How do you help people cope with shocks? A liquid brainstorm with Robert Chambers

March 15, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Robert Chambers

Robert Chambers

At an IDS seminar last week, part of its excellent Crisis Watch initiative, Steve Wiggins from ODI argued that his research on the food price crisis shows that during an actual shock, state initiatives are much less important to poor people than their own social coping mechanisms as individuals, communities or through local institutions like churches. These mechanisms include borrowing money, sharing food, collective action etc. It’s what we called ‘resilience’ in our work on the global economic crisis, where a number of studies have identified similar patterns. But in any case, when a shock hits, governments ‘have to be seen to act’ and their actions can help (or hinder) this coping strategy.

If similar conclusions apply to other kinds of shock, then it leads to a slightly different way of looking at public action to reduce vulnerability. I spent dinner thrashing this out with the inspirational Robert Chambers (author’s note, Robert deleted ‘inspirational’ and substituted ‘inebriated and senile’, but I rejected his amendment):

The argument/hypothesis runs something like this

1. We acknowledge that ‘social coping’, rather than state intervention, is often the main way that poor people manage shocks in the short term
2. But coping carries heavy costs, depleting assets, energy, health and social capital if it is not replenished
3. Coping capacity can be strengthened through state or other public action, which can

  1. Build it prior to the shock
  2. Replenish it afterwards and
  3. Support it during the shock

Off the top of our suitably lubricated heads, we came up with a list of possible practical policy applications of this approach

Before/after crises, governments and donors could focus on

  1. Preventing shocks from happening in the first place (eg conflict prevention, prudential bank regulation, good macroeconomic management)
  2. Make sure loan sharks don’t prey on poor people’s need for finance during a crisis (e.g. interest rates caps, support to microfinance for emergency loans)
  3. Recognize the role played in disaster response by churches, mosques, temples and other community based organizations by investing in pre-shock disaster management training and capacity building (eg stockpiling relevant materials)
  4. Prevail on all those sniffer dog/angel of mercy outfits to switch from arriving at the scene of a disaster too late to save anyone, to twinning with half a dozen vulnerable communities ‘in peacetime’, and help them build skills and resources to cope when a shock hits. Imagine if all those European firefighters could have built up stockpiles of pickaxes in Port au Prince ahead of the earthquake, rather than sitting around getting frustrated in airports after the event.
  5. Encourage better off local people/businesses to provide informal guarantees to schools or clinics that they will pick up the tab for the cost of books, uniforms or essential drugs in the event of a shock to prevent people dropping out of the system when disaster strikes
  6. Put in place a system to prevent debt foreclosures on homes, land or other crucial assets, for example through pre-agreed repayment holidays

During crises, they could support social coping by

  1. Providing access to information (radio, speaker vans, billboards, texts) on sources of help and who needs what
  2. Support connectedness and ‘moral messaging’ – respected local figures calling on citizens to visit 5 neighbours today, that kind of thing
  3. Support asset prices – people sell low during a shock (lots of sellers, no buyers), then buy
    A new form of disaster response?

    A new form of disaster response?

    high (if at all) when the situation is reversed during the recovery. Why not set up pro poor pawn shops where they get the same price at both ends, and so do not run down their assets?

To see if these ideas are barmy or brilliant, we need a better understanding of how social coping strategies actually work and could be strengthened. We could, for example, research areas of coping failure (comparable to market failures), that may require state and/or donor action.

So why not study how people cope in both normal and crisis periods, by accompanying a number of poor families to compile ‘coping diaries’, based on a similar methodology to the ‘financial diaries’ that formed the basis of Portfolios of the Poor? If we set up coping diaries in enough communities, they would tell us how people cope with idiosyncratic (i.e. individual or family) shocks, like a car accident or losing your job, and some communities would be struck by collective shocks, such as big price swings, weather events or earthquakes. Perhaps we could design it in such a way to rapidly scale up the number of diaries in the latter. If it was half as revealing as Portfolios of the Poor, which afterall is a study of financial aspects of coping strategies, it could be money well spent Anyone know if this has been done already? If not, any takers?