Relationships Matter: Social Capital

A bit over a year ago, I was pointed in the direction of a NPR Broadcast (National Public Radio, America’s great public broadcaster, which I discovered in a hotel room in Washington, waiting to be sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina .. a whole another story) which talked about the key to disaster survival being your neighbours. This piece struck chord with me, as we had shaped one step of our household preparedness program, Emergency Rediplan, as Know your neighbours, because anecdotally we had heard, we knew from experience that you are more likely to be helped or even saved by your neighbours than a big red fire truck.

On delving a bit further, the interviewee was Associate Professor Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist who lost his house and job during Hurricane Katrina, and had time to observe what was happening in New Orleans. He was perplexed when neighbourhoods that were pretty poor seemed to be rebounding, without a lot of assistance, and other neighbourhoods were struggling. The community was strongly centred on the Mary Queen of Vietnam church, was well connected to each other. He came to the conclusion that strong social capital, that is the ties that bind us, had a role to play. Here trust, networks, the notion of reciprocity, ie I’ll scratch your back but don’t expect you to immediately scratch my back in return, but someday, when I might need it. HE has now researched other disasters and published both articles and a book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post Disaster Recovery.

The notion that your neighbours will be the ones to come to your assistance is somewhat counter intuitive, and challenging to our current emergency management paradigm. Our services are built on the idea that you call someone, and they will come to rescue you, in big red trucks. This is, of course changing with the messaging from the rural fires services around the country of you need to be prepared because you may not get a fire truck. But this is what we expect, and for some time, a lot of our messages have feed those expectations. I see signs around that say CFA and SES volunteers protect this town. That’s pretty absolute. And when it doesn’t happen, they are unable to because of the sheer scale of the disaster,  where does that leave people? With a breach of trust.

AS mentioned above, this idea of neighbours being important has stuck with me for some time (it’s why the fourth step of our household preparedness program is called Know Your Neighbours). It’s a bit of an X factor, but the simple street BBQ, or community event, where people get to know each other, and their strengths and weaknesses will do more for disaster resilience, than booklets and campaigns. IT will also make places better to live in. Somehow we need to bridge that gap, between education and activities.

Red Cross will be releasing a report at the end of the month of a roundtable we held in Melbourne in September last year on the application of social capital to disaster resilience.

So why a song from the National. Well, they are kinda my favourite band at the moment, and I like this film clip, it kinda has a feeling of social capital in action.

7 thoughts on “Relationships Matter: Social Capital

  1. Although this has been pushed to be a good strategy for disaster resilience, Aldrich himself addresses also the Janus-faced nature of social capital, which can cause elitist clusters. He made the example of Hurricane Katrina. After the disaster richer people acknowledged at first the need to have tents for people who had lost their homes. However, at some point they asked for tents to be removed from their area.
    So, while we are all working to connect the community to best prepare them for upcoming disasters, I think that we shouldn’t forget these side effects, while we are planning.
    During my focus groups members of the wide community in South Australia and Sweden have also addressed this issue.

    Congrats on your new blog and greetings from Italy!


  2. antonella, you raise a good point, which as you say Aldrich addresses as well. I neglected to mention this in my post, as it is one of the things that concern me. In the same way the popular culture conception of disasters is that everyone pulls together and enemies suddenly become friends etc. This may or may not happen, if it does, it is very early on, and as Rob Gordon says this fusion of people will only cause greater tension in the long run.

    THanks for pointing this out. Like every theory, it has it’s flaws and pitfalls. It just feels like a way to describe some of the x factors that are not well recognised in the community element of disaster management. Greetings back to you in italy. How long are you there for?


    1. Thanks John. I enjoy the possibility of interacting with you and possibly with further people through this blog. I totally agree with what you say. I’m currently at Dubai airport on my way back home! I was in Sweden for a month to study an innovative way of integrating emergency management organisations.


  3. John, your post has reminded me of a book called ‘A paradise built in hell – the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster’ by Rebecca Solnit. Have you read it? She’s an american sociologist and historian who writes a lot about ‘place’ and environment. It starts out in 1906 with the San Fran earthquake and fires and finishes (I think) in New Orleans with Katrina.

    It’s a great ‘lesser told’ story about what communities can do following disaster and perhaps an excellent illustration of some of Rob Gordon’s lessons on those important early post disaster stages. On the flip side, it is unashamedly an optimistic account about community and we all know there is much more depth to any disaster story. It also gets pretty political on the New Orleans front which was still pretty raw at the time.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed it


  4. Deb, I have the book in my bookshelf, along with the other 150 unread books! One day I will get to it. A colleague of mine in Christchurch recommended it to me (in fact I bought it in the bookshop in the ReStart mall),. She did say that she felt it mainly focussed upon that honeymoon period, and didn’t treat the longer term impacts


  5. I have a love/hate relationship with my pile of unread books. If you are the sort of person who can delve in and out of parts of a book, just read the chapter or two on the San Fran earthquakes in 1906 as this is the section that I remember most vividly around community response and how those communities overcame an aggressive police and army response. Lovely research of archives and news clippings of the day too.


  6. sounds like a plan, I was reading about the San Fran EQ the other day. It is interesting, as it it was probably equally as destructive as Katrina, and more lives were lost, but Katrina is often described as the worst in the history of the US (in the same way that Black Saturday is described as the worst in Australian history. But we seem to have forgotten about it


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