Strengthening civil society-State collaboration key to risk reduction

Tonderayi Matonho is a journalist exploring disability inclusivity, participation, integration and management debate across communities.

DISASTER recovery and risk reduction are most effective when the State provides an improved enabling environment supporting community action.

Heavy rains recently hit Zimbabwe, leaving a trail of destruction across the country, with more than 1 529 families affected countrywide, while 98 schools and 11 clinics were damaged.

More so, several cyclonic storms have hit Zimbabwe in recent years with Cyclone Idai leaving a trail of destruction after killing an estimated 600 people in Chipinge and Chimanimani districts in Manicaland province.

The cyclone also affected Masvingo and Mashonaland East provinces with Tsholotsho heavily affected in Matabeleland North.

Additionally, on the social front, COVID-19 (2020-2021) left a fair share of its disasters in its wake. Arguably, in an effort to address the pandemics, there were few perceptible and sustainable initiatives undertaken by civil society organisations (CSOs) to fill the gaps left by government programmes that did not reach beneficiaries who lost their lives, homes and livelihoods.

In this opinion piece, the focus is on improving the critical role of shared strategies between CSOs and the state in Zimbabwe’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts. The article highlights the need for an enabling environment whereby the State effectively supports community action and provides adequate resources for effective recovery and risk reduction.

It emphasises the importance of community-based initiatives and the capacity-building of local communities to demand social change from the State. The piece also explores the challenges faced by CSOs and the government in working together and the impact on scaling up recovery efforts.

Additionally, it calls for more transparency and information sharing, as clearly stated in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), to enhance resilience-building efforts in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the SFDRR and has made efforts to align its policies and strategies to the framework by developing the National Disaster Risk Management Policy and the National Disaster Risk Management Plan, which provide a framework for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and response activities.

The country has the Civil Protection Unit, under the ministry of Local Government, which is responsible for co-ordinating DRR.

However, it is critical to note that the effective domestication and implementation of the SFDRR require sustained commitment, resources, and coordination among relevant stakeholders, particularly the State and CSOs.

It is quite clear that the community-based initiatives spear-headed mostly by the United Nations-affiliated organisations and their local partners, working in the affected districts, did not build up adequate capacity of the local communities to demand social change from the State.

In Zimbabwe, for example, several community-based recovery initiatives have been undertaken by CSOs to support disaster-affected communities.

Shelter and housing initiatives

Under these projects, CSOs have worked to provide temporary shelters and support the construction or repair of houses for those who lost their homes in disasters. These initiatives focused on ensuring safe and adequate housing for affected communities.

Livelihood support programmes

CSOs have implemented programmes to support the restoration and enhancement of livelihoods for disaster-affected populations. This included providing training, resources, and support for income-generating activities such as farming, small businesses, and vocational skills development.

Health and sanitation projects

CSOs have played a crucial role in improving health and sanitation conditions in disaster-affected areas. They have provided medical assistance, hygiene kits, clean water supply, and sanitation facilities to prevent the spread of diseases and promote public health.

Community-based early warning systems

CSOs have worked with local communities to establish early warning systems that help alert residents about impending disasters. These initiatives involved training community members on disaster preparedness, risk awareness, and effective communication channels to ensure timely evacuation and response.

Psychosocial support and trauma healing

CSOs have focused on addressing the psychological and emotional needs of disaster-affected individuals. They have organised counselling services, support groups, and trauma healing programmes to help people cope with the aftermath of disasters and rebuild their lives.

These examples illustrate how CSOs in Zimbabwe have demonstrated resilience and creativity in implementing various community-based recovery initiatives tailored to the specific needs and contexts of the affected communities.

However, there has been a glaring absence of sustained, effective coordination and harmonisation of strategies with those of the state, especially for remote and vulnerable communities.

The government’s approach to recovery and reconstruction has always been focused on large-scale infrastructure projects, principally in urbanized communities and largely unsustainable and fragile settlements.

Yet there is need also for social programmes that support people’s livelihoods, supportive of inhabitants who live in informal settlements, especially the former commercial farms, without clear legal tenure.

DRR experts have drawn attention to the fact that the disasters created space for CSOs’ initiatives in development and whether or not CSOs’ space at the table was sustained over the long term.

This seemingly scholarly advice is still relevant and critical to this day and beyond, especially in view of the looming Cyclone Alvaro and the risk of landslides warned by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network from the current on-going rains.

Experts further observe that there have been many changes and fluctuations in local politics and the economy at the macro level, including legal reforms to meet global accession demands, both in terms of human rights and government procedures; the exacerbation of the current economic crisis with unsteady and sustained economic growth paths.

With this analogy, it is key to draw out what challenges government and CSOs face in working together and how this has affected the scaling up of recovery efforts.

The piece further argues that, while there are seeds of CSOs’ activities related to resilience that have been sustained since the disasters, the scaling up of collective processes at grassroots level into something that could meaningfully contribute to building resilience within local communities, has been stifled by a lack of local government support.

DRR experts point out that how the government and CSOs respond to disasters provides intuitions into the political nature of their associations.

A disaster event brings out an opportunity to change the structure of society-government relations and, in some instances, these new relations can bring about more effective forms of community governance.

Paraphrasing Fred C Cuny, a disaster and development expert: “A disaster traumatically brings into focus all the basic problems in a society. It reduces all issues to their fundamental level and strips away the ancillary issues that obscure or confuse the fundamental questions that can be faced.

“For the society, disasters often bring changes in the structure of community leadership. New organisations may be born out of the necessity to deal with the disaster and remain to continue work of bringing economic change to the community.

“New leaders often emerge to replace those who have proved ineffective or unable to cope with the aftermath of a disaster.”

Frankly speaking, disaster recovery and risk reduction are most effective where the state and CSOs coordinate support and complements community action through devolution of power and resources to the local level.

Yet, in order for this to happen, CSOs require an enabling environment from the state that is strong enough to support communities’ visions and involvement in resilience building.

In addition, a wider engagement of CSOs with the political and institutional structures of the city and rural set ups, opens up critically important political space for community level groups to make changes.

CSOs’ space to confront the state, checking state power where it is necessary to ensure that the needs of all inhabitants are met, also needs to be broadened.

Critical social analysts observe that understanding the traditional power relationships and how they are being challenged and permanently altered through CSOs’ action is paramount to understanding how CSOs are contributing to building resilience.

Power reveals itself in diverse, apparent and ambiguous ways. In order to think about aspects related to power, critical questions can be posed.

Are CSOs’ participation really opening up spaces where a diversity of CSOs are influencing shaping recovery and risk reduction efforts? Are these contributions simply re-legitimising the status quo or are they really contributing to transforming patterns of exclusion and social injustice and to challenging power relationships?

  • Tonderayi Matonho is a journalist exploring disability inclusivity, participation, integration and management debate across communities.

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