Below, you will find outlines of ‘what we know’ from evidence about the role of social capital in disaster recovery, including how it can affect wellbeing and interact with other recovery capitals. These statements summarise academic evidence, but they do not represent the entire evidence base. You can find original evidence sources in the reference list below.
You will also find prompts to consider when applying this knowledge to disaster recovery support efforts.
The recovery capitals are deeply interrelated – look out for the little icons which highlight points of relevance to the other capitals.
WHAT WE KNOW
Recovery is strongly influenced by the degree of connection and participation within affected communities (2,14). Community cohesion can facilitate cooperation within and between disaster-affected communities, enabling them to respond to the needs of different community members (15,16). Disasters can trigger shifts in community dynamics (4,15), with initial increases in community cohesion giving way to disagreements and tensions (17). Post-disaster interventions can enhance social structures within communities to support resilience and recovery (16).
Where many people belong to community groups and organisations, benefits to mental health and wellbeing are felt throughout those local communities (18). People who belong to community organisations and groups generally had better mental health and wellbeing years after a disaster experience, although being involved in many groups may have negative effects (11,18). Community groups can play an important role in recovery decision-making and collective action (2). Having many close social bonds within a group, as is the case within many migrant and Indigenous communities (7,19,20), is generally a strength likely to foster resilience and recovery (15,21), unless there is a lack of bridging and linking capital (2,22).
Support the capacity of local groups to continue operating. This may require funds for facilities, equipment and/or activities.
Initiate opportunities for people throughout various communities to become involved and connected with each other in new ways, to build ties within and outside existing groups.
WHAT WE KNOW
Social ties matter in people’s recovery – they are generally helpful, but it is complex. Family, friends and neighbours are important sources of support (5,23–27), and providing support to loved ones can also support resilience (23,28). People with more social relationships generally have better mental health in recovery (9). Belonging to community organisations and groups is associated with better mental health in recovery (11,18), although participating in many community organisations may lead to people becoming overburdened (18).
Wellbeing may be compromised if friends and family are depressed (9), have high property loss (9) or leave the area following a disaster (4,9). Where disasters cause loss of life, the mental health impacts extend beyond the family to friends and community members, with particularly deep impacts where there are multiple deaths within a community (29).
Acknowledge the support people are providing to each other. Provide community information sessions about post-trauma support strategies to help them take care of themselves and others.
Participation in community organisations and groups should be encouraged, however it’s important to share the load. Monitor whether a few people are doing the heavy-lifting as they may become overburdened.
If appropriate, create spaces for memorials and anniversary events in which people can reflect on community members they have lost.
WHAT WE KNOW
Social connections build trust and enable the flow of information, which is critical during recovery as it enables decision-making and access to resources (2,6,11,23,34,35). This includes connections between family, friends, neighbours, service providers, media and government. Information delivered through strong relationships and effective methods can further strengthen social capital (16,23), whereas weak social ties can lead to a cycle in which poor communication leads to mistrust and blame, further damaging social connections (34).
The ways that people communicate in post-disaster settings may be very different from the way that they did before. It is important to assess how people want to access and provide information in post-disaster settings, noting this may change throughout the recovery.
Central community websites, newsletters, noticeboards and meetings can be important means of sharing official information about recovery. Sharing that information through community groups, networks and social media can also be a way of reaching more people.
Ensure that communications are accessible to all, taking into consideration people’s diverse needs and circumstances.
WHAT WE KNOW
Social capital is a double-edged sword – it can be a powerful engine of recovery and social progress, but it can hinder recovery and exacerbate inequities (2,22). For marginalised groups, trusted relationships with peers, services and advocates can be crucial (35). However, social capital can benefit those within a well-connected group at the expense of those on the outside (2,22). In-groups often mobilise to protect their own interests, which can inhibit broader recovery, shift burdens onto the less connected and entrench stigma and disadvantage (2,35–40).
