Multi-stakeholder participation and community engagement

Karina Barquet and Maria Osbeck (SEI)

Multi-stakeholder participation and community engagement

In order to manage risks in complex urban settings, collaboration between stakeholders, understood in the EDUCEN project as actors that can affect or are affected by an event, is crucial to reduce, prevent and minimize risks. This is a process that involves sharing knowledge and experiences; identifying barriers and opportunities to address risks in an integrated way (e.g. differences in mandates, administrative, organizational, political and operational cultures of organizations and communities of practice tasked with different aspects of DRR); and understanding why existing knowledge (e.g. on the risk, experiences, and strategies to address it) does not always make a difference in generating the kinds of actions needed to make desired changes at the appropriate (local, national, regional) scale (Matten, 2004).

The EDUCEN project recognizes the cultural (institutional, social and ethnic) perspectives as determining factors in the pursuit of effective Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) plans and strategies. Culture influences how we define and perceive risk but also the kind of actions deemed appropriate in a particular context. In order for actors to collaborate successfully and engage in a learning process, they need to be receptive to changing their own mental models. This starts with the recognition of problems and interests of all the people involved. Insight is gained between one’s own problem and problems of others. In other words, problems are put in a new broader perspective or frame (Aarts & van Woerkum, 2002). By collaborating closely to examine the success of different responses to risks, actors jointly learn which strategies and policies show the most promise.

The cultural learning component in the EDUCEN project has facilitated a learning process to identify enabling and disenabling factors for culture and social dynamics to be recognized in DRR. The process has led to the identification of volunteers and gatekeepers important to strengthen current DRR strategies and plans in Europe.

Culture and learning workshop at SEI headquarters in Stockholm

The role of volunteers in DRR

Volunteering can mean different things to different people. Here we refer to volunteerism as the planned voluntary behavior intended to benefit others, taking place within an organizational setting, for a prolonged period (Cumming, 2012). Volunteerism is a fundamental source of community strength and resilience that exists in all societies. It is expressed through a wide range of activities, including traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, formal service delivery, campaigning and advocacy, as well as other forms of civic participation (UNV, 2011).

The role and contribution of volunteerism is well recognized and highlighted in the Sendai Framework for DRR Reduction as crucial for adopting a more people-centered preventive approach to disaster risk. When a disaster happens, volunteers are often the first to act (UNV, 2011). However, the integration of volunteers and civil society organizations throughout the disaster management cycle varies between different contexts. The form and extent of volunteers’ integration into formal DRR activities, as well as perceptions on what their role differ greatly.

During a workshop with stakeholders from five different European cities in Spain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, participants highlighted the role of volunteer organizations as important for mobilizing society, for communicating across sectors and groups, for negotiating amongst competing demands, and for advocating solutions that benefit groups rather than individuals.

Better training and more resources necessary to support the work of volunteers.

Training and lack of resources are key challenges for developing the network of volunteers in Italy and Spain, and coordination as the main barrier for making volunteers’ work more efficient. Despite the high level of dependence on volunteers during emergencies, there is no political will to finance and improve training for volunteers.

While gatekeepers (discussed below) were seen as crucial for reaching particular social groups, volunteer organizations were considered important for mediating between different social groups. Despite positive developments towards increased civil society participation through volunteer organizations, there remain several challenges related to their integration and coordination, as well as level of trust from civil society. “Sometimes volunteers may be a burden and create additional problems. The timing is crucial to determine who should be involved when. If there are too many without having a clear role they will create problems and require resources for food and accommodation” argued a participant. “In the Spanish case, the lack of coordination and proper training of volunteers can create additional problems. The large, organized associations have their own structure and division of roles, however, coordinating between organizations and the ‘frugal’ volunteers that show up in face of emergency and the government institutions is complicated and very challenging” argued another participant. “Sometimes people do not trust volunteers: in Spain volunteers are a very heterogeneous group, some are professionals and many know what they are doing, but not all of them. There is a perception that they don´t have the knowledge/capacity which is not accurate” argued a participant.

