’’(“Far North Qld”, February 2, 2011). I could see a sense of hope and support that was sent through these powerful messages to the people of Queensland. As a researcher, I thought this extended notion of community—Australia as a Communityreally supported the people emotionally to stay strong and face the disaster together while supporting one another. A spirit of volunteerism was manifested in all these efforts. As a survivor of this disaster myself, I found this common recovery theme in Australia too—People from all walks of life came together to support one another whether someone was a newcomer to the town, migrant, or local. But the uniting point here was the context, the urgency and the need for help. The community spirit was visible on the streets.
Why is a community development approach to recovery important?
Recovery from disasters such as those experienced in Queensland over the summer of 2010-11 requires more than the restoration of infrastructure and rebuilding of homes. A recovery effort must also involve building stronger, more resilient communities where people are empowered to manage their own recovery. National and international approaches to disaster recovery show that the inclusion of community development within community recovery can have positive long-term implications for mental health, community capacity, productivity, and hope. The social work approach is a bottom-up approach and focuses on the active involvement of community members. It is an opportunity for communities to express community agency such as purposive acts expressing the capacity of residents to work together for the wellbeing of the entire community.Like the empowering approaches, collaboration and meaningful participation are key factors in community development. A report titled”A silver lining: Community development,crisis and belonging”by Trotman and Caniglia (2011) explored the role of community development in Queensland’s recovery from floods in 2011. Some of their recommendations are indeed useful while responding to the issues in communities. They are as follows:
Community development is fundamentally concerned with including everyone and uses particular methods to overcome obstacles to the participation of groups with fewer resources and other structural barriers preventing access. At the time of crises or disasters significant help and assistance was offered by residents without any formal volunteering process. The strength of nearby social networks is an important factor in people’s capacity to prepare and recover. Francis (2013) mentions developing “safety nets in communities” to respond to the challenges of recovery. As shown in Australia as well as disasters overseas, sometimes “the disaster situation is so difficult the social networks and relationships within and around communities are the only source of help until disaster recovery assistance can physically reach affected communities” (Trotman & Caniglia, 2011, p. 6).Hence the theory we discussed at the beginning of the chapter, “the interactional perspective of community “(Taylor etal., 2008,p.23) becomes quite relevant here because community is bounded geographically and includes social interactions among people who live in that area.This again emphasises the importance of recognising the pattern of interactions in a community context.According to the Community Development Alliance of Scotland (2004), community development activities should be based on a commitment to the following principles:
In order to understand the role of community development in disaster recovery, it is important to define development in this context. The following definition is offered by the Community Development Alliance of Scotland (2008) and it highlights both methods and outcomes of community development. Community developments are a process, a way of doing things. They can:
Principled community development work involves developing opportunities, including those located within the community, such as tapping into local networks; drawing on existing community resources and strengths; encouraging involvement from a wide range of community members; developing and working with community leaders; building networks of trust; nurturing social capital; developing teams to undertake specific tasks; conducting audits of community resources; managing conflicts; and generally building the community’s capacity to withstand or adapt to change processes. In all these activities human service professionals play a crucial role in working with the communities. Principled community development work also includes other opportunities, involving those located outside of the community such as developing communication channels with government departments, non-government organisations and businesses; working with local networks to access external resources; lobbying for the community; addressing social policy issues as they affect the community; and advocating on behalf of the community to ensure that members have access to the resources they need to achieve their goals and aspirations (Kenny, 2006). Therefore community development practice is about maximising the participation of all individuals within a community and it therefore relies on initiatives arising at the local level rather than on those imposed from above (Alston, 2009).
Understanding community strength
It has been seen from my own experience and literature that at the time of disasters the atmosphere is filled with confusion, lacks a sense of direction, and everyone looks for a safe place. It is in this context human service professionals and volunteers walk in to support the people and community. An understanding of the strength of the community is of paramount importance to post-disaster work. Key concepts of membership and inclusion contribute to a community’s strengths. McKnight and his colleagues have been key proponents for examining, developing, and utilising the assets of the community (McKnight, Turner, & Kretzmann, 1999). These assets include physical, individual, community (organisational), and societal assets. The physical assets include land, buildings, communication, transportation structures, and business complexes. Individual assets are the local residents, their skills, experiences, capabilities, and their willingness to contribute (Kretzmann & McKnight, 2005). Community assets are the different organisations such as voluntary associations, social cultural groups, and faith-based organisations. The societal institutions are public institutions, schools, courts, hospitals, as well as political structures of the country (Kretzmann & McKnight, 2005). In a disaster situation, it is very difficult to assess the community strength in terms of physical, natural or social contexts; rather, efforts should be diverted to rebuild the strength of the community. By involving the community members, and by adopting participatory practice models the human service professionals work towards restoring the hope in people. Though it is a time consuming process, our efforts should lead to re-establishing the missing link in the communities which will help us to focus more on social capital. Putnam’s (2000) concept of social capital encompasses both bonding and bridging capital. The ability of people to bond and support one another, individually and as groups, builds the bonding capital. The relationship of the community with other communities and resources provides bridging capital (Dynes, 2002; Putnam & Feldstein, 2003). This model requires a deep respect for the people and community’s capacity to adopt sensitive and culturally appropriate interventions. Community members’ views and actions are valued and solicited through public meetings, surveys, consultations, task forces, and committees. Community action provides the impetus for social change and community development (Tan, 2009).Through the community development initiatives and through the participatory process we will be able to focus more on the community capacities, and work towards rebuilding the community strength which would instil hope in communities and the recovery process itself.
