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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 4 - Forging the links between disasters and development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe UN and the NGO role
View the documentBuilding links between disasters and development - the community’s role
View the documentCASE STUDY
View the documentSUMMARY

Building links between disasters and development - the community’s role

The best results in linking preparedness, vulnerability reduction and development are obtained by involving members of the communities-at-risk from the start.

The role of the community

Underlying all these development initiatives is the need for community involvement in mitigation. Ultimately, the victims of disasters and the beneficiaries of development programs are individuals in local communities in affected countries. Failing to involve individuals and communities in designing and implementing programs will cause the programs to be inadequately conceptualized and less than fully implemented. The best results in linking preparedness, vulnerability reduction and development are obtained by involving members of the communities-at-risk from the start.

The uneven results of long term grassroots empowerment schemes linked with the mandates of international development funding institutions result in a preference for comparatively large projects, in which interest groups that lack political and economic power are seldom fully represented. Governments, too, find it easier to operate from a centralized position, rather than to have programs with grassroots consultation, especially at the initial stages. As a result, most disaster related development programs have a top down approach, with community involvement serving primarily as an aid to implementation instead of providing input to program planning. However, research as well as practical experience indicates that individuals are most committed to implementing programs that they have helped to conceive.

It is important that vulnerable communities receive the benefit of community development programs before a disaster strikes.

Unfortunately, local governments, communities and individuals rarely have the luxury of uncommitted resources that can be deployed to achieve disaster related development goals. In poorer communities, which are often particularly affected by disasters, the problems of day-to-day existence tend to outweigh prospects of more remote risks. Consequently, outside assistance in the form of programmatic ideas, capital and technical assistance is usually necessary to promote such initiatives.

Well designed public education programs can build the necessary attitudes to create a belief that preparedness is important. Over time, attitudes can be shaped without extraordinary costs to individuals. For example, individual farmers can be taught not to breach embankments in a flood prone area once they realize that their land will flood even if the existing flood waters are drained into a neighbors fields. However, structural mitigation initiatives will normally require multiple goals to appeal to individuals. For example, people will build hazard-resistant structures because they want better houses or because there is a wage subsidy involved rather than because it will give good protection from a disaster that may or may not occur.

The best hope for a community’s recovery from or preparation for a disaster is to have a history of strong organization and well developed community leadership with experience in mobilizing community members to coordinate and implement programs. Therefore, it is important that vulnerable communities receive the benefit of community development programs before a disaster strikes.

Nevertheless, even in areas without a strong local history of organization, the recovery period from a major disaster provides unique opportunities to build vibrant community organizations. It is well documented that disaster victims demonstrate natural organizing efforts in response to an emergency situation. During this period, new leaders emerge and act in ways to inspire community trust. These new leaders can and often do serve to promote long term empowerment for their fellow citizens. Response and recovery programs that build on this emerging leadership can be useful not only for building mitigation into recovery but for promoting long term community involvement in development programming.

Community involvement can be fostered in a variety of ways in those communities where vulnerability is the greatest. A disaster may impact more heavily on some sectors of a community than others. For development purposes, experienced workers feel that mitigation activities should involve entire communities, not just the direct victims of a previous disaster. Community involvement, whenever possible, should be fostered by indigenous groups and organizations. Organizations with pre-existing links to the community are most likely to be trusted and are usually close enough to the community to remain involved to monitor implementation. Outside assistance, then, can take the form of training, research and information sharing, and financing of demonstration projects.

Disasters aside, in most cases vulnerability derives from poverty.

Q. Provide an example of a successful attempt to involve potential disaster victims in designing and implementing a prevention or mitigation program.


Disasters aside, in most cases vulnerability derives from poverty. Families settle on unstable hillsides because the land is cheap. People crowd their living spaces because they can’t afford other options. Countries allow hazardous industrial development projects because they fear no development if they impose restrictions. The overriding goal of development must be the removal of the social and economic factors which predispose whole communities, indeed whole countries, to destitution and which place them at risk from their environment. Disasters multiply and expose the effects of poverty. Development programming must take account of disasters. This focus and this module is aptly summarized by Mary Anderson:

“Even the most efficiently managed disaster recovery operation, if it is focused on getting things ‘back to normal’, leaves a society no less vulnerable to natural hazards. Preparedness/mitigation, on the other hand, produces benefits, in addition to those that are equivalent to the savings of disaster damage, that are completely unrealizable through the recovery option. These are the promotion of a stable environment which provides incentives for investment and entrepreneurial activity, the potential development of a sense of efficacy on the part of the broader population, and the development of improved management and planning skills. Only if these are promoted and strengthened can we expect that sustainable long-term development can ever be achieved. Thus, disaster prevention, incorporated into development planning, is one important area for investment to achieve sustainable development.”1

1 Mary Anderson, “Analyzing the costs and benefits of natural disaster responses in the context of development.” Environment Working Paper No. 29. World Bank. Washington D.C., May, 1990.