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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


This part of the module is designed to enhance your understanding of:

current and potential roles for United Nations agency officials and NGOs in helping countries make the disaster/development connection

why the affected communities need to be involved in designing and implementing programs

The UN and the NGO role

UNDP, DHA, other UN agencies and NGOs have a major role to play within a country to promote a wider awareness of the links between disasters and development and the options for reshaping national strategies for disaster preparedness, mitigation, and recovery. Generally, this role can be considered to have three parts. First, the organizations should design initiatives to increase the overall knowledge and level of commitment of national counterparts to preparedness, mitigation and development related recovery programming. Second, UN agency officials and NGOs can provide access to nontraditional sources of capital and technical assistance. Third, both UN agency officials and NGOs must review their country programs and other national projects to assess mitigation opportunities and ensure that such development schemes do not increase vulnerability.

Governments should develop an overall country-wide disaster plan with supporting policies.

Increasing knowledge and awareness

Building vulnerability reduction and mitigation into development programs requires action to increase awareness among politicians, administrators, community leaders, and above all among the ordinary people affected by disasters. Similarly, reducing the disaster potential generated by poorly conceived development programs may need additional awareness raising among national development planners. One important goal is to encourage the widest possible perspective on a national mitigation strategy. Governments should be encouraged to develop an overall country-wide disaster plan with supporting policies. The constituency for this needs to extend beyond government. Collaborating constituencies for mitigation must be built among NGOs, the banking, finance and insurance sectors, private industry, and supporting bodies ranging from economic policy groups to safety councils. Each constituency will need a unique strategy.

One key to this process is a detailed focus on risk factors and how they vary for different types and intensities of hazard conditions, different types of economic activities, and different populations. Carefully tailored programs can assist politicians and administrators to understand the nature and extent of the various risks faced by communities, to appreciate how people within those communities view these risks, and to assess the economic effects of natural disasters on industry, commerce, and agriculture. An additional early role is to encourage a detailed inventory of critical faculties and reconstruction resources, to ensure that planning is based on the best possible information.

A second requirement is to demonstrate ways to reduce these risks through better decision-making and planning. The aim is to encourage disaster mitigation planning at different levels of public administration, based on risk assessment and analysis of vulnerability. This will only be possible if there is clear awareness among national and regional planners of the benefits of including disaster mitigation measures in national development plans, land-use planning proposals, and in project appraisal in hazard-prone areas.

Training will be a core part of the strategy for encouraging widespread involvement and commitment, with special emphasis on support for training institutions for national planners. There will be real long-term benefits from integrating mitigation into the general training curriculum.

Filipino UN Volunteer helps build a new road in Bangladesh.

UNDP World Development November, 1989

Promoting the use of non-traditional resources

UN agency officials and NGOs can play a vital role in helping governments utilize the expertise from scientific institutions and the private sector in the government planning process. They can also encourage exchanges of staff and information with other countries where similar problems have been encountered.

Access to university-level programs will be important. The research base for disaster-related information and training will need to be strengthened. Areas to focus on include developing tools for analyzing and predicting damage to capital items, death and injury to people, and disruption of productive activity; and developing models for forecasting the economic outcome of these effects for a particular economic system.

NGOs and donors must increase their commitment to funding preparedness, mitigation and development related recovery programs.

UN agency officials and NGOs can also provide legitimacy and access to donors to provide financing and seed capital for mitigation projects. NGOs and donors must increase their commitment to funding preparedness, mitigation and development related recovery programs. Many NGOs, in particular, have the flexibility within their funding mandates to shift resources to promote recovery related development interventions.

Advocacy and pressure groups for disaster mitigation may already be present or emerge gradually. Their role can be enhanced, especially by NGOs, by improving access to information, and supporting training in risk assessment, vulnerability analysis and organizational effectiveness.

One area to emphasize will be the role and contribution of line-ministries.

Setting a good example

It is critically important that UN agencies and NGOs put these concepts into practice themselves as a model to government counterparts. This is best done by aggressively seeking out mitigation opportunities, funding their implementation and critically reviewing all development schemes to ensure that they do not increase vulnerability. To achieve this, disaster focal points, whose job it is to monitor and promote mitigation-related strategies, should be identified and supported. Naturally, the focus of action will depend largely on the political structures within the country, but one area to emphasize will be the role and contribution of line-ministries. It is in these sectors of government that the planning skills and resources for integrating development and mitigation are most likely to be found.

