Reducing the risk of disasters; reducing inequality – what's the link?

Another day, another, errm Day. Ahead of tomorrow’s International Day for Disaster Reduction (hold the front page….), Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s Humanitarian PolicyDebbieHillierAdviser (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. [caption id="attachment_12029" align="alignleft" width="396" caption="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"]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[/caption] 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 [caption id="attachment_12030" align="alignright" width="389" caption="Teaching women and children to swim in Viet Nam, as part of the community-based disaster risk reduction project. Credit: Doan Minh Cuong/Oxfam"]Teaching women and children to swim in Viet Nam, as part of the community-based disaster risk reduction project. Credit: Doan Minh Cuong/Oxfam[/caption] 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.]]>

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4 Responses to “Reducing the risk of disasters; reducing inequality – what's the link?”
  1. Helen Bushell

    A great post and a timely reminder (given the current number of disasters Oxfam is responding to)of the importance of DRR. That disasters are a development issue is indisputable and the time is now for all development actors to fully take this on board and ensure this is fully endorsed post Hyogo.
    For the record some of us like the ‘dry’ technical stuff too!

  2. Loy Rego

    Thanks Debbie for a powerful and simple argument for linking resilience into the post 2015 development goals. But tackling underlying causes, and empowering girls and women, will require more than gender disaggregated data, and a mention in the beyond 2015 framework. Here and now, in the next 3 years and 3 months we have left to “achieve the MDGs” and “implement HFA”; we need to help womens organisations and young girls ( with young boys) to take the lead in communities and engage local Governments for DP and DRR solutions, not just in jengala, and thru more projects but in their every day life and work.let the happy confluence of the first day of the girl child yesterday and this 21st IDDR in 2012 mark a new beginning.

  3. Jose Luis

    Very nice put, Debbie.
    Preventing “natural” (many brackets) disasters is a political task, not just a question of adding enough science & tecnology to hide the injustice. Someone said that disaster are just the sudden manifestation of long chains of injustice and lack of sustainability.
    Mind I have nothing against science nor against the “technical stuff” (that’s my job and I LUV it). It’s just I think we should put science & technology to work for the poor, rather than against them.