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Reducing the Risk of Disasters; Reducing Inequality – What’s the Link?

Duncan Green's picture

Another day, another, errm Day. Ahead of tomorrow’s International Day for Disaster Reduction (hold the front page….), Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s Humanitarian PolicyAdviser (right), explores the links between DRR and inequality

I have never understood why disaster risk reduction (DRR) gets so little attention – from governments, donors and the aid system in general.  Be honest, how many of you know what the Hyogo Framework for Action is, or know what UNISDR stands for? This is despite the proven effectiveness and – the holy grail - value for money of disaster risk reduction.  Frankly speaking, it’s a no-brainer.

We all seem to understand the imperative for prevention when it comes to vaccinations and insurance, but somehow this falls apart when it comes to reducing the impacts of disasters.  For national governments, I suppose that time delays between public investment in risk reduction and benefits when hazards are infrequent, and the political invisibility of successful risk reduction can be pressures for a NIMTOF (Not in My Term of Office) attitude that leads to inaction.  And donors prefer the Superman of high profile disaster response to the Clark Kent of disaster risk reduction.

Whilst some countries are demonstrating excellence in DRR – Philippines, Bangladesh, Cuba – for the rest, it’s a ticking bomb.  Extreme and frequent severe weather events are on the increase.  The costs – financial and social – are high and rising.  Whilst it’s the big disasters which capture international attention, it is often the relentless attrition of the smaller events (to increase my jargon quota: ‘extensive risk’), which get no international or even national support, and which keep pushing people into poverty.

Poor women and men are almost always the most vulnerable to disasters, with precarious livelihoods, a lack of economic buffers, and living in risky environments where shocks occur frequently.  This is not primarily due to their lack of willingness or perverse attitudes to risk, but to inequalities in the distribution of rights, resources and power which prevent equitable risk-sharing and severely constrain risk reduction options. Put in slightly less policy-wonk language – risk is being dumped on poor people.

To many of you, DRR probably seems like a rather technical (read boring) thing that humanitarians do sometimes.  You may think that they should be doing more of it.  But the trick is that reducing disaster risk has got to focus on addressing the underlying causes of risk, rather than treating the symptoms.  Without major changes to power, governance and voice, DRR can only ever be a bandaid.  And now we’re firmly in the territory of development.

Crucially, we’re talking about equity.  DRR is political, not a dry technical issue. The right to protection from disasters applies to all citizens – women, men, boys and girls – equally, including the most vulnerable and marginalised.  Women and girls tend to be more vulnerable precisely because of pre-existing inequalities. Deep seated forms of discrimination, reproduced by current socio-economic, political and cultural norms and practices, perpetuate the vulnerability of women and girls.

For example, Oxfam’s work in Jenggala village in eastern Indonesia found that women often had a better understanding of where floods and landslides were likely to occur, and were more vulnerable to them, because they are the ones who work in remote fields and hill-top gardens.  Yet holders of authority and power – husbands, community leaders, traditional social institutions – were often resistant to their involvement in disaster preparedness.  To try and overcome this, they identified and lobbied influential men in the community, to gain their support to ensure a 30 per cent quota for women’s participation in village DRR committees.

The knowledge and skills learnt through participating in DRR meetings and training, alongside diversified income from sources less vulnerable to weather-related destruction (bamboo handicrafts, coffee grinding, making dried banana chips) has increased women’s confidence and power.  Although it’s still early days, this is starting to shift men’s attitudes towards women and the importance of their role in village DRR.

This is great, but it’s one project.  We need more, much more of this.  Poor understanding of gender and DRR remains widespread and must be addressed head-on. Hence Oxfam has developed some really useful resources on gender and DRR, and this is the theme for the 2012 International Day of Disaster Reduction (what, you didn’t have that in your diary already?), being observed tomorrow.

As just one small example of the problem, that old adage of What is not measured, is not managed holds true for DRR as much as anything else, but the overwhelming majority of countries (65 out of 82 for whom we have information) do not collect gender-disaggregated vulnerability and capacity information.

The next three years offer an outstanding opportunity to provide a boost to DRR work – the timelines for both the Hyogo Framework for Action and of course the MDGs finish in 2015 – so there is an opportunity to rewrite the script.  Getting disaster risk into whatever succeeds the MDGs is vital in order to underscore that disasters are a development issue, and empowering women and girls will lead to a more resilient future.


1) In 2007, Sufia’s youngest son was washed away by floods in Bangladesh whilst she was nursing her new-born baby; despite a frantic search, Sufia never found him. Now she has raised the level of her home above the flood level and has received training on preparing for floods. Credit: Dan Chung

2) Teaching women and children to swim in Viet Nam, as part of the community-based disaster risk reduction project. Credit: Doan Minh Cuong/Oxfam

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power


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It is good to read this article from Debbie Hillier, which highlights the importance of DRR as a crucial component of development strategy, and calls for a greater focus on females, as a part of this process. Here in Kenya our disaster risk reduction strategies focus on children - both girls and boys - as the most vulnerable in many disaster situations. When given the knowledge and skills to enable meaningful and positive participation, children can become a vital part of the solution. Working in this area for the past five years, it has been great to see children and their schools become catalysts for action by parents and their wider communities. Child-friendly, shared-earning, focused on DRR, has sponsored many small ideas by children, that can in fact make quite a big difference. For example, making fuel briquettes from recycled materials to replace the use of charcoal, not only means lower living costs for poor families, but also has wider implications that can help reduce deforestation and the knock-on effects, such as soil erosion, floods and famine. Empowering children to become 'changemakers' can make a big difference.

One of the largest disaster simulation exercises was conducted last week in the North-Eastern state of Assam in India. The unique feature of the Guwahati simulation exercise was the participation from more than 60 children and 30 teachers who were trained on school safety throughout the week-long Guwahati Emergency Management Exercise (GEMEX) held in Assam from 29 October to 4 November. The children participated in the city-wide disaster simulation drill .

“In the coming years, children’s vulnerability to disasters is expected to increase as the frequency and intensity of natural hazards rises. Building resilience in children and communities and reducing their vulnerability to disasters has, therefore, become even more imperative.” said Nandita Hazarika, ACS, Deputy Secretary & SPO, ASDMA. “School children have a crucial role to play in disaster management as part of the community, and should be involved in school and community-based disaster management initiatives.”

“Children represent 50 to 60 per cent of those affected during disaster. We also know that they are the most vulnerable and are more prone to death and injuries, as well as diseases related to malnutrition and poor water and sanitation conditions that are exacerbated by disasters. But they are also powerful agents of change.” said Ms. Jeroo Master, Chief of UNICEF Field Office in Assam “Their unique knowledge and skills can play a crucial role in addressing or managing disaster risks. Today’s exercise has demonstrated the critical role that children can play during emergencies.”

The exercise focused on building the strengths and capabilities of the State Emergency Responders, Educational Institutions, Hospitals, Humanitarian Agencies and communities as they prepare to meet the challenges of potential urban disasters in the city of Guwahati.

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