International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civil Society and Disasters

  • Aya OkadaEmail author
Living reference work entry



A disaster is “a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources (IFRC 2019).” Disasters may be caused not only by natural events but also by man-made incidents. Civil society organizations including resident groups, nonprofit organizations, and faith-based organizations play an important role in all phases of disaster management.


Disasters – both natural and man-made – occur all around the world. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, volcano eruptions, and wildfires are serious risks in many countries, and so are transportation accidents, oil spills, nuclear accidents, and terrorist attacks. According to a report by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) that manages the International Disaster Database EM-DAT, an annual average of 348 natural events took place in the 10 years between 2008 and 2017, affecting 198.8 million people, causing 67,572 deaths as well as an economic loss of US$166.7 billion (CRED 2018). Man-made disasters have also increased over the years, from an average of 7.3 disasters per decade in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1900s and 1960s to 72.3 per decade between 1970s and 1990s (Coleman 2006).

It is important to note that occurrence of an earthquake or a wildfire does not always lead to a disaster. It is the combination of such hazards, vulnerability, and inability of human beings to reduce the potential negative consequences of risk that results in a disaster (IFRC 2019). Thus, scholars of disaster management have long explored how human beings can collectively reduce vulnerability and enhance capacity, given the difficulty or sometimes impossibility of lowering the chances of hazards from happening. Attention has been given to the concept of resilience defined as “the capacity of a system, community or society to resist or to change in order that it may obtain an acceptable level in functioning and structure. This is determined by the degree to which the social system is capable of organizing itself to increase its capacity for learning from past disasters for better future protection and to improve risk reduction measures” (UNISDR 2004).

Key Issues

Multi-sector Approach

A key concern in studies of disaster management has been the exploration of an optimal structure to manage disasters. In many countries, centralizing power and authority to the national government with hierarchical bureaucratic system has long been believed to be suitable in managing unexpected and unforeseeable catastrophes. However, rich experience around the world over the years have proved that such might not be the case. Scope and damage of disasters are not confined to national borders, and organizations that respond to local hazards come across multiple jurisdictions, sometimes from an international level. Disaster situations keep on evolving as new developments, needs, and information come to light, and require those involved to adapt to the changes. Speed, flexibility, and creativity are required in dealing with such uncertainties (Kapucu 2006).

As such, the worlds of both research and policy have turned attention to a more decentralized structure in managing disasters. Advocated is a multi-sector approach where organizations in private and nonprofit sectors are also recognized to play an important role as human beings confront extreme events (Kapucu and Van Wart 2006). Motivated, flexible, and creative civil society organizations are considered to be better suited (Gajewski et al. 2011) and numbers of scholars have advocated for bottom-up community approach (Kapucu 2008).

After all, it is the people who first witness the hazard and serve as first responders in many disaster scenes, be it natural or man-made. They bring skills, resources, and local knowledge needed to effectively manage vulnerability and to enhance capacity (Luna 2014). People in local communities are in the best position to develop and raise awareness for disasters that might take place in their spheres of life. They have the power to build back their communities from tragedies, and to accumulate knowledge to be passed on to future generations.

Community or local participation in disaster management came to be recognized as an international priority during the 1990s, about half way through the International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction between 1990 and 1999 (Wisner 2010). In the United States, the roles ascribed to nonprofit organizations in the Federal Response Plan (FRP) have been enhanced and formalized after the 9/11 terrorist attack (Kapucu et al. 2011). Globally, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the first major agreement of the post-2015 development agenda endorsed by the UN General Assembly, clearly states that “While States have the overall responsibility for reducing disaster risk, it is a shared responsibility between Governments and relevant stakeholders.” These include “civil society, volunteers, organized voluntary work organizations and community-based organizations” (UNDRR 2015).

Civil society actors engaged in disaster management are diverse. Resident groups and community groups often rise to help each other in times of disaster with altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity as Solnit (2009) has documented in cases of 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 1917 Halifax explosion, 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11 terrorist attacks, and 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Some voluntary organizations exist specifically for dealing with disasters such as voluntary fire departments as well as voluntary disaster prevention organizations in Japan. Some nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) are professionals of disaster relief. Faith-based organizations are also active in dealing with disasters (Wisner 2010).

These diverse civil society organizations are involved in multiple phases of disaster management: response, recovery, mitigation, and preparation. In response phase, civil society organizations engage in search and rescue as well as evacuation process. They also contribute to running evacuation centers, managing volunteers that flow in, and collecting and managing donations that may sometimes come in across the borders. In recovery phase, organizations in civil society help manage temporary housing and facilitate consensus building to build back better their communities. For mitigation and preparation, civil society organizations engage in participatory planning including hazard analyses, risk assessment, planning, education and training, awareness raising, and developing archives of disaster experience. The list, needless to say, goes on.

