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Principles for an Equitable and Effective Crisis Response
When disaster strikes, people want to help. However, when it comes to helping communities in crisis, something is not necessarily better than nothing. If responses to disaster are not grounded in accountable relationships with the communities experiencing crisis, such well-intentioned efforts tend to waste resources and can even deepen the trauma experienced by survivors.
A network of people with experience in community-based disaster response — including organizers from Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria, to South Florida by Hurricane Irma, to Houston by Hurricane Harvey, to New York City and the surrounding metro area by Superstorm Sandy, and to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina — convened to discuss our experiences with these challenges in Newark, in July 2018, at Public Lab’s Barnraising event. This dialogue continued through the March 2019 Barnraising in Houston, expanding to include perspectives from survivors of crises ranging from California wildfires and other places increasingly affected by everyday floods caused by climate change and sea level rise.
Through this process, we’ve articulated a set of principles that reflect lessons we have learned, and guide our thinking and action. We offer these principles in hopes that they may support individuals and organizations that form networks to help a community during and after a disaster — as they find their own course through assessment, training, deliberation, action-planning, partnership development, and evaluation.
We offer these principles as an addendum to Movement Generation’s principles for a Just Recovery, which we enthusiastically affirm for the purpose of transformative, long-term recovery efforts.
Ask — and listen.
We support those who most directly experience the impacts of crisis, and we act in response to their expressed needs.
The most effective solutions are likely to emerge from those who are closest to a problem and most impacted. However, the people who are closest to a crisis often have less capacity in the immediate aftermath to act in support of anything other than their own survival. In situations of massive crisis, it can be useful for those who aren’t as directly affected to help provide relief. And yet, it can be harmful for outsiders to prescribe solutions without survivors’ input — and consent.
As described by the Ring Theory’s Principle of Support, we seek out and prioritize support to those who have been most impacted by the crisis — we ask for their input and we solicit their consent — and we seek support from those who are less impacted. We respect survivors’ right to refuse offers of well-intentioned help. Those impacted by acute and long term crisis have and are experiencing trauma — and the act of response itself can be traumatizing. We also understand that mental health must be supported alongside efforts to address material needs.
We promote strategies that effectively distribute information, resources, and decision-making ability, so that people can most effectively adapt to their local circumstances.
Centralized strategies often fail during mass, complex crises, because information does not flow effectively and decisions can’t be made in accordance with the needs and timescales at hand.
Distributed organizing strategies allow participants to be nimble in addressing the urgent and changing needs they encounter — by using their skills, infrastructure (such as social media networks) and relationships to spread important information about needs and resources, and using their local knowledge to inform appropriate decisions. In addition to sharing power with each other by organizing horizontally, we also seek to share decision-making power with impacted individuals when at all possible.
We work with institutions, to the extent that such work is in service of our goals of equity and justice.
During disasters, formal institutions will mobilize to provide resources and assistance — and we develop strategic relationships with such institutions, yet we do so intentionally. Institutional power can enable equitable resource allocation and other important interventions that would be difficult to accomplish entirely through distributed networks of community-based responders.
Sometimes, however, institutional powers might act to protect wealth over people, and to divert attention from harmful circumstances. We strive to hold such power accountable to the needs of those whom it purports to serve.
Seek Appropriate Solutions
We understand that problem solving is an ongoing process requiring varied skills — and while we identify common patterns, every situation is unique.
We can learn important lessons from history — yet we know that each situation, interaction and relationship is unique. We approach this work with humility, and create opportunities for honest reflection and self-education. We account for our mistakes, and we learn from them. We respect labor that is often invisible — such as coordinating social media, email inboxes and more. We respect remote work and utilize remote skills, so we do not burn out.
We don’t put ourselves in positions for which we are not prepared. We always aspire to “close the loop” — by following up on a request — even if the loop closes with “we can’t help you now,” along with a suggestion of where else someone might look for help.
Use Appropriate Technology
We prefer tools that are simple, accessible, freely usable, and well-documented.
Technology can greatly facilitate, accelerate, and increase the scale of our efforts — and it can also hinder, exclude, and harm those efforts. The tools that we use matter, and so does the way that we use them.
Those who control the tools can control the work, so we prefer tools that are simple, safe, validated, interoperable, and non-proprietary (though we also recognize that sometimes these qualities are in tension with each other).
We share as much information as possible about operational matters, while also ensuring that we protect personal information (or, whenever possible, don’t collect it or share it at all).