Robert Hall looks at the importance of working towards community and social resilience, the role that businesses should play, and why strong communication between sectors is essential.
On 4 August 2020 one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in modern history devastated large parts of Beirut, the Lebanese capital. It was caused by the detonation of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse on the waterfront: the detonation was equivalent to around 1.1KT of high explosive. At least 218 people lost their lives, 7,000 were injured and over 300,000 were left homeless. The explosion caused damage estimated to cost around US$15 billion. Beirut is still recovering in a politically fraught environment.
The early part of that recovery highlighted some key lessons from other major disasters. The first of these is that communities are usually the first responders, witnessed in Beirut by the army of young people who picked up brooms and helped clear the rubble-strewn streets in organized, local groups. This picture reinforces the view that recovery must be locally led with supporters and funds mobilised quickly using social media. Above all, housing needs are the most urgent and complex in rebuilding a shattered urban infrastructure.
The value of the community has been highlighted in other disasters. Using data from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, it has been shown how communities with deep reservoirs of social bonding have higher survival rates and faster recovery times. People coming together through communities have much greater power and influence than when acting independently . This can only help to make communities more resilient, both in times of severe disruption but also for more routine trials and tribulations. A Lloyd's Register Foundation World Risk Poll in 2022 found that while 23 percent of respondents worldwide believed that their neighbours cared about them a lot, the figure was noticeably higher (35 percent) in low-income countries than high-income ones (20 percent) . Wherever, resilience is a constant that needs constant attention.
Social capital, contract, covenant
For communities to have a reasonable and speedy chance to recover they need to have some prior commitment to organize and mobilise. This is sometimes referred to as ‘social capital’. The term reflects the key assets of complex relationships in societies such as trust, networks, resources, stewardship, etc. The attraction of using a capital-based approach is the ability to assess the potential resilience within a society. For example, the key elements of social capital can be used as indicators of overall resilience. All the evidence suggests that cities or countries that have higher levels of social capital and a strong sense of national identity are more prosperous than those without: social capital and identity are as important as any economic lever. (The notion of social or stakeholder capitalism has been borne out of these ideas.)
Some commentators have avoided the asset approach and applied the term ‘social contract’ in order to emphasise the qualitative mutuality of a relationship between the citizen, civil society and those in authority. A social contract is a very old term in political philosophy that defines an agreement between the ruled and rulers, defining the rights and duties of each . The armed forces in the UK describe the relationship as a ‘covenant’ between those who serve or who have served and their families: ‘they should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy, and society they serve with their lives’ . Although covenant implies some form of legal guarantee or contract, there is in fact no basis in UK law, custom or history for such covenant. The Kruger Report prefers the term ‘social covenant’ because it is more substantial and less transactional than a social contract .
Whatever the term applied, we have an underlying principle that tries to formalise a mutual commitment by citizens, communities and the local authority or state, each fulfilling its discrete responsibilities by working together for the common good. In this way, individuals consent, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority (or to the decision of a majority) in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order. This interpretation recognises the permanent, quotidian nature of the relationship and the need to cement the various components into a more cohesive, collective whole – the ‘general will’.
The essential ingredients
There are many ways of looking at the principles that lie behind the notion of social capital, contract, or covenant. This examination should go beneath the practical need for first responders and the value of social media, and consider the essential ingredients if communities are to find the glue that binds people together.
The first of these are the physical enablers – namely, the means to survive and thrive . Physical enablers aim to satisfy the basic human needs of air, food, water, and shelter, as well as personal safety, without which other functions are likely to falter. They could include the supply of the major utilities as well as health, communications, transport, and banking services. In the case of Beirut, where so much damage was inflicted on residential property, meeting housing needs was one of the five top priorities. Without these essentials, no real social bonding can take place or be sustained.
The second group are the procedural enablers. These are the policies, plans and processes that provide the ideas behind community resilience. They provide policy makers, emergency planners, community leaders, and individuals with the ability to understand the context in which plans can be developed and serve as the foundation upon which adaptability and innovation may be exercised. This category of community resilience includes continuity and risk strategies, disaster policy and plans, and the proper application of standards, regulations, local knowledge, and information.
