Having worked deep in the bowels of the world’s largest and arguably its most successful but also now its least recognised disaster recovery program—the reconstruction of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami—I have come to reflect on one of its most important elements. It is a simple concept called resilience.
Resilience is the hallmark of individual and group strength. The measure of our resilience can be seen in the speed with which we recover from any loss. This applies no less in disasters as to any other walk of life, be it in politics, business, sport, families or individual affairs.
Disasters test resilience like nothing else. Repeated disasters truly test it. Some push people to and beyond breaking point. Others strengthen the very people they harm. In both cases, disasters change everyone touched by them in some way. We are different for the experience.
Personally, I am more measured, more confident and more audacious for my experience in overseeing Aceh’s recovery—more measured in my humility to the enormous powers of man and nature that can leave us so out of our depth that we sink and swim while trying to cope and adapt; more confident because I have tested myself against some of the best in the world and found them more wanting than myself; and more audacious in consequently caring less about what others think so am more willing to chance my hand in making a positive contribution regardless of protests.
We Australians are a resilient lot, overall. We are bred of stout predecessors who paved the way as pioneers of great prosperity even as they destroyed the social resilience of those they replaced. We have battled nature no less than each other in forging a national identity tested in battle against fire, flood and drought as much as war.
So far, we have done well, generally speaking. But times are changing. There is only so much emotional and financial resilience in the personal bank accounts of the average citizen. It is now being tested more than ever by economic disasters as by any others. And the economic tests are now constant, certainly more so than those of the occasional natural disasters that capture the headlines more readily but which cause less endemic social and economic disruption.
There are many indicators of this—the great loss of middle class jobs as technology replaces many previously secure occupations, the collapse of industries that can no longer compete in the global marketplace, youth suicide, alcohol fuelled violence, the epidemic of sexing among the very young and so on. And we are the lucky country? Hopefully, yes. But we need to be a lot smarter to survive and prosper in a world that is changing at a pace many can hardly keep up with.
To do this, we need the strongest possible education system. And not one focused primarily on imparting a set of technical skills. We also need a far stronger set of thinking skills.
The ability to think clearly and independently is central to resilience. We need to be a nation that can see ahead of the current game in order to be ready for the next. We need to out-think the competition by spotting opportunities and riding trends long before anyone else has a clue they even exist. We need to distinguish causes from symptoms to ensure we are solving the right problems instead of just floundering reactively in response to the latest issue that comes slapping us in the face. We need to develop institutions that can adapt with speed to changing circumstances, not least among them our educational institutions.
When a factory in Geelong closes, we need to be able re-equip its workers with new skills and to do so with the blinding speed required of disasters, not the drawn-out tedium of some long tertiary course the knowledge from which may itself be irrelevant in a couple of years. We need to link education with industry and trade opportunities to break them from the stovepipes they currently reside in.
Resilience comes from being able to not just adapt but also exploit the advantages that flow from disasters. Our resilience is highest when we are confident in having access to the resources that can help. It comes from knowing we can approach an institution of learning through the human face of personal account managers instead of the bureaucratic wall of student admissions.
It comes from…well…a range of things that are the opposite of business as usual. The maths curriculum could be geared to teaching practical wealth creation, 1+1>2 in addition to 1+1=2. Sport could be a core subject that teaches the language of strategic flexibility and adaptability in structural organisation through which teams are able to rapidly change from defence to offence and back again with hardly a hiccup.
The challenge for us as a community lies in being able to recognise and re-orient the inherent strengths of our great institutions to produce not just a better, smarter more adaptive and resilient next generation, but also a better, smarter more adaptive and resilient present one.
This is the seventh article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jane Beesley/Oxfam