Coordination and Communication

Given the diversity of organizations involved in disaster management, the key question is on building partnerships and facilitating coordination among organizations across multiple sectors – public, private, and nonprofit – as well as jurisdictions – local, national, regional, international (Kapucu 2006). Without such coordination effort, overlaps of tasks and areas to which organizations provide assistance may emerge, leading to undesirable unbalance. Such might lead to inefficient use of financial and human resources, as well as time. As a result, overall effort might end up in failure.

Communication is the key to coordination. Organizations engaged in disaster management must share information, learn from each other, and adapt to an uncertain environment that keeps on changing. Comfort (2019) introduces the framework of complex adaptive systems to understand such dynamics. From analyses of 12 communities that experienced earthquakes around the world, the study highlights the importance of facilitating information flow among organizations engaged in the network for effective and efficient response. Proposed is an investment in global information infrastructure to facilitate communication among involved actors from across the globe in times of disaster.

Social Capital

Scholarly works have paid much attention to the role of social capital in facilitating coordination and communication among organizations engaged in disaster management. Social capital refers to “trust, social norms, and networks which affect social and economic activities” (Nakagawa and Shaw 2004, p. 6) or “resources available through bonding, bridging, and linking social networks along with the norms and information transmitted through those connections” (Aldrich 2012, p. 33). It is a notion that captures bonds between human beings.

Social capital is believed to increase the chances of people cooperating in multiple phases of disasters and to reduce transaction costs. Aldrich (2012) highlights three mechanisms: (1) social capital shapes expectations citizens have about the behavior of others, (2) social networks provide information and knowledge about the environment, business conditions, trends, and other important issues to members of the network of group, (3) social capital builds trust by transmitting data about levels of trustworthiness (pp. 37–38).

Case studies around the world have shown that communities with higher levels of social capital are able to achieve speedy reconstruction and recovery after the disaster. Aldrich (2012) examined four cases: 1923 Tokyo earthquake, 1995 Kobe earthquake, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Nakagawa and Shaw (2004) also looked into the 1995 Kobe earthquake and 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India. Social capital is highlighted as the key to recovery in these communities, a factor more important than available economic resources, assistance from the government or outside agencies, or low level of damage.

We should note, however, that social capital does not always have positive effect on recovery process. Through a close case study of multiple villages in India in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Aldrich (2011) highlighted negative externalities of social capital. Villages with strong bonding and linking social capital were indeed able to assemble local assistance and acquire scarce resources from outside agencies. However, local councils in these villages functioned as gate keepers and pushed aside minorities – women, Dalits, and elderly – to the periphery. These residents were not able to receive aid despite their eligibility. Community-level social capital may not be a happy news to all individuals; it may actually have adverse effect on some residents.

Studies on resilience also view social capital as a crucial component of effective disaster management. Norris et al. (2008) discussed social capital as one of the four adaptive capacities that lead to emergence of community resilience along with economic development, information and communication, and community competence. Community readiness for disasters is built through networks and linkages, social support, as well as bonds, roots, and commitments of community members.

One difficulty of discussing social capital in disaster management is found in the way scholars measure social capital. This is an ongoing debate among academics studying social capital (Lin 1999), and as such, almost every case study suffers the skepticism of how social capital are operationalized and captured in respective analyses.

Future Directions

Civil society engagement has become the mainstream discourse in disaster management. However, there remains several aspects that await further research.

First, civil society involvement in man-made disasters should receive more attention. Current scholarly focus on natural disasters outweigh what has been devoted to how local communities and civil society organizations contribute to managing hazards caused by human activities (Coleman 2006). Accumulation of research on man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks and transportation accidents is much needed.

Second, misconduct of civil society organizations in disaster management merits further attention. Studies to date have had the tendency to shed light on positive aspects of civil society engagement; however, handful of nonprofit scandals have been highlighted. For example, in 2018, Oxfam Great Britain was accused of their employees using young prostitutes while based in Haiti in responding to the 2010 earthquake (O’Neill 2018). Similarly, Red Cross has also been accused of sexual misconduct (Greenfield 2018). Mishandling of collected donations is also a topic that frequently comes up. In the recent years, American Red Cross was scrutinized for its executive’s unclear statement about how much of the donations collected for the relief effort on Hurricane Harvey was actually spent on the cause (Gonzales 2017). Questions also arose for money flow of Red Cross Society of China in 2011 (Hong and Florcruz 2011). Countermeasures to these misconducts have relied much on self-regulation through code of conduct. While some organizations have their own codes, there are also internationally agreed humanitarian standards such as The Sphere Handbook (since 2000) and Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief (1994). Building on studies that have examined the codes’ usefulness and adequateness in relief contexts (Griekspoor and Collins 2001), future research might delve into prevention of misconduct and malpractices.

Third, research should highlight more the role of civil society organizations as policy advocates in developing global and national frameworks for disaster management. Inclusion of local involvement in the central discourse of disaster risk reduction was in part a result of lobbying efforts made by civil society organizations (Wisner 2010). Community, faith, and nonprofit leaders are in a suitable position to speak out to policymakers in shaping the frameworks for better disaster management. This is a dynamic process to which scholarly works should pay more attention.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of Information SciencesTohoku UniversitySendaiJapan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany