It’s the economy, stupid

The Regional Australia Institute recently released a report on business recovery, From Disaster to Renewal. Those of you who have been reading my blog from the start may recognise that this is the report from the workshop I went to in Marysville back in May. So the report has two unintended positive consequences, that I returned to Marysville and wouldn’t gone otherwise, and that I started blogging. See, recovery is complex in the true meaning of the word, some consequences can’t be predicted.

The project and the report are worthy contributions to the disaster recovery literature. It takes four quite different case studies, Carisbrook, and Marysville in Victoria, and Emerald and Cardwell in Queensland. All affected by different events. A key theme of the report is the interconnectedness of economy and community, some might say chicken/egg, and that economic considerations, particularly business recovery needs to be given attention.

There are a few concerns though. I’m a bit surprised there wasn’t more focus on preparedness for business and Business Continuity Planning. The report is almost solely focussed on recovery issues, which if we are to be moving into a resilience framework, I would have thought that more consideration would have been given over to preparedness issues. There are challenges with engaging Small and Medium sized Enterprises in this area. I know from my time in government, the view of the “business” people of government on financial assistance was “they should have planned for this” which I often then thought was unnecessarily harsh. I thought it would be good to make this a central piece of the report. There are some useful resources out there on business preparedness and BCP.

A little bit concerning was the report’s assertion that economic recovery is treated as a stream of recovery separate to community recovery. This may happen in practice, in places, and there are reasons for that, but in policy sense we have moved towards integration.

When we first started working on the so called propeller model of recovery (social, built, economic, and natural), we had very much in mind the need for integration and coordination of the different areas. This was driven out of our experience in the Alpine Fires of 2003, where we in DHS said we were coordinating recovery, and the regional development people said they were, and the Parks Victoria people said they were, and the community said, can you guys please get your shit together and talk to each other. This is why we sat down to review the State Emergency Recovery Plan, and came up with a new approach. We put community at the centre, and in that we placed the community services agency as the coordination agency, as they have the best understanding of community. Fine in theory. However, for a coordination agency to be able to coordinate, they at least need to have a bit of an understanding of the different areas. It probably worked for us in DHS then, because in addition to my social and health background, I had a natural resources degree, had studied a unit of economics, and had a wife in the construction industry. But for many other departments around the country, they didn’t have this knowledge, and I know many of my colleagues at the time did not feel comfortable with a coordination role. Anyway, I digress, this is a long way of saying, we have thought about this for the past decade.

I think some of the challenges are that unfortunately our transfer of knowledge is not terrific. The Community Recovery Manual that EMA put out in 2011 (which I held up at the workshop) (and disclaimer here, I was on the writing team) does focus on economic recovery. In fact here is the opening para

“A vibrant local economy is a vital part of a sustainable community in the normal/routine environment, so in an emergency environment economic recovery is critical to the whole-of-community recovery process. This chapter describes some of the broad economic and financial impacts on communities after disaster. Strategies supporting economic recovery are offered in Chapter 18.”

I think failure to mention the manual, and it’s efforts to integrate the four elements of recovery weakens an otherwise excellent report. It would have been great to draw people’s attention to the manual, a great resource (OK, I’m biased) and help to people managing recovery.

I think part of the challenges, as I said at the workshop is that we know this stuff, it exists, it is written down, we need to transfer the knowledge. I would have liked to have seen recommendations that focus on education and knowledge transfer to people who will be managing recovery, who, by and large are community services people, and won’t have a great understanding of economic recovery. I know that when I teach at Mt Macedon and other places, I will focus upon this issue much more.

The report has some great sections, thing theory I like, the tendency of governments and well meaning philanthropists to focus on building “things” as a way of stimulating economies and demonstrating that progress is happening. This was very apparent to me when I was in Christchurch last year, just after the release of the master plan, and the controversy that met that.

The report also reinforces the impact of donated goods on local economies. It does make some comments about personal hardship grants and moral hazard, which I am less comfortable about (and I am winding up to write a post on grants at some stage).

On balance, though, it is still worth a read, and think about these issues when preparing for disaster and planning for recovery.  At 23 pages, it’s not too taxing. And it got me to drive up to Marysville on a sunny Autumn day.

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