Governments, disasters and communication: Lead, follow or get out of the way!

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has just published a good review of the book I recently co-edited titled Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

The review is written by two academics. Dr Malathi Subramanian is Former Principal, Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi, India, while Dr. Anupama Saxena is Head, Department of Political Science, Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India.

As they remark: “The book has articles contributed by authors who do not engage in mere theoretical discussions. They draw on their rich and varied experiences working in either preparing disaster resilient communities or responding to humanitarian emergencies triggered by specific disasters in different parts of the globe.”

They add: “The eminently readable book provides first hand information about the real life situations of disaster, richly illustrated with case studies and use of professional images….The book is written in a manner that successfully sensitises the reader to the complexity of the issue of disaster management and its various nuances. After reading the book one is sure to echo the spirit of one of the contributors, Sanjana Hattotuwa: ‘We cannot prevent or predict all disasters. However, we can plan for, react to and learn from disasters when they do occur’.

In preparation of this review, Malathi and Anupama did an email interview with me where they posed half a dozen questions on some key issues we have addressed in the book. Here is the full interview, which brings out my personal views interspersed with those of some other contributors to our multi-author book.

Question: In developing countries the governments are considered to be the nodal agencies for disaster management. In this context do you think that there is a need to advocate the integration of the National disaster management policy with the national ICT Policy to exploit the potential of ICTs before, during and after a disaster?

Yes, that certainly is the ideal, desirable scenario. But I’m not sure how soon this can become a reality, given how many of our governments think of these sectors as separate compartments – or ‘silos’ – with little or no integration. In the real world, however, these are all mixed up: people who use ICTs are affected by various disasters and the first responders – including relief workers and journalists – use various ICT tools in their work. Increasingly, we are seeing disaster affected people themselves using ICTs, especially mobile phones, to communicate with family, friends, aid officials and others from the scenes of disaster. We have documented specific instances of all this in our book and pointed out that the typical hapless, uninformed affected person is being replaced by a digitally empowered one. So the integration of disaster management and ICTs has been happening on the ground for some time, whether or not policy-makers acknowledge it!

At policy and regulatory level, governments can play an enabling role by easing the various bottlenecks that currently hold back optimum use of ICTs in disaster preparedness, early warning or response. This is so lacking and badly needed in my own country Sri Lanka. One example: amateur radio enthusiasts played a key role in establishing emergency communication with some coastal areas badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. When everything was dead, short wave was alive. Yet, barely months later, the government blocked any new amateur radio equipment being brought into the country as someone felt it was a threat to national security!

But in my view, misguided policies are worse than no policies at all. That’s when I feel like quoting Rabindranath Tagore’s words which every southern government should heed: ‘If you can lead, lead. If you cannot, follow. If you can do neither, then get out of the way’.


Question: Participatory Modes of communications form a very important part of a comprehensive strategy aiming at creating disaster resilient communities. What type of policies and frameworks the national governments should adopt to facilitate this?

Living with disasters – or developing resilience to disasters – is fast becoming a necessary strategy of day-to-day survival. Communication plays a role in this. In our book, we have an entire chapter on this written by Chin Saik Yoon, who has been researching and documenting participatory communication processes in development. He identifies communication as one of four necessary steps towards recovery from a disaster. Survivors need to maintain communication with family, friends, and counsellors in order to share their experiences. They need to tell their stories about the disaster, and listen to others as they tell theirs. This helps survivors to collectively release their stress.

To continue in his own words: “Participatory communication processes work best here. This is where survivors assume the role of both the ‘initiator’ as well as the ‘receiver’ of communication. No expert or government official should be there to decide what is to be discussed by the survivors. They need only facilitate the process. The participatory processes ensure that communication occurs at the pace that communities are comfortable with and address issues only when survivors are ready to deal with them.”

This makes eminent sense, but it is precisely this kind of thoughtful, sensitive approach that many governments are unable or unwilling to adopt. For too long, governments have been seen as the sole decider, provider and protector – and governments do have a responsibility in all these. But in today’s world, the role of government has to be reviewed and redefined. As Chin says, government officials may facilitate, but governments must get out of the historical habit and temptation of playing Big Mama (or worse, Big Brother!) by doing such communication themselves.

For our quest for disaster resilience to succeed, we need a transformation in governmental policies, attitudes and practices. In a world experiencing a growing number and intensity of multiple hazards, no government – however powerful or well intended – can reach out and protect every citizen. That illusion was shattered forever by hurricane Katrina. There is no need for such governmental omnipresence either! The smart option is to allow, encourage and empower individuals and communities to do part of it on their own. Governments, researchers, aid agencies and charities still have to be part of this – but first they have to break free from the ‘Let’s-Do-It-All-Ourselves’ mentality.

