Every year before Lent, Carnival takes place—sadly for no more than just a few days. During the previous twelve months, communities self-organize to make sure that everything will work out perfectly. What we see as a show is the tip of the iceberg of an admirable collective effort towards a common goal. The schools of samba in Sao Paulo and the comparsas in Barranquilla and Oruro are but a few examples of what social scientists call “social capital.” According to Putnam (1994), social capital is the ability certain communities possess to coordinate collective actions more efficiently. They may take many shapes: from festivities to sports, social protection, or support in times of need.
These formal and informal social networks exchange information, foster co-operation, and generate mutual trust within many communities in our region and can be excellent allies in situations of risk. In line with the Disaster Risk Management Policy (OP-704) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), prevention measures play a key role in reducing the human and material impacts of natural disasters. This problem has been worsened by the consequences of Climate Change.
Classic structural measures –such as elevating terrains or erecting barriers– often fall short. In other cases, disasters are magnified by the insufficient communication between emergency responders and affected communities. Therefore, it’s important to apply a wise combination of structural and non-structural measures to manage disaster risk. To increase their efficiency, the latter must acknowledge social capital seeking to empower it and orient it towards a culture of prevention and early warning.
This approach combining strong and soft preventive measures is being applied successfully in multiple projects financed by the IDB. Recent examples of operations in their preparation phase are:
- In Belize, the Climate Vulnerability Reduction Program, with interventions in the capital and the islands Key Caulker and Goff’s Key;
- In Argentina, the Drainage and Flood Control Project in the Province of Buenos Aires; its first interventions will take place in the cities of Pergamino and Areco.
They both implement this integrated approach which requires a strong involvement of local communities, firefighters, law enforcement authorities, and local public safety groups aiming both at more powerful results as well as a more efficient use of the limited resources.
Surveys show that communities tend not to trust governments much, although they do trust their own families and personal networks of friends and acquaintances. As can be observed when it comes to organizing carnivals, it’s possible to rely on civic spaces built on trust and selfless cooperation in our region. With enough support, they can also be created to help, prevent, and respond better and faster to disaster risk. It’s important that we take them into consideration when designing our Emergency Plans or Risk Mitigation Plans.