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Research guides disaster communication with Pacific Islands

Research guides disaster communication with Auckland’s Pacific Island peoples.

Disaster messaging is only effective if the population it is intended for embraces it. It can be particularly hard to engage societies with rich cultural and linguistic diversity, such as Pacific Island peoples.

In a recent study 20 Auckland-based Pacific Island leaders or connectors were interviewed by a team of researchers from The University of Auckland to gather their perspectives on natural hazards.

Researchers found that everyday vulnerabilities such as poverty, insecure housing, unemployment and discrimination can be magnified in a disaster event. “Pacific Island peoples are disproportionately affected by these hardships, which make it more difficult to prepare for and respond to a disaster,” says Associate Professor Jay Marlowe, who co-led the research alongside Professor Andreas Neef, with interviews conducted by two Samoan research assistants, Chelsea R. Tevaga and Cedric Tevaga.

Study participants identified the most vulnerable members of their communities as those who came to NZ on a temporary work permit and stayed beyond their legal permit, because they were under the radar of government agencies tasked with providing disaster information. The elderly, less educated and less technology savvy could also be disproportionately impacted by a disaster, as well as those who don’t speak English.

The study found that Pacific Island peoples didn’t always find disaster messaging relevant. Many participants conveyed a sense of disbelief about the likelihood of a natural hazard event in Auckland, and so didn’t feel that they were at risk.

Despite these challenges, the researchers also look at communities as potential leaders in terms of disaster response because of prior experience in their home countries. “Many communities would immediately know what to do because it’s in their blood. They have this culture of disaster and know how to look after the community. They can tap into their networks which is a major strength,” said Professor Neef.

It is also important that disaster messaging is communicated to communities appropriately. Relevant authorities must understand the cultural structures of the communities they’re hoping to reach, and deliver messages accordingly. “Many respondents said that face to face communication was essential, as the authenticity of this approach is important for the Pasifika community,” said Assoc Prof Marlowe. “Language is also an important factor, especially with older people who perceive risk to be less severe if it is communicated in English.”

“Understanding the community we are trying to reach with disaster messaging, and tailoring it for them is important. This will help us to ensure disaster messaging is trusted and embraced by ethnic minority groups and people who identify with a range of social locations.”

To support the transfer for these findings into practical policy making and implementation, Assoc Prof Marlowe and Prof Neef have secured an impact development grant from The University of Auckland’s Public Policy Institute that will help inform disaster communications with Auckland Council’s emergency management unit.

The study was funded by Resilience to Nature’s Challenges. An open-access research paper detailing the study and its findings is available here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-018-0193-6

Resilience to Nature’s Challenges is one of eleven MBIE funded National Science Challenges. It is increasing the resilience of Aotearoa New Zealand by developing new scientific solutions to transform our response, recovery and ‘bounce-back’ from our wide diversity of natural hazards.


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