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Cooperative and Capable

April 17, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Ecology, Guest Author

Community Resilience in Natural Disasters

Peace researchers Dr. Diane Bretherton and Anouk Ride say evidence indicates most people, when facing a natural disaster, are cooperative, altruistic, and resilient.

If you watch the news, particularly news about foreign countries, you could easily believe that natural disasters are followed by looting, crime and individualistic behavior to survive. However, research from six different countries indicates when facing a natural disaster most people are cooperative, altruistic, and resilient.

If you face a natural disaster, you will most likely turn to your neighbors and your community for help, advice and to help others you see as suffering more than yourself. This is a natural response to survive, to cope psychologically with the chaos and loss of control experienced in a disaster, and to rebuild communities. This behavior is far more common than generally assumed by the authorities and media commentators — who predict crime, competition and opportunism.

Initially we wanted to find out why some communities seemed to cope better than others with natural disasters. With local researchers in six countries, we talked to people who had survived tsunami waves higher than multistory buildings, droughts that lasted for years, earthquakes that crumbled entire villages. Interviews with survivors of earthquakes in Mexico and Pakistan, tsunamis in Indonesia and Solomon Islands, drought in Kenya, cyclone in Myanmar, and the US’s Hurricane Katrina, actually found the responses of communities and their experience of disaster aid were more similar than different.

The research is featured in our new book, Community Resilience in Natural Disasters (Palgrave Macmillan) in which we compared the interviews gathered around the world to find out what communities did when faced with a natural disaster and how their behavior changed with the arrival of assistance from aid agencies, government and other organizations.

We found everywhere community resilience is the usual story and communities tearing themselves apart is the unusual story. But the problem is aid agencies, authorities and others who seek to help disaster survivors often take over and disempower local people, actually hurting the very resilience that helped people survive and cope with the disaster in the first place and creating conflict in communities.

Add to this the media looking for stories of dysfunction rather than function in the wake of a natural disaster, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina in the South and  Haiti, the outsiders’ view of disaster-affected communities quickly becomes bleak. It’s as if their search for what is not working blinds them to the many people, groups, and networks that are working to cope and rebuild after the disaster. And because they do not see this resilience, outsiders such as aid workers and journalists, often end up countering such that their own actions, by taking control and assuming information, remove agency and cooperation from communities. On the other hand, aid and government assistance that linked with what communities were already doing on their own, perhaps providing material or other support to their efforts, that helped people to help themselves,  had a long-term impact of strengthening communities.

The implications from the research is humans do not survive disasters through competition but rather through cooperation, and many survivors affirm their belief in the goodwill of their neighbors, families, colleagues and friends in such trying times. To build on this community strength, authorities and the media need to give communities a sense of control over their own efforts to rebuild and adapt to live after a disaster.

Far from helpless victims, communities should be seen and treated as capable, cooperative, and resilient, in order to avoid a second less visible calamity in the natural disaster’s wake — that of turning community resilience into conflict and dependency.

Diane Bretherton is a peace psychologist and Former Chair of the Committee for the Psychological Study of Peace for the International Association of Psychological Science. She is the author of many academic journal articles and books on conflict and development. She has worked in a range of conflict regions, including employment with the United Nations in Sri Lanka, for UNESCO in Vietnam, and for the World Bank in Sierra Leone, and is also the winner of three international awards for peace, including the Century of Women Peace Award (2003). 

Anouk Ride is an editor, producer, journalist and researcher. She has written and edited books, newspapers and magazines in Asia, Australia, Europe and the USA and written and produced films set in the Pacific Islands. She also is the author of a popular narrative nonfiction book about the first Indigenous children to travel from Australia to Italy titled “The Grand Experiment.” She has a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism), Master of Arts (International Relations) and is currently undertaking a PhD in conflict resolution.

2 Comments to “Cooperative and Capable”


  1. Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, and his walk to freedom in February 1990, followed by the final collapse of Boer Apartheid in South Africa, emphasized the truth of the ancient Bantu adage: numuntu ngumuntu ngabantu; (we are people through other people).
    And he saw the inevitability of mutual interdependence in the human condition: that the common ground is greater and more enduring than the differences that divide.
    http://www.nobel.se/peace/articles/mandela/index.html  

    go to http://www.kelvynrichards.com………….A Discourse: Social Ecology

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  2. This might put the lie, once and for all, to the common belief in the innate sinfulness (or selfishness) of humanity. People are mostly products of their culture – the paradigm that we breathe from infancy like air – and this masks our natural tendencies.

    When a disaster strikes, all the normal rules of civilization are temporarily suspended, and we fall back on our “first nature” – our natural altruism and cooperative and generous spirit.

    Once life returns to “normal”, our “second nature” takes over – the one inculcated through parenting, peer relationships, schooling, mass media and the marketplace.

    The question then remains: what would it take to keep us in a place of “first nature” all the time? Perhaps if we understood, at a gut level, that global humanity is in a moment of life-altering crisis in which we, literally, sink or swim together…

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  3. Crime and looting after natural disasters the exception not the rule, say researchers : PeaceVoice 11 06 12

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