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Democracy after disasters


A natural disaster occurs. People and communities are affected, often in the worst imaginable ways. But what happens next and how are citizens of disaster-affected areas engaged in decision-making regarding rebuilding their communities and recovering their lives?



Disaster response and recovery is composed of a number of stages; from the immediate response to the crisis at hand, through to long term planning in rebuilding communities. Often people in the middle of a disaster want immediate information, assistance and support, but may encounter many obstacles.


Each stage of disaster recovery has its challenges and raises its own questions. People want to return to life and have things return to normal - but does it mean that the community will be able to emotionally weather the next storm?


In light of the probability of more frequent of extreme events in the face of climate change, it will be essential to consider how best to support communities and community organisations to make decisions with a view to the future.


There is great potential to rebuild for the long term and create more sustainable communities than before.  But this won't happen without community engagement, because engagement enables people to deliberate about options - rather than government managing recovery based on reinstating pre-disaster structures and with limited deep community involvement.


A new research project is exploring ways to empower innovative community recovery through post-disaster deliberation.


Green Cross has partnered with newdemocracy Foundation (an independent, non-partisan research organisation aiming to identify improvements to our democratic process, founded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis), the University of Western Sydney's Centre for Citizenship and public policy led by Professor Lyn Carson, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), and the Australian Emergency Management Institute AEMI in a research project that explores the theme of post disaster deliberative models of democracy which can catalyse innovative community grounded recovery.


Interview with DSE's Frankie MacLennan


The interview below with Frankie MacLennan, Engagement & Partnerships Team Leader for the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment frames this research work and an upcoming workshop on 18 November at AEMI's Mt Macedon training facility.


Q: Why is informed community deliberation important in relation to disaster recovery, from your perspective and experience?


A: That is a big question but in essence, the people who are most affected by the disaster are the ones who need to be involved in what happens next. (And, according to Janette Hartz-Karp, when we talk about "deliberation" we mean processes that are inclusive of those affected and where those who are affected can influence the decisions that are made. Furthermore, those involved should be able to speak honestly and openly and have an opportunity to consider differing viewpoints and values. Having a chance to explore issues and solution in depth and seek common ground are also important.)

Once the immediate response is over, there is a risk that authorities, with very good intentions, take over and shape the recovery. There is a lot of pressure from outside the community to rebuild quickly and things can be put back worse than they were before - whilst leaving the community outside the decision making. We may know in theory what "best practice" recovery might look like but in practice it is more difficult.  We do know from community development principles that people are more likely to support what they create and know best what their community needs.


Q: How did the workshop and research project come about?


A: In February this year, Professor Lyn Carson from University of Western Sydney's Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy invited about 60 people from all around Australia and New Zealand to come to the Sydney Deliberative Democracy: Connecting Research and Practice workshop with the purpose being to develop a new research agenda in the area of deliberative democracy. It included both researchers and practitioners from NGO's, from government and universities. The event and research was co-funded by the newdemocracy Foundation. Seed funding was put on the table for us to develop our ideas - in the end, I think about 9 projects were funded and we were one of them. So this is just a start, or a contribution to the thinking about how we could do better post disaster.


Q: What we do want to achieve in the workshop and the research project?


A: Leading up to the workshop, we are collecting stories of where deliberation has been used post disaster. In November, we will bring together people who have been working in this field, to share their experiences and insights. Our focus is on how, through using more deliberative processes post disaster, recovery can achieve more sustainable outcomes, both in community or social terms and also for infrastructure.


Q: Why is this research topic and project important for longer term resilience and sustainability directions in Victoria?

We have been amazed at the level of interest this research has attracted.  In the context of increasing climate variability, there is likely to be more pressure on us all to put in place better ways of handling natural events and their aftermath. If we can put more focus on being prepared so that we put things back better than they were before, at least we will not be wasting the opportunity that is presented by such awful events. We hope to make a contribution to "betterment" or more sustainable decisions when making policy on the run.


Fifty diverse stakeholders have been invited to the research project's Workshop at AEMI in November 2011. Attendees will include local leaders from bushfire, flood and cyclone affected communities, local, State and Federal government personnel involved in disaster recovery, and deliberative democracy practitioners and researchers. Among attendees will be Daryl Taylor, member of the Kinglake Ranges Community Recovery Committee.


Closing comments from the ground


'This workshop', says Daryl, 'will make an important contribution to resilience building in Australia. The era of command and control recovery is waning, as we prepare for growing numbers of severe heat days in our peri-urban rural communities and more severe storms and floods around our nation. Communities themselves can offer insightful leadership that fosters innovative and resilient recovery.'


The  Deliberative Democracy in Disaster Recovery workshop is a by-invitation event hosted at Mc Macedon Emergency Management Institute. If you are personally involved in disaster recovery - either professionally or within an impacted community - and would like to attend this one day event, we may be able to facilitate your participation. Please call Frankie MacLennan on 03 5183 9130.

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