Wolbers, J., Ferguson, J., Groenewegen, P., Mulder, F., & Boersma, K. (2016) Two Faces of Disaster Response: Transcending the Dichotomy of Control and Collaboration During the Nepal Earthquake Relief OperationInternational Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 34(4), pp. 419-438.

This is a really inspiring response from the volunteerism and the online communities. For the first time, I have seen thousands of contributors domestically during a response. This engagement with truckloads of youths and guys going out with their own stuff. Uploading where they have been, where they have dropped stuff off. That was coordination at grassroots level and we just didn’t and couldn’t get that in. It was just too much. Without them having a coordination system amongst themselves you got too many actors. Then you will have to spend your entire time coordinating, not delivering. It is a tough one. – UNOCHA Representative


On Saturday April 25th 2015, Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. This event was followed a mere 17 days later by another major earthquake, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale. The second earthquake destroyed much of the already damaged infrastructure from the first quake. As a result of the earthquakes, approximately 9000 people lost their lives and an enormous number of properties were seriously damaged. In some districts up to 99% of the infrastructure – residential homes, businesses, and several ancient UNESCO World Heritage sites – was completely destroyed. During this period, over 300 aftershocks took place and continued to create fearsome circumstances for the Nepalese population.

When disaster strikes, disaster response agencies try their best to help the affected population and control the chaos that emerges. However, help and control entail two very different ways of dealing with the affected population in disaster response. Attempts to control have manifested in response to many disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, but often meet what we conceptualize as ‘the two faces of disaster response’. One face refers to emergent, community-based response initiated by locally affected people who seek to fill a void left by official response organizations. The other face refers to the quest for control by the official response organizations who seek to retake the response initiative.

In this paper we explore and theorize how these two faces of disaster response emerge and guide relief and recovery into different directions, by addressing the following research question: how did the local Nepalese communities, governmental bodies, and the humanitarian organizations govern the relief operation in the first months after the earthquakes struck? By doing so, we also address a more fundamental, underlying theoretical debate concerning the dichotomy between control and collaboration at times of disasters, aimed at identifying novel ways and resilient governance structures that can overcome the dichotomy between emergent collaboration and control.

During our fieldwork in the first weeks after the second earthquake, we witnessed instances where useful emergent grassroots initiatives were pushed aside and how the government sought to establish control over the activities of INGOs. We observed elements of Command and Control, as well as Coordination and Collaboration. First, we identified how the remarkable capacity of emergent (online) groups linked to Kathmandu Living Labs was used to develop a grassroots aid distribution system that was pushed aside by the dominance of the official UN cluster coordination system. Second, we saw how the relief operation driven by INGOs was hindered by the quest for control over the humanitarian response by the Nepalese government. Both situations show how emergent and official coordination attempts were hampered by attempts to structure and control the relief operation.

Conceptually, this dynamic shows that the dichotomy between the two ideal-type governance models is less clear than in practice than theory suggests. Instead, heterogeneous networks that are often supported by various information systems and products to keep an overview of the unfolding response operation increasingly characterize disaster governance. In our study, this is visible both through the use of QuakeMaps as an emergent online platform of the Kathmandu Living Labs, and the online platforms of the international humanitarian community on which maps were shared, such as reliefweb.int and mapaction.org, which supported and guided coordination in the UN cluster system.

These developments require a rethinking of the way in which acting coordinators are linked together. Our study suggests that the coordination of humanitarian relief efforts can only be effective when the majority of locally active NGOs participate. We see that what matters most in these types of network governance is the type of platform that connects all stakeholders. Yet, what makes it difficult to govern these networks is that there is not one platform that brings together all stakeholders, but in fact, the actual networked coordination process is far more distributed.

In both our empirical cases, various NGOs acted outside the UNOCHA system, whereby the Kathmandu Living Lab case showed how the online platform was shaped by the emergent community as a means toward contributing and leveraging information. This initiative provided important additional resources, but at the same time created a complex information ecology of layered information streams. To guide such actions and weave together numerous response initiatives within this polycentric networking process, there is a need for a different governance concept.

The ‘polycentric’ nature of the structure calls for an adaptive type of network governance. We suggest that this type of adaptive network governance is captured in the concept of ‘net-centric governance’. We define net-centric governance as the process whereby self-directed networks of heterogeneous stakeholders are connected within an environment that is enabled by shared technological and organizational infrastructure. ‘Net-centric’ acknowledges that local and international communities increasingly generate responses around different network hubs, across a number of networks simultaneously – including online platforms – and that the inclusion of these networks and platforms can strengthen the reliability and legitimacy of relief responses.

In conclusion, we emphasize that the conceptual dichotomy between Chaos, Command and Control, versus Continuity, Coordination and Collaboration governance models in practice is less clear than sometimes suggested. We witnessed that both formal response and emergent networks engage in attempts to control and collaborate simultaneously. Thus, disaster governance is increasingly found in interconnecting networks of local citizens, NGOs, and governmental bodies. Therefore, to better understand this dynamic, a net-centric governance approach to disaster relief can help understand how to transcend the dichotomy of control and collaboration, and yield more responsive efforts to future disasters.

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