Ad Hoc Mutual Aid

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Matt Stempeck:

"In recent decades, there has been significant sociological research into “helping networks” to investigate the power of informal social networks in our lives. Donald Warren’s 1980 book, Helping Networks, studies how these informal aid systems sit in society: “They are not groups. They often do not know each other. They are the combinations of people we turn to.”

There is also a wide collection of literature studying “pro-social behavior”, and the forces that drive individual and collective altruism.18 René Bekkers and Pamala Weipking completed a thorough and useful literature review of empirical studies of philanthropy and identified eight mechanisms that drive charitable giving. One of the most referenced works discussing pro-social behavior in society is Dynes’ 1970 book, Organized Behavior in Disaster.

The literature on “helping networks” and studies of offline social networks have analyzed how people solicit and receive aid from a wide range of others in their lives, in times of acute crisis as well as daily life. There are “[s]ystems of help, not simply those with which bureaucracy and professionalism are associated, but also a vast set of almost invisible threads of human contact used in times of crisis and need for everyday problems.”20 In the context of mental health, neighbors rely on one another naturally for social services and resources rather than seek professional intervention.21 Shirley Patterson’s exploration of “Natural Helping” found that social contacts provide mutual aid support to their neighbors out of altruism rather than expectations of future rewards.

Mutual aid is also a significant force in the context of acute crises. When there is a crisis, people want to help, and will often go to great lengths to provide meaningful aid themselves. Sarah Vieweg finds collective intelligence in the aftermath of the campus shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.23 In Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States, Tierney, et al., analyze 25 years’ worth of disaster data and strongly support the finding that “disasters engender pro- social, altruistic, and adaptive responses rather than negative reactions like panic.”

Vieweg, et al. write, “Disaster situations, throughout history, have demonstrated that people rise to difficult challenges to help others, often through remarkable innovations and adaptations of their own abilities and resources to meet needs.”

Professional emergency response managers like Pascal Schuback understand that the affected population itself begins responding to a new disaster long before “first-responders” from formal aid groups can arrive.26 The informal aid offered by citizens in these first hours can be critical to saving lives. One exemplary recent example is the unplanned evacuation of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Kendra, et al. document how ships of all kinds, from tugboats to ferries to private pleasure boats materialized at the site of the most devastating terrorist attack in US history to help evacuate between 300,000 and 500,000 civilians stranded at the southern tip of the island with little direction from the Coast Guard.27 Writing about this type of ad hoc mutual aid in emergencies, Stallings and Quarantelli argue that formal aid actors should facilitate these “emergent citizen groups”, not just in crises that trigger a clear survival consensus, but also in divisive crises like riots.28 Mutual aid may be a natural inclination, but it is also at least partially driven by the limits of formal aid actors:

“Self-help or mutual-aid groups have developed, in part, as a reaction to various limitations of professional organizations. Such limitations included an “unwillingness of professionals to deal with certain problems, a limited reach with regard to various populations, an overly intellectual orientation, and monopolistic credentialism.”

One directly relevant example of mutual aid rising to meet a population’s needs when the formal aid system fails is Gregory Asmolov’s work launching the Russian Fires Map30 (which has evolved to become When wildfires consumed large areas of Russia in 2010, the ineptitude of the government response and paucity of state-influenced media coverage inspired citizen-driven aid efforts, coordinated through an Ushahidi map.

The mapping platform was repurposed to connect citizens in need and citizens seeking to help. Citizens used participatory media to hold the government accountable, but also to organize and collaborate on ways to respond to the fires to take the action that the formal state actors had failed to take. Asmolov has since launched, an 'atlas of help', to match peer donors and beneficiaries under the romantic symbol of the rynda, the bell Russian sailors would strike when they were in need of help. (For an extensive treatment of affected communities’ own abilities to respond to crisis, see Humanitarianism in the Network Age report by UNOCHA)." (

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