In this IHRR podcast, Prof Lena Dominelli introduces the role of social work in disaster intervention using the example of  recovery efforts during the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Sri Lanka.  Prof Dominelli is a lead researcher on Project Sri Lanka at Durham University and an Associate Director of IHRR.  As both a sociologist and social worker, her research has been published widely.  Her latest book, Green Social Work, looks at environmental issues from a social work perspective.


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Transcription of podcast:

Professor Lena Dominelli is world-renowned for her research and social work in countries that have experienced disaster.

Most recently Lena was one of the lead researchers of Durham University’s Project Sri Lanka, a unique community-inclusive project that led to the development of a registered charity dedicated to assisting communities in Sri Lanka with long-term reconstruction after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

She is also a Co-Director of Durham’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, that is researching ways communities can prevent or rebound from disasters.

Lena leads a wide range of social science, interdisciplinary and community development initiatives throughout the world. Her latest book, Green Social Work, explores the role of social work in addressing the interconnection between environmental crises and social inequality.

Drawing from her own experience, Prof Dominelli identifies the role of social work in assisting communities affected by disasters, especially helping families during the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami after which many people had lost both their homes, possessions and loved ones.

Lena: Social work has a long history of helping people in disasters primarily by giving them food, clothing, medicines and finding them shelter and they usually work for NGOs primarily in disaster interventions or through the local state or similar arrangements in the UK would be the local authorities. And their jobs are besides giving specific practical aid to people is to coordinate activities across many agencies because that’s one of the things they are skilled in even in child protection they do that a lot. .41

Lena: They also plan for both the immediate effect of the disaster, but also for long-term reconstruction. They liaise with between different members of families, help to find missing family members they also help people to grieve when they find that their family members have been lost and they then get involved in psycho social support which is the one thing that most people if you ask them ‘what do social workers do?’ they’ll tell you psycho social intervention, counselling and bereavement, but that is only a small part.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Sri Lanka was devastated. It had killed over thirty-five thousand people in Sri Lanka alone and left over eighty-eight thousand homes destroyed or severely damaged. Humanitarian efforts from social workers and many others continue to this day helping Sri Lanka to rebuild its communities. While doing social work in Sri Lanka Lena came upon a holistic understanding of the relationship between the natural environment and the people who lived through the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka.

Lena: My first intervention in disasters was Sri Lanka, the 2004 Tsunami and trying to help and saying how can social workers get a better voice locally, internationally so people know that they’re actually there when they don’t and then eventually then I realised there was a big link between the degradation of the environment and the ways in which social workers intervened, saw the link between poverty, poor environments and even greater disaster results calamitous effects on people.

Lena: And so I then started challenging myself in a way to start thinking about environmental justice and what that meant when you actually intervene in the local areas, so that is where that kind of commitment of social workers to human rights and environmental justice comes in and of course that means we’re going to have lots, this is contested terrain.

But like many complex social problems involving a variety of ideas, people and cultures, Prof Dominelli discovered that there are no easy answers, but that understanding difference is crucial to delivering humanitarian aid.

Lena: There isn’t an answer where I can say ‘here it is’. We’ve gotta work it out together, but it does call for us to work across what I call dialogues across differences, work across our differences whether they’re differences of opinion about what works best economically, whether it’s differences of opinion about which discipline can offer the most assistance to people and it’s also about accepting that we are interdependent each on one another and what will happen in one place has implications for another, so whilst I know there are contentious issues around I think social workers because we always talk to people we disagree with can actually help to bridge those kind of divides.

Further Reading

Project Sri Lanka Website

Durham University Breaking the Mould Conference