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Coming to the Rescue

Government alone can't save the day when disaster strikes. But it can help people save themselves.

(Illustration / Brian Stauffer)

In the days and weeks since the levees in New Orleans broke, most liberals - and even some conservatives - have blamed the weak response on federal mismanagement and policies aimed at shrinking government. The criticisms implied that a mightier government would have been able to respond more quickly, avert more misery, and save more lives. It's the view of government-as-Lone Ranger, rushing in to save hapless victims.

And it's true: Hurricane Katrina showed us that government needs to be far more capable than it is. But competent administration is only one part of dealing effectively with shocks like hurricanes and terrorist attacks, as well as slow-motion crises like crime, poverty, and homelessness.

The other crucial ingredient is society itself. Families, houses of worship, community organizations, and other social networks form the fabric of support - what some political scientists and sociologists call "social capital" - that enables people to be resilient in the face of terrible stress. Social networks no doubt enabled some New Orleans residents without cars to hitch a ride out of town and will help returning residents find jobs, restart businesses, and rebuild homes. Indeed, government works best when it works with and through the local organizations that can provide intelligence, direct resources, mobilize volunteers, and give voice to urgent needs.

In a study of last year's devastating tsunami, Harvard scholars Daniel Curran and Herman B. "Dutch" Leonard showed that the tenacity of fishermen and farmers acting through their village councils was one of the keys to recovery in Aceh, Indonesia. They argue that international agencies, armies, and governments would have done better to fund these local groups and work with them rather than ride in with their own disaster playbooks.

So, does Massachusetts have the social resources to cope with natural and social disasters? According to a measure of social capital constructed by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, the state is blessed with healthy social fabric in many of its communities. On Putnam's list, which reflects not only volunteerism and voting levels but also how often people entertain guests, Massachusetts ranks 18th among US states. The New England highfliers are Vermont (third) and New Hampshire (eighth). Elsewhere, Louisiana lies near the bottom, at 45th.

Massachusetts should leverage its valuable social resources not only in its disaster planning but also in its dealings with chronic social problems such as violence and poverty. Government should not try to be that Lone Ranger, but it can help communities build strong social networks even as those communities work with government for the public good. One of the best examples comes from Roxbury and Dorchester. In the 1990s, Boston police officers worked closely with an alliance of churches called the Ten-Point Coalition to identify and rehabilitate youth likely to commit violent crimes and prosecute those who broke the law. The effort, credited with greatly reducing the homicide rate, shows that alliances between police and communities can be far more effective than either acting alone.

In Massachusetts and elsewhere, poor communities often have weaker social networks because their members have fewer opportunities to participate in civic groups and because their organizations often struggle to get by. Minneapolis is one city that saw this disparity and did something about it. Since 1990, neighborhoods there have received some $200 million to improve houses, schools, parks, and commercial boulevards. This public money created social capital. Because neighborhood associations were empowered to make investment decisions, many residents became involved. The funds also allowed these groups to hire staff to keep the organizations going. As a result, even the very poorest have functioning community organizations. These groups use their money and mobilize thousands of volunteer hours on countless community projects that enhance the quality of the city's neighborhoods. In a crisis, they could get the word out, organize volunteers, identify victims, and provide support.

But many people still want government to be the sole savior. Several months ago, I had a conversation with a prominent member of this state's political and philanthropic community, and I contrasted the Minneapolis program to Boston's relative lack of collaboration with neighborhood associations. "Why in the world would you want to give money to neighborhood groups?" he asked me. Because if disaster strikes Boston, you'll need their help as much as they need yours.

Archon Fung teaches about public engagement and democracy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author, most recently, of Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy. Send e-mails to

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