Brainstorming on the role of volunteers in DRR

Less vulnerability coupled with high levels of trust in institutions limits the role of volunteers in DRR

The Netherlands and Sweden have a different experience on the role of volunteers in DRR than the Southern cities in Italy and Spain. The fundamental difference is linked to the fact that neither Sweden nor the Netherlands have much recent experience in disasters. As a result the role of civil society and volunteers remains unclear. During the workshop representatives from Sweden and the Netherlands shared that a key factor that they believe has limited the role of volunteers and civil society in general has to do with trust. In Sweden and the Netherlands there is high level of trust associated with government agencies and people tend to seek information from government as opposed to civil society.

Stakeholders identified volunteers as a heterogeneous group with different capacities, levels of training and availability. These organizations ranged from well-established volunteer organizations with internal structures such as the Red Cross to more spontaneous volunteers that showed up during an emergency. Authorities often lack knowledge about the different capacities and strengths of voluntary groups and individuals, which can put people at risk. It is a complex task to find where the different capacities fit and at what time. When a group is organized it is easy to collaborate with them otherwise it adds a level of complexity.

Participants highlighted the need for governments and volunteers to co-develop a long term plan and a strategy to have the right people ready at the right time throughout the DRR cycle, and not only during an emergency. In Italy for example, there is often much focus on the emergency phase, but volunteers are needed to work with awareness rising and public opinion as well, for building understanding amongst youth and assessing other groups in society. For this, volunteers would need a different type of training than the one available today, for instance to build capacity on existing legislations for DRR and emergency response.

Brainstorming about communicating DRR

The experiences in Spain and Italy of past and present hazards have led to continuous improvements on strategies and action plans in DRR and DRM and was believed to be an important factor to engage volunteers as an important group in DRR and DRM. An attempt to improve coordination of volunteers was made both in the Spanish and Italian cases by creating a contact database to keep track of individuals. In Spain, this database only contains contact information of the persons volunteering. In L’Aquila, the database also specifies their main skills, experiences and capacities. However, neither of the countries has established quality controls, assigned budgets or personnel in charge of maintaining and updating the databases. Thus, the databases are often unreliable and are not used.

We learned that Sweden has extensive experience both nationally and internationally with a long-standing tradition of preventive policies and has a continued presence in supporting international management of disasters (Björngren Cuadra, 2015). However, despite an increasing topicality internationally, volunteer work in Sweden can be said to have a relatively undeveloped role and function in the context of disasters as well as in serious events and crises. There are two potential explanations for this. The first is that in an international comparative perspective, the serious events that Sweden faces are fairly limited in scope. Sweden is geologically and geographically situated in a region that is struck by neither earthquakes nor tsunamis, even though floods, droughts and forest fires have recently caused significant damage. The second is due to that the state assumes all social responsibilities through an encompassing welfare state system which is believed to have hampered the establishment and role of voluntary organizations in DRR and DRM.

In Sweden, while rescue services have the legal mandate to request help from civil society in case of an emergency, there is a stark contrast with the levels of organization and integration of voluntary work in Italy, where the national organization and coordination of voluntary work in the country has evolved over several decades of experience in handling disasters. Today civil protection is a complex, surprisingly non-hierarchical, and highly organized agency composed by various voluntary groups across the country and with a clear mandate and jurisdiction to respond to society’s needs during times of crises.

By contrast, Italy has long-time experience of a well-developed voluntary organization that operates across the country, and which in times of crises can function better and be more reliably than the government itself. Similarly to Italy, Spain has a long history of different disaster events. Civil society has an important role in DRR. The formal inclusion of voluntary organizations into DRR in Spain has been traced to 1982 following the Tous dam event, which is considered one of the most significant socio-natural disasters in the history of the country during the twentieth century. That event triggered a paradigm change in the way disaster risks were perceived and managed locally and at multiple levels of governance. A concrete result from these changes was, amongst others, increased public participation particularly of voluntary groups to establish a warning system (Serra-Llobet, Tàbara, & Sauri, 2013). In Lorca for example, local associations together with voluntary organizations and the private sector currently cooperate to create new warning systems through for instance new technologies.

The role of local leaders and gatekeepers in DRR

The concept of local leaders or gatekeepers can be traced back to ethnographic methods where it is understood as an individual who directly or indirectly provides access to key resources, be those resources logistical, human, institutional, or informational (Campbell, Gray, Meletis, Abbott, & Silver, 2006). Engaging with gatekeepers entails the establishment of an ever-evolving relationship which has deep implications for how a researcher or practitioner understands a particular context and interacts with stakeholders. The opposite is also true. If gatekeepers are key individuals to access people or resources, they can also be obstacles, particularly in contexts where power relationships are reversed, but also in communities where traditional authority structures are in place (Campbell et al., 2006).

