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8. Community-Based Self-Help Approaches and Other Civil Society Initiatives

In collaboration with central and local governments, one of the first things that international project and programme assistance as well as international and local NGOs tend to do as a response to natural disaster is to initiate Food-For-Work (FFW) programmes. These seek to provide people in affected villages with interim food security and to facilitate the rehabilitation or construction of community assets such as water sources, irrigation facilities (canals and earthen check-dams), roads, and other civic infrastructure, economic and social (schools, health centres, etc.).

Community based self-help approaches to DRM are rare where there is widespread poverty, which makes such not immediately tangible investments almost a luxury, and rarely a priority. Investments in disaster mitigation and preparedness in particular tend to be less than optimal due to the public good nature of safety and the differences in levels of risks and risk perception among community members (Charveriat 2000). Whilst the latter is correlated, beyond basic human safety and security, with asset ownership, even where it would be desirable that line agencies support the coping strategies of the rural poor, the absence and fluidity of household typologies for DRM planning entails the risk of the government providing ‘club goods’[9]. Drought response programmes, for example, should not distribute feed indiscriminately but target core breeding animals that can be circulated as part of customary solidarity schemes on a community-wide basis. Whereas some more in-depth information is available since the 1990s in particular on the household strategies adopted to face chronic or seasonal poverty, much less research has been done regarding hazard risk exposure and the endogenous responses thereto.

In North-West China, informal herder groups counteract risk and manage disaster situations by jointly preparing emergency plans and organising pasture movements should an emergency situation such as a snow storm occur (Yongong et al. 1999). “According to the herders, village leaders and production team leaders are the most active persons in dealing with the risk management (...). They even fulfil extension tasks, since there are no township and village extension line agencies (...). (...) In those townships which have no concentrated village settlement pattern, there is another non governmental informal organization locally called “zhangquan” situated between the production team and households. A “zhangquan” normally composes about 4-5 herder's households on average. In general, they are comprised of families or of neighboring families settled in the same area. Generally, these individuals collaborate as unofficially formed herders groups. Such groups jointly organize the grazing, they exchange their labor force, share information, protect animals from theft, address risk avoidance, organize meetings and make decisions together” (Yongong et al. 1999: 11).

Yongong et al. (1999) further find that during a disaster situation, the first action of herders is to contact the nearest households, which are normally the family relatives or herder group members for mutual assistance. The next step is to procure assistance from the community leaders, village leaders or production team leaders, who have contact with outside institutions. In cases of severe emergencies and damage, governmental relief actions from the upper levels have to be obtained through township governors, village leaders and production team leaders.

In the African Great Lakes Region, there exists a traditional local institution similar to the “zhangquan”, the “nyumbakumi” (originally a Kiswahili word, meaning literally “ten houses”). The household heads of the houses of ten families elect what may be referred to as a “focal point”, namely, someone to take up management responsibility over a broad range of issues affecting their everyday lives: first and foremost, the security concerns of humans, animals, and crops. The “nyumbakumi” are, in a way, the civil society equivalent to what at the lowest level of Rwanda’s local government system are called the Secretaries in charge of Security, who are members of what is referred to as the Cell Executive Committee. Given the region’s sad track record of social conflict and genocidal crime, these customary leaders have had much less to do with DRM than with the threat of armed groups attacking their constituencies. Depending on how the attitude governments take vis-à-vis these local institutions will evolve, however, their role holds much potential for the provision of support to community-driven DRM initiatives.

If we include ‘organising practices’ under the umbrella term of ‘customary local institutions’ in the agricultural sector, examples of elements in DRM become countless, having evolved from generation to generation as locality-specific responses to natural hazard risk.

To give but one illustration from what is perhaps the country worst affected anywhere in the world by flash floods, Bangladesh, there, traditional cropping patterns are normally closely adapted to seasonal flooding characteristics. Farmers have selected many rice varieties adapted to local micro-environments, considering flooding depth and duration as well as brackish water conditions. To take advantage of the fish spread over large areas of the flood plains during seasonal flooding, rural households also engage in casual fishing in artificial stock ponds next to their houses (Wood 1999). Floods have thus become part and parcel of rural livelihood strategies, and new ways continue to be found for better coping with their impact on food security and human welfare. The investigation of rural livelihood strategies through the Sustainable Livelihoods ‘lens’ can provide an important means of learning more about how to strengthen household resilience to cope with shocks.

A recent review of IFRC (2003) finds that: “..., the main weakness of community-based initiatives is their limited outreach. Scaling up to achieve greater impact needs the participation of government. Yet the state and its apparatus are often seen as part of the problem”.

[9] Cornes and Sandler (1986) define a ‘club good’ as a good whose benefits are excludable but partially nonrival. Efficiency conditions can be established for charging a toll for such a good, hence the term ‘toll’ good is sometimes used. Smith (1997) finds that: “Viewed from a national government level the provision, subsidisation, or supervision of cattle dips to control tick-borne diseases may appear justified because of the externalities to other cattle owners. However, within a local community it may only be the wealthy households that own cattle and, they may also control local government. The remainder of the community may resent financing such activities from public funds, especially when these are raised from local taxation. Cattle dips thus assume more of the characteristics of a club good when viewed from the local perspective. In these circumstances one might expect cattle owners to pay for their use although the local government may play some role in organising or monitoring the facility” (p5).

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