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How the community sector helped post-earthquake Christchurch help itself Analysis

How the community sector helped post-earthquake Christchurch help itself

When a major earthquake shook Christchurch in September 2010, bridges and buildings weren’t the only things put under pressure. The city’s community service organisations were also tested, both by the direct effects of the quake and the subsequent spike in demand for their services.

Research now suggests community organisations were not only central to helping communities and individuals recover after the disaster—and another quake in nearby Canterbury—but that this role remains crucial today.

The report, commissioned by the now-disbanded Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, explores how the quake affected community organisations, the positive outcomes and learnings for organisations, and the ongoing issues faced by both organisations and their clients. It also heaps praise on the community sector workers, describing them as “masters of adaptation and innovation”:

They have coped with changing institutional arrangements, changing community needs, changes in accommodation availability, and changes in the fortunes and availability of volunteers and staff to continue to provide a wide range of services and facilities that support the wider community.


  • A lack of affordable and reasonable quality housing.
  • New groups of people seeking assistance.
  • Increased social isolation in both urban and rural areas.
  • Parental stress impacting on children and young people.
  • Increased stress levels and health issues.
  • The closure of other services.
  • The changing availability of volunteers.
  • Ongoing insurance complexities.

The report finds organisations adapted well to the enormous change thrust upon them, launching new initiatives and adopting innovative ways of delivering services through existing and new alliances. Organisations also changed the way they achieved their objectives—or sometimes changed the objectives themselves—in response to local needs, altered conditions and governmental change.

In addition, a number of new community groups were formed in direct response to the earthquakes.

But it’s not all smooth sailing.

Changing in response to local needs and conditions continues today, and some community organisations face significant accommodation challenges. Others are uncertain about the longer term needs of their communities and their capacity to meet them.

Community organisations also report they’re still finding clients with complex needs and seeing new clients groups seeking assistance, including people with disabilities, people on low incomes, migrants and older people.

The high turnover of volunteers has also created difficulties with managing legal and financial responsibilities.

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Community organisations are still finding clients with complex needs and seeing new clients groups seeking assistance, including people with disabilities, people on low incomes, migrants and older people.


Organisations consulted for the report also indicate they’re frustrated by changes in their relationships with government and increased competition for a shrinking funding pool. They believe sections of the New Zealand Government have been inflexible and have failed to recognise of the strengths of the community sector in recovery. There also remains much discussion within the sector about the best way to deal with the earthquake’s many legacy issues.

The report make clear supportive governments and businesses are crucial if the community sector is to help greater Christchurch recovery fully, and makes several recommendations to strengthen community sector resilience. These include:

  • Continuing to support social networking across the sector
  • Improving the capacity of the sector as a whole
  • Continuing to build partnerships between sectors
  • Building on the use of existing information resources
  • Finding new ways to encourage volunteering
  • Ensuring ongoing support for previous work

Social service bodies like the Social Equity & Wellbeing Network have welcomed the research.

“This report … captures well the needs of our sector and our communities in our region’s continuing recovery,” SEWN’s Sharon Torstonson said.

But Ms Torstonton warned the challenge now is to successfully implement the report’s recommendations.

“There is some nervousness that we’ll be left to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, at a time when our resources, both physical and personal, are still depleted.  We need to engage with and get commitment from other stakeholders such as government and funders, to make any progress on the recommendations.

“If we don’t address them, then our communities will not be ready to face future shocks and stresses.”

With the right support and resources, the community sector can continue to lay its critical role in supporting the long term recovery of Christchurch: rebuilding its social capital and supporting its resilience to future stresses and shocks.


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Banner image: Flickr/CC (Monday’s Socks)