The concept of gatekeepers is used in a wide range of disciplines including geography, anthropology, management, urban planning, medicine, but also in disaster studies. In DRR, the concept of gatekeepers is sometimes understood as people who are in positions of power and possess large amounts of information on certain matters in a group. Gatekeepers in this context are deemed important individuals who maintain interactions with other group members in order to transfer information.

The definition of gatekeepers is not static; it is subjective to context, time, location, relation, and type of risk.

They act as mediators between culturally or linguistically diverse communities, and between communities and managing institutions. Their role is crucial because people with culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds often prioritize social networks and informal sources of information, particularly in cases where language barriers exist or when communities mistrust the government (Shepherd & Vuuren, 2014). The role of gatekeeping has not been adequately investigated in the context of disasters and emergency risk communication. However, some studies (Shepherd & Vuuren, 2014) suggest that incorporating gatekeepers in DRR activities could contribute towards better emergency management preparation, but this requires an understanding of the cultural constructions of risk.

Stakeholders from L’Aquila highlighted the importance of gatekeepers as “cultural mediators” especially in marginal communities and refugee and immigrant populations: “The differences in social networks/groups/vulnerable people could be better taken into account in plans and emergency activities through a better inclusion of gatekeepers in planning activities.” In contrast, the group from Lorca discussed the importance of gatekeepers in rural vs urban areas, arguing that gatekeepers are particularly important in rural areas as they can act as bridges and canalize information to the population and inform back to the authorities. For instance, “farm owners can help evaluating damages, risks and canalizing the information and local needs to the authorities”, explained a participant.

In both Lorca and L’Aquila, gatekeepers were only made visible following a disaster event. The role of gatekeepers didn’t exist until the disasters occurred and there was a need to know about the others and inform neighborhood associations without the traditional communication channels which were destroyed or seriously disturbed after the disaster. Both groups agreed that the challenge now is how to include gatekeepers in formal DRR plans and prevention work. They both spoke about the importance of developing and maintaining databases or applications that facilitate communication with gatekeepers. At the same time they argued that the cost of such action would be too high and that local authorities would not see the importance of investing on this action.

All cases agreed that it is important to plan in advance how to identify gatekeepers. The challenge is how to do this. Crises are different and happen in different ways. For instance, in Lorca leaders during the floods were farmers, but farmers had no responsibility or leadership role during the earthquake. Different disasters gave place to different leaders, because people were affected in different ways. Lastly, the role of leaders can change over time, and the process of identification needs to be continuous. A leader today might not be a leader tomorrow. Moreover, a positive leader able to unify individuals from a particular group, mediate between them and authorities, and communicate with other groups could also turn into a negative one. This dynamic role of gatekeepers highlights the need for maintaining close contact with cultural leaders (e.g. persons officially or unofficially representing an ethnic or occupational group), religious leaders, and key actors within age groups (e.g. elderly or young); while at the same time remaining flexible for possible new actors.

Brainstorming on the role of gatekeepers in DRR

Participants from the cities in Spain and Italy highlighted how following a series of disastrous events, there has been an increased recognition on the role of key individuals in civil society to act as mediators or information nodes between some social groups and managing institutions. In these two countries, DRR approaches are starting to change towards more inclusive management structures due to the realization that civil society participation could fill the vacuum that state agencies have failed to fill. For instance, in cities like L’Aquila, where trust for key members of civil society might be greater than for some governmental institutions, having a mediating actor that enjoys support from both society and the government might be necessary to communicate and mobilize groups; or in Lorca where there are large minority groups with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For some of these minority groups, a gatekeeper or leader might play an important role for giving the group visibility and voice. This is important in order to communicate the group’s particular needs as may be the case with refugee groups or certain ethnic groups.

In Spain for instance, the history of integrated risk management is more recent than in Italy, with the failure of the Tous dam in 1982 which triggered a more inclusive approach. Despite this, effective civil society participation remains a challenge, and interest to reach society varies greatly within and across managing institutions. In Lorca, for instance, some of the managing institutions have increased and improved their contact with local leaders through the EDUCEN project. This in turn gave institutions better understanding of the problems, needs and wants of citizens in the area, but also an overview of available capacity amongst individuals which could be crucial for preventing fatalities during risk situations. However, the process driving this change has been met with lack of interest and resistance from some of the institutions, and skepticism from some of the members of civil society in Lorca.

