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The state of knowledge and its policy relevance

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Margareta Wahlstrom
, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations
Jennifer Worrell, Senior Programme Advisor, UNDP Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery, Geneva Disaster Risk Reduction Unit.

Adrian Hewitt, Research Fellow, ODI

Adrian Hewitt in the chair, opened the first meeting in the 'Disasters and Development' series. He introduced the topic and the speakers.

Terry Cannon of the DSA Disasters and Development Study Group provided background to the current meeting series. Mr Cannon outlined how the Development Studies Association had previously lacked a special focus on disasters despite the important linkages between disasters and development. A Disasters and Development Studies Group has now been established that aims to influence donors and politicians and to ensure that the links between disasters and development are kept high on the agenda. This meeting series represents part of this effort. He also commented on the need to raise awareness of the link between disasters and development more broadly, including encouraging greater media interest in disaster mitigation and risk reduction. Mr Cannon also provided an overview of the upcoming meetings in this meeting series.

Margareta Wahlstrom
opened by considering why we should worry about the linkages between disasters and development. She argued that historically development and humanitarian professionals have largely worked separately but now the scale of the problem is so large that this can't continue - we need to ensure foresight, not just responsiveness. Some aspects of disasters have become a part of daily life for many people.

Those who have worked on disasters for a long time have argued for effective responses on the basis of a humanitarian rationale. More recently economic reasons have been put forward which recognise the cost of disasters and their impact on economic development. While not an argument that is being put forward strongly as yet, a political rationale also exists as it can be costly for governments to not respond effectively to its citizens' concerns.

Ms Wahlstrom identified a number of trends that are increasing the risk of disasters including rapid demographic growth, urbanisation and climate change. Poverty in rural areas is driving urbanisation and environmental degradation is increasing the vulnerability of communities.

A lack of development can also be very costly in terms of disasters. A flood in an under-developed region has a much bigger impact as the capacity to respond is not as great. This in turn can increase the economic cost of the disaster. Over time natural hazards have become more costly. The number of people affected by natural hazards is also increasing. However, the mortality rates of disasters are declining due to improved preparedness.

While natural hazards can affect all countries there is a lack of capability for coping with them in developing countries. Families in poor countries have multiple risks to deal with in their daily lives. Disasters that might occur every few years are therefore often not perceived as priorities in terms of risk reduction. Unless international actors can intervene at the day-to-day level in terms of economic opportunities, investing in disaster risk reduction is unlikely to be seen as a productive investment for vulnerable families.

Ms Wahlstrom posed a number of critical questions, including: How can development activities reduce vulnerabilities? How can human settlements be made more robust and protect people better than they do today?

The challenges aren't necessarily technical or technological but are more problems of knowledge use, take up and institutionalisation. Humanitarian and development professionals are working on different aspects of the same problem. But, we have allowed ourselves to be caricatured as humanitarians on the one hand, and development professionals on the other. Niger was an obvious failure which demonstrated the lack of communication between the two professional communities and the Niger government. This demonstrated the clash between the classic 'development' and classic 'humanitarian' approaches.

In the aftermath of the tsunami there was a strong call for early warning systems with a strong emphasis on technology. But Ms Wahlstrom argued it is not all about technology. Reaching the people is equally important. A technological early warning system will not improve disaster preparedness if awareness amongst the population is not improved.

A stronger link between decision-makers and the scientific community is needed. The scientific community has contributed a great deal but this information needs to be converted to effective action. This will require greater involvement of the private sector, civil society and governments.

At the national level, we need to increase capacity, improve institutional frameworks and good governance, and increase mitigation capability. The answers are out there, we know what can be done, but we need to get the message out and increase the sense of obligation of a moral kind in order to improve disaster risk reduction.

Jennifer Worrell
presented the methodology and findings of the UNDP Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery report Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development. This report increased the evidence base for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and sought to link improved information with improvements in policy making at the global and national level. It also provides a way of assessing the risk of disaster through development of a disaster risk index (DRI).


Points raised during the discussion included:

  • Political stability would seem to have a significant impact on vulnerability to disaster and capacity for effective responses to hazards. It was suggested that future work on the DRI should seek to include political stability as a variable. UNDP are trying to bring together other work on disasters in conflict settings and hope to come up with one indicator that all can agree on.

  • The development agenda has moved beyond relying too heavily on GDP as a sufficient measure due to the significant disparity within countries. It was suggested that UNDP should consider this in future research on disaster risk.

  • In considering why we are not further ahead in taking DRR seriously, the issue of incentives was raised. What are the incentives for more collaborative work? Why aren't the economic, political and moral incentives currently working? Is it because the most vulnerable communities are politically and economically marginal?

  • What are the affected countries doing? DRR has the potential to bring together rich and poor countries, because all are vulnerable to hazards. DRR is being looked at from public governance, scientific, institutional and technical perspectives. Different actors need to find each other in the national setting and need national platforms to bring people together at the national level. Many developed countries still do not have national platforms for action and discussion.

  • International and national institutions are not well structured to deal with DRR. 'Coherence' is a term which is over-utilised but under-done. We need to work from both the bottom up and the top down and political leverage is needed.

  • More attention on how local professional capacity can be strengthened for DRR (e.g. surveyors, architects, etc) is needed.

  • The media are not necessarily steering the humanitarian community as much as we believe they might be, but there is a need to work closely with them as public advocacy and awareness are critical. Also, the media needs to be encouraged to come back 2, 4, 6 and 10 years after crisis to see what progress has been made. There is a need to get the media to think about the over-use of disaster response and that there are alternatives to it.

  • The link between health and DRR was raised. Disaster prevention originated in the health sector and today a lot of the same terminology is used. Professionals saw signs of disease and tried to prevent their spread. Prevention is clearly important in the health sector, but all professional communities need to know how their specialities are involved in risk reduction and response


The first meeting in this series on 'Disasters and Development' reviewed the state of the knowledge base and the current policy framework regarding the linkages between disasters and development.