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Strengthening resilience: can ‘disaster risk management’ offer a foundation?

Written by Tom Mitchell

I am delighted that the 2011 international day for disaster reduction is focusing on the role of children and young people (CYP) in disasters. It is an issue close to my heart following the work I did with Plan UK on child-centred disaster risk management in the Philippines. Indirectly this led to Dr. Nick Hall and I establishing Children in a Changing Climate, which is the foremost network of child-centred agencies focused on climate change and disaster risk issues as they relate to CYP. My personal delight is tinged with sadness as the future outlook for Filipino children is insecure, with higher exposure, changing vulnerability and more severe and frequent weather extremes bringing increases in disaster risk. Given the number of extreme weather events this year, the Philippines Senate Committee on Climate Change is conducting a review of the adequacy of disaster prevention.

It is in this context that the UK government’s new Humanitarian Policy ‘Saving Lives, Preventing Suffering and Building Resilience’ has been launched. It represents a significant shift towards ‘resilience’ as a rallying discourse in development co-operation, a move designed to tackle the unsafe conditions in which CYP live. Naturally, this requires a much broader engagement with factors that cause CYP to be unsafe – conflict, disasters, climate change, environmental degradation, economic insecurity and the propagation of global shocks, such as food price rises, to the local level. Taking ‘resilience’ in its simplest form to mean ‘the power to recover quickly’, strengthening resilience is therefore about tackling each of these factors systematically. Of course there are long academic traditions and many instruments associated with adapting to climate change, managing disaster risk, building peace and improving economic prospects. Consequently, using resilience as a framing concept demands another look at how each of the approaches can be correlated, co-ordinated and mobilised effectively.

Borrowing from the disaster risk management continuum, I have mapped some of the strategies for strengthening resilience on the same continuum – from tackling the root cause on the left to efficiently managing the impact on the right (see fig 1.). All approaches clearly have:

  • an ex-ante prevention or risk reduction aspect, which often involves reducing poverty, vulnerability and exposure
  • a preparedness aspect
  • an effective response aspect that involves managing the impact as efficiently and as smartly as possible. Ideally, the response tries to reduce the risk and the severity of the impact next time round.

Fig. 1: Matrix of Resilience-building Instruments and Approaches

Prevention or risk reduction (addressing root causes)

Being prepared

Responding and Recovering Effectively


Adapting to climate change

Greenhouse gas emissions reduction, poverty reduction

Monitor salinisation, coral bleaching, seasonal forecasts

Support environmental migration and livelihood transitions

McGray et al. (2008)

Managing disaster risk

Land use planning, poverty reduction, strong building codes with enforcement

Early warning, evacuation, first aid training

Cash-transfers, rapid shelter provision, risk assessments in reconstruction

e.g. International Federation of Surveyors

Tackling conflict risk

Electoral reform, poverty reduction, preventative diplomacy, cross-cultural programmes

Early warning, risk analysis, training in mediation, development of  negotiation strategies

Peacekeeping, Transitional justice/peace building, new governance and decision-making processes

e.g. GSDRC on conflict

Addressing economic shocks

Transformative and promotive social protection, land reform, migration, build foreign reserves

Protective safety nets – e.g. school feeding, child-benefit payments, insurance mechanisms

Cash and other asset transfers, increases in aid, supported investment flows.

Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004), Te Velde (2008)

It is clear that strengthening the resilience of development pathways involves establishing systems and making investments that deliver action in all elements in figure 1 across multiple scales. While emphasis may shift between approaches and between the three vertical categories at different times, many actions are interdependent. For example, disaster risks may well be increased if response to an economic shock is not effective. Similarly, adapting to climate change through carefully managing and supporting migration may help to reduce the risk of conflict.

While it is important to establish the conceptual links between different resilience-building strategies, donors face difficult decisions in how to target investments to achieve value for money in efforts to build resilience. Furthermore, given the challenges of promoting co-ordination between just two such strategies, policy-makers will find it difficult to advance institutional and organisational coherence between all the strategies detailed above. Accordingly, more research is needed on the politics of policy processes associated with building resilience through multiple strategies at different scales. This will certainly be a key factor if the UK is going to achieve ‘commitment 8’ in the Humanitarian Policy: We willintegrate resilience and disaster risk reduction into our work on climate change and conflict prevention. However, progress on this commitment appears crucial if CYP in developing countries are to live more safely.