The perspective of such a program will need to be long-term, and will have to take account of the tendency of governments to ignore disaster related projects in the absence of any major disasters. The aim should be to build and sustain a spectrum of multi-sector support programs for mitigation, promoted by line-ministries, and to reinforce these with training, continued awareness-building, and pressures from other constituencies. In some countries, NGOs enjoy a favored position with political and government leaders and are uniquely positioned to bring legitimacy to mitigation projects.

A primary argument for change will be cost. Attention of politicians and planners must be focussed on a comparison of the costs to the government of achieving higher levels of mitigation and the costs if they do not. At the same time, there will be continuing opportunities to promote and support a range of individual projects, including demonstration projects. Demonstration projects identify measures that can be done at low cost, often involving adjustments to existing projects. An additional early strategy is to build up information on the current situation, using risk and vulnerability studies and audits of institutions with disaster functions.

Q. What are some ways that UN agency officials and NGOs in your country or region can help leaders promote development in the context of disaster preparedness, mitigation and recovery?


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.



Study of recovery after disaster: local participation in redevelopment planning

The post-disaster recovery period offers an opportunity for local organizational capacity building. Inserting development objectives into recovery activities has been shown to reduce costs and increase the effectiveness of recovery aid policies. External aid can be used to support organizations involved in self-directed sustainable development initiatives allowing local people to define the goals and control resources.

Studies of long term recovery efforts have shown that communities often respond in different ways to the same input, depending on the strength of local organizations and social units. For example, richer communities are often able to exert influence and be rebuilt faster than poorer communities. When people and organizations are linked in an equal manner, development policies are more likely to tit the need of the citizens. When local institutions cannot act collectively to solve local problems, local development is often not targeted properly to the needs of the citizens. When problems occur in the delivery of aid, it is often a result of weak local institutions.

Communities can take steps before and after a disaster to increase the likelihood of sustainable development and mitigation by evaluating the existing and potential roles of local government agencies and community-based NGOs for future recovery efforts, as depicted in the following example.

Montserrat, West Indies: Before Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, Streatham village located on the small island state of Montserrat in the eastern Caribbean was historically vulnerable to disaster and always required outside assistance to recover. The village lacked a highly coordinated network of social and governmental organizations which might enable it to take control of its own affairs. Among its strengths, however, were ties to larger networks of institutions outside of the village where problems could be expressed, and also ties to external aid through long term projects funded by Canada. Local organizations in Streatham village had the potential to enhance the work of external organizations through their knowledge of local circumstances.

After Hugo caused extensive damage, two outside organizations, a Canadian NGO and a regional NGO, collaborated with a local community action group to assist in the recovery. The Canadian NGO sought to build improved housing by providing funds to the intermediary NGO to carry out the construction activities in Streatham. The intermediary group worked with the community action group to initiate the project. The Canadian NGO also supplied the program with building materials and transport.

The new program produced significant accomplishments. The community action group staff conducted a series of training workshops on rebuilding and structural strengthening techniques. Twenty homes were rebuilt and many others repaired. Local groups traveled to Canada to conduct seminars for Canadian supporters to demonstrate how foreign aid was used. The long term accomplishments included:

· improvement in local visibility and sense of importance

· substantial increase in voluntary participation of local citizens in recovery activities

· strengthening of community action groups capacity to undertake other development projects

· increase in Canadian donors understanding of local needs and trust in local capacities resulting in granting of additional aid

· establishment and maintenance of a local agricultural and marketing cooperative.

The excellent results of the recovery program can be partially attributed to the goals of the Canadian NGO at the onset: to empower the local and regional groups and not do the work itself. This resulted in the strengthening of local institutional capacities. In turn, the foreign donors developed a better understanding of the institutional capacity building needs for effective recovery and development and were able to address these needs through their development programs.

From: Berke, Philip R., Jack Kartez and Dennis Wegner, “Recovery after Disaster: Achieving Sustainable Development, Mitigation and Equity”, in Disasters, Vol. 17 No. 2, pg. 93-107.


UN Agencies and NGOs can play a part in reshaping national strategies in disaster preparedness, mitigation, and recovery, this is accomplished through:

- increasing knowledge and awareness
- demonstration of risk reduction measures through better decision making and planning
- technical expertise and information exchange
- legitimizing and financing of mitigation projects

UN agencies and NGOs should strive to set positive examples and serve as models for local government counterparts.

Community involvement is critical to the design and implementation of mitigation programs.

Since disasters rise from situations of poverty, development programs should be aimed at reducing poverty.