The Five Dilemmas of Participation in Resilience: A Guideline for Practitioners

Blog post by Kem Lowry, adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center, with Micah Fisher


In the past few years of delivering coursework, workshops, and trainings on vulnerability assessments for climate adaptation and resilience we are often asked about effective practices for working with communities. Community engagement comes in many forms and for multiple purposes, but too often community surveys, meetings, workshop, charrettes, or other forms of engagement are organized simply to get community comments on plans that are already completed or decisions that have already been made.[1]

Participatory mapping exercise outside of Manokwari, West Papua

Because the impacts of climate change in some communities are likely to be so consequential and potentially disruptive and the public and private costs of adaptation so high, the necessary community engagement for such communities is likely to be prolonged and emotionally charged. Planners, community organizers, local politicians and others will be working with communities to make decisions that affect residents’ sense of place and social identity, their financial security, and their faith in their fellow citizens and in government. Those of us engaged in this work need to be attentive to some of the predictable dilemmas likely to arise—and to consider how we should prepare ourselves. We have identified several of these dilemmas below:

  1. How do we present ourselves to vulnerable communities as authentic partners? Before we unroll our maps, assemble our newsprint stands and set up the PowerPoint presentation at a community meeting, it’s useful to ask ourselves who we are in the lives of community residents. Are we seen as anonymous [or familiar!] bureaucrats or experts about to bury them in information they won’t know how to use? Are we regarded as imperfect messengers to public officials? How do we jointly establish expectations about roles, responsibility and authority for a deliberative process that may engage us over the next several months or years?
  2. How do we earn and maintain community trust? Every planner, community organizer or facilitator should understand that in starting a community engagement process you are part of a history of engagement or non-engagement about which you may be ignorant or misinformed. Every ineffective meeting, perceived broken promise, misunderstanding or lack of follow-through is part of that history. The best intentions may get you in the community door, but previous community experiences are an invisible shadow that is sometimes manifest in rude comments, tightly folded arms and passive aggressive questions. Trust building can be a long process but one usually successful way to begin is by jointly setting expectations for the process, keeping commitments about seemingly small things [meeting times and places convenient to the community] and larger ones [providing information which the group has requested, getting commitments from public officials]. Because of the technical uncertainty about the timing, severity and geographic scope of some climate change impacts, there is a danger that revised estimates may undermine the trust of the group. Continuing conversations about the implications of uncertainty about technical estimates of impact and uncertainty about the “best” adaptation strategy are essential to maintain trust.
  3. What do we want from community engagement? Pressed to candidly answer this question, many of us might mention “shared recognition of the issues as we see them,” “support for our analysis,” or something similar. Too often we spend too little time reflecting on the knowledge and expertise within the community and how we might tap that knowledge more effectively. First and foremost, residents are knowledgeable about their own community. For example, most of the sites we have visited have an intimate knowledge of how frequently they are flooded and the areas that are most frequently flooded. They are often aware of how watershed management or mismanagement has affected the frequency and severity of flooding. They know how solid waste disposal activities have resulted in blocked drainage canals and who is most responsible for those waste disposal practices. They know what types of household level and community level adaptation activities have already been tried. They know which government agencies have been most accessible and helpful in addressing flooding and other community problems. They know who in the community is most vulnerable to the impacts of flooding or other impacts. Many of them have thought about the types of interventions that might make their community less vulnerable to flooding and other impacts and how public agencies could support them most effectively. They are also more acutely aware of their own adaptive capacity; their ability to deal with periodic flooding as a predictable nuisance and to weigh the costs of that nuisance against potential adaptive measures that might involve relocation or other community dislocations. Our challenge as outsiders is to figure what questions will help us mine their knowledge and understand their value priorities in the development of adaptation strategies.
  4. How do we listen effectively for meaning and understanding? Some communities have complex histories of injustice and public neglect. As outsiders, we can’t necessarily expect residents of such communities to engage immediately in conversations about climate risk, vulnerability assessments and adaptation measures. Rather than discuss options for reducing flooding, residents may want time and space in meetings and forums to bear witness to long-standing issues of lack of access to public services, lack of economic opportunities and feelings of social, economic and political marginalization. They want to be acknowledged, listened to, and taken seriously. Before we can engage communities about climate adaptation, effective engagement may sometimes require us to take the time to listen to stories of community pain and to seek to understand the meaning behind that pain.
  5. To whom are we accountable in community engagement? What is the nature of that accountability? Public agencies, private firms, NGOs, or universities employ many of us engaged in working with communities. We work within a web of formal and informal obligations and expectations created by contracts, schedules, professional codes of ethics, other responsibilities and norms of “good practice”. Some of these obligations and expectations may complicate our community engagement efforts. Done conscientiously, community work often requires prolonged engagement. Clients, like government agencies, want predictable schedules and budgets. We need not demonize declining budgets for community outreach or romanticize community work to recognize these constraints are real. At the same time, efficiency cannot be our sole or even primary guiding principle in working with communities. Having worked together at the outset of a community engagement process to establish a set of expectations about the design of a community deliberation process and intended outputs, we are accountable to them our fidelity to that set of expectations. Faced with conflicts between declining budgets, pressures from directors or CEOs and our accountability to the expectations of the communities with which we work, practitioners employ a variety of stratagems including bargaining with their employers for more resources, suggesting the possibility of a new community contract, working on a “no cost” basis or finding some other means of meeting their commitments. Working with integrity requires us to be constantly attentive to the expectations we are creating and the obligations associated with those expectations.
Focus group discussions with local officials and community members in Kemijen, Semarang





