Skip to 0 minutes and 11 secondsThe first people to respond in any disaster are those living in the affected areas. You'll most likely have witnessed firsthand or on news items people shifting rubble with their bare hands or with hand tools following an earthquake, or possibly clearing up debris, assisting injured people and salvaging what they can following a cyclone, flood or other natural disaster. It can take hours or days for organised relief services from government or NGOs to respond depending on factors such as access and availability of personnel and equipment. In instances where international response is also called on, it can take up to 72 hours for the first people and equipment to be on the ground in a disaster zone.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 secondsThis timeline can take even longer, if as has happened in some instances, governments are not prepared to declare an emergency and call for assistance for whatever reason. Thankfully, this situation does not occur often. Emergency services in countries generally provide an amazing response during disasters. For instance, in my context in Australia, emergency services, such as metropolitan and regional fire services, police, state emergency services and others do an incredible job in times of severe bushfires, floods or cyclones. These services are well-organised and relatively well-equipped by international standards, and Australia is privileged to have such responders on hand, many of whom are volunteers. This is not necessarily the case in all countries and regions.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsInevitably though, local people from affected areas are those that respond most quickly to any disaster. Historically, the humanitarian sector has not emphasised or perceived a need to work with local people in building participation as part of responses. There are compelling reasons for this and immediate response situations where the humanitarian imperative dictates the need for speed, and decisions need to be made quickly and participatory processes would not be applicable. However, once the immediate emergency situation has eased, it has been recognised that participation and the development of participatory practises can take a more a central place in humanitarian discussions, policy and practice.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 secondsMuch of this stems from the realisation that as local people are the first responders and as it is local people who know their own situation most intimately, it is logical, practical and just that they should be at the forefront of planning and implementing responses as early as possible. For dual-mandate organisations within country offices, there has been a concerted focus on recruiting suitably qualified local staff, then providing training and support in order to reduce the necessity for an involvement of expatriate staff over time. It is these local staff working with communities on disaster risk-reduction programmes and other development-focused initiatives that build the potential for participation at the earliest possible stage following a disaster.

Skip to 3 minutes and 1 secondAnother way international non-government organisations assist in building the capacity and participation of local communities is through partnering with local community-based organisations where possible and applicable. These partnerships are most often focused on development projects and programmes. However, it provides another opportunity for collaboration and building networks with trained and committed locals that can be invaluable when humanitarian response is required. Participation provides many acknowledged benefits, but it is also being critiqued as a new form of tyranny. This is particularly pertinent in circumstances where participation is forced on people as an obligation. It is my experience that participation cannot be forced as this will lead to resistance.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 secondsHowever, participation may need to be facilitated and supported, especially in contexts where people are not used to the process.

The first response

Local people are always going to be the first responders in a disaster situation.

In this video, Associate Professor Phil Connors discusses the increasing focus on local responses and why involving local communities is vital to effective relief and development operations.

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Watch the video and share your thoughts on how you think local communities should be involved in disaster responses.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Humanitarian Aid

Deakin University

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