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How can behavioural science drive community action in times of crisis? This World Humanitarian Day

How can behavioural science drive community action in times of crisis? This World Humanitarian Day

The 'human' side of World Humanitarian Day

The theme for World Humanitarian day in 2023, ‘it takes a village’, shines a light on the thousands of volunteers, professionals and crisis-affected people who deliver urgent care and protection to those in need.

It’s a theme we’re familiar with at BehaviourWorks Australia, where we have applied our behavioural science skills and research to drive community support in times of crisis. We have helped encourage supportive behaviour towards vulnerable families, worked with the Humanitarian Advisory Group, understand how communities can empower themselves and work together to cope with crises like bushfires.

How can behavioural science help?

Humanitarian crises, whether natural or human-created, require urgent action to respond to refugees, war, floods, fire or other events. But quick reactions have their own risks; when faced with pressure we can fall back on shortcuts and biases which may not be as helpful as we initially thought.  Sometimes the first response is not the most helpful.

Take the vexed area of donations in times of crisis. Donations tend to be a community’s first response in providing humanitarian aid. However, humanitarian workers face the ongoing challenge of dealing with useless (and even harmful) donations pouring into a disaster zone, which pulls relief workers away from essential tasks.  Money is far quicker and more effective in a crisis than the stuffed toys, apples, and disco dresses, which have suddenly turned up by the container load. 

Behavioural insights can play a pivotal role in helping the humanitarian sector craft messages that cut through the chaos of a crisis so that the right decisions (and donations) are made at the right time. 

Using behavioural science to drive empathy

Another important driver of positive outcomes for those who are vulnerable is empathy, but how can this be improved?  We conducted a survey for the Victorian government, focussed on two target behaviours; listening and talking to vulnerable families, and taking part in community activities. Encouraging social norms around helping vulnerable families benefits them and the wider community (or village), and makes those community connections stronger.  It’s hard to generalise about those who are struggling when you know and speak to them. 

And with the current climate crisis bringing about changes to communities across the globe, our research has brought behavioural insights to two such challenges – fire resilience and empowering local renewable energy.

Bringing a community together for bushfire resilience

Victoria is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world. To reduce this risk, the Victorian Government brought together a number of state agencies to engage the community in the issue of bushfire risk.  Known as ‘Safer Together’, the program uses a behavioural approach to helping Victorians become more bushfire resilient.  BehaviourWorks Australia is a key partner in this program, exploring some of the behavioural barriers and drivers to community preparedness when responding to bushfire emergencies.  By identifying and prioritising key bushfire risk reduction behaviours, we have been able to target those which can have the most impact, such as attending bushfire planning workshops.  

Driving community empowerment for energy independence

With energy demands shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, communities are stepping into the role of owners and producers of energy, not just customers and users.  By sharing insights about the drivers of empowerment – like self-efficacy, community dynamics, societal norms and social and cultural contexts – behavioural scientists are able to help this transition towards energy systems that are more sustainable, just and inclusive.  Shifting energy and power at the same time won’t be easy, but it’s in all our interests to happen (and soon).

It takes a village to raise a child, deal with crises like climate change, and adapt to new challenges.  Plus some applied behavioural science to glean insights about how we can further encourage communities to come together and deal with the many crises villages, cities, societies and countries face.  

Written by Geoff Paine and Malaika Jaovisidha

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