[1] A point made years ago in Shelly Arnstein’s much cited, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”  [Journal of the American Institute of Planning, Vol. 35, no. 4, 1969, pp. 216-224.

Reflections on Resilience Planning in Semarang: Studio/Practicum, one year on

Blog post by Micah Fisher, Learning from Disasters

Today we are reflecting on blogs from almost exactly a year ago. If you go back through the archives on learning from disasters you will notice a series of posts from our work in Semarang from Fall semester 2016. At the Department of Urban and Regional Planning we called this intensive master’s course a practicum, while our counterparts and partners at Diponegoro conduct a similar course, which they call their studio requirement.

Going through our posts from a year ago, we reflected on the thorough approach we undertook to learn about Semarang’s Resilient City plan. As part of this studio/practicum we were asked to help prepare plans to address implementation strategies in the complex subdistrict of Kemijen, a coastal community in the Northern part of Semarang.

A year later, we have returned to learn that the students from Diponegoro had expanded the scope of their studio to also incorporate planning for the neighboring kampong of Tambaklorok. Tambaklorok suffers from similar challenges as Kemijen.


We recall that in our original mandate for the practicum study in Kemijen we were asked to develop a comprehensive strategy to address barriers for overcoming flooding. In that process we learned that dramatic subsidence issues had completely transformed the community. We pored through the history of the Dutch and railway enterprises there, and how these coastal communities literally began to sink away. Yet the strategic location also meant people depending on employment opportunities in the area, and continued to stay, even in deteriorated living conditions. Furthermore, informal communities began to sprout up all around the area and continue to grow as a dense informal settlement area in a strategic part of the city of Semarang.

Complementing our practicum report on Kemijen from earlier this year, the Diponegoro studio students put together a rich and thorough planning document continuing our work and expanding it to aspects of site planning. Through intensive coordination with the city planning agency and other members of the 100 Resilient City taskforce for Semarang, the studio/practicum helped to raise some key issues in their decision making process.

The students were very generous to spend a full afternoon with us to discuss some of the outcomes of the work we had done there. Indeed it was like a reunion with close friends! We also spent the following morning going to the field to revisit the communities to see first hand how change had taken place in Kemijen and reflect on some of the ways we framed the issues, and perhaps look for evidence on how different initiatives are being implemented.


Student Reflections

We first wanted to describe some of the student impressions from their studio experience. They immediately brought to the fore the contrast between what the city had planned to do and the “wicked” problem of subsidence that we identified:

I think the subsidence problem is really dangerous. In our studio any of the planning issues we tried to take on, we seemed to always be coming back to the problem of subsidence. We really tried to search for solutions but subsidence really raised the importance of doing something comprehensive. I am still thinking about different ways for addressing the land subsidence until now. 

