Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

Having worked at a community level for 5 years now, most recently as a Program Coordinator and Community Development Officer for Blackall Tambo Regional Council, Jaimee-Lee Prow has experienced first-hand the generosity and good intentions that relief agencies have when it comes to drought in remote, rural, and regional communities. However, these good intentions often don’t translate into practical and accessible support at a grassroots level. Here she shares her story.

To paint a picture of what I mean, I’ll explain a bit about what our experience has been with relief agencies within the central western Queensland drought space. Off the top of my head, I can name at least 20 organisations that offer much the same kind of assistance. This overlapping service provision is driving a state of competitiveness among these organisations and, from a community perspective, has led to a matrix of issues that prevent community groups from taking them up on their offers of assistance. This, on top of a disconnect at a community level, has meant that these relief organisations are actually hindering themselves from reaching the goals that they set out to achieve.

We rural people are a stoic breed. This over-supply of relief support has led to a lot of miscommunication, confusion, and apprehension, resulting in people abstaining from seeking assistance. Or else people become overwhelmingly confused about how to navigate the many systems with most deeming it as an added stress that they simply don’t need. Another familiar scenario is that of individuals, community groups and local-not-for-profits who don’t apply for assistance through one organisation because they’ve already applied for similar assistance through another organisation, and they fear that it will be seen as ‘double dipping’.

Beyond the confusion and burdensome processes, rural communities often feel that these relief agencies fail to properly consider the demographic that they’re dealing with. A large portion of our graziers, primary producers, small business owners and community members are over the age of 65 years with many of them either being extremely hesitant about social media or else completely oblivious to it. Yet, many of these relief organisations use social media as their main tool for promotion and one of their primary platforms for getting information out there. It’s also common that applications for grants will exist predominantly online and even requests for assistance are virtual. As a result, a large portion of our drought impacted population are missing out on the valuable financial assistance offered by the relief agencies. So, a word of advice – this generation still rely on good old-fashioned word of mouth, and mainly prefer to trust “the local bloke”.

Charities, not for profits and non-government organisations can take action to shift from their traditional roles as relief agencies and move towards becoming partners who walk in lockstep with resilient and prepared communities. These relief agencies are, of course, well-meaning but most, if not all of them, are based outside of our region. Some of them even have a strictly virtual presence. Which is why, despite the obvious devastation of drought that surrounds us, they often walk away scratching their heads at the low levels of relief uptake after briefly popping up in our communities. The lack of local coordination and sharing of information on the ground is, ultimately, failing our rural communities.

Jaimee-Lee Prow presenting at the Red Cross Drought Resilience, Relief & Recovery Forum in December, 2021. WATCH from 30:32.

So, how do we fix the problem?

The solutions aren’t necessarily innovative or complex. In fact, they’re quite simple. Below is a list of steps that relief agencies can take to provide effective support to our drought effected communities:

Step one: listen to the locals

As mentioned in the Red Cross Drought Resilience discussion paper, projects and program delivery from organisations need to be locally focused to meet the needs of the region they are working with. When it comes to providing assistance for our communities, blanket approaches simply don’t work and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution doesn’t exist.

Step two: we need more than just a plan for the future

We are really at a critical point within the community drought recovery process where we need to keep the momentum going and continue to create or maintain partnerships. Within my local community. I have recognised a shift away from the initial panic and knee jerk reactions to the disaster. Local individuals, groups, businesses, and farms are now ready to accept and explore actions they can take to prepare for future drought- something that wasn’t possible in the initial stages of drought response.

Our initial response was to flood funds upon our drought impacted communities. And this was evident in the amount of overlapping we saw in service provision from our relief agencies. Don’t get me wrong, to a degree we certainly needed it. But what we are starting to see or recognise now is that drought funding is starting to dry up, and services are beginning to wind back in our rural communities. This imbalance between community readiness and resources, and the funding now available is a major concern moving forward. In the disaster recovery and planning phase, we need the resources now more than ever to be ready for next time.

Step three: simple applications and greater flexibility

We need to ensure application processes are simplified and easy to access. This will benefit all sections of the community but is crucial if organisations want their programs to be accessible to applicants aged 65+. Secondly, because each region is different, the criteria grants need to be made more flexible so that projects can be locally defined by the communities themselves and can be used to support a cross section of activities such as infrastructure, events, training, capacity building and network development.

Step four: recognition of the role that local organisations play

Local organisations are the backbone of remote, rural, and regional communities. Therefore, programs need to be modelled around their goals and needs. In order for partnerships to be successful and meaningful to our communities, agencies must be personable within the community, and the program itself must be driven by the community that the agency is working with.

During my time working at Blackall Tambo Regional Council, I have worked closely with FRRR on a number of drought resilience initiatives. FRRR have championed solutions that have been led by our community and that are driven by the needs and abilities of those living in our region. I believe that this approach to disaster recovery is the way of the future.

Step five: events and projects should be led by trusted locals

This is the valuable way to connect, respond, recover and plan ahead. While some are of the belief that the community barbecue or the local arts and cultural workshop are a band-aid solution to relieving the impacts of drought, those from rural communities would actually beg to differ. We come from significantly isolated areas. These types of community events, particularly during drought, are a necessity for creating touchpoints, social check ins, networking opportunities, and they keep our communities connected.

Some of the most brilliant ideas for future proofing and planning are sprouted through general chitchat amongst like-minded people at these types of events. We are already seeing some relief organisations which have come into our region, begin to recognise these events and spaces as the perfect platform for informal networking and building a rapport with our community members. As a result, partnerships have become stronger, and we find that these organisations who take these extra steps have a better understanding of our community’s needs which results in a greater uptake of their services.

Step six: continued government and philanthropic support

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s crucial that relief agencies don’t simply pull the plug and let funding dry up. Our rural communities are now more than ready than ever to prepare and build resilient regions through planning and projects. We just need the continued commitment to fund and provide resources.

Step seven: build local champions

As an NFP, charity and non-government organisation you should be an active collaborator, but you should essentially be led by locals. Start building your local champions in the communities you were working with. They will be your best investment.

Finally, I’ll finish with something I heard once that I believe perfectly sums up the attitude we must approach the future with if we’re going to continue to build prepared and resilient communities: “You don’t need to be strong to survive a bad situation. You just need a plan.”