Has relief become the enemy development?

Alliance magazine

Has relief become the enemy of development? