Why heeding the voice of at-risk populations is crucial to resilience

By Mark Toldo, Communications Specialist at HHI’s Program on Resilient Communities

Since the establishment of the United Nations (UN) International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in 1999, awareness of and response to disasters has grown globally. Governments, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, civil society groups, and even the private sector now often converge to conduct collaborative projects aimed at mitigating the impacts of disasters and climate change to vulnerable communities.

Undeniably, these multi-sector collaborations play a key role in supporting the resilience of at-risk communities. Nevertheless, for someone like me who has lived in disaster-prone communities for most of my life, some of the disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts often miss an essential collaborator — the disaster-stricken population itself.

The voice that needs to be heard

The cycle of typhoon experience — preparing before the disaster arrives, surviving from the wrath of the typhoon, and recovering from the damages it has brought — has been the “new normal” for most of the poor communities in the Philippines over recent decades. Communities across the Philippines deal with routine typhoons, but also experience frequent flooding, earthquakes, droughts, and volcanic activity.

I can still vividly recall how my family and I have survived the wrath of the many deadly typhoons that hit our home in the Philippines: pushing against the wooden door that was being destroyed by the hard-hitting winds, escaping the shattering glass windows and the hurled roof, and being forced to evacuate in the face of serious flooding. Several days after, when the rains had stopped and the flood had subsided, we picked up the pieces and cleaned up all the mess that reminded of our struggle and survival. Thanks to the local government, each of the families in hard-hit communities usually received a pack of relief goods. With this little but vital aid, each household were able to rise up from the ravages and continue living as if nothing horrible had just happened. We fight, we fall, we rise up and do the same for the next disaster. Such fighting spirit is one the reasons why Filipinos are perceived to be resilient people, but honestly, we just didn’t have a choice.

I lived and experienced extreme disasters in two flood-prone provinces. I have also worked as a journalist in several communities in other provinces stricken by earthquake and volcanic eruption. While immediate relief such as packed goods and makeshift evacuation centers were consistently provided during a disaster, rarely were the affected people asked for their thoughts nor invited to take part in the local DRR programming. In some disaster-prone communities, the residents were rarely consulted before they were relocated to other areas. In some cases, the relocation site turned out to be also disaster-prone or too remote that they could not access livelihoods and basic needs. Other infrastructure projects do not also fit the people’s needs and sometimes even worsen their living conditions.

I did not realize the utmost significance of the locals’ role in DRR until I got to listen to the residents in other vulnerable communities passionately expressed their feelings and ideas during the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) field visits in 2019. From our group discussions with local leaders, health workers, teachers, fisherfolk, farmers, the youth, and ordinary household members, we have learned many things. One of the most striking information we have found was the people’s need for mental health support due to trauma, depression, and anxiety from disasters — a critical need that has not been addressed by in-kind aid commonly provided to them. This information has been consistent with HHI’s nationwide household survey conducted in the country in 2017.

Through HHI’s researches that directly involved household members in at-risk communities, we have heard the locals’ rich personal experience and firsthand knowledge on disaster. Most importantly, we have witnessed and felt their enthusiasm and willingness to take part in DRR. Unfortunately, they were rarely heard or even informed of their role in DRR.

Measuring resilience

While participatory research and response is greatly needed more than ever, it is also important to note the increasing number of initiatives that utilize this approach. One of the notable organizations at the forefront is the UN that has worked on community resilience globally.

Like the UN, at-risk populations are also at the core of HHI’s work on humanitarian research, training, and education. Through evidence-based and participatory approaches, HHI has been providing an avenue for vulnerable populations where their voices are heard and amplified so, DRR & climate adaptation measures implemented by international & local actors could be further tailored to their experiences & needs.

HHI’s nationwide household survey in the Philippines, for instance, has highlighted the importance of measuring disaster preparedness and resilience at the household level. The results of the said survey uncovered several realities confronting families and their households that hinder the preparedness and recovery not just at the community level but, at the regional and national level, too.

This approach to research has also been seen useful to the programming of international aid and humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide through a resilience scorecard it co-developed with HHI in Bagerhat District, Bangladesh in 2019. The scorecard is currently used to periodically assess key aspects of household resilience in the disaster-prone coastal zone. The initial results of the scorecard have, in fact, motivated some local DRR actors to tackle the improvement of DRR planning in the district.

Empowering locals

Integrating the voices of the people into planning, strategizing, and implementation of disaster and humanitarian response has been gaining traction worldwide. It is a great development and we need more of it.

My participation in the DRR work through HHI has been encouraging and empowering. But even without directly working at a humanitarian organization, just knowing that there are agencies working with at-risk populations themselves and involving them in the DRR programming beyond being mere beneficiaries, is both a relief and motivation. Coming from a vulnerable community myself, I am certain that if more people would have a voice in DRR, like me and the locals involved in our studies, there could be more motivated and empowered individuals and communities who could be key to achieving the global DRR and climate agenda sooner.