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Cultures of Resilience: Citizenship-focused approach to confronting "natural" disasters

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Why do some communities mobilise and respond to a crisis while others collapse? This question of resilience is increasingly important in the face of complex global challenges today. Building on his research findings, James Arvanitakis discusses the question, confirming that resilience is both specific to culture and context.

Images of "natural" disasters are common across all forms of media. These images flow from both high- and low-income nations, from the global north and south. From drought in Australia to floods in Bangladesh, nations are confronted with increasingly urgent challenges driven by diverse forces such as climate change,2 poor urban planning3 and high population concentrations.

The images are powerful ones and are often presented in such a way as to produce potent emotions, particularly if there is an attempt to fundraise for the affected communities.4 While increased funding is always welcome to assist impacted communities, images that portray the local population as lacking any agency or sense of power can be highly misleading.

In a 2012 study, international aid agency Oxfam International highlighted how negative portrayals of Africans as vulnerable, war-torn, and failing to manage their own affairs continue to create obstacles to African development.5 Oxfam’s findings captured the concerns of Binyavanga Wainaina in his 2005 essay “How To Write About Africa,” a cutting satire of wealthy world media representations of this massive and complex continent as apparently inept, corrupt and even as a single homogenous country.6 This feeds into what has been described as the “White Saviour Industrial Complex”—an update on the “white man’s burden” found at the core of colonial projects.7

The truth, however, as reported by Aldrich8 and Green9 among others, is that communities affected by disasters are frequently the best placed to respond. Again, this is not to deny that outside assistance is not important or that many communities are not vulnerable. But the reproduction of “hopeless third world” imagery perpetuates centuries of colonialism wrapped in the “white man’s burden.” The message is that the inability of the indigenous population to manage themselves requires intervention by external western forces.

This paper brings together the findings of two projects, one on citizenship and the other looking at community responses to climate change-driven disaster. Citizenship and community resilience are central to each project. The findings are neither surprising nor unexpected: strong communities with citizens that experience a sense of agency and social capital establish “cultures of resilience” that respond quickly and competently when confronted with disaster. Such communities also have strong links between local populations and governance systems, a sense of accountability, and a thick, two-way flow of information between expert knowledge systems and localised knowledge. Yet despite some exceptional research, discussed in greater detail below, this area is often under-investigated in resilience literature.

Much has been written about resilience—specifically in terms of climate change. Over the last decade, various Australian government agencies at local, state and federal levels have presented strategies on resilience.10 These strategies tend to focus on specific aspects of resilience: communications, processes and policies, and engineering strategies of resilience. Such literature provides important insights into how to prepare for and deal with natural disasters.

In contrast, the focus here is on “cultures of resilience,” and to this end, the following question is asked: Why do some communities mobilise and respond to a crisis, and why do others collapse? Building on the work of Wilson and others, I am specifically investigating cultural practices and social capital that allow communities to be prepared for a crisis and respond appropriately.11 This question of resilience is increasingly important in our contemporary world as climate change, rural and urban migration patterns, pollution, competing demands for land and water, globalisation and integration of economies create complex challenges for communities across the world. Importantly, I am not seeking “magic ingredients,” but rather to build on our findings, which confirm that resilience is both cultural and context-specific.

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Professor James Arvanitakis is Head of The Academy at the University of Western Sydney where he is also a lecturer in the Humanities and a member of the university’s Institute for Culture and Society. James has spearheaded the establishment of The Academy and its principles of future proofing education, inter-disciplinarity and ethical leadership. His research areas include citizenship, resilience, piracy and the future of universities.