Non-hierarchical networks and empowerment of vulnerable groups

20 June 2017

What happens when an acute disaster relief situation transitions into a long-term recovery phase? Sara Bondesson at CRISMART, who presented her dissertation on this subject at Uppsala University on 19 May, offers an answer.

"The disruptive character of a disaster may create unexpected alliances and make room for people to use their creativity. But disaster situations can also reinforce the vulnerability of previously marginalized groups," says Sara Bondesson.

Non-hierarchical networks, based on ideological motifs, such as mutual aid, may enhance the empowerment of marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially if these communities have a chance to participate on equal terms in the relief work. Hurricane Sandy struck New York City with force in 2012, inundated parts of the subway system, destroyed hundreds of thousands of home and resulted in long-term power outages. Occupy Sandy was a network of left-wing activists who mobilized storm-affected people from socio-economically marginalized communities.

"In my dissertation, I explore activists' efforts to empower these communities politically. I followed the winding and complex collaboration between activists and storm-affected communities, through field studies, interviews and participatory observations."

The activists organized their work in line with three ideals: inclusion, flexibility and horizontality. This created an empowering milieu in the relief phase, where marginalized communities were encouraged to take on leadership roles and were actively participating in needs assessments and implementation. When relief turned to recovery, however, the same organizing ideals instead resulted in resistance, tensions and conflicts. Empowerment in the recovery phase came to be conditional on alignment with outside activists' agendas. It seems that the more complex issues that actors are to collaborate around, the more difficult it is to transfer power from privileged to non-privileged groups.

"Empowering marginalized groups is an important topic, to which this dissertation contributes. We are facing more severe and less predictable weather disturbances due to climate change. Disaster vulnerability is not equally distributed, but it closely reflects the pre-existing inequalities in our societies that distribute risk unequally. Moreover, the same groups that are hit the hardest are often the ones with the least to say about how risk is produced or managed. Researchers, practitioners and activists therefore ought to pay more attention to the underlying factors for why this is so, as well as examine the kinds of political decisions (or non-decisions) that bring about this skewed order."

Information: Sara Bondesson successfully defended her doctoral dissertation at the Department of Government in Uppsala on 19 May. She is currently employed at CRISMART (Center for Crisis Management Research and Training) at the Swedish Defence University and is also affiliated with the Centre for Natural Disaster Science (CNDS).