Two approaches to disaster recovery

Following Queensland’s natural disasters in the Lockyer Valley, Ipswich and the Cassowary Coast in early 2011, and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, the Queensland and Victorian State Governments, along with the Federal Government, trialled innovative models of support for disaster-affected communities by using arts-led and creative activities.  My evaluations showed that arts-led community activities are a valuable tool following a natural disaster.  They bring people together in new ways and provide an emotional and creative outlet for individuals and communities still struggling with losses of all kinds.

Victoria used a traditional art-recovery approach where individual artists or organisations could apply for a ‘quick response’ grant of up to $2,500 to work in their communities on projects that would contribute to the recovery effort.  This worked well because artists and arts workers in Victoria were in a position to start project work very quickly and could put to use the modest funding available.  In Queensland, a consultative partnership model was chosen to stimulate greater interdependency and collaboration across sectors and art forms.  This model was designed to help people in the disaster-affected communities in Queensland make connections and establish networks both to deliver projects and activities in the shorter term and contribute to longer term learning outcomes.

My evaluations have shown that both models were effective responses to the context and situation in their respective states.  There is evidence that both creative recovery initiatives helped galvanise community support and unity after the natural disasters.  One of the key success factors in both Queensland and Victoria was the aptitude of the on-the-ground arts workers who rolled out the initiatives and worked directly with communities in recovery.  In both states it was the personal and professional attributes of these arts workers that largely contributed to the effectiveness of the two pilot initiatives.  Another important learning was the importance of flexibility in timing, recognising communities recover at their own pace.
Australia will experience more natural disasters in the coming years, most likely with increasing intensity and frequency.   I believe there are two emerging areas of interest that we will need to start exploring:

1. What are the long-term benefits of creative recovery projects for communities in recovery?  What evidence is there to support the proposition that arts-led initiatives are beneficial to communities beyond the first year or so following a disaster?   Are there long-term benefits that creative recovery initiatives provide that other types of community support cannot?

2. What is the social return on investment (SROI) for creative recovery projects for funding bodies such as state and federal government?  Measuring the social return on investment is a growing discipline –– it allows funding bodies to quantify and qualify their investments.  How can we measure the social and economic benefit of creative recovery projects to society more broadly?  For example, do arts-led initiatives following a natural disaster lead to cost savings in the health or mental health sectors?  In what other sectors are social and economic benefits seen as a result of these initiatives?

My evaluations have highlighted key success factors common to both initiatives that could become standard practice for future creative recovery responses.  Having a number of workable options and models at our fingertips in times of high stress is one way we can be prepared.  Another way is for the arts to become embedded into disaster recovery processes and protocols at all levels of government and community.  Just as natural disasters are different in scale and impact, creative recovery responses will also vary.  What’s not in doubt is that they help address the psychological ramifications of trauma and the fracturing of local communities affected by events out of their control.

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