05 Dec 2018
In 2011, Japan experienced its most powerful earthquake on record, the Great Tohoku earthquake, and its resulting tsunami. The tsunami caused devastating structural damage across Japan, including a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate the affected area, and across the rest of Japan, up to 45 million people were affected by rolling blackouts.

A disaster of such scale poses enormous problems for public coordination and management in the aftermath. The efforts of governments alone are usually not enough, and public participation is required in a country’s efforts to rebuild itself.

Assistant Professor Naomi Aoki, who researches in public administration and disaster governance at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), tells Global-is-Asian what drives people to help each other when a disaster occurs and what governments can do to ensure better public management in disaster relief efforts.

Mutual aid agreements: Reciprocity as a driving factor

Helping others usually entails giving up resources meant for oneself. In the wake of a disaster, this could mean sharing space with those displaced, or giving up human resources, such as rescue teams and engineers helping out other municipalities, amongst other things. Therefore, the idea of reciprocity, which centres on mutual benefit, functions as a strong driving factor in our willingness to help others.

In her paper “Who would be willing to accept disaster debris in their backyard?”, Dr Aoki studied the impacts of the perceived costs and benefits of accepting disaster waste. Post-Fukushima, a prominent concern for people was giving up their land for the benefit of other communities. An important incentive for them to share their resources was the hope of generating positive feelings from the communities they were helping or the expectation of national subsidies to improve the facilities in their own communities.

Whilst mired in selfish motives, Japan has demonstrated how reciprocity on a larger scale could help to create a society that is agreeable to promoting inter-local aid. Following the Kumamoto earthquakes in 2016, the governor of the Miyagi Prefecture said at a press conference, “We will do our best to help Kumamoto and prioritise returning a favour for those who have helped us.” He even went on to say that they would proceed although doing so could impede its own recovery. As Dr Aoki explains, it is important for politicians to express such sentiments, and doing so helps to promote an environment where communities help each other.

In fact, as of 2016, 97.9% of the municipalities in Japan had committed to mutual aid agreements. Such agreements are not unique to Japan. In the United States (US), the Emergency Management Assistance Compact serves as a state-to-state mutual aid system, and many states also operate community-to-community mutual aid agreements, such as California's state-wide Master Mutual Aid Agreement.

Such initiatives could also be extended to other less developed countries in Southeast Asia, which also frequently experience natural disasters. Professor Vinod Thomas, from LKYSPP states that amongst ASEAN countries, there are vast gaps in disaster prevention and mitigation. He suggests bridging the gap by establishing resource pools that can be deployed across the region.

Collectivism as a cultural catalyst

It could also be argued that culture plays a part in our willingness to help others. Societies that lean towards collectivism, where the group is prioritised above the self, may foster a greater willingness to provide aid. In Japan, for example, collectivism seems more prevalent compared to normal countries, with some even going so far as to say it is part of their DNA.Could this explain why such communities in Japan were so quick to adapt and allow for inter-local aid, possibly at the expense of their own immediate community?

Or perhaps we’re all intrinsically wired to help each other, although not necessarily for altruistic reasons. Dr Aoki’s aforementioned paper explains that it is possible all humans are predisposed to help, but mainly because they want to ensure the survival of their genes. She points out a study that tested such a theory, with the results showing that, in life-or-death situations, people are more likely to help closer, younger and healthier relatives, or those more likely to produce “viable offspring”.

Once again, cultural contexts may have a part to play. Dr Aoki explains that, although Japan received much international help, there is still a prevailing mentality amongst the Japanese that they have to cope with their own disasters. This “creates pressure on policymakers in Japan to really work on local domestic mechanisms”. This can be useful as reciprocity can breed complacency if municipalities become dependent on external help. Therefore, it is important for governments to cultivate a mindset amongst citizens that they first have to help themselves.

Compassion and its inevitable collapse

Last, but not least, is the simple notion of human compassion. How long does the public remain empathetic after a disaster? According to Dr Aoki, one concept that determines how willing people are to help is attribution theory, or how responsible the victims are for their situation. Studies have shown that, “People are more willing to donate to victims of an uncontrollable natural disaster, than to victims of human-caused disasters, such as wars”.

Another factor is whether the needy party is an individual or a group. Whilst those who identify as belonging to a common group may be more willing to help one another, people are actually less likely to help other groups, compared to individuals, in times of disaster. This collapse of compassion occurs because it is harder for humans to make emotional judgments about abstract numbers.

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the gradual lessening or disconnect from compassion, especially amongst people in social work or caring roles. Social media hurls a constant barrage of information at us, and people not only forget about incidents quickly, but also become desensitised due to constantly being exposed to the suffering of others.

However, prosocial behaviour is more prevalent in populations that have received help in the past. Dr Aoki found in another study that people who have received help from another municipality in the past were more willing to send human resources to a needy municipality. This suggested that an enhanced sense of reciprocity could in fact increase the levels of compassion, and help to create a society congenial to promoting aid between communities.

How can governments improve public management in the wake of a disaster?

Dr Aoki identifies four areas that governments should consider in times of disaster. First, the importance of public trust. Whenever natural disasters occur, people tend to blame the government for not responding quickly enough or in the right manner. In order to convince the public to follow its requests, it is important to ensure that the public has trust in the government.

Second, communication plays an important role in shaping people’s perceptions. When disasters occur, the public tends to already be in a state of fear. It is essential for the government to be transparent and clear in their communication, so that the public can fully understand its plans and believe in their benefits.

The next important consideration for governments is the ability to adapt. Instead of assuming that their systems are good and will work, leaders should be ready to form new governance to address new needs that may not have previously been anticipated.

Lastly, expect the unexpected, as we can never really fully prepare for the next big event. What we can do in the meantime though is to cultivate prosocial behaviours that allow society – both individuals and governments – to stay flexible and ready to adapt to any new challenge that might present itself.