This week the Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper The Press featured an op-ed by University of Canterbury political scientist Bronwyn Hayward. Her essay examined the democratic fault lines exposed by the serial natural disasters that struck the city starting in September 2010 and evidenced by growing public disquiet over the government’s efforts to manage the recovery challenges confronting the small island nation’s second largest city.
Dr. Hayward has written and spoken eloquently about the roots of resilient citizenship, which she sees emerging from an individual’s sense of social agency, ecological understanding and embedded citizenship. Together these principles represent the innate capacity of individuals to take responsibility for their own lives, organize and cooperate with one another for the common good and accept a degree of uncertainty as part and parcel of living in the natural world.
In the New Zealand central government’s response to the Canterbury earthquakes, Hayward sees a failure to recognize the importance of these principles in the lives of citizens. The government’s top-down approach to managing recovery efforts, she argues, has done more harm than good and threatens to further render the social fabric.
Local government does not escape criticism either. Dr. Hayward notes the tendency of local officials to exclude the public from their deliberations while displaying an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Sadly, she concludes that central government action and threats of further action inhibit efforts within the community to correct what some now see as an electoral error.
The command and control approach to recovery taken by the New Zealand government comes at a time of growing social and economic inequality that would not seem all that unfamiliar to most Americans. Hayward observes that the young people who mobilized and organized themselves to aid their fellow citizens have been marginalized at just the time when their contributions to the community are both most needed and most vital to the renewal of the community’s stocks of social, economic and political capital:
Bringing the community with you is the only effective way through a disaster long term.
[At] its best democracy is the form of government that most clearly supports the priorities and aspirations of a local community. As Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen reminds us, good democracy delivers great economic and social prosperity, enabling scrutiny, transparency and local voice.
Not all of our young people can be builders, road engineers, painters or architects. To create meaningful long term, local employment and training will require thoughtful, on-going, and public debate.
Only local leadership elected with widespread public support can effectively claim the mandate to lead our community and to implement plans that enable everyone – the young, the old and future generations – to flourish.
FEMA’s rhetorical commitment to a whole of community approach and its emphasis on community recovery give me hope that the United States can avoid the mistakes plaguing Christchurch these days. Nevertheless, it is worth noting as Hayward reminds us in her essay, central government’s most important role in the aftermath of a disaster lies not in how fast they respond or how much aid they give, but in how well they support and encourage local governance and participatory democracy.