Community participation by local groups can play a significant role in processes that support sustainability. It can fill the gaps in human and financial resources that hamper government’s capacity to deliver public services. Through volunteerism and by building social cohesion, local groups can help authorities identify activities that can improve the welfare of the community.
When a tsunami struck Maldives on 26 December 2004, partnerships with community groups made the country’s road to recovery smoother. In particular, the Women’s Development Committees helped affected communities develop livelihood opportunities and raise awareness on climate change adaptation and disaster management. These committees were created to eliminate gender disparities and improve the health, education, and economic wellbeing of women as well as increase their political participation.
Maldives is an archipelago of over 1,190 small coral islands. Some 80% of the land is less than 1 meter above sea level. The highest point is only 2.8 meters, which is the lowest highest point in the world. As a result, many of the inhabited islands are ecologically at risk of climate and disaster-induced changes.
The 2004 tsunami directly affected about one third of the population. All except nine islands were flooded, and the communities in 13 islands were completely evacuated. The losses were estimated at $470.1 million or 62% of the gross domestic product, excluding environmental damages.
There was pressure for the government to provide humanitarian services quickly. However, logistical challenges—inadequate human resources and transport issues as the islands are widely dispersed—and the emphasis of international aid organizations on a participatory approach led to a system with close working relationships with civil society groups in the islands. For example, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) worked closely with the Women’s Development Committees and other community groups to reach out to affected families. This includes finding shelter and developing livelihood opportunities.
In the initial process for identifying individuals with lost assets, those who worked in the informal sector were not included and most of them are women. In Maldives, women with small businesses often had no official business registration documents. They had no way to prove that they had lost their livelihood. The Ministry of Gender and Family requested the assistance of Women’s Development Committees to conduct a participatory verification process.
Maldives aimed to build back better after the tsunami. This involved restoring and improving damaged facilities and raising the people’s climate and disaster awareness and capacities. UNDP initiated programs to help communities develop livelihood activities. Women were particularly targeted among the internally displaced populations, and the livelihood activities were those that also promoted adaptation to climate change.
On Alifushi island, the Women’s Development Committees promoted sustainable farming. A supply sales center was established to make it easier and less expensive for farmers to buy materials instead of traveling all the way to the capital, Malé. Farmers were also guided on pest control measures and sustainable farming practices. They learned the best ways of using fertilizers and how to avoid further polluting the groundwater that was already affected by increased saltwater intrusion because of the tsunami.
On Ukulhas island, the Women’s Development Committees initiated and developed hydroponics farming as an alternative source of income for the fisher families.
- Women’s Development Committees and other community groups can pool their knowledge and skills to start different activities. However, they need technical guidance especially when climate change impacts and disaster preparedness are involved. Local communities often only have a limited understanding of these.
- As community participation exists in various forms in different countries, it is important to recognize the local context. International organizations must also understand and encourage consultation with the local councils and groups, especially when designing development projects.
- Governments must enable a collaborative environment. Local leaders must recognize the benefit of working cooperatively with local groups. Such processes do not have to be top-down, but rather must be designed in a participatory way.
- Sustainable projects involve appropriate strategies for production and marketing. This is a challenging area for community groups. Support and guidance must be provided on how to innovate and diversify products for income generation. Partnerships with the private sector must be leveraged.
- Community groups and local councils must synergize their efforts to help communities become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Asian Development Bank ADB. 2014. Maldives: Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors. Manila.
A. Kute and S. Ronchini. 2005. Rapid Assessment Report of the Impact of the Tsunami in the Maldives. World Food Programme.
E. Scheper et al. 2006. Impact of the Tsunami Response on Local and National Capacities. Tsunami Evaluation Coalition.
M.T. Hamid et al. 2015. Assessment of Women’s Development Committees in the Maldives. Transparency Maldives.