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close this bookDisasters and Development (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 55 p.)
close this folderPART 1 - The relationship between disasters and development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentDefinition of terms
View the documentHow disaster effects can vary from one type of hazard to another
View the documentHow vulnerability varies between and within countries
View the documentCASE STUDIES
View the documentSUMMARY


This training module provides a new conceptualization of the relationship between disasters and development. This new conceptualization has been growing in the development community over the last few years and is a major philosophical underpinning of the United Nations Disaster Management Training Programme. Rarely a week goes by when a major disaster is not reported in the media - a disaster that results in death and destruction - a disaster that frequently wipes out years of development programming and sets the slow course of improvement in third world countries further behind, wasting precious resources.

For a long time the cause and effect relationship between disasters and social and economic development was ignored. Ministries of Planning and Finance and other development planners did not concern themselves with disasters. At best, development planners hoped that disasters would not occur and, if they did, were most effectively handled by relief from donor countries and relief organizations. Development programs were not assessed in the context of disasters, neither from the effect of the disaster on the development program nor from the point of whether the development programs increased either the likelihood of a disaster or increased the potential damaging effects of a disaster.

Disasters were seen in the context of emergency response - not as a part of long term development programming. When a disaster did occur, the response was directed to emergency needs and cleaning up. Communities under disaster distress were seen as unlikely places to institute development. The post-disaster environment was seen as too turbulent to promote institutional changes aimed at promoting long term development.

The growing body of knowledge on the relationships between disasters and development indicates four basic themes (see figure 1).


Aspects of a community’s development and vulnerability to disasters are charted on the above figure. The graphic shows the various “orientations” with which you may analyze the “field” of development and disaster vulnerability.

The field is divided into positive and negative aspects of the disaster/development relationship by the vertical axis. The right half reflects the positive or optimistic side of the relationship and the left side of the diagram deals with the negative aspects of the relationship. The short statement given in each quadrant sums up the basic concept derived from the overlap of the two realms.

The four themes presented in fig. 1 may be expanded as follows:

1. Disasters set back development programming destroying years of development initiatives.

- Infrastructure improvement e.g. transport and utility systems are destroyed by a flood.

2. Rebuilding after a disaster provides significant opportunities to initiate development programs.

- A self-help housing program to rebuild housing destroyed by an earthquake teaches new skills, strengthens community pride and leadership and retains development dollars that otherwise would be exported to large construction companies.

3. Development programs can increase an area’s susceptibility to disasters.

- A major increase in livestock development leads to overgrazing, which contributes to desertification and increases vulnerability to famine.

4. Development programs can be designed to decrease the susceptibility to disasters and their negative consequences.

- Housing projects constructed under building codes designed to withstand high winds result in less destruction during the next tropical storm.

Decision-makers who ignore these relationships between disasters and development do a disservice to the people who place their trust in them. Increasingly, around the world, forward thinking Ministries of Planning and Finance with the support of United Nations and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) officials are assessing development projects in the context of disaster mitigation and are designing disaster recovery programs with long term development needs in mind.

Development requires institutional and structural transformations of societies to speed up economic growth, reduce levels of inequality and eradicate absolute poverty. Over time, the effects of disasters can seriously degrade a country’s long-term potential for sustained development and cause governments to substantially modify their economic development priorities and programs.

Decision-makers who ignore these relationships between disasters and development do a disservice to the people who place their trust in them.

At the same time, disasters often provide opportunities for development. They can improve the atmosphere in favor of change and create a rationale to establish development programs such as job training, housing construction and land reform. However, poor management of the relief and rehabilitation responses may have severe negative implications for development for years to come, and may even increase vulnerability to future hazards.

The following discussion highlights the importance of considering the likely potential, risks and consequences of disasters as part of development program planning. It emphasizes the opportunities for preventing and mitigating damage and disruption that arise when disaster considerations are integrated into project planning for development. The module underlines the need to consider emergency responses in the context of development and the integration of development considerations into emergency response planning. The discussion will increase your understanding of development/disaster linkages, broaden your view of intervention possibilities, and provide examples of how development planners assess the costs and benefits of these types of programs, and identify negative and positive examples of putting these ideas into practice.