Back in Hawaii prior to our visit, our interactions with students all noted that it was one of the best learning experiences they had as graduate students. For UH students the topic was important, but more so the intensity of the working experience going to a new country paired with students from another university and working on a tough planning challenge, that was also getting committed attention from influential decisionmakers in the city, was indeed an unforgettable experience for us as educators as well.


Here are some of the responses from the Diponegoro students:

When we first went there the living conditions were really bad. We didn’t understand why anybody would want to live there. And they don’t want to move. I was very surprised about that. But after we went back again and again we began to understand. We began to see the people and understand their decisions and priorities. Some people were born there, or the location is near their jobs, or they have no other options. But we also found that not all of them are poor. Some of them have more money and have other houses in hilly areas but they still stay there because it is a strategic location.

I think the most important thing is how to convince people who are exposed to these natural disasters to not live there and relocate to other areas. This problem probably comes from institutions where they can’t provide security to give them homes and a better living condition.

Such considerations also provided fodder for discussions around complex decisions about the basis for decision making for planners and decision makers. What are the responsibilities to plan for people living in highly vulnerable situations that do not want to move? How do you come up with criteria for making the strategic decisions that incorporate input from key stakeholders in building such a process? At one point do you make these decisions and how do you stage its implementation? These are ongoing questions that we continue to grapple with throughout our posts in learning from disasters.


Another key finding from our discussions with Diponegoro students highlighted the utility of the report. We made a big point about how the majority of plans get shelved away and we talked a lot about how to be strategic and responsible in initiating change. Although our report was commissioned by the city resilience taskforce, we were ahppy to hear that our commitment to interact with communities had paid off. One student noted that not only had the city used the findings from the report to improve community services, or according to one student:

In Kemijen, some people asked about our report so that they could use it in the musrenbang [bottom up planning process] to support their programs and get further justification for approval.


Finally, as master’s students their studies are quickly approaching graduation. We asked about progress on their thesis plans, as well as how the experience might shape their future career plans. One student responded:

For me the experience really made me wonder how to apply these approaches in our work. How do you work with the government and convince them to do the comprehensive approaches to support communities? It is very difficult to do. I myself, am taking leave from my post in a city government nearby. I’m within the system, in the government, but to introduce these type of approaches there’s still a long way to go. It is a lot of pressure for us. Perhaps in the future, I hope, having gone through this, it will give us new possibilities to learn about the study of vulnerability and the application of resilience. Although I do think the problems in Semarang are more complex than other areas.

Visiting Kemijen and Tambaklorok

The Diponegoro students were also gracious to take us around the two communities. Here are a series of photos that highlight some of the complex issues we’ve been discussing.


Pedagogical Challenge: Moving from Projects to Systems Resilience

Blog post by Micah Fisher, Learning from Disasters

We’re in Indonesia conducting a program evaluation of the past four years working on a program called “building resilience through training.” The University of Hawaii has partnered with various Indonesian universities to develop curriculum, deliver training, and explore opportunities for developing other educational programs. We’ve also worked at a national and regional level, developing trainings with universities and government partners on disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) targeted at civil servants and multi-stakeholder forums that included NGOs, local community groups, and educators.

Assessing exposure in Kemijen, Semarang

One thing that has struck us as a common theme in recent years is the overwhelming demand for learning the skills for project-oriented work. People really want to know how to deal with these increasingly complex hazards. In the short courses that we’ve partnered with local universities to deliver, in Ternate, Manokwari, Maumere, Ambon, Semarang, Yogyakarta, and Bandung, there has been a great demand to learn about project preparation. As a result much of the training goes through the processes of understanding natural disaster hazards, then we learn how to account for additional threats from climate. Thereafter we learn the skills of applying the vulnerability framework to develop a thorough assessment.


One of the great innovations of the short courses are the inclusion of a field component. In other words, after learning the frameworks and emphasizing systems thinking to conduct assessments, we actually go out and spend a concerted amount of time engaging with a community. The field component has been valuable for us for two reasons. First, it has meant a tremendous opportunity to visit various hazards and recovery sites, including flooded locations in South Bandung, Dam ruptures in Maluku, volcanic slopes in Ternate and Yogyakarta, Tsunami affected areas in Pangandaran and Manokwari, which also cover different features ranging from urban, peri-urban, and rural settings, to upland, island and coastal areas. Second, and more importantly, multistakeholder participants trying to apply their frameworks have selected difficult challenges for risk reduction. Upon revisiting these sites we have noticed a lot more nuanced attention by our partners to addressing the identified vulnerabilities.