Question: It is evident from the many case studies in the book that participatory non-media modes of communications have been quite useful in dealing with disasters. Such efforts however, need constant involvement of a wider group of people on voluntary basis over a long period of time for creating resilience for disasters. How to develop this spirit and, more important, sustain it.

Yes, participatory communication efforts have to sustain the community engagement over weeks, months and sometimes years. As one of our contributing authors, Buddhi Weerasinghe, has written in the book: “The big challenge is to sustain disaster preparedness interventions over time. This is helped by the creation of informal leadership within the community through participatory action.”

Since no two communities are alike, it’s very hard to generalise on how to develop the necessary conditions and ‘spirit’, but some generic lessons can be drawn from documented examples. The right kind of community leadership helps, as does external help that is neither over-bearing nor fleeting. Assistance from aid agencies needs to be delivered at a pace the communities can absorb, integrate and use.

Disasters are often the latest (and highly disruptive) layer over existing multiple layers in a community. Even if a shared plight and grief temporarily unite a community, that alone cannot hold people together for too long, especially if there are deep divides in that community. So community cohesion and unity become very important factors in the success of participatory communication. There is no single formula that can work for everyone.


Question: The book describes many successful interventions based on non-media participatory mode of communications for disaster management. Which of these interventions do you think can be cited for the most optimal use of non media participatory mode of communications?

In our introduction to the book, Frederick Noronha and I wrote: “Media-based communication is vitally necessary, but not sufficient, in meeting the multiple information needs of disaster risk reduction and disaster management. Other forms of participatory, non-media communications are needed to create communities that are better prepared and more disaster resilient.”

These non-media communication methods range from basic inter-personal communication and small group discussions to participatory rural appraisal techniques. The methods are not new or unique; they are being customised to meet disaster preparedness and/or response needs.

It’s more than mere talk. Some methods involve experiential learning – or learning by doing. An example is participatory hazard mapping. First, community members are divided into a few groups and asked to map their neighbourhoods – they have to capture the roads, footpaths, rivers, hillocks, houses, schools, temples and other key landmarks. Then they mark the areas that have been affected historically with different disasters such as tsunami, floods or cyclones. This helps identify relatively safer areas as well as safety routes in case a new disaster demands quick evacuation. Admittedly this is communication plus social mobilisation, but that’s what it takes in the real world – communication is only part of the solution.

As Buddhi Weerasinghe has written in his chapter, “This exercise allows informal leaderships to emerge. Encouraging this leadership and recognizing their inputs can motivate them and enable sustainability of interventions. The process of hazard mapping also imparts a sense of ownership.”

Question: To what extent is it really practicable to achieve the ‘disaster resilience’ in communities?

Disasters are all about resilience – how we pick ourselves up after a tragedy and slowly return to normalcy. And also how we take repeated battering from a multitude of disasters and still carry on with living. There is no single recipe for success in building disaster resilient communities. Everyone needs to approach this with open and flexible minds, and see what works for whom under which conditions. Disaster resilience is not a slogan like halving poverty by 2015 or writing off majority world’s debt. It’s a long-drawn, incremental process and will always remain a work in progress because both community dynamics and the nature of hazards change over time.

In many cases, the community has information and insights that help achieve resilience, but it needs to be brought out – that’s where participatory communication helps. But let’s not romanticise matters too much – some communities need external guidance, and most can benefit from external facilitation in their quest for resilience.

In a chapter called ‘Bridging the Long Last Mile’, I have described the experience of a community-based disaster preparedness and early warning dissemination effort undertaken by Sarvodaya, LIRNEasia and other partners in Sri Lanka. The project studied which ICTs and community mobilisation methods could work effectively in disseminating information on hazards faced by selected coastal communities all of which were battered by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.


Sri Lanka – Last Mile Hazard Info project planning meeting: Photo courtesy Sarvodaya

I would refer you to the chapter for details, but the key lessons may be summed up as follows:
• Trusted technology: Use ICTs that are reliable in performance, accessible at the local levels and trusted by the people.
• Complementary redundancy: Always have at least two different ICTs delivering information, to minimise transmission failures.
• Credible information: Tap only the most authentic sources of information at national and international level, reducing room for misinformation and rumour.
• Right mix: Achieve the appropriate combination of technology, training and institutional arrangements at the grassroots.
• Be prepared: Raise localised awareness and provide experiential training so community know what to do when crisis occurs.


One Response to “Governments, disasters and communication: Lead, follow or get out of the way!”

  1. Ayesha Says:

    Governments are the biggest disaster! Who can save us from this mega-disaster?

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