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Christchurch and Victoria – shared experiences of emergencies by the community sector

Both the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) and the Social Equity and Wellbeing Network (SEWN) – formerly the Christchurch Council of Social Services – share concern for the needs of people who are vulnerable or face disadvantage in emergencies and disasters. They also both work to promote the unique contribution that the community sector makes before, during and after emergency events.

The recognition of this common interest in emergency responses in Victoria and the Canterbury region of New Zealand where the earthquakes hit  has led to a working relationship between VCOSS and SEWN, and VCOSS was pleased to have Sharon Torstonson, Executive Officer of SEWN, speak at the 2015 VCOSS-MAV Emergency Management Forum in June this year.  Sharon discussed the community sector’s contribution to response, relief and recovery following the 2010-11 Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes, demonstrating its commitment to continue providing services for people who are vulnerable or face disadvantage in the midst and aftermath of a major disaster.

The Social Equity and Wellbeing Network has recently released a report, Not Just High-Vis and Hard Hats, the non-profit sector in disaster risk reduction, readiness, response and recovery, that reflects on the presentations made at the VCOSS-MAV Forum, and that also explores the role of community organisations in supporting vulnerable people following an emergency.

The report points out that there is little formal non-profit sector involvement in civil defence planning in New Zealand, known as emergency planning in Australia. It states:

…beyond the involvement of one or two specific non-profit organisations, there appears to be little formal non-profit sector involvement in civil defence planning. Many of us see civil defence as all about hard hats, hi-vis vests and clipboards; and relating only to the immediate response to an emergency. Its relevance to all the immediate issues and challenges that many non-profit groups spend their days grappling with is perhaps lost. But the formal civil defence and emergency management approach is much more holistic than just immediate response, and instead looks at building a resilient community – a goal that all non-profits (would) support.

The situation is similar in Victoria. Despite the ongoing reform of Victoria’s emergency management arrangements, and the key role that community organisations play in assisting vulnerable people on a day to day basis, as well as during emergencies, there is little formal recognition of these organisations in emergency planning.

Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience stresses that disaster resilience is the collective responsibility of all sectors of society, including all levels of government, business, the non-government sector and individuals.  It states that non-government and community organisations are at the forefront of strengthening disaster resilience in Australia.[1]  The role of the community or not-for-profit sector must be clearly articulated if they are to be called upon to contribute to share responsibility.  Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience clearly identifies the need to broaden partnerships with all those who can effect change:

‘We need to develop and embed new ways of doing things that enhance existing arrangements across and within governments, as well as among businesses, the not-for-profit sector, and the community more broadly, to improve disaster resilience and prevent complacency setting in once the memory of a recent disaster has subsided.’[2]

To ensure improved emergency management processes and practices for people who are vulnerable or face disadvantage and the general community overall, VCOSS emphasises the critical value of collaborative approaches, including formal and informal partnerships.  A stronger focus on more collaborative approaches across the emergency management sector, including community sector organisations, will deliver improved emergency responses for affected communities.

In addressing social capital and social vulnerability the New Zealand report states:

The non-profit sector can potentially make a valuable and substantial contribution to this, as many non-profit groups and organisations in our communities are uniquely placed to contribute to emergency preparedness, response and recovery for vulnerable people. Whether a formal social or health service provider, or a community resource or initiative, these groups often have strong relationships with people who have specific needs or who are marginalised from society. They can engage with groups that larger agencies such as government departments may find difficult to reach. With their intimate knowledge of local communities they can mobilise local resources in support of these groups.

VCOSS and SEWN both urge their governments to fully recognise the pivotal role of local community sector organisations in both Victoria and New Zealand’s emergency management and civil defence arrangements in order to achieve improved collaboration, shared responsibility and effective emergency arrangements, particularly for people who face disadvantage.

Representatives from VCOSS and SEWN have been accepted to co-present on Community and social service organisations in emergencies and disasters in Australia and New Zealand at the People in Disasters Conference to be held in Christchurch in February 2016.

[1] Council of Australian Governments, National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, COAG Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra, 2011

[2] Ibid