TESSA BOYD-CAINE. After the hoses,can we work together?

An example of the kind of collaboration that is possible was  formed in response to the enthusiastic but initially uncoordinated pro bono legal response to the Black Saturday fires. Bushfire Legal Help, as it was called at the time, brought together the key players in pro bono legal assistance to coordinate that response, ensuring the help that was on offer was directed to where it was of most use. 

Amid the unfolding horror of Australia’s bushfire crisis, most attention is rightly focused on the day-by-day effort to protect communities and ecology and to mitigate further destruction as the bushfires continue. But for those whose homes have been lost and communities damaged, the Federal Government’s announcement of a National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and its initial budget allocation of $2billion means the work towards recovery can begin.

Unprecedented disaster requires an unprecedented response and the response to this crisis so far has been huge. While much of the work to be done is core business for governments, there is just as much need for the cash donations, the professionals offering their services, the organisations mobilising their internal resources for external need, and all backing up the phenomenal volunteer efforts already at the frontline of fires and their aftermath. But there is a risk that the funds raised and help offered miss their mark if they are spread too thinly or allocated so quickly that they can’t address the many long-term needs that will emerge in the months to come.

For the recovery effort to be effective, it will also require cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Soon enough, the initial drive to secure resources will give rise to the equally important questions of how those resources are spent. As priorities are agreed, agencies that have scrambled to hit the ground running will need time to pause and even to change direction, without fear of backlash or recrimination. More than ever before, those accustomed to working on their own will need to work with others to make the best decisions about where, who and how they can help.

Perhaps most importantly, communities themselves will need support to lead their own recovery. Recognising this, National Bushfire Recovery Agency head Andrew Colvin has acknowledged the importance of listening to what communities need; of working hand-in-hand with agencies; and of not assuming a ‘one size fits all’ response.

One thing we can be sure of: the needs of the communities directly affected by this catastrophe will be multiple and they will be complex. Legal services have been quick to offer free assistance to people navigating their housing, employment, insurance and other finance obligations. Banks have offered emergency relief payments. GPs, community health workers and veterinarians have been on site in communities for weeks. Imagine if, on Monday, all of these professional services raced to the one town worst hit over the weekend? It would be chaos. Not only would we lose the value of the help through duplication, we would risk harming all over again communities already facing devastation. Now think about the volume in dollars and offers of help that are being made right across the country.

The scale of effort that is going to be needed, not just in one community but in hundreds, requires a massive commitment to working together. Practitioners who have spent years developing their expertise will need to listen to each other and to community members to learn where they can have the greatest impact. Diverse sectors will need to sequence their efforts so that worn out and broken communities do not suffer further. Generous donors motivated by a desire to help will need to be patient, recognising that as much as blankets and food baskets bring immediate relief, many of the most significant needs will emerge long after the embers have died and the cameras have drifted away.

The collaborative way of working that this recovery will need is not something that comes easily. It is unfamiliar for many entities, particularly those large enough to have an impact at scale, whether in the corporate, government or charitable sectors. The drive of such organisations often lies with internal rules and processes as much as it does with the needs of the people and communities they aim to support. But these drivers will need to change if impacts are to be felt where they are needed most.

It is likely that many people will have multiple and intersecting problems arising out of this crisis, for whom a quick fix might miss or heighten an underlying and much more significant problem. Evidence tells us that people already struggle to respond effectively to complex and intersecting problems in their lives, such as the way poverty prevents someone from seeing a medical specialist or filling a prescription; the impact of unsafe or unaffordable housing on people’s health; the stigma faced by people living with mental illness or with disability; and the physical, social and emotional impacts of those experiencing family violence or caught up in the child protection system. Problems like these are already a reality for many people. They are going to be made more complex, and in many cases exacerbated, by these bushfires and their aftermath.

Whether as individual practitioners or representing large organisations, those on the ground to help communities recover and rebuild will need to be encouraged and supported to work together to identify and respond to the range and complexity of health, legal, social and environmental problems that people are going to experience. The difference that can be achieved through effective collaboration includes the ability to do more with existing social and community infrastructure, simply by working together. It means relationships, so critical in a time of crisis and after it, can be strengthened; that trust within communities can be maintained or rebuilt; that confidence in outsiders (whether government, charities or others) can be developed, even through the most trying of times.

An example of the kind of collaboration that is possible was formed in response to the enthusiastic but initially uncoordinated pro bono legal response to the Black Saturday fires. Bushfire Legal Help, as it was called at the time, brought together the key players in pro bono legal assistance to coordinate that response, ensuring the help that was on offer was directed to where it was of most use. Recognising the value of what was learned through this collaborative effort, the Disaster Legal Help Victoria framework was established to ensure that when disaster struck again, those willing and able to help would not be scrambling to work out how. Both formal and informal commitments to long-term collaboration like this will be needed within and across sectors in response to the current and future fires.

Working in partnership is vital but not easy, particularly under the pressure of a crisis. It takes time to listen to different, often conflicting needs. It requires patience to prioritise responses effectively and efficiently. It is empathy that encourages people to step up and lead and, just as importantly, to know when we need to get out of the way and take a backseat. Working in this way is often under-rated or poorly understood and it is always hard. Ultimately, however, it is the capability to work together in response to community needs that can make the greatest difference in the face of complex, multiple and intersecting problems.

In this national crisis, the impacts are going to be felt deeply on a personal, an ecological and an economic scale for years to come. No need could be more complex; no future less certain. One thing is certain: the success of the recovery effort will depend not only on the continuing efforts of individuals and organisations but on how they work together.

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is CEO of Health Justice Australia, the national centre of excellence in health justice partnership; and was previously Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service.

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