Going out to collect data for vulnerability assessments in Kemijen

The field component allowed course participants to apply systems thinking. By systems thinking we mean that there are multiple interrelated factors that define vulnerability, and furthermore, numerous ways to approach addressing a broader set of issues. That said, although we’ve tried to emphasize the importance of developing strategies and systems thinking, the professional mandate and interests among course participants continue to bring us back to the inner-workings of project preparation. For example, as our workshops wind down, discussions invariably  shift back to the ‘practical’ applications and participant day jobs. This includes proposing and spending budgets, carrying out tasks like improving roadways, building flood infrastructure, and seeking additional funding sources from international, regional and local donor institutions. Most of these funding proposals also have a short window to execute a very limited scope of interventions. Thus we are not surprised that participants are often brought back into the project system.

Community consultations in Semarang after initial vulnerability assessments

This presents a bit of a dilemma for us as instructors. On the one hand, our interests are to teach these very important skills — from framing a project, collecting the data, creating a process, convening the groups, finding the right sources, setting baselines to monitoring implementation. The thirst for this knowledge and the ability to impart practical approaches to doing so indicate a very encouraging sign. On the other hand, we also notice the limitations on the overemphasis of project thinking.


We believe that the strength — or shall we say the resiliency of resilience — is in the potential that the term provides to really think in terms of systems. In addition, resilience also allows us to re-engage on the age-old planning challenging to think in timescales beyond the political cycle. How do we begin preparing, as climate adaptation suggests, for futures 10, 20, 50, 100 years on? Let’s think about a rather simplified example as a diagnostic and explanatory potential, which encapsulates the project vs systems resilience dilemma. It is a theme we have across at several locations in Indonesia.


Consider the case of a regularly flooded municipal area, perhaps the most common and disruptive ailment of cities across Indonesia. To respond, the city puts together a project to conducts a vulnerability assessment. They do all the right things. They incorporate climate data and pull together a funded plan, incorporated into the planning and development process. They fulfill their annual budget requirements to clean drainage canals in that area. They even get the community involved, build new and necessary  drainage functions, put together teams to maintain solid waste outputs, install a new waste management system. We are talking best case scenario. However, in the next rainy season the area floods again, and because our case involves a coastal city experiencing land subsidence, salt water intrusion, coastal erosion, and tidal floods, compound the problems that the city do not have the plans to anticipate, or budgets to mitigate agains.

Coastal roadway in Oahu requiring continued maintenance due to coastal exposure

All the work in our hypothetical city, to be sure, has had dramatic impacts to protect and reduce damages to its residents; and yet, the problem doesn’t actually seem to get better. This is because the hazards are also changing with new considerations. We believe that systems resilience requires an approach beyond the project system, and really underpins the strengths of thinking in terms of systems resilience. By applying systems resilience to our example, we can begin to think about the broader issues of deforestation and development in the upper watersheds; we can think about solutions that incorporate storage systems in these upper areas to contain water (and perhaps use it for water supply storage). We can incorporate a longer time climate scales based on new climate date. We can think about mortgage and insurance schemes that incorporate incentives and disincentives based on vulnerability assessments that tell us the risks and the costs of building in this area. We can play the short game of the projects but also make settlement options more attractive in lower risk areas. A slew of possibilities come to mind. Overall however, we can have a process that begins to learn at all levels of the systems, which can more comprehensively take on the problem, and more effectively incorporate solutions across the system.


So how do we move to to thinking in terms of resilient systems? Climate change has certainly raised the impetus to be thinking much further into the future. Yet, the project cycle, the business-as-usual, the difficulty of coordination (or what our Indonesian counterparts aptly term “ego-sectoral” interest and the challenges of mainstreaming), are ingrained ways of implementation that are difficult to break. If anything, the impetus for action encourages even more emphasis on project action.


So what do you think? What would it take to make this shift? How could we incorporate new approaches into our teaching models, training curriculum, field assessments?

Ridwan Lessy of Khairun University delivers a module of the short course in Manokwari