Why are people poor and vulnerable?

Source(s): United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
© Benoit Matsha-Carpentier/IFRC
© Benoit Matsha-Carpentier/IFRC

GENEVA, October 31, 2014 - Terry Cannon, the editor of the 2014 World Disasters Report is not afraid to ask the big questions when it comes to disaster risk reduction (DRR).

How big a role does corruption play in the death tolls that follow earthquakes and buildings collapse? What kind of a boost would it give resilience to disasters if issues like landlessness and caste were tackled? How can you work on disaster risk reduction in a community if you ignore the fact that a large percentage of the female population is being physically and sexually abused?

These were just some of the issues aired this week at the Geneva launch of the 2014 World Disasters Report, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with its focus on culture and risk.

The volume makes a compelling case that disaster assessment has to move beyond politics, economics and social factors to include culture “as a very significant and neglected factor that affects disasters.”

Mr. Cannon who is also Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, UK, adds that “there is little mention of the significance of culture in the work of most DRR and climate adaptation organizations.”

This is best illustrated in a clear-eyed analysis of the myth of community (Chapter 4) which finds that most organizations engaged in DRR have considerable knowledge of the power relations that affect the “community” but “these often appear to be overlooked when programmes and projects are actually implemented, or they are not considered to be a significant barrier.

“These power relations are almost always present (in a wide variety of configurations), especially on grounds of gender, class, ethnicity, caste, patron-client relations or age-group bonding. They are also sometimes justified by culture and religion, making it difficult to intervene from outside.”

Cultural awareness is essential to understanding the root causes of the poverty and vulnerability which underpin much exposure to disaster events, before they can be meaningfully addressed in a long-term sustainable manner rather than through short-term fixes which meet tight donor deadlines, before moving on to the next “community-based” project.

Why are people poor and vulnerable in the first place? The answer is usually because of power relations but according to one experienced Bangladeshi who has worked on DRR, it is a subject rarely raised: “You have seen that most of the NGO-led adaptation projects are only for three to five years. Within this limited time frame, it is quite impossible to address power relations….They select a local partner and the funding agency asks them to be begin the implementation, which means spend money. The donors wants visibility and needs to burn money. They are not interested in who is getting what and how. If they have good visibility for their work and high burning rate this can ensure their next projects; power relations are not required.”

Alongside unequal power relations, the Report also looks at how, overall, culture, beliefs and attitudes enable people “to live with risks and make sense of their lives in dangerous place,” as the newly appointed IFRC Secretary-General Elhadj As Sy expresses it in the foreword.

He admits that “we find it challenging to fit these seamlessly into our organizational framework and funding models. Instead we tend to assume (or hope) that the people we want to support use the same logic and rationality as we do and that they will want to reduce the disaster risk. Sometimes there is also an institutional reluctance to deal with the issues of inequality and power that make people vulnerable in the places where they make a living.”

Speaking at the Geneva launch, UNISDR director, Neil McFarlane, said: “Poverty is recognized as a major driver of risk. The need for the convergence between DRR and development is a crucial part of the post-2015 development agenda, the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction and the agenda of the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“It is true that disaster risk management will have less impact if it does not take account of people’s cultures, beliefs and attitudes in relation to risk. The threat posed by climate change underlines how important this is.

“The new normal is driven by warming seas, rising temperatures, more intense and extreme weather events. Culture and attitudes to risk have to change and better communication with vulnerable groups is part of that. We need to give them a platform and a voice.”

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