Community Participation in Disaster Management

What is Community Participation?

Popular or community participation can be broadly understood as the ‘active involvement of people in making decisions about the implementation of processes, programmes and projects which affect them. Community participation is being encouraged in many areas of development, including disaster management, but practical guidance remains relatively limited. In humanitarian circles, though, the relevance of participation is more questionable – at least in some contexts.

Approaches and Steps of Community Participation in Disaster Management

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Community participation, generally, refers to the involvement of people in projects to solve their own problems or to develop their socio-economic conditions. They participate in setting goals and preparing, implementing and evaluating plans and programs. Uphoff (1987 cited in Asaduzzaman, 2008:62) described participation as a process of involvement of a significant number of persons in situations and actions that enhance their wellbeing. 

Poppe (1992:45) defined participation elaborately. He defined participation as voluntary and democratic involvement of people in decision-making with regard to setting agenda, formulating policies and planning as well as implementing and evaluating any development program. Basically, it is a dynamic group process in which all members of a group contribute, share or are influenced by the interchange of ideas and activities toward problem-solving or decision-making (Banki, 1981:533 cited in Samad, 2002:53). 

Therefore, the crux of community participation in the exercise of ‘voices and choices of the community and the development of human, organizational and management capacity to solve problems as they arise in order to sustain the improvements made over time (Sastry 2001:2). 


Community participation motivates people to work together where people feel a sense of being a part of the community and recognize the benefits of their involvement. In this study, community participation has been used as the process of people’s involvement in setting goals, and preparing, implementing and evaluating plans and programs in every phase of disaster management program, where ‘the voices and choices of the community are addressed adequately.

Importance of Community Participation

Participatory approaches are valuable in disaster management for the following reasons:

a) They enable people to explain their vulnerabilities and priorities, allowing problems to be defined correctly and responsive measures to be designed and implemented.

b) The principal resource available for mitigating or responding to disasters is people themselves and their local knowledge and expertise.

c) Participatory work takes a multi-track approach, combining different activities, hazards and disaster phases. It is therefore well placed for dealing with the complexity of disasters and the diversity of factors affecting people’s vulnerability to them.

d) The process of working and achieving things together can strengthen communities. It reinforces local organisation, building up confidence, skills, capacity to cooperate, awareness and critical appraisal. In this way, it increases people’s potential for reducing their vulnerability. It empowers people more generally by enabling them to tackle other challenges, individually and collectively.

e) Participatory risk reduction initiatives are likely to be sustainable because they build on local capacity, the participants have ‘ownership’ of them, and they are more likely to be compatible with long-term development plans.

f) Community participation in planning and implementing projects accords with people’s right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. It is, therefore, an important part of democratisation in society, and is increasingly demanded by the public.

g) Participatory approaches may be more cost-effective, in the long term, than externally-driven initiatives, partly because they are more likely to be sustainable and because the process allows ideas to be tested and refined before adoption

h) External agents cannot cope alone with the enormous risks facing vulnerable populations. Local people can bring a wealth of resources, especially knowledge and skills, to help reduce risk

i) Working closely with local people can help professionals to gain a greater insight into the communities they seek to serve, enabling them to work more effectively and produce better results.


Approaches to Community Participation

Approaches to participation can be grouped into two main categories: 1. Guided participation (also known as instrumental participation) 2. People-centred participation (also known as transformative participation) This is admittedly an oversimplification. Furthermore, individual approaches may contain elements of guided and people-centred participation.

Guided participation 

Guided participation seeks to include people in improvement projects, mostly in implementation and sometimes planning, but the projects are still initiated, funded and ultimately controlled by professional planners from outside the community. The planners determine the level of popular participation. The outside agents involved range from international agencies through different tiers of government to NGOs. Guided participation covers a wide range of interventions, from work that is essentially community-focused to government-centred programmes. 

Early-warning and response systems to rapid-onset hazards such as cyclones are one example of guided participation in the disaster reduction context. These require community participation in their operation and local-level targeting (e.g. transmitting warnings, organising evacuations, handing out relief supplies), but usually are designed by disaster managers and based on centralised decision-making. 

Another example is housing programmes introducing safe building techniques (e.g. against earthquakes or cyclones) where technologies are developed externally in laboratories or test sites before being handed over to communities by training local builders and producing public information materials. In this case, community participation is limited to builders receiving training, who are then expected to take the programme forward. 

Within the category of guided participation, a distinction should be made between participation solely in implementing project activities, and participation in planning. In the former, community participation may be limited to undertaking prescribed tasks (e.g. a food-for-work programme following a disaster).


People-centred participation 

People-centred participation addresses issues of power and control. Its view is much wider than the technical and managerial aspects of programmes and projects. It is concerned with the nature of the society in which these programmes and projects are developed. It aims at the empowerment of communities. People-centred participation is founded on the belief that ordinary people are capable of critical reflection and analysis, and that their knowledge is relevant and necessary. In countries where ordinary people are excluded from decision-making and political discussion or are discouraged from taking part, the importance of participation in giving them a voice may be magnified.