The third group are the social enablers. These provide the general will to survive and thrive. Social enablers are about motivating people and communities and getting them prepared to confront and overcome challenging circumstances. It requires group cohesion and inspiration. Cohesion occurs when individuals want to stay together to provide mutual support to achieve a common outcome.
Taking a different perspective, the Kruger Report identifies four ‘articles of the social covenant’ which constitute a set of principles to guide policy and practice towards greater community engagement . The first of these is the public purpose which refers to the capital and resource spending that helps builds social capital and the means to measure the spending that enables communal activity. The second – subsidiarity and inclusion – means empowering local people to work together on common projects. The third – strengths-based approaches – is based on the concept of self-efficacy, namely that people have the capacity, with the right help, to effect positive changes in their own lives and the lives of others. Lastly, social infrastructure is the connecting tissue of institutions and meeting places where people come together and facilitate the binding threads of a community.
While beneficial as markers of potential success, none of the proposed elements or principles for social capital will produce results in themselves. They require a holistic strategy with the detailed plans for implementation flowing sequentially. As the Kruger Report was written for government, it places a great deal of emphasis on both national and local government to enact the changes necessary to deliver positive outcomes. Nonetheless, this should not be a role for the public sector alone. In fact, the private sector (with others) has a large part to play, and increasingly so in modern times.
The role of business
There has been much discussion in the private sector over recent years around corporate social responsibility (CSR) and, latterly, environmental, social, and governance (ESG). While the objectives of such policies have their detractors, they are commonly recognised as a way for business to play a great role in helping to deliver socially beneficial goals and positively affecting company bottom lines. The policies are built around trust in a mutual engagement.
Lord Browne, the former head of BP, believes that society’s trust in government to take care of its citizens has been weakened over the energy crisis and hence could rupture the ‘ties that bind a democratic society together, with potentially profound consequences’ . Browne argues that there is therefore a case for a ‘just transition’ to a more equitable social contract.
Other top business leaders have issued messages promoting stakeholder engagement. The Chairman of BlackRock, Larry Fink, has been a strong advocate in his annual letters to CEOs. In 2018 he wrote about companies needing to earn their ‘social license’ to operate every day and in 2022 about creating value for, and be valued by, its full range of stakeholders in order to deliver long-term value for shareholders . To reinforce this sentiment, one finding reached in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer was that ‘Societal leadership is now a core function of business’ .
With such focused views, and with the financial resources to make a real difference, there is a clear role for the private sector in building social resilience. It can only be good for companies and the customers or clients they serve, and for the long term. If actions are co-ordinated and combined across other sectors (public, charitable, voluntary, non-governmental, trade unions, etc) then it may be possible to create a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to societal resilience. When the major challenges to society are both systemic and potentially existential then it makes sense to combine forces in a coalition of the willing, detractors accepted. Beirut may be a unique case in point but there will be other disasters that need a total commitment of all society’s resources and skills.
Robert Hall is an independent consultant and former Executive Director of Resilience First. His book ‘Building Resilient Futures’ will be published by Austin Macauley in early 2023. Elements of this article are addressed in the book. Contact Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Aldrich, D P. The Role of Social Capital and Social Networks in Resilience.
- Lloyds Register Foundation World Risk Poll 2021: A Resilient World? Understanding vulnerability in a changing climate, p19.
- The Social Contract, originally published as On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Right was written in 1762 by the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
- The Armed Forces Covenant.
- Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant A report for government by Danny Kruger MP, September 2020, p8. Also, A Manifesto for A New Social Covenant.
- McAslan, A. Community Resilience: Understanding the Concept and its Application.
- Levelling up our communities. Ibid, pp14-16.
- Lord Browne, J. Trust is key as we transition to a zero-carbon economy, The Times, 5 September 2022.
- BlackRock CEO Larry Fink's 2022 Annual Letter to CEOs.
- 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer.