World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 4

The myth of community?

Many organizations that deal with disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) have developed a culture built on faith rather than evidence. This chapter focuses on an often misplaced belief in ‘community’ and the ‘participation’ that goes with it.

Most NGOs, the Red Cross Red Crescent, and many international organizations use ‘community’ widely and it is often preferred to ‘people’ or ‘location’. The word has acquired mythic value, but involves assumptions about benign behaviour and collaboration that may not be valid.

‘Community’ is often used uncritically (as are resilience, sustainable, marginalized) because it is embedded in the institutional culture, intended to convey two things that legitimize the organization and its work. The first is that it is being done with real local people and is not ‘top down’. The second is that there is a cohesive entity that will be an asset to the DRR and CCA process, once it can be mobilized through participatory activities.

Most organizations that engage in DRR and CCA have considerable knowledge of the power relations that affect the ‘community’. However, these often appear to be overlooked but are almost always present on grounds of gender, class, ethnicity, caste, culture and religion.

As most donors support local-level work with the most vulnerable and poorest people, ‘community’ has become the badge of honour that enables the organizations which receive funds to claim they are doing the right thing.

Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCA) are intended to both collect information and engage local people, but what is often missing is any questioning of why people are poor and vulnerable in the first place. There is a contradiction when a ‘community-based’ DRR and CCA project is trying to make part of the solution the powerful individuals and institutions who are actually part of the problem. In most projects the powerful are approached either to give ‘permission’ for a project or become participants.

Over the past 40 years or so, there has been a major shift in much development work from ‘top-down’ policies towards a much greater focus on ‘grass-roots’ and participatory activities. A parallel change took place in the Red Cross Red Crescent, as shown in the adoption of local activities that use the VCA approach and support community-based activities (CBA).

The definition of ‘community’ that organizations end up with is that it is merely ‘where we work’, but there is evidence that community-based action can be effective in DRR.

Critical thinking is often missing from DRR and CCA practice, and there is little awareness of the intense debate that has been going on for decades. What ‘community’ or ‘community-based’ actually means in the context of internal divisions of class, gender and ethnicity is rarely discussed.

It is important to explore what problems exist with the concept of ‘community’ and reflect critically on what it means. It may be harmful to DRR and CCA efforts because much about the concept of community is myth.

There are three major challenges. The first involves criticisms of the idea that communities are a uniform, homogenous entity lacking internal conflicts and divisions. The second concerns power systems at the local level and focuses on the idea of ‘elite capture’. The third argues that because of internal divisions and power relations, participation is almost always likely to be distorted in favour of some people or groups.

World Disasters Report 2004 pointed out that groups that are more homogenous in terms of class, ethnicity, livelihood or wealth are more likely to cooperate in building resilience than communities divided by those attributes. But such uniformity is rare in most of the world, where conflict, friction, intra-community exploitation and sub-groups are the norm.

The major internal divisions found within supposed communities are related to the power systems that organize people by gender, class, caste, slavery or forced labour, ethnicity, sexuality and age group.

Gender inequalities are shown to relate to DRR and CCA in several ways:

  • Females are more vulnerable to hazards and recover with greater difficulty.
  • Women generally have much less control over DRR and CCA activities.
  • Violence and abuse against women and girls increase after a disaster.
  • Women give preference to everyday needs, security and water supply.
  • Women are better at organizing collaborative DRR and providing leadership.
  • The focus on response rather than DRR fails to address poverty and disaster, positioning women as victims rather than agents of change.

It is extremely difficult to discuss violence within households, although it is common in much of the world, with one third of females over 15 estimated to have been assaulted by their partner, according to the WHO; and it is optimistic of DRR and CCA organizations to believe they can reduce gender inequalities through inclusion of women in participatory activities.

Huge numbers of landless people have almost no control at all over their prospects to deal with disaster risk or adapt to climate change, yet there is an almost complete gap in research and practice on what DRR or CCA means for them.

‘Elite capture’ means that wealthier, more educated and higher social status people tend to be over-represented in participatory projects.

‘Induced participation’ arises when it is ‘induced’ from outside; this is rarely successful but is a compulsory part of the self-justification of the implementing agency’s and donor’s conditions.

Working with the community

When an organization wants to designate a locality as the place where they will carry out community-based work, it is almost inevitable that they will need the approval of local officials and ‘leaders’. A danger exists that ordinary people will perceive the process as being not for them, or linked to local power systems.

Where vulnerability is a consequence of power in the ‘community’, it must be questioned how long the achievements can be maintained and whether anything fundamental has been achieved to reduce the underlying causes of vulnerability.


The ability of people to engage in local DRR and CCA is almost always affected by power relations that are significant at the ‘community’ scale; any attempt to engage in community-based DRR or CCA is forced to take place within that context. Organizations must distinguish between economic and social groups and how power influences risk reduction and adaptation.

The assumption must be that most people are poor and vulnerable mainly because of power relations that affect their assets and income. It is essential that those attempting to reduce vulnerability and poverty understand that local power is likely to defend its position, if DRR and CBA activities are to have a significant impact.