Community involvement in disaster recovery
One of the key factors in disaster recovery process is engaging with local communities in planning, decision making, and evaluation. We cannot achieve anything alone as it requires community support and participation. Networking and participation are the essence of both community development and disaster management as they provide the bonding and bridging capital necessary for action. Social capital is the means for developing and mobilising the resources of the community (McKnight, Turner, & Kretzmann, 1999; Putnam & Feldstein, 2003). Bonding capital focuses on the latent assets or strengths of the community, and harnessing them for action, while bridging capital aggregates resources and assets in other communities that can be used if required (Putnam, 2000).
At a time when disaster strikes a community, assessing the social capital may be a problem but post- disaster work will be quite easy if the community is helped to reclaim this in their specific context of experience. It may include taking into consideration both the resources available and those needed for rescue and recovery. This assessment is to be done in partnership with local people, appreciating and acknowledging the expertise of the knowledgeable from the local community. This can be achieved through observations and dialogues with residents, interest groups, and service providers. The strengths approach (Saleebey, 2006) provides a positive perspective to disaster intervention, and it considers the individual, family, and community understanding of social situations and conditions. It also emphasises the capacities and potential of the clients, family, and community, and assumes that they are experts of their own situations and can best decide what they want and need. A vital starting place is the assessment of strengths at all levels that will assist the community in coping with distress, and enhance wellbeing.Strength and resilience are highly correlated concepts (Priestley & Hemingway, 2006; Herman, 1992). Resilience is the resourcefulness of people, families, and communities, along with their ability to bounce back. Different people and communities are affected by disasters in various ways. Resilience is dependent on the protective factors they have, such as attitudes, skills, and assets. History and culture may also play a protective role in dealing with crisis and disasters (Tan, 2009).The question is - are the communities resilient enough to bounce back and what is the hope that they have been able to identify through the process of analysing the social capital.
Crisis can be an opportunity for growth and development. But again the question is whether the community is able to see this at a time of disaster. In this context strengths based approach allows people to recognise their strengths and their ability to move forward, because the premise of the strengths perspective is that it is not problem-focused butemphasises personal and community strengths (Saleebey, 2006; Francis, 2012). It seeks to discover uniqueness and personal ways of coping and intervenes in a culturally appropriate way. The strengths perspective identifies positive assets in terms of individual and community coping abilities, and thus the involvement of family and community members is central in intervention.
The collaborative approach of the strengths perspective includes working within the reality of the situation, while searching for possibilities and potentials, as well as doing what is meaningful for the citizens through engagement and dialogue throughout all the phases of disaster management. This approach includes a holistic integration of both spiritual and contextual resources, as cultural and spiritual traditions often provide meaning and strength to deal with disaster situations(Tan,2009,p.4).
This experience of being involved with natural disasters at various levels has given me some points to ponder on. While I wish to write down all of them, I am limited by word count and the rationale behind this paper. I have incorporated some of my reflections in the discussions of the paper.However, I will mention a few general points that have been generated from thesituations,and from which emerge further points for reflection.
While there are many other issues that emerge from this paper. I limit my discussion to further explore two issues that confront social workers in general. They are related to social work education and the concept of uncertainty in practice.
Implications for social work education and practice
Usually when disaster strikes, social workers and other human service professionals are not only the first responders, they are also called upon to help victims with the effects of trauma and displacement, providing social and emotional support in the recovery and rebuilding of families and communities. The question is – Does our current social work education provide opportunities for students to engage in such recovery related work? Do we prepare our students enough to embrace the concept of uncertainty in their practice? Are the social work curricula designed in a way that addresses the current social realities around us such as disasters? Afternatural disasters the following are some of the major questions that social workers can ask, and work on with communities to address them.
