• Natural disasters and the poor

    Posted by Micah

    1 November, 2010

    By Deborah Storie.

    Disasters are rarely "natural". Disasters occur when communities are affected by hazards that exceed their capacity to cope. Hazards that are disastrous for some may merely inconvenience, or even benefit, others. For instance, floods which destroy the livelihoods of communities farming marginal riverbanks may minimally impact urban communities above flood plains, and be welcomed by landowners who rely on regular flooding to replenish their fields. Similarly, labour-saving innovations materially benefit factory owners, shareholders and consumers but challenge workers to adapt to changing employment opportunities, devastating those with little capacity to change.

    "Natural" hazards (droughts, floods, earthquakes, landslides) exact a disproportionate toll from the poor, but this does not mean that they constitute the greatest threat to poor communities. Their vulnerability results from complex arrays of forces that shape societies and individuals in profound ways. At a global level, poverty-associated disability, death and displacement far exceed the toll of all "natural" disasters combined. At the local level, poor communities rarely identify sudden impact "natural disasters" as their greatest concern, and more often prioritise risks associated with the uncertainties of daily life. After all, why prepare for disasters you may not live to see? Hazards commonly identified by poor communities include: food, employment and housing insecurity; disease; inability to access health care, education, legal and financial services; social and economic marginalisation; local market fluctuations and falling commodity prices; exclusion from decision-making processes and political representation; corruption; and conflict. With such diverse risks to manage, investing in typical disaster preparedness projects may actually reduce a community's capacity to deal with more insidious hazards-and so increase its vulnerability overall. Investigating the causes of these hazards shows that they are neither natural nor accidental. They stem from a complex network of social, cultural, institutional and psychological forces with local and global dimensions.

    Factors that commonly drive vulnerability include:
    (a) Aspects of economic development that catalyse displacement, urbanisation and job loss: mechanisation and industrialisation of agriculture and other traditionally labour-intensive industries; importation or donation of subsidised staple foods undermining the profitability of traditional crop production; loss of small holdings to commercial agriculture, infrastructure development or urbanisation.

    (b) Economic, legal and political trends: mobility of international capital reducing local wages and job security; privatisation of public resources and reduced public provision of adequate health, education, legal and financial services; poorly constructed or maintained infrastructure and social service schemes.

    (c) Environmental degradation: industrial or agricultural misuse of natural resources causing salination, deforestation, desertification, pollution and global warming; unsustainable farming practices; commercial or illegal fishing, logging or mining operations; dredging of river and sea beds; urban development.

    (d) Development initiatives that undermine existing capacities and expose communities to novel risks: credit provision for micro-enterprise development exposing participants to market fluctuations; promotion of income generation instead of subsistence food production; compulsory education of school-aged children without substituting for their earnings; modern technologies disadvantaging small producers unable to access information, fertiliser, hybrid seeds or other inputs. Theories of wealth and poverty that are popular in economically dominant societies explain poverty according to categories (such as race, caste, cultural practices, population growth, ignorance, laziness and corruption in third world societies) that locate poverty's causes with the poor. Institutions, groups and individuals benefiting from systems that contribute to vulnerability may be unable to see or understand the negative consequences visited upon others. Humanitarian interventions are easy to sell when disasters are (misleadingly) portrayed as unavoidable events caused by freaks of nature that could happen to anyone. It is much more difficult to gain public support for initiatives designed to engage the fundamental political, social, and economic causes of vulnerability.

    Mitigating the Hazards of Disaster Management: Balancing Priorities
    Most of the following suggestions incorporate a range of questions that institutional or individual donors might ask when seeking to support disaster-affected communities in ways which maximise the positive consequences of post-disaster interventions and minimise their negative impacts. Suggestions 1 and 6 relate to how our involvement in broader social processes, including policy formation and cultural and lifestyle choices, contribute either to vulnerability or to building a more equitable world. Suggestions 2 through 5 are intended to help people to decide when to support humanitarian interventions and which agencies and projects through which to channel their support.

    1. Prioritise initiatives that redress root causes of vulnerability and poverty: Encourage government, civil society and individuals to redress global inequality and invest in disaster prevention and mitigation. Strategies that government and development agencies may adopt include capping the proportion of total relief and development expenditure allocated to emergency relief; limiting emergency appeals; supporting local partner organisations in their development, disaster preparedness and response activities rather than mounting parallel responses; supporting contextually appropriate poverty alleviation initiatives, particularly those related to the Millennium Development Goals; and educating donor communities about the causes of vulnerability and the need to work towards a world in which fewer people are compelled to live in hazardous situations.

    2. Respect the will and capacity of third world people and governments to respond to crises. When third world nations are able to respond adequately without external assistance, they should be admired for doing so. What implicit messages might an aid or development intervention convey? Where and how are decisions made? Whose priorities are considered first? Does our desire to alleviate suffering blind us to the possibility that our help may not be needed? Are cross-cultural engagements respectful or paternalistic? Imagine being on the receiving end of the intervention.

    3. Support agencies already established in the region that work in partnership with local communities and understand the historical context of the disaster, respect local cultures, religions and languages, and emphasise the resources and resilience of local peoples. Are disaster mitigation, preparedness and response initiatives located within ongoing development projects? Do publicity materials respect the dignity and agency of local people or portray them as helpless victims in need of saving?

    4. Think hard about issues of vulnerability and dependency. Will needs be met without increasing the vulnerability of participating communities, distancing individuals from their communities or otherwise making the resumption of self-reliance more difficult? Are positive changes likely to be sustainable or might ongoing dependency result? Are planned interventions community-based, community-responsive and integrated within the local context? More specifically, how do feeding centres or orphanages affect nonformal cultural practices that protect and care for vulnerable children? Will establishing refugee camps catalyse the displacement of people who might otherwise not have left home? How will food relief affect peasant farmers?

    5. Beware of vested economic, political, ideological and religious interests. Think twice before supporting interventions that rely heavily on external skills or resources. Will the placement of Australian personnel enhance local capacities in strategic ways? Did the agency try to recruit skilled people locally? What impact will the intervention have on local economies and local productivity? What consequences might interventions welcomed by middle class urban people have for poorer rural communities?

    6. Cultivate an enduring commitment to build a world characterised by peace, justice and equality-regardless of whether or not "disasters" capture global attention. How might Australian attitudes, consumer behaviours and domestic and foreign policies contribute to vulnerability? How might we identify and resist ideologies of fear that promote defensive, self-interested and selfish behaviours? How might we intentionally promote cultural change by encouraging government, civil society and individuals to look beyond short-term economic advantage to embrace a broader vision of sustainable global well-being?


    Deborah Storie is the Deputy Chair of the Board of TEAR Australia. This is an extract of an article by Deborah was first published in RES PUBLICA journal. This extract appeared in TEAR Australia's ChangeMakers Journal