“Disasters are manifestations of unresolved development problems”.
The quote is from the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) 2015. It is an issue pivotal to development, but still mainly overlooked. It is a message that should be shouted out with a megaphone large enough to reach all politicians, donors and decision-makers around the world.
Why is that important?
That is important because disasters can no longer be regarded as external threats.
Disaster risk is by and large a product of poverty.
When disaster actually strikes, it is a predictable outcome of poverty and failed development.
The storm or the earthquake is merely the gust that made them happen.
The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be reached without addressing disaster risk. And the targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction cannot be reached without major achievements on the SDGs. They go hand in hand.
Some Basics: Hazard x Vulnerability = Disaster
Disasters are the product of vulnerability and hazards.
Traditionally there has been an exaggerated focus on hazards, and particularly on natural hazards: the storm, the flood or the earthquake. Hazards have been, and still are, portrayed as THE disaster.
It is of course true that hazards often are beyond the influence of mankind. (Apart from longer-term efforts to minimize human induced climate change).
However, without vulnerability there would be no disasters. The good news is that the extent and shape of that vulnerability is determined by livelihood, living conditions and behaviour. And that we can do something about.
As stated in the GAR report:” vulnerability is socially constructed”. In 2010 two similar earthquakes in two different countries resulted in 223,000 deaths in Haiti and 0 deaths in New Zealand (EM-DAT). That had very little to do with the hazards, but everything to do with the causes of vulnerability: poverty and failed development.
What to Do?
As highlighted in the Global Assessment Report, disaster risk needs to be regarded as a day-to-day issue, part of any development project.
Disaster risk should also be considered in any reconstruction or recovery project.
In order for that to happen we need to develop a global risk consciousness. That includes an acknowledgment of the fact that we can influence risks before they turn into calamities. That will not happen overnight. In many countries and communities disasters are still regarded as “an act of God” or caused by evil spirits.
In the meantime, what you can do as a first step is to suggest that your team includes just a few risk reducing activities, as part the project you are working on. These activities could be related to the often ignored risks people face on daily basis, such as fires or dangerous driving.
There is a great deal of either- or- thinking in aid. We tend to do the grand assessment and analysis or nothing at all. That becomes an obstacle for making small, gradual amendments your beneficiaries can align to and benefit from.
Disaster risk is embedded in development and cannot be handled merely by a specialized sector or a “Disaster Management Unit”. If we continue to do that we are guaranteed not to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Want to read more?
The GAR 2015 is in general a brave report, especially since developed by a UN agency. Unfortunately the Sendai Framework for Action did not take into account many of the brave and novel statements in the report.
If you are interested in learning more I recommend you read the GAR 2015, or at least the first summary pages “GAR at a glance.” My favourite is chapter 6, which includes a section on corruption. I will come back to the linkage between disasters and corruption in a later blog.