Building resilience through the arts


    A UEA team has been working with some of the most disadvantaged social groups in Colombia, using methods that draw on the creative arts to build a better understanding of their circumstances and support the participation of marginalised groups in policy making.

    Five decades of armed conflict have left Colombia with almost eight million internally displaced people, 16% of country’s population. Though the 2016 agreement between the Colombian government and FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was an important step towards attaining peace, many Colombians displaced by violence now face new forms of risk in the places they have resettled.

    The South American country is highly vulnerable to hazards, including floods, drought, earthquakes and volcanic eruption, while the rugged topography means that landslides are common. According to the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD), around 20 million people were affected by disasters in Colombia between 2000 and 2019, many of them in areas inhabited by internally displaced people.

    UEA’s Dr Hazel Marsh, Prof Roger Few and Dr Teresa Armijos Burneo worked with a team of researchers from Universidad de Manizales, Colombia, to understand how people displaced by armed conflict become exposed to greater risk from environmental hazards. The team worked alongside resettled people to share their stories, in their voices and artistic styles, thereby strengthening awareness of displaced people’s experiences, abilities and needs. 

    Their collaborative, arts-based approach to knowledge-exchange not only yielded key research findings but also built trust with Indigenous and traditionally marginalised groups and helped generate new support networks and community initiatives among some of the most disadvantaged social groups in the country. The success of their work has informed the development of inclusive institutional programmes aimed at strengthening Colombia’s capacity to manage and reduce risk and the project – and the methodologies used – have helped shift perceptions, practices and policies both inside and outside of resettled marginalised communities in Colombia.

    So successful was the approach that their art-based methodologies have now been incorporated into post-graduate courses at the Universidad de Manizales’ Psychosocial Institute for Disaster Risk Management.

    Without doubt, these … projects allow the strengthening of the scientific community in the area of education" - Director for the Psychosocial Institute for Disaster Risk Management, Colombia.

    Impact on community practice

    For marginalised people who have suffered enormous loss and trauma, traditional social science interviews can re-open wounds and cause extreme distress. And so an alternative methodology was devised whereby conversations about music and arts-based workshops generated trust, created new social networks, and opened spaces for communities to articulate their experiences, priorities, feelings and needs. 
    The team also raised community members’ awareness of state services available to them, with one participant saying ‘now we know exactly which institutions to go to according to the requirements we may have, we’re not so lost’.

    Testimonies from participating communities were collected in four case study sites. Translated into English from the original Spanish, they indicate that the research:
    Enabled healing from trauma: ‘[The music conversation] helped me a lot, after you came here … I went to [the hospital] … and asked for an appointment and then spoke to a doctor and he told me, “You have this and that” … I felt a lot better afterwards … if you hadn’t come, I don’t know, I’d just be here depressed’ 

    Increased confidence and self-esteem: ‘The project … allowed me to recognise … my capacities and talents’.

    Built trust and collaboration between neighbourhoods, communities and institutions, strengthening community capacity to take ownership of disaster risk management: ‘[The project] brought together a good team of leaders from the neighbourhoods. With this group we’re incentivised to do a lot more work’. This has helped communities to deal with the current pandemic: ‘Living through the pandemic … we’re applying everything we’ve learned through [the project]’.

    Impact on government policy and practice

    The arts have enabled stakeholders to view people displaced by violence beyond the legal category of ‘victim’ and access the human stories behind the statistics. Indeed the community-led artistic outputs, presentations and performances had a profound emotional impact on these stakeholders, including the Colombian Red Cross and regional and national government.

    This, in turn, has prompted positive change by:

    Transforming perceptions and understanding: Civil servants were moved to new understandings of the lived experiences and human consequences of displacement, leading to greater recognition of local non-technical forms of knowledge and a commitment to deepen and extend collaborations with affected communities. They saw how you can reach the communities better through art, a significant step for institutions that often find access to vulnerable communities complicated.

    Raising the status of local knowledge: As a result of the UEA team’s work, the UNGRD of the government of Colombia has paid community members to formally present their artistic outputs at official events, raising the status of previously marginalised forms of local knowledge

    Helping to shape a more inclusive approach: The work has strengthened the government’s recognition that they need to include community voices in ongoing policy debates, and has shown ways in which that can be achieved. The team’s research has stimulated new government initiatives – it’s one of three projects (and the only non-governmental project) that the Colombian government has selected to incorporate into a new National Strategy for Community Resilience. 

    The UNGRD has also asked the project team to provide input on diversity and inclusion, which is being used for the development of new policy on disaster risk reduction to better target Indigenous and other marginalised social groups including low-income households, women and disabled and older people.

    Your ideas … are a significant contribution for different public, private and community bodies that are part of the National System for Disaster Risk Management to join efforts for the strengthening of the community aspects of disaster risk management, which is vital for our country" – Subdirector of UNGRD of the government of Colombia

    Changing institutional practice: Representatives of the UNGRD of the Colombian government have stated that the project has influenced their approach to working with internally displaced people who face environmental hazards in their places of resettlement and helped civil servants to recognise and value the knowledge of marginalised communities.

    Government representatives stated that, as a result of the UEA team’s projects, their focus has become more collaborative and horizontal: ‘We started saying … let’s work with the community, build with them and let them tell us what they want, let them start telling us what disaster risk management is … let’s learn from them’.

    Civil servants recognised that the projects’ arts-based approach generates greater impact and have started ‘building together’ with communities, stating that changing their methods has resulted in more participation. The national government aims to make these changes permanent.

    Related content / sources

    Dr Hazel Marsh, Prof Roger Few and Dr María Teresa Armijos Burneo: ‘Moving with Risk’ and ‘The Art of Disaster Risk Reduction’, YouTube




    older people in Africa

    Interventions for Older People

    Read more >