What’s in a name

A number of years ago, I had a person working with me on secondment who had a strong service policy background. She worked on reviewing the personal hardship grants for us (the financial assistance the State Government provides those people in need of support). She asked me what was the rationale for the grants. I mumbled something to the effect of, “er, to help out”.

We realised that the grants were not really based in any strong policy framework, and guidance on why we provided them. So she set about building that framework, and we linked the grants back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no less, because this is what they were about…basic need, food, water, shelter, emotional support. This made me then think about the bigger picture. How do we frame disaster management in a policy sense, what role do the people themselves play in disaster management, and why is it difficult to give a name (and hence role)  to those involved?

Over time, people involved in disasters have been varyingly called victims, emergency affected persons, survivors. Emergency affected persons seems like it is straight out of Don Watson’s Weasel Words. Most people I have worked with have said to me, don’t call me a victim. I am not a victim. Interestingly the root of the word victim is Latin and stands for sacrificial animal. I can hence see why, intuitively, people don’t want to be seen as or called victims.

Survivor is another interesting term. It certainly has a more positive feel to it (unless you, like me, cringe at the reality TV connotations). Yet it also feels awkward to me. Survivor to me denotes that you have had to have experienced something directly, and traumatically. The Macquarie definition associates survive with “remaining alive after the death or occurrence of some event” While I guess technically so, do we call the person who lives in suburban Melbourne, but whose family perished in the bushfires, a disaster survivor. I think the term tends to link back to our narrow Hollywood view of disasters, you had to be there and directly experienced it to be called a survivor. Yet we know that there are a whole range of impacts and effects.

Clients and consumers are used by agencies. I personally can’t stand the terms, because I feel it systematises people. Consumer I think is a particularly terrible word, as I relate the term to consumer society, which is vacuous, light, fluffy and poorly focussed. Not what I would associate with people needing to use social and health services. The problem is that about 80% of people who are involved in recovery from disasters aren’t used to being clients or consumers of social services. So they won’t see themselves as clients.

In the first iteration of a case management service for people affected by disaster, we steered away from calling them case managers. “Don’t call me a case” was the way it was described to me. You cannot front up to a drought affected farmer and introduce yourself as “Hi, I am your case manager”. Recovery Officers was what we called them, their intention was still to do the things that case managers do.

I have been attracted to the notion of citizens. The more I have thought about disasters over the years, the more I have realised that disaster management in Australia does not take a rights and responsibilities focus (unlike in the international realm, with the Sphere Standards, which are clearly rights based www.sphereproject.org ).We have only just cottoned onto the participatory element of recovery governance (despite Andrew COghlan, ROb Gordon and Ruth Wraith talking about it for the last 25 years), and even that notion is tenuous with tendency for governments to name serving or retired men and women in uniform to “run” recovery, whose day jobs have certainly not focussed upon particpation. None of our plans across the country, or even our national strategy for disaster resilience, talks about rights and responsibilities. They are all action plans, prepared by Men (largely) of Action, generally for services to do  things to people, in their best interests, and not based upon needs. Sure, when facing death and destruction, we do need to sign over some of the niceties. But the Men of Action get bewildered when people, rightly or wrongly,  don’t do as they are told (you should evacuate your town because the flood waters are coming), or they question their decisions (try Strathewen in Victoria). In other areas of our lives, we don’t tolerate this loss of control or intrusions into our decision making. But in disasters, for those that are running them, it seems to be OK. But it’s not OK, and I think is one of the reasons why people describe the recovery process as the secondary disaster, almost worse than the initial disaster.

There is some hope. Briony Towers from RMIT has done work on the rights of children and bushfire risk. The Shared Responsibility work that Blythe McLennan is doing at RMIT also goes to the heart of these questions.

So here am I starting to get a bit smug about happening on a way of describing people affected by disaster. Let’s call them citizens. That’s what they are. Then my colleague and friend Kate Brady and I were having this conversation yesterday, as this is forming part of her PhD, which is looking at what is important in recovery from a punter’s perspective. She uses the word punter as a working title, because it is difficult to describe succinctly who we mean. Kate deflated my smugness at having found the equivalent to the meaning of life, because as she pointed out, while citizens have rights and responsibilities, there are many people in our country who do not qualify as citizens, and with the current immigration debate, citizens, and citizenship is becoming quite loaded terms.  Citizens has its root in the notion of the city residents, but the focus in more recent years it s focus has been on nationality.  Residents is also a term that is often used, but this is linked to a geographically based disaster, and only those who are in the area. Again, how do we regard people who are directly affected by live outside the area?. What if it is the Bali Bombings? We then talked about civilians, but to me, this had an “other” feel to it, an “us and them”. Men and women in uniform, and others (which is the traditional emergency management club).

So we ended up where we started, not sure. Is this really important. Clearly not at the forefront of your mind when you are dishing out some food at an evacuation centre, or banging on people’s door to warn them of floods. Naming a people affected by a disaster, though, defines their role, are they going to be a passive victim, an participatory citizen, or a transactional consumer? As Harry Potter confronted his nemesis by speaking the name that no one else could, he had no fear.

FInally you would hope that the guiding framework, laws, and policies are more than a just technical user manual and there is some thought and reasoning behind them, and that the person is at the centre of it, rather than the subject of it.


Or Citizens?

Or Civilians?



8 thoughts on “What’s in a name

  1. How about using the term ‘people’? It’s inclusive, respectful, universal and recognizes that emergencies can impact on anyone. It can – although often doesn’t in the mindset of many in our field- include ‘young people, small people, and older people’. It encourages responders and recovery people to see the person and not the disaster as the defining start point. And perhaps if I’m really lucky, it will encourage big people to take into account the needs, wants and views of younger people.


    1. it’s a good point you make, michelle. i suppose i always felt “people” was passive tern, and i was lookjng for something more active try to capture the notion of participation. when you think rhar the us constitution starts with we the people, and there is that wonderful maori proverb He aha te mea nui o te ao?
      He tangata! He tangata! He tangata whats rhe most mportant thing in the world, the people, the people, the people, the people. perhaps it is as simple as that. just don’ t call them emergency affected persons!


      1. It’s a great conversation to have and inspired my thinking, thank you. I reflected on your blog in terms if a presentation I have about leadership in emergencies and attachment styles, I thought about paternalistic frameworks, ‘doing things to people’ rather than with them. And the need to categories for a whole range of reasons including management, psychological safety barriers between helpers and victims and statements like seeing the person before the disability. All these musings were triggered by the blog and I would have loved to have been part of the initial discussion. In a time where good, person centred em seems to be waivering in some fields. Thank you for starting a conversation.

        Sent from my iPhone


  2. People works for me. That’s the starting point and then connecting to the person in their context gives their own power.


    1. the connection is the key. But I find it interesting that “power givers” are generally surprised that the people might have an interest in their recovery processes. A report by Joe Reser that examined, in part, exposure to disasters, indicated that of the people that had been exposed to disasters (37%) about a third of these participated in community recovery activities. I suspect this is a lot higher than participated in every day community actvities. IT may not be, and others may know. So I guess people care, they aren’t passive recipients of services, they want to actively particpate!


  3. “People” is probably rights but I also like “citizens” because it implies that these people have rights. It’s semantic but I think it can be useful in certain situations to add a bit of meaning to it to convey a need.


    1. that was my feeling too, to try to elevate what we are dealing with beyond just a” line up for your help and be grateful for it” mentality that pervades some of our approaches to recovery


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