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Communities as a local asset for resilience

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Communities and their volunteers have not always been seen as fundamental to disaster preparedness, but COVID-19 has changed all that. A team of researchers at Manchester are working to ensure that a positive legacy of the pandemic is that such local assets continue.

Duncan Shaw, who leads the team, is Professor of Operational Research and Critical Systems at Alliance Manchester Business School and Honorary Professor at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

His first-of-a-kind international standard, ISO22319 – which provides guidelines for the involvement of spontaneous volunteers during crises – has been invaluable in helping local governments across the world to safely deploy armies of volunteers throughout COVID-19.

Communities – and the individuals, groups, organisations and networks that form them – have been at the heart of the pandemic response, and Professor Shaw is now striving to ensure they are recognised as a resilience capability that can be efficiently mobilised when disaster strikes.

“Communities have shown themselves to be a national asset in response to COVID-19,” says Professor Shaw. 

“When the crisis hit, we witnessed community response on a scale and diversity that was previously unthinkable, including invisible acts of good neighbourliness, donations by businesses of all sizes, thousands of mutual aid groups, all while the voluntary sector was developing its own response.

“It is important that we now work to maintain our newfound community resilience beyond COVID-19.

“Establishing community resilience as a nationally recognised, local resilience capability needs us to sustain what has already been created by communities, local government, community groups, small businesses, neighbours, individuals, social enterprises, the voluntary sector and so many
more hidden networks.”

Changing the narrative

The prominence of ‘community’ in emergency response is not yet well understood. 

“Around 15 years ago, the narrative of resilience was ‘we’re here to save you’ – suggesting that responders would come to assist everyone,” Professor Shaw explains.

“Then, appreciating that some emergencies are just so big that the responders alone could not save everyone, the narrative changed towards ‘we’re prepared, are you?’

“This shares responsibility for resilience across communities and responders.”

Professor Shaw now wants to shift the emphasis even further towards local resilience by moving the conversation to ‘what can we (responders) do to support you (communities)?’ His vision is that, for some emergencies, responders and communities would work in full partnership – ensuring that community resilience as a local capability is here to stay. 

In order to achieve this, Professor Shaw argues, governments can work even more closely with communities to co-develop processes that identify, coordinate and enhance local resilience capabilities and capacities, understand risk at source, better understand vulnerabilities, and enhance preparedness to act quickly when needed.

This would allow communities to be better aware of hazards and risks, adopt resilient behaviours, and be engaged and on standby with governance, knowledge and resources to act safely and effectively. Local government is central to this.

“Not all communities are in the same place or have the same capacities – some even struggle with the notion of community,” explains Professor Shaw.

“This puts local government and partnerships at the heart of community resilience – occupying a supportive role.”

Recovery and renewal 

Throughout the pandemic, local governments have been working hard behind the scenes, at an extraordinary pace, to establish new processes and policies to support the voluntary effort.

Professor Shaw believes that such long-term solutions are what’s needed to drive recovery and renewal after an emergency, and this is where the research is now focused.

He and his team of academics from across the University’s Faculty of Humanities have received more than £1 million of funding, mostly from the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of the UK Research and Innovation rapid response to COVID-19. Using their research they will work globally and fast-track another international standard.

ISO22393 will provide a framework for how to assess the impacts of a crisis on communities, and address these by developing short-term recovery strategies and designing ambitious renewal initiatives.

The standard will focus on the people who have been affected by the crisis, the places where the impact and response has happened, and the processes that have been configured to meet the needs of the response.

“Civic leaders and organisations need to prepare to think about recovery strategies from early on in the crisis to respond to its major effects on the community,” adds Professor Shaw.

“What short and longer-term recovery aim to establish is a new way of life that, in some ways, might resemble life before the crisis, but is also adapted to, and conditioned by, the crisis that has passed – building on the lessons learned.”

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