by Samira Ben Omar

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Sierra Leone Landslide Emergency Fundraiser at the Frontline Club in London (August 31) — organised by the Lost Freetown Collective and Friends of Tacugama UK to support the work of Tacugama wildlife sanctuary in Freetown.

The evening was a fantastic demonstration of grassroots community response and action in the face of a ‘man made’ tragedy; one that was caused by poor regulation and even poorer urban planning, resulting in unsafe structures built in dangerous locations and inhabited by those most vulnerable in society.

As someone who has worked in the field of community action in the UK for over 20 years, there was a certain familiarity with the issues, frustration and passion of the speakers and participants on the night, as they highlighted some of the ongoing challenges. These included the lack of available resources at grassroots level to deliver sustainable change; the general ineffectiveness of national and international policies in improving the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable communities (in some cases through the lack of enforcement); and, the inadequacy of the institutional response to the disaster.

What resonated with me the most, however, was the reality highlighted during the evening where the immediate ‘rescue operation’ was, in the first instance, initiated by local residents and community groups, and only later followed by an official government response. It was the community coming together to rescue those buried underneath the mud, those injured by the events, and comforting survivors whose loved ones had either died or were still missing; the initial rescue was also carried out by local grassroots organisations, like Tacugama, that offered emergency relief to children orphaned and affected by the landslide. 

Although the context is different, there was a very a similar response by local people and grassroots communities following the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington, London, where eighty people lost their lives, hundreds have lost their homes and thousands more have been affected. In West London, as in Freetown, local people played a critical role by coming together, immediately after the tragedy, to help and support those in need, by providing food, water, and clothes. I know this because I was directly involved as a public sector employee in the initial emergency response.

Though it can be seen (in both these cases) that local residents, volunteers, faith groups and the community at large are proactive self-organisers and have always been the ‘first and critical emergency response’ — their contribution is often unacknowledged, thereby reinforcing the narrative that it’s only institution-led efforts that have an impact in minimising or reducing the scale of disasters.

I am proposing that we award the same level of importance, and investment, to enable local communities to become more resilient in dealing with ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ disasters both in the immediate instance and in the longer term. 

Bringing about such a change would necessitate adopting an approach that is:

Collaborative — bringing residents and communities together with agencies as equal partners to:

  • Develop a shared vision and a programme of activities that reflects the needs of the local population; 
  • Learn to lead together by creating a diverse and critical mass of people and grassroots organisations with the skills and knowledge to mitigate against any actual and potential vulnerabilities in the event of a disaster;
  • Test out the extent to which current assumptions and solutions reflect the actual needs of those affected;
  • Share with other networks regionally, nationally and internationally, the experience, outcomes and effectiveness of activities on the ground in enabling community resilience.

Asset-based — investing in, recognising and rewarding the contribution that individuals, families and communities make — as part of a wider workforce — in both effectively implementing an emergency rescue mission and in the follow-up work required.  

Sustainable and Self-Sustaining — bringing together different groups and stakeholders to:

  • Build and refine sustainable programmes that reflect the needs and aspirations of local communities and enable economic independence;
  • Develop the capacity and flexibility to adapt to change.

Of one thing we can be certain: if the vulnerabilities exist in communities, then the solutions lie there too. The rest is up for challenge and debate.

Samira Ben Omar is currently working as Head of Systems Change at the NHS in North West London. She has over 20 years experience of working with communities and agencies to reduce heath inequalities by fostering asset-based community development and sustainable change programmes. 

She is a member of the Lost Freetown Collective and Health Service Journal BME Pioneers Award Winner of BME Pioneers for developing sustainable communities. 

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