Collaboration: An emerging dominance in disaster resilience

Over several decades, disaster management has matured into a profession that at once borrows from a range of disciplines, offers its own unique dimension and lends new insights to other disciplines.  This dynamic has become a mainstay of the policy and practice of disaster management as it is applied today.  Globally, the practice seems similar, but the policy framework, capacities and the evolution of the discipline varies significantly.  For instance, the Australian policy model favours the PPRR framework administered by each State as a lead authority, whereas European countries lean to the C2 (command and control) approach, which Australia and most of the USA has abandoned.  While the differences do not end here, the importance of this dichotomy on a global scale may have some implications here in Australia due to the different manner in which disaster resilience is framed and developed.

world disasters map

It is vital to acknowledge that disaster management in Australia is legislated and is included in the obligations to which Federal, State and Local governments hold themselves accountable.  On the other hand, disaster resilience is not part of the legislated framework, which then clearly presents a major gap in the way disaster resilience can be built in Australia.  It equally presents a major challenge in the way Australia can be an acknowledged contributor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), the leading global disaster resilience blueprint which is due to for review in 2015.

The emergence of the disaster resilience narrative over the past 15 years has been a slow process. It has been challenged by both the policy and practice arms of disaster management jargon in Australia, despite some outwardly significant projects aiming to establish a disaster resilience dialogue as an integral part of the way the country deals with natural disasters whose frequency has created disruptions previously not witnessed. The Rudd Government introduced Australia’s first national funding program, the Natural Disaster Resilience Program, which provided over $70 million to states who then subsidised this to create a four year resilience funding program aiming to jump-start the development of a resilience culture in Australia. In early 2011, only a few weeks after the historic Queensland floods and just days after Cyclone Yasi, COAG adopted the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. Since then there has been an emergence of disaster resilience portfolios within some state governments as a further indicator that disaster resilience is serious.

However, despite the progress made and some clear evidence about a range of projects aimed at building disaster resilience, the real impacts are not clearly visible. Communities across Australia are not consistently engaged with the discourse of disaster resilience. Research in the field is not funded to an extent that reflects funding available to other areas. For instance, Australian researchers are still more likely to obtain research funding for studies in movies, music trends and popular culture, than in disaster resilience. The public continues to confuse disaster management with disaster resilience to the point where a successful narrative of ‘shared responsibility’ as defined in the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience is rendered meaningless in everyday life.

cross city collaboration

The emergence of collaboration as a strategy for progressing disaster resilience is in part a result of the above challenges.  While the idea of collaboration in this area has been mentioned for a number of years, there remains a significant lack of understanding as to which model of collaboration would be most applicable.  Little is discussed in respect to collaboration governance and management.  As an emergent discipline, collaboration remains poorly understood even at the highest levels of leadership.  In most cases, collaboration is reduced to a form of partnership which is in fact more akin to ‘co-operation’.  While the discipline of collaboration has evolved in North America and to some degree in Europe, Australia remains largely wedded to the idea of collaboration as the practice of working together, which is part and parcel of modern management.  The unfortunate side effect of such an attitude is that little is understood about collaboration as a practice, its implications as a disruptive strategy, its relations to corporate laws, its associated risk management and the impact measures required.

Collaboration is emerging as the lead candidate for genuine change in the way the society handles the threatening cost of disasters.  While disaster management planning is mostly undertaken in the confines of government agencies, disaster resilience has become more of a contentious field which has disrupted what has largely been a government controlled area. Many sections of the community have found disaster response a playing field for a host of objectives, such as enacting concerns regarding global climate change, political activism, and a rare opportunity to connect with communities and build social capital.  In other words, disasters have allowed spontaneous emergence of activities led by local communities whose concerns were in part fed by the traditional ‘top down’ approach in terms of response and recovery.  Communities were in fact passive and often unable to engage.  It’s as if they were at the mercy of a formal and overly bureaucratic system of response.  New technologies, globalisation, the emergence of Gen Y and other factors have in fact enabled communities (which include local business and social communities alike) to be more entrepreneurial and demonstrate a degree of ownership when it comes to dealing with disasters.

The unfortunate thing is slow recognition and even slower pragmatic collaboration.  While some developments have taken place, the current state of play is far from a sustainable strategy and is characterised by many factors.  One very clear and standout feature is the dichotomy between the apparent attempt by political leaders and lead agencies across governments to ‘appeal’ to the public for a sense of ‘shared responsibility’, while at the same time there is no formal mechanism for the public to access resources needed to carry out that role.  Public resources (taxes) are still maintained within the confines of government agencies and are often further increased by additional levies and donation programs sponsored by governments (e.g. the Premier’s Appeal etc.).  The mismatch does not resonate effectively with the general public and therein lies a major challenge; ensuring that there is a clear narrative relevant to all stakeholders (from individual members of the public onwards).



The process of re-imagining the way forward requires integration of two distinct narratives.  Disaster management and disaster resilience are fundamentally two sides of the same coin.  One is formal and in a large part legislated; the other is informally organised.  It is critical that a common collaboration language be agreed upon, with special focus given to devising a formula of interoperability that recognises the capacities and limitations of both sides.  In practical terms this means that the cost of disasters is going to continue to rise until there is a clear understanding that, in the Queensland scenario under current arrangements, the Police force is able to order a person/family to evacuate their home, but nobody has the authority to order the same person/family to clean their gutters before the storm season and perform other activities that would minimise risk and damage.  In that example the two parts are left unconnected.

Collaboration is likely to receive a further boost as a strategy for the way forward in the next year’s review of the Hyogo Framework for Action, in part because disasters are a massive problem and require a collaborative approach, built on a multidisciplinary base.  Disaster resilience is only possible either by a radical increase in public spending, or a collaborative strategy that better connects existing resources.  The likelihood and practicality of the former is hardly a realistic option.  Collaboration remains a clear path which, with careful structuring, can start creating a culture of resilience which would not challenge the established role of government agencies and NFP organisations, but would require better integration of the general public, research community, business sector and a variety of disciplines, which to date have only provided casual support.



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