Participation should empower individuals and communities by involving them in: 

a) defining problems and needs; 
b) deciding solutions to them; 
c) implementing agreed activities to achieve those solutions; and 
d) evaluating the results. 

They must also share the benefits of the initiatives. Participation should enable those who are usually the most vulnerable and marginalised within their community to be heard and have their due influence on decision-making. 

Disaster specialists have been slower to take to participatory approaches than their colleagues in development. This is largely due to the history, character and culture of disaster work, with its command-and-control mentality, blueprint planning, technocratic bias and disregard for vulnerable communities’ knowledge and expertise. Literature on disasters can conceal this, especially where it is produced by those involved in disaster reduction activities. After the earthquake in Maharashtra in 1993, it seemed that nearly every agency involved in reconstruction claimed that local communities were participants in the reconstruction programmes. However, off the record, some of the people working there challenged this. The tendency to use the label, but not the substance, of ‘participation’, is widespread, in development as well as disaster work.


Community Participation in Disaster Management in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is undeniably the most disaster-prone country on the planet. Repeated disasters devastate the poor people's economic base and deplete their economic potential. Effective humanitarian coordination aims to maximize resource utilization in order to provide the most appropriate and pertinent response to the needs of people displaced by natural disasters. Disaster impacts and vulnerabilities can be minimized through effective disaster management planning and integration of disaster management activities (risk reduction, response, and recovery) into local and national development plans. It's self-evident that effective coordination is a necessary component of disaster management. Bangladesh has gained international credibility and renown for its disaster management.

The Bangladesh government has taken a number of significant steps over the last decades to strengthen institutional arrangements for effective and systematic disaster management at all levels, from national to union. To ensure proper coordination between concerned ministries, departments, line agencies, local government, and community members, as well as to ensure their proper functioning in order to alleviate people's sufferings, the government has established a series of apparatuses from the national to the grass-root levels. To ensure that these mechanisms operate effectively, the Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD) serve as a guide.

According to SOD, disaster management committees are in place, ranging from the Prime Minister-led National Disaster Management Council to the Union Disaster Management Committee (UDMC) chaired by the Union Parishad Chairman. According to the SOD, the UDMC is composed of 36 members, with the chairperson having the authority to co-opt up to three (3) additional members and form groups and sub-groups in light of the local situation and special circumstances. UDMC has been charged with the responsibility of acting as the rural disaster management entity, which includes disaster preparedness, mitigation, emergency response, and post-disaster rehabilitation.


UDMC must ensure that local residents are informed and capable of taking practical measures to reduce disaster risk at the household and community levels, as well as widely disseminate success stories of disaster risk reduction at the household and community levels. Additionally, it will conduct a Union-wide hazard, vulnerability, and risk analysis and develop a risk reduction action plan (RRAP) and contingency plan for earthquakes and other hazards. Through quarterly coordination meetings, the UDMC will facilitate coordination among development agencies and service providers, making decisions about the implementation of the risk reduction action plan and monitoring its progress. It will work to raise funds on a local level to support the risk reduction action plan's implementation.

Regrettably, local residents, particularly those from vulnerable groups, have extremely limited access to the deliberations and decisions of the UDMC. This largely indicates that members of local vulnerable groups have a limited understanding of the disaster management committee's role, mandates, and functioning on the ground. There is no evidence that UDMC played a significant role in the pre-disaster period. Additionally, disaster risk management remains a secondary priority and is insufficiently integrated into the various programs implemented by the Union Parishads. Although the individuals who manage and lead Disaster Management Committees are not disaster management experts, the SOD empowered them to coordinate and manage disaster management efforts.

People who are vulnerable to disasters are deprived of information and never learn about the types of disaster management programs planned and implemented by Bangladesh's Upazila and District administrations. On the other hand, the Union Disaster Management Committee, chaired by the Union Chairman, has been inactive, and other members are unfamiliar with the committee's operating procedures. Additionally, Upazila administrations are opposed to strengthening the Union-level Disaster Management Committee, as resources allocated for disaster management are managed by both government officers.


Participation in UDMC activities fosters community confidence, pride, and capacity for disaster preparedness and mitigation, as well as development responsibilities at the local level. Capacity development and public awareness activities conducted by UDMC enable communities to increase participation and eventually sustain preparedness and mitigation activities on their own. Additionally, the inclusion of two women in each UDMC falls short of ensuring that women's needs and capacities are adequately represented. There is no evidence or analysis indicating that women can participate in and influence UDMCs. The support and capacity-building of UDMCs are not well-defined.

There is no way that a single group or organization can address all facets of disaster management. According to disaster management theory, disasters are complex problems that require a collective response. Even in conventional emergency management, coordination is challenging, as numerous organizations may congregate in a disaster area to assist. Effective disaster management necessitates strong vertical and horizontal connections (central-local relations become important).

To manage disasters in phases, it is critical that governmental and non-governmental agencies work cooperatively to solve a common problem, rather than developing ad hoc programs with disparate goals; this requires institutional arrangements and procedures that enable agencies to collaborate on executing a comprehensive and widely shared response plan.


The Department of Disaster Management (DDM) is responsible for coordinating and ensuring that "all governmental and non-governmental agencies' disaster risk reduction and response activities are object-oriented and robust." In reality, humanitarian response agencies generally lack a shared understanding of the problem. They develop response plans independently, and their goals and strategies are frequently so divergent that they are unable to agree on a common objective. Additionally, in many cases, funding arrangements constrain the planning flexibility of individual agencies. As a result, humanitarian response coordination becomes extremely difficult.

Primary data on damage and need are obtained via D-forms from local disaster management committees (damage information form). Local disaster management committees, on the other hand, lack understanding and capability for data collection and documentation. Additionally, the data storage, compilation, and analysis system are inefficient at planning for rapid response.

To efficiently mobilize human resources for evacuation, rescue, and relief distribution during an emergency, it is beneficial to establish "volunteer teams" in advance. The government operates a number of Disaster Management Information Centers (DMICs). Continued effort and attention are required to ensure that all stakeholders share information with the government's disaster information management cell and that their depository serves as the "go-to" location for disaster-related information.


The government and its development partners finance disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. To determine whether a disaster is adequately funded, and up-to-date gap analysis must be available. DDM has attempted to present the amount of donor funding received for relief in its Annual Report, but this information is based on data published by OCHA's Financial Tracking Service (FTS) and thus does not include where development funds are spent on preparedness or recovery, or on small-scale interventions.

The Local Disaster Management Fund is critical due to the prevalence of "micro-level" disasters that go unnoticed at the national level but have a significant impact on a community's resilience. Local government officials, particularly Deputy Commissioners and Upazila Nirbahi Officers, should make a concerted effort to raise and utilize the local disaster management fund.

The connection between development and disaster management must be re-established. Understanding the underlying causes of gendered vulnerability is critical if relief and reconstruction efforts are to mitigate rather than recreate people's vulnerability to future natural disasters. The disconnect between policy and practice continues to stymie disaster management, and disaster-affected communities' voices and capacities for preparedness, response, and recovery have been insufficient.

To be effective in addressing the challenges of community-based disaster preparedness, the UDMC must hold regular meetings during the pre-, during-, and post-disaster phases; Raising a dedicated fund for disaster risk reduction; Establish a disaster warning station in each UP office; Constructing and maintaining disaster shelter centres within the UP complex; Forming volunteer teams for emergency response under each UP; Initiating disaster preparedness and emergency response training; Creating a social awareness campaign on disaster management, and Ensuring rapid and timely coordination. (Dr Mohammad Tarikul Islam, The Daily Star, 2022 (Feb 19).


Community Empowerment in Disaster Management

While disasters can strike a wide region or a nation, that impact is felt at the community level although it may hit one or several communities at once. It is these communities that constitute what is referred to as “disaster fronts”. Being at the forefront, communities need to have the capacity to respond to threats themselves. It is for this reason that communities should be involved in managing the risks that may threaten their well-being. 

While different community empowerment programmes related to disaster mitigation have achieved their objectives, they are often short term, and issues on sustainability in these efforts are rarely addressed. Government, non-government and international organizations implement various programmes before and after the disasters. 

Most of them are very successful during the project period but gradually diminish as the year's pass. There are many reasons for this kind of phenomenon, however, the lack of effective participation and capacity building of the local communities to peruse the program remains a major factor in the lack of sustainability. 


It is accepted that governments have the prime responsibility for managing disasters and for taking into consideration the roles played by different players. In the past, top-down and command-and-control approaches were oftentimes used to manage the consequences of disasters. In this approach, decisions come from higher authorities based on their perception of the needs. The communities serve as mere “victims” or receivers of aid. In practice though, this approach was proven to be ineffective. It fails to meet the appropriate and vital humanitarian needs. Moreover, it increases requirements for unnecessary external resources and creates general dissatisfaction over performance despite exceptional management measures employed. This is due to the fact that the community, as the primary stakeholder and recipient of the direct impact of disasters, was not given the chance to participate in the process of decision-making and implementation of activities. On the other hand, communities if left alone have limited resources to fully cope with disasters. In many developing and underdeveloped countries, those who suffer the most are the poor, who, in the first place have limited survival resources and do not enjoy the adequate infrastructure and access to social services. 

Community empowerment for disaster risk management demands their participation in risk assessment, mitigation planning, capacity building, participation in implementation and development of a system for monitoring that ensures their stake.

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