In contrast to the Italian and Spanish experiences, the Swedish and Dutch cases admitted there is very little contact with social groups. In fact, participants were not aware of whether there are local leaders, who these might be, and whether they have a role in DRR. The role of local leaders or gatekeepers to build community resilience seems to be a concept often associated with the poorer corners of the world. In an international context, this is reflected in two ways: first, there is far less academic literature on the role of leaders and gatekeepers in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, than in countries like Bangladesh or Nepal. Studies assessing cooperation across sectors in emergency management typically focus on the role of formal state and non-state institutions, but leave out “informal” leaders like gatekeepers (see for instance Nohrstedt, 2016; Nohrstedt & Bodin, 2014). In fact the only instance where civil society is represented in these studies is through “formal” voluntary associations, which play a minor role in Swedish disaster management, as explained in the section above. Second, donor countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, have a strong focus in building resilience through local participation in recipient countries but not at home. Despite this, participants from both cities admitted seeing the value of connecting with gatekeepers, but like participants from Spain and Italy, thought it was difficult to identify and contact them.

Working with volunteers and gatekeepers in DRR: recommendations from five European cities.

A list of concrete recommendations to improve the work of volunteers in the DRR cycle, and increase participation of gatekeepers in formal DRR work was produced by participants from the cities of L’Aquila (Italy), Lorca and Valladolid (Spain), Kristianstad (Sweden), and Dordrecht (Netherlands) during an EDUCEN stakeholder workshop. During the workshop representatives with different occupational backgrounds within DRR identified, described and reflected upon the role of volunteers and gatekeepers in DRR in their own cities. The conclusions emerging from this encounter can help DRR authorities improve their work with awareness raising and public participation, and for building social capital across sectors (public-private) and social groups with different cultural or ethnic backgrounds.

The interaction between stakeholders from different cultural and professional backgrounds demonstrated the importance to share experiences and identify similarities and differences in work on DRR between cities in Europe. The participants confirmed the need for greater attention to the role of volunteers and gatekeepers to build awareness in current policy planning for DRR.

A common message from all the cities is the need for improved involvement of volunteers in DRR. However, the ways to achieve this differed in each of the contexts. Whilst the role of volunteers is to a higher degree institutionalized in DRR in Southern Europe, cities representing Northern Europe shared that the government is the leading agent and civil society continues to play a marginal role. Thus, the potential to improve the role of civil society in Northern European contexts should be further assessed.

Stakeholders present potential actions for improving DRR work in their cities

The role of gatekeepers seems to be often disregarded in DRR work, despite the recognized benefits of engaging with this type of stakeholders. There is a need to allocate time for local government to identify and work with local leaders and other respected individuals in the community, particularly to build awareness and improve ways to ensure effective communication before and during an event. The workshop showed the differences between Lorca and L’Aquila where frequency in disasters have influenced improved communication and led to more sophisticated ways to communicate. For instance, civil society and the private sector in Lorca and Spain have played an important role to develop new communication gadgets. By contrast, the lack of cultural memory in Sweden and the Netherlands of flood events were emphasized as a limiting factor among communities to demand information and efforts to share information from the government.

Feasible and priority actions for improving DRR work in the Italian, Swedish, Dutch and Spanish contexts

After acknowledging the benefits and challenges in volunteer and gatekeeper inclusion, workshop stakeholders produced a number of recommendations to improve the DRR work. The picture below shows a country-based assessment of recommendations, their feasibility and importance in relation to contextual institutional and cultural factors.

Workshop participants collectively made the following recommendations to enhance understanding and action on the role of volunteers and gatekeepers in DRR:

  • Increased participation of volunteers during the preparedness phase can be one of the most important and feasible actions for improving DRR work. Besides from creating risk awareness amongst volunteers, this can also enhance trust towards volunteer organizations, as volunteers establish a continuous relation rather than a one-time intervention.
  • Improve the existing contact databases of volunteers and complement it with information on individual capacities (e.g. skills, experience, specific training). The main responsibility of managing this action would be on local authorities who would need to designate a budget to identify the different volunteer groups, develop and maintain the database and support the coordination with civil protection.
  • Improve training for volunteers to include actions important for the whole DRR cycle, not only the emergency phase, like for instance basic legal and policy knowledge related to DRR; and to diversify sources of funding for training volunteers through for instance the private sector.
  • Create one strategy for identification and inclusion of both volunteers and gatekeepers and to have a plan on how to use spontaneous (volunteers/gatekeepers) in the best way.
  • Engage older people, like the retired, who often have more time to participate in issues concerning their communities. They are also a particularly vulnerable group who might have a personal interest in engaging in DRR questions
  • Include religious leaders who often have a well-established relation of trust to a group of the population. They can act as informants and mediators between managing agencies and civil society and between interest groups.
  • Improve communication and cooperation with the private sector, particularly insurance companies, who have a good understanding of people’s assets and vulnerabilities. In some countries, insurance companies are already integrated in DRR work. In others insurance companies and managing agencies continue to operate in silos. Increased cooperation and information exchange could be beneficial for the government, the companies involved, as well as the clients.
  • Establish contact with local or thematic journalists who may hold important information and in some places might have good relations with local populations. They could act as mediators between civil society and managing institutions. Often, information coming from local journalists has higher credibility and reaches society faster than the official information disseminated by official government channels.
  • Design a strategy for institutional-stakeholder engagement. Some governmental agencies might have better relation with society than others due to their role and jurisdiction. For instance it is probably easier for civil protection to access and contact gatekeepers than it might be for an organization like the water managing institutions (Confederación Hidrográfica in Spain) which might be perceived as a “water police” than a civil society advocate. With good communication structures in place across managing institutions, several actors might be able to access the information gathered by institutions that lie closer to society.
  • Women groups could provide with a window of opportunity to access marginalized or foreign groups. However, these groups might not always be labelled “women group”, but could take the form of knitting groups, yoga groups, reading groups, or religious circles. In other places there might be a “gender” organization or political party.
  • Sport organizations can provide a link to youth but also provide with “space” in times of a crisis, for instance by providing access to football fields to build temporary camps, or gyms to provide for temporary shelter. Sport organizations are often used to work in teams and could therefore also provide with organizational skills during an emergency.

Suggestions for further reading

Thomalla, F., Smith, R., Schipper, E.L.. (2015). Cultural Aspects of Risk to Environmental Changes and Hazards: A Review of Perspectives, in: Disaster’s Impact on Livelihood and Cultural Survival: Losses, Opportunities, and Mitigation. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

UNISDR (2016). Implementing the Sendai Framework to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


Aarts, N., & van Woerkum, C. (2002). Dealing with uncertainty in solving complex problems. In Wheelbarrows Full of Frogs, Social Learning in Rural Resource Management. Assen, The Netherlands: Koninklijke van Gorcum.

Björngren Cuadra, C. (2015). Disaster social work in Sweden: context, practice and challenges in an international perspective (No. Working Paper No 1:2015). The Nordic Welfare Watch – in Response to Crisis.

Campbell, L. M., Gray, N. J., Meletis, Z. A., Abbott, J. G., & Silver, J. J. (2006). Gatekeepers and Keymasters: Dynamic Relationships of Access in Geographical Fieldwork. Geographical Review, 96(1), 97–121.

Cumming, A. (2012). Youth Volunteerism and Disaster Risk Reduction. Care International.

Matten, D. (2004). The impact of the risk society thesis on environmental politics and management in a globalizing economy – principles, proficiency, perspectives. Journal of Risk Research, 7(4), 377–398.

Nohrstedt, D. (2016). Explaining Mobilization and Performance of Collaborations in Routine Emergency Management. Administration & Society, 48(2), 135–162.

Nohrstedt, D., & Bodin, Ö. (2014). Evolutionary Dynamics of Crisis Preparedness Collaboration: Resources, Turbulence and Network Change in Swedish Municipalities. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 5(2), 134–155.

Serra-Llobet, A., Tàbara, J. D., & Sauri, D. (2013). The Tous dam disaster of 1982 and the origins of integrated flood risk management in Spain. Natural Hazards, 65(3), 1981–1998.

Shepherd, J., & Vuuren, K. van. (2014). The Brisbane flood: CALD gatekeepers’ risk communication role. Disaster Prevention and Management, 23(4), 469–483.

UNV. (2011). UNV Annual Report “Volunteering for our Future.” UN Volunteers. Retrieved from