Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Disaster Risk Reduction: What Really Matters

The more I participate in events and initiatives, the more I look at current trends in disaster risk reduction (DRR), the more I am put off by the lack of forward-looking attitudes. I see two dominant problems.

First, as I write, it is 2013, the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the "radical critique" by Kenneth Hewitt et al. (Hewitt 1983). In a nutshell, this showed, convincingly and with examples derived from four years of contemporary research, that vulnerability is the real driver of disaster risk, and hazard is often merely the trigger. The primacy of vulnerability is ensured by feedback loops. Rather than returning to the preceding model, we should be seeking to develop Hewitt's thesis into something yet more attuned to the problems of the world thirty years later.

In the thirty years that have elapsed since then, we have seen modest growth in studies of vulnerability and exposure and massive growth in hazards studies, thus ensuring the primacy of the pre-1983 view of disaster. The very reason for the publication of Hewitt's critique was to show that an approach based on hazards does not produce disaster risk reduction to any satisfactory degree.

Secondly, I notice an increasing discrepancy between the tone of the meetings about DRR that I attend and what I read in my newspaper. This amounts to a failure to face up to the reality of the modern world. Of course, there are encouraging signs of progress, worthwhile initiatives and good practices. However, there are also bad signs. For example, little has been done to restrict the gradual migration of wealth from the poor and needy to the rich and powerful. To cite a specific example of the 'dark side', a news report (Guardian, 14 February 2013) noted that billionaires are lavishly funding the work of those who seek to undermine the consensus on climate change and its causes. Hence, not all billionaires are philanthropists in the mould of Carnegie, Rockefeller or Gates.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the prospects for disaster risk reduction are heavily influenced by hegemony, undemocratic influence, organised crime, proxy conflicts, resource wars, corruption, rigged economic prospects and denial of human rights (Alexander and Davis 2013). Most of the debates rely on the 'fiction of good intentions'. We aim to provide decision-makers, public administrators and captains of industry with the tools that they need to understand and manage risk and disaster. But will they use them. Indeed, do they care? Or alternatively what do they care about?

The term 'governance' should interpreted to mean a form of transparent, flexible, fair, morally defensible, democratic participation in decision making. It is increasingly regarded as a prerequisite of DRR and a determinant of the level of resilience (Djalanti et al. 2011). What is clear, and so often ignored, is that merely presenting the case for governance does not make in spring into being. In the same way, merely offering the tools to abate hazards does not mean that vulnerability will dwindle away and disaster risk will abate. The only solution is to see the world as it really is—warts and all—and militantly insist on progress.

Instead, one could be forgiven for believing that we live in an age of the 'dialogue of the deaf'—the age of heedlessness.


Alexander, D.E. and I. Davis 2012. Disaster risk reduction: an alternative viewpoint. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 2: 1-5.

Djalante, R., C. Holley and F. Thomalla 2011. Adaptive governance and managing resilience to natural hazards. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 2(4): 1-14.

Guardian 2013. Secret funding helped build vast network of climate denial think-tanks. The Guardian, 14 February 2013.

Hewitt, K. (ed.) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 304 pp.