As practitioners, we need to find answers to these questions and we also need to help our communities to find solutions. On reflection I find that these were similar questions that I asked during the various natural disasters that I was associated with. Personal experience and professional practice has taught me that “we should never lose hope and nothing is achieved alone.” This is an important dimension of social work practice especially in educating and training social work students to embrace this concept of community development:work with the communities to achieve what they would like to achieve rather than approaching this from a top-down perspective. Educators also need to provide space for critical reflection and opportunities for students to become involved in social action or community recovery efforts.
Communities in Australia and internationally are experiencing massive changes. One of the changes concernsclimate variability which is an aspect of change that social workers are now grappling with. Communities are not sure what will happen to them in a few years in relation to the climate that may affect their way of life. Although social workers are responding to social realities, uncertainty in practice is an issue. This uncertainty calls for attention from social workers;”The uncertain future is an opportunity for social workers… these events are an opportunity to demonstrate the profession’s commitment to human rights and social justice in work with individuals, communities, and the wider policy environment” (Mason, 2011, p. 376). The question is how comfortable are we with the concept of uncertainty. How do we work with people who have issues of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, loss, anxiety, etc.? The Canadian study by Spafford et al. (2007) found that “social work students viewed the acknowledgement and examination of uncertainty as a touchstone of competent social work (p. 165). This was quite different from medical and optometry students who saw uncertainty as something to be avoided. Experienced social work practitioners work effectively when they incorporate uncertainty into the base of the social work approach. As Fook et al. (2000) commented: “An expert social worker is constantly taking account of the interaction/relationship between the persons and the context- at all levels relevant to the situation, leading to plans which address the overall situation”(p.145). “The experienced practitioner creates their own theory or way of knowing, being and acting in situations which are new and uncertain” (p.148). The literature suggests that “more opportunities are needed for social workers to understand how environmental issues are related to social work practice” (Mason, 2011, p.386). This is a challenge for both social work educators and practitioners. Similarly, practitioners also need to be aware of the following empirically supported intervention principles that should be used to guide and inform intervention and prevention efforts at the early to mid-term stages of recovery work. These promote: A sense of safety, calming, a sense of self and community efficacy, connectedness, and hope (Hobfoll, 2007).
This will certainly be a challenge for practitioners when working in the context of disaster management and recovery initiatives. However, having a sound knowledge of the scientifically-adapted models of practice will enrich practitioners in their pursuit to offer quality services in communities. This knowledge certainly will come from education and training.
In summary, principles of social recovery and disaster management must necessarily involve the community in all the stages of work. The work should focus on both the organisational and community potentials and needs. External initiatives should engage and empower local groups that are working to enable and build the community’s assets, as well as its bonding and bridging capital. All these efforts should create a sense of hope in the lives of people and community in general.
The question is not whether disaster will strike, but rather, when it happens will the community be ready to deal with it? Disaster can enhance community closeness and social cohesion while bringing about positive changes at the individual, community, and societal levels. Social work intervention that uses inherent strengths and resilience can be a catalyst for social change. The key to overcoming disasters and crises lies in the resilience of people and communities. Crisis can thus be an opportunity for community development and growth (Tan, 2004). Natural disasters occur silently, without much notice or permission from anyone, which affects the social capital of communities. Undoubtedly, catastrophes wipe away the salient resources of communities, destroy the inherent capacity of individuals to resist and rebuild, and put pressure on governments and civil society to bear the financial cost of rebuilding these communities to some extent. Social workers can play a major role in these endeavours by contributing to policy planning, designing intervention strategies, and rebuilding communities. However, as social workers we need to be very clear about our role in this process. As noted from a message from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, “If grassroots members of our communities do not have involvement in, or ownership of, the solutions to their local problems, then any proposed remedies are almost certain to fail” (Quartermaine 2003 as cited in Taylor etal., 2010,p.44). Therefore it is important to work with the people rather than for the people. As Mason (2011) stated “For social workers engaged in post disaster recovery or indeed in planning for an uncertain future, working with communities in a way that enhances participation and inclusion and builds resilience seems to be the most effective strategy(p.385).This is indeed a challenge for the social work profession, not only in terms of imparting academic knowledge, but in providing ample opportunities for our students to experience and explore social realities and thus develop necessary skills to address the unexpected realities that may come in their professional practice.
I would like to thank Prof.Sanjay Bhatt,Delhi University for inspiring me about this work on community practice and disaster management.I also thank him for sharing some of his ideas about disaster work and social work education,especially in India. I also thank Ms Margaret Henni for proof-reading this work, and special thanks to Dr Venkat Pulla, Charles Sturt University, Australia for peer reviewing this paper.
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Abraham P Francis
Dr Abraham P Francis teaches Social Work at James Cook University, Australia, firstname.lastname@example.org
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