Complexities of disasters call for collaborative response

By Jelenko Dragisic

We have a strategy on how to make Australia resilient to natural disasters; a strategy adopted by COAG on 13 February 2011. It came only a few weeks after the largest floods in the State’s history washed over countless communities, causing death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, and a few days after Cyclone Yasi devastated numerous communities across north Queensland.

It’s been three years since the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience emerged and it would be natural to think about what it has done to make Australians better off, especially when we know natural disaster threats in the form of major bushfires and floods are all too real. Any practitioner of the art of strategic planning knows that people who are expected to benefit from strategies would expect to see some results, and indeed any strategy should provide some signs of life after three years. By now there should be some clear indicators to tell us if we are on the right track to achieving the original intention.

There are some obvious questions that deserve early attention. Given that the strategy is aimed at making the people of Australia better prepared for disaster, better equipped to respond and more confident in recovering from any disaster, it would be natural to expect more people to know that there actually is such a plan. It would be equally important to believe that most people by now are starting to become familiar with the term ‘resilience’. Furthermore it would be realistic to expect some practical outcomes that clearly demonstrate that individuals and communities across the country are actually taking the issues of resilience seriously.


Resilience building goes beyond disaster management. Its main concern cannot be only the ability of a community to bounce back. The real test lies in the ability of an individual, community or business to continue to grow.


I cannot answer those questions with absolute certainty at the moment. I am confident that others may be better informed. However, I am confident that I can provide part of the answer as a person who was responsible for the implementation of one of Australia’s largest natural disaster resilience program run by a community organisation. At this point, evidence clearly proves that one of the most critical phases of resilience building should be focused on making individuals and communities better connected, informed and confident to act. I am not talking about fuzzy, soapy connections where people just talk and play good neighbours in the hope that that would automatically make them resilient. The connections I am particularly concerned about are the ones that serve to make information flow more effective; connections that inspire people to reach out beyond the local and educate themselves about initiatives, programs and plans such as the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience 2011.

Resilience is a multifaceted beast, but it should not deter people from trying to engage with its complexity. Small, simple steps can make a huge difference. In a range of examples based on evidence collected from a variety of initiatives, I can see that it is the precisely the small steps that lead to concrete results, which in turn make people feel more confident about their ability to again face the next season of disasters. I have seen projects that were initiated by a single individual, directly as a result of their inspiration and knowledge gained after participating in a funded resilience project. The information, knowledge and belief in self-action leads people to understand their own capacity as a resource that with some support can be converted into social capital of immense value to a larger number of people.

It is of critical importance that we now start paying serious attention to the limitations of the disaster resilience narrative. The strong community response to resilience programs is a vital indication that the community does not see resilience building as being the same thing as disaster management. The links may be obvious and are, in fact, real and should be maintained. However, resilience building goes beyond disaster management. Its main concern cannot be only the ability of a community to bounce back. The real test lies in the ability of an individual, community or business to continue to grow. Attempting, as a seemingly logical goal, to go back to ‘normal’ is not what resilience building should settle for. After all, isn’t what seemed normal before a major disaster in fact proof that the community may have some inherent inefficiencies that should be improved?

Some resilience programs concern themselves with only community dimension of resilience building. That alone is not supposed to replace, nor in any way detract from, a host of other areas that are currently being worked on. Major infrastructure such as telecommunications, transport, water and food supply are only the start. However, it makes little sense to approach resilience building by pretending that we should prioritise one at the expense of the other.

Resilience building has to work as an interlocking strategy, which ensures that all areas of work are done in tandem and support the collective effort – an effort that can successfully bring about a level of collaboration between individuals, the local community, local, state and federal governments, big business and other institutions such as churches, universities and so on, can perhaps best be described as ‘super-cooperation’. I think we need to acknowledge that what to me seems a tyranny of self-interest can serve as the basis for super-collaboration that would produce both the social and monetary capital necessary for a resilient Australia.