So, said my lecturer in the first lecture of my one and only economics subject. Hang on, I thought Isn’t economics about numbers and all ordinaries and budgets. And economists don’t look like happy people to me. He went on to explain about supply and demand, make choices, trade-offs, and allocating resources for the best benefit and wellbeing. Or something like that. While I was only doing the economics unit because I had to, I took a bit of interest in it. I love the work of the New Economics Foundation in the UK, whose motto is economics as if people mattered, and Ross Gittins, the respected Age economics commentator, who generally has at the heart of his commentary, yes but what does this mean for the people.
One of the things I have been grappling with lately is about how we frame the outcomes of disaster resilience. More and more I am coming to the conclusion that we are framing the outcomes incorrectly. We speak a lot about “safer communities” and “saving lives”, which naturally are important. But a safer community is somewhat abstract and relative to who is looking at it. The abstract nature comes from, I think, that we live in extraordinary safety, and risk has been largely (not totally removed). We may, of course, not think that if you read the Herald Sun or believe rhetoric about terrorism. If I compare my life to my parents, and my grandparents, we live longer, we are less likely to die in an industrial accident (thanks to the union movement), less likely to die in childbirth (thanks to improvements in medicine), less likely to die in road accidents (thanks to engineers), less likely to die in childhood from preventable diseases (thanks to science), less likely to die in cinema fires (thanks to fire safety), less likely to die in a war, the list goes on.
There are also various appetites for risk. Some people are very risk adverse, others jump out of planes for fun or work. For a friend’s 50th recently, we all jumped on bikes and rode to the pub, no lights, no helmets, wrong side of the road (jeez, the rebelliousness of the middle age, middle class). It was fun, and a little bit naughty. All our efforts in disaster resilience are couched around making things safe. But people already perceive themselves to be safe. And within the developed worlds context they generally are.
So, there’s something more here. And the more I think about it, its quality of life, livelihoods, lifestyles, aspirations. Which is kinda where economics comes in, as it is focussed on people making choices, trade offs and wanting to lead fulfilling lives. Look at the overarching goal of any government (OK, maybe not the current US Government), they will have broad aims along the lines of “promoting the wellbeing of communities, people leading productive lives, people contributing etc”.
Two ideas have influenced my thinking. The first is Anne Leadbeater’s definition of recovery, which I have mentioned before, recovery is when you value the life that you lead. This has been profound for many of us in the sector, because it moves the idea from something technocratic, to something person centre, and revolves around value. The second one is the International Red Cross’ definition of resilience. It goes something like resilience is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, without compromising long term prospects. It was the last bit of this sentence that really grabbed me. This is about people getting on and having good lives.
When you start to think about the impacts on people, their longevity and their complexity, you start to see the trade-offs that people must make, just to get back to a point of functioning, let alone valuing the life you lead.
When we start to apply the thinking behind disaster risk reduction, that it is about protecting development gains or aspirations, then we can see how disaster management should be integrated into everyday community processes. Despite best efforts, disaster management is still seen somewhat as an “other”, a “black art” press the big red button, and people will miraculously appear and fix it, and then disappear again. One of my colleagues said recently in a meeting, yes disasters happen, but in our program we are dealing with everyday crises. I’ve also heard program staff say, disasters are the least of the homeless’ or asylum seekers worries. But as the research we did, this is at the forefront of people’s minds. When you have so little, you are acutely aware of what can take it all away from you and set you back. Integration of disaster risk reduction into long term program or societal goals is a must. Its protecting what we value. This approach moves it beyond a Maslow approach of meeting basic needs. It also means adopting the language of the oppressors. “prosperity” “value” “aspirations” etc. But maybe this will resonate with the policy makers who have the keys to the treasury, or shareholders investments. Then you can link it to life satisfaction measures, as I have previously written, and we have shifted the conversation to valuing and quality of life.
But of course happiness is really about being content with what you have, as my friend Keith, the Strathy Chook would say.