There is evidence from the USA that poverty increases more after disasters if there is a growth in organisations that bond people who are alike together and may constrict resources to the ‘in-group’ (e.g. religious organisations) (22,41). By contrast, increases in advocacy organisations – which foster bridging and linking social capital amongst a broader range of people and institutions – appear to reduce poverty rates (41). There is also evidence suggesting that the sense of community generated by involvement in community organisations is not only linked to relationships within the organisation, but also to the outward focus and influence of the organisation (42).
Advocacy organisations should be activated, supported and funded (along with direct service organisations), as they are able to attract external resources, foster sense of community, and promote equity in the distribution of services and resources.
WHAT WE KNOW
Social networks and connection to a community can influence people’s decisions about relocating or living locally after a disaster. Neighbourhoods with high levels of social capital tend to repopulate more quickly after disasters (2,3). Following Black Saturday, strong sense of community was a reason people chose to stay locally, while for others damaged sense of community arising from disagreements and changes to the local area led to decisions to relocate (4,5). After Hurricane Katrina, survivors relied on information about the plans of their neighbours, friends and store owners when deciding whether to return to New Orleans or relocate (2,6).
Decisions about relocation may be further complicated for Aboriginal peoples with connections to Country in the disaster-affected area (7,8). In addition to the ramifications for social, cultural and political life, these decisions are influenced by the distinctive nature of the formally recognised rights and interests held by Aboriginal peoples – such as native title, which cannot be bought or sold – as compared to non-Indigenous land ownership (7).
What local groups, spaces, resources and activities help people connect with each other socially? How can these be supported? Be sure these opportunities are culturally sensitive and support marginalised groups.
Facilitate ways for people to connect (e.g. through free local events) even if they are far apart (e.g. community pages on social media).
Are there people who will have less opportunity to decide whether to stay or relocate than others (e.g. those in public housing or in rental homes)? Identify opportunities to help these people to connect and access support.
WHAT WE KNOW
Relocating or living locally after a disaster is likely to alter recovery experiences, but the implications for long-term wellbeing are complex and variable. Benefits of staying locally include opportunities for shared processing and community connection, although this can be undermined if friends and neighbours choose to leave (4,9,10). Those who relocate may feel guilt over this and be less socially connected in their new homes, but may benefit from stepping away from the post-disaster disruption (4). Their mental health may be protected if they have new neighbours who have also relocated from the same area (11).
Negative effects of evacuations and relocation for Aboriginal peoples include inability to maintain proper relations with Country, disconnection from Country and family, and loss of resources, all of which occurs in the historical context of dispossession and forced relocation under settler colonialism (8,12).
Establish a communications register so people who have been impacted by disasters can receive information about services, events, grants and research over time if they wish, even if they do not live in affected areas.
Provide information to people facing decisions about rebuilding or relocating about the sorts of stressors and benefits they are likely to face in each scenario.
Recovery support packages (and case support worker approaches) should be tailored to match the stressors that people are likely to face based on whether they are staying locally or relocating. Planning should include consideration regarding how those who have relocated will be able to access support services and information.
When mass relocation is needed (temporarily or longer-term), enable people from the same area to live near each other.
WHAT WE KNOW
Communities affected by disasters often receive support from broader society, including resources, guidance and emotional support (2,16,23). When this support is responsive to local needs it generally plays a positive role in recovery (30,31). Communities with greater ability to draw on these external connections tend to fare better (2,15,32,33).
Identify and support the communities that are least likely to be able to draw on connections to government and broader society and advocate for their needs.
WHAT WE KNOW
Given the importance of social connectedness in disaster recovery, further evidence is needed on the impacts of physical distancing measures in response to pandemics, and interventions that can maintain and build social connections in these contexts.
How can social capital be built and maintained, particularly for those most at risk of isolation, in the context of a pandemic?
This resource has been developed through the Recovery Capitals (ReCap) project, which is an Australia-Aotearoa New Zealand collaboration. The ReCap project is being undertaken by the University of Melbourne and Massey University in New Zealand, with the support of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. Australian Red Cross is the lead partner organisation. Illustrations by Oslo Davis. ReCap logo by Alana Pirrone and Oslo Davis.