We’ve heard a lot about resilience in the last week or so, particularly in relation to communities and their capacity to regroup and rebuild after disasters. Encapsulated in the words of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, “the flood may break our hearts, but it won’t break our will”.
Resilience is that ability we have, individually and collectively, to withstand adversity and rebound, somehow stronger and better for the experience. ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’, goes the saying – that’s resilience.
Along with resilience, over the past couple of weeks there has also been politics. Politics is generally unusual for this time of year. Summer in Australia is a politics-free zone: parliament packs up for the long break, the beaches beckon, there’s slow days played to a soundtrack of cicadas, currawongs and cricket commentary, and politics just kind of evaporates into the sea breeze. We assume someone is running the country, but no one really knows who and cares even less. Any actual sighting of a pollie during a cricket test (except as a glimpse of them on TV sitting in the members’ stand) comes as a bit of a shock. Then a disaster happens and politicians reappear on the front page of the paper and the headlining stories on the evening news. We need them in times of trouble. We need to know that someone is making decisions and holding the fort while everything else appears chaotic.
The link between politics and resilience is strong. While resilience comes from within, in extreme circumstances it is helped enormously by external support, such as the release of emergency funding, loosening of bureaucratic restrictions, official pressure on insurance companies and banks, and the coordination of relief efforts and aid. This is public resilience. Bligh’s stirring words about Queenslanders being bred tough were the right words for the occasion, but without the backing of the state and federal governments, the armed forces and state emergency services, that toughness would show as a raw determination to survive rather than the public effort of cleaning up and rebuilding. The politics of resilience is also about cohesion – which is why Tony Abbott and Bob Brown have been so roundly (and rightly) criticised for their attempts to score political points in the last couple of weeks. Bipartisanship in times of crisis is a political axiom.
Then there’s the legal angle. We need to apportion blame when something bad happens. Australia is one of the most litigious countries in the world and where there is blame, there must be compensation. No longer are we prepared to accept great floods as acts of god, steadfastly accepting that the will of the deity overrides any temporal force and getting on with life. Now we need to know who to blame in order to know who to sue. The Queensland Premier yesterday sought and received approval from the State Governor to hold a royal commission into the flood – another piece of the political puzzle falls into place. The politics of resilience is played out like a chess game, where every move has a purpose and every piece a role.
There is, however, one major feature of resilience politics: it is a phenomenon of the global north – the developed world. Witness the comparison between the earthquakes in Haiti, a year ago, and Christchurch, four months ago. In earthquakes of similar magnitude, what is it about the New Zealanders that has enabled them to get back on their feet faster than the Haitians, where hundreds of thousands have now died in the earthquake itself and of disease in refugee camps? Witness the comparison between the floods in Pakistan last August and those in Queensland. Within months most of Queensland will be cleaned up and back to normal, while displaced Pakistanis will still be waiting for assistance. Are Queenslanders more resilient than Pakistanis? Are New Zealanders more resilient than Haitians? Of course not, the people of Haiti are remarkably resilient – all the more so because of the conditions they have lived under since the earthquake one year ago. What they lack is public resilience – a political system that can mobilise resources and move fast.
The Haitian elections last November are still inconclusive after allegations of fraud and now the former dictator, ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, has emerged from exile 25 years after his overthrow. Who is making decisions for Haiti? Who is holding the fort and coordinating the rebuilding effort? How can there be rebuilding when the political system is in chaos? Likewise in Pakistan, an unstable government dealing with threats to its own survival does not have the capacity to support public resilience, leaving communities to their own reserves of inner strength and the assistance of the UN and external aid agencies.
Our floods have been devastating, but our government must continue to assist those countries where there is little or no political and public resilience: Haiti, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Brazil are all suffering from major natural disasters. When our politicians talk about toughness and community resilience they are reflecting confidence in our political system. For many countries in the global south there is no such confidence – and no public resilience to disaster. Kevin Rudd got a bit of political mileage being seen, trousers rolled and knee-deep in the floodwater, assisting constituents evacuate last week, but let’s remind him that, as Foreign Minister, he is responsible for our assistance to other countries too. Being a good neighbour is all part of building community resilience.
UNHCR’s Pakistan Flood Appeal here
UN Appeal for Haiti here