What’s the price of community resilience?
6 May 2021 at 8:48 am
A new set of priorities is emerging for governments around the need to build resilient communities, but focusing on the physical infrastructure is only a small part of the community resilience story, writes David Crosbie, reflecting on the upcoming federal budget.
It’s less than a week to go until the government releases its most important set of policy statements and priority commitments for the next 12 months, the federal budget.
The pre-budget speculation and carefully messaged leaks continue, but as always it is the politics of the budget that frames much of what the government will say and do.
This will almost certainly be the last budget before the next federal election. For this reason alone, the government is unlikely to undertake major reform, cut programs or reduce services. At this stage of the political cycle the goal is to avoid creating losers while offering a broad range of deserving people and businesses something positive, a concession, an incentive, a rebate.
What I find most interesting in federal budgets is the ever-changing shifts over time in the way new spending is announced, the way new priorities are presented as informing a certain perspective on what is a desirable future for Australia.
Within that context, it seems to me that a new set of priorities is emerging for governments beyond the usual jobs and economic growth mantra; the capacity of communities to deal with natural disasters and pandemics. Given the projected impact of climate change across Australia, this issue of community resilience is likely to be especially important for charities over the coming years. Governments are going to be allocating more and more to addressing this area.
The government has already announced (or part re-announced) a substantial commitment to support community resilience:
“The Morrison government will use next week’s budget to establish a national recovery and resilience agency and create a new climate service to help manage the risk of natural disasters. The government will allocate $600m to the agency to fund resilience projects such as bushfire and cyclone-proofing houses, building levees for flood control, and improving the resilience of telecommunications and essential supplies.”
I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue of community resilience with Major General Andrew Hocking from the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, including asking him about how their agency might be supporting greater community resilience.
I suggested that the research about resilience and recovery from natural disasters is pretty clear. One of the critical aspects of both coping and rebuilding during difficult times is the degree to which people feel they have value, that they belong, that they are connected.
We also know that it is not always the more readily identifiable groups that foster this sense of community. In one community what is catalytic to community support can be a sporting club, performing arts group, pre-school parents, church congregation, Landcare group, knitting circle, walking group, the local market store holders, a Lions Club, or just the regulars at any particular community activity. The beauty of community building is in the diversity. The challenge is that most people outside of the community do not experience it, cannot know what matters or how it works to link individuals, families and communities together.
Major General Hocking not only agreed, but suggested that as an agency they were now looking at the whole issue of community resilience, not just in terms of physical infrastructure – roads, bridges, water supplies, petrol and power can all be mapped and accounted for – but also social infrastructure. Their observation is that social infrastructure is a critical component of resilience. They were already looking at pilot studies to identify, support and map the organisations and activities that enhance social resilience within a number of communities.
This makes sense to all of us who have worked with communities, but this understanding is not always front and centre in a crisis. We tend to focus on physical infrastructure and economic activity, both of which are clearly fundamental to recovery from a crisis. But it is social infrastructure that not only rebuilds communities, it rebuilds individual, family and community capacity to attend to all the other challenges.
When Save the Children set up special childcare centres in four bushfire affected areas early this year, all with access to specialist child trauma support if needed, they enabled parents and carers to do what they needed to do, knowing their children were being properly cared for and looked after. They also inadvertently provided another important benefit – the chance for parents to interact with other parents in similar situations dropping off and picking up their children. Some parents were able to receive help filling in forms or share information about where to get support or even offer to visit and check on people in need. Every parent knows how important this would be – but what price do we put on this support? Where does childcare sit in the priorities of recovery agencies and governments?
In terms of individual mental health, the research is irrefutable (as if it needed confirming); discussing problems with people in similar circumstances reduces stress. A problem shared is a problem that becomes more manageable.
Charities are fundamentally about bringing people together to support each other, play together, work together, be together, belong, be valued. Important as these things are in our day-to-day life, in any crisis they become critical.
In most of our lifetimes, we have never seen the challenges we have experienced in 2020. At the same time, never have so many charities stepped forward, often well beyond their usual activities.
Some might seek to count the collective cost of such activities, to put a dollar price on the economic benefits, but it would at best be a particularly challenging and imprecise exercise. The bottom line is that the work of many charities, big and small, has been invaluable to communities in crisis.
The government has already revealed that the need to build resilient communities is being factored into next week’s federal budget. While their pre-budget announcement this week described resilience in terms of physical infrastructure, that tells only a small part of the community resilience story.
Charities are not always active in promoting the value of their work and their broader impact. There is a tendency to talk in terms of programs and services, descriptors of activities.
Highlighting how the work of charities contributes to building and sustaining individuals, families, communities, and our environment has never been more important.
Climate change will impact many communities across Australia, ensuring community resilience becomes a key area of government focus and increasing federal budget expenditure well into the future.
Already, this future is now.