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When disasters are divorced from development

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Jack Jones, Humanitarian Programmes Manager, CHASE, DFID.

Terry Cannon, Reader in Development Studies, Fellow of the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.


Rt Hon John Battle MP, Chair, APGOOD

Rt Hon John Battle MP opened the meeting, noting the general discussions taking place around sustainability and climate change. However, he pointed out that we had not yet integrated environmental sustainability and development agendas, despite years of trying. He called for a sense of urgency to be injected into the discussions and stressed that the purpose of this meeting was to debate, not to try to provide all the answers.

Jack Jones
began by contrasting the dramatic, visual impact of major disasters - the tsunami, earthquakes - with less visual reconstruction and development, and noted how often the dramatic initial humanitarian relief effort to such disasters resides in the public consciousness more than long-term development work. He also noted the neglected emergencies and 'creeping epidemics' of poverty, avoidable disease and malnutrition.

The response to recent natural disasters highlights the need to make the link between humanitarian response and longer-term reconstruction and development. After both the tsunami and Pakistan earthquake, the initial relief effort has been followed by a difficult transition to reconstruction and development. Relief work must consider future recovery and development or risk weakening local support mechanisms, and aid workers must plan ahead to reduce risks of future disasters and the vulnerability of disaster-prone communities. The emergency relief priority is to save lives but we must do our best to 'do no harm' and not to undermine later recovery efforts.

What are the main barriers to successfully linking relief and development and what is DFID doing about it?

Funding - He stressed the need to avoid splitting emergency work into phases - relief, recovery, development - as these often have to be done at the same time, and always need to be planned at the same time. DFID, he noted, always seeks to extend humanitarian response funds to bridge the gap between the immediate response and the longer-term programmes of their country offices, and stressed their commitment to livelihoods programmes as key to this. DFID is committed to spending 10% of the amount allocated for emergency response to programmes to reduce the risks and impact of future disasters, where appropriate activities can be identified.

Roles and coordination - Coordination in an emergency is challenging as different agencies are responsible for relief and development efforts. DFID supports initiatives such as the cluster system (with its early recovery cluster) and CERF to combat this. Good Humanitarian Donorship principles also commit donors to providing humanitarian assistance in ways that support recovery and long-term development.

Disaster risk reduction - Mr Jones again highlighted the difference between the highly visible, attention-grabbing initial disaster response and longer-term, lower profile disaster risk reduction activities. This discrepancy is brought into relief when it is considered that £40 billion spent on DRR would have prevented the loss of £280 billion from natural disasters in the 1990s. DFID's goal is to contribute to sustainable development through reducing the burden of disasters on the poor and most vulnerable.

Media - Finally, Mr Jones stressed the positive role that the media can play in raising awareness of poverty and neglected emergencies, and in holding government and international agencies to account. Any distortion or exaggeration in the media is generally outweighed by serious, sincere reporting and campaigning.

In conclusion, Mr Jones asserted that donors, international agencies and NGOs must work together to put disaster risk reduction at the heart of humanitarian response and development work, particularly in disaster-prone countries and funding must support this link.

Terry Cannon
began by setting out the need for a clear, predictive definition of vulnerability to inform preparedness policies. He then outlined some of the challenges; namely, the problem of people's own priorities and risk culture, how to connect the local with the national and international agendas, and how to scale up from the affected communities. The role of livelihoods and governance are crucial for risk reduction through the reduction of poverty and vulnerability.

Natural hazards are not always prioritised by local communities. Communities will often prioritise immediate needs, such as food and cash for school fees, rather than disaster preparedness. Communities' own perceptions of risk do not yet place natural hazards as a priority and global statistics also support their perception. 12 million children under 5 die each year from preventable deaths (WHO). In comparison, during the whole of the 20th century, 11 million people of all ages died from sudden onset hazards.

Mr Cannon asserted that changing people's perceptions of risk - and their behaviour - to take account of natural disasters is crucial. He argued that reducing a community's vulnerability to disasters requires strengthening livelihoods and social protection. Long-term recovery issues after a disaster must also look at these issues: what were the pre-existing vulnerabilities? Does relief include asset and livelihood recovery? Is hazard preparedness built in to recovery? And is the aim to restore the status quo, or to reduce vulnerability further?

Finally, he posed the question, is vulnerability reduction the same as development? It involves work to protect and strengthen the livelihoods of the vulnerable, improve baseline conditions and improve the quantity and quality of assets available for income-generating activities.


Points raised during the ensuing discussion included:

  • Whether the focus on the community and livelihoods emphasis holds true when faced with the predictions of the impact of climate change.

  • Whether technological solutions are really needed, as opposed to proven low-tech and locally-based livelihoods interventions. It was stressed that an understanding of the local context was needed more than a standardised response.

  • If disaster preparedness is trying to promote 'things that people don't want to do' (as they do not see them as a priority), how does one tackle political and social incentives, and disincentives, to preparedness or risk reduction activities?

  • There is a need to invest in quality of understanding and assistance, as well as response, to engage more with community development.

  • Whether disaster risk reduction philosophy and action is plagued by the same problems of early warning, in that they need to show results in order for their usefulness to be accepted. However, proving the avoidance of disasters is extremely difficult.


The fourth and final meeting in this series on 'Disasters and Development' examined the often neglected issue of managing emergency relief funding, and the accountability of donors for the assistance they provide, especially given that donor activity is often driven by the media's presentation of disasters, making the integration of mitigation, recovery and development with risk reduction extremely difficult.

Boothroyd Room