Can community-building activities at the grassroots improve disaster resilience?

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A group of Baha'is in the village of Lenkanal, on the Island of Tanna in Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam. Their response suggests that community-building activities at the grassroots can lay the groundwork for greater resilience when humanitarian disasters strike.

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TANNA, Vanuatu--In March 2015, a severe tropical cyclone swept across the island chain of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.

With winds racing up to 250 kilometers per hour, Cyclone Pam took a path directly over Tanna, one of the southernmost islands in the Vanuatu archipelago.

The damage was extensive. Homes were destroyed and trees defoliated. Communication was cut off.

International aid agencies, which responded quickly with emergency flights of food and medicine, described the conditions as among the most challenging they had ever faced, according to news reports at the time.

Although the island has not yet fully recovered, much has been done to rebuild. One factor that may have helped the people of Tanna was a strong sense of togetherness--a cohesion that had been built up in part by extensive community-building activities undertaken there by the local Baha'i community in recent years.

In the community of Isangel, local Baha'is worked with outside relief organizations to help identify the neediest and effectively distribute relief supplies. In this, they used capacities acquired in their own community building efforts --such as collecting statistics, consulting together, and acting systematically --to assist the aid agencies and others to better understand local needs and conditions.

"We used the tools and instruments I had learned about while serving as a coordinator (of Baha'i activities)" said one resident of Tanna. "Many aid organizations approach us when they encounter an obstacle. We suggest to them to work with the chiefs and consult with the people at the grassroots."

In Tumah Mine, a group of young people helped the elders rebuild their houses immediately after the storm. Their efforts were partly inspired by training they have received in a youth empowerment program offered by the Baha'i community, which emphasizes selfless service to others.

And in Namasmetene, a local resident told visitors shortly after the cyclone that their local Baha'i governing body would soon meet to discuss how to assist in the reconstruction process for the entire community.

"We know that we should not depend on aid donors, but that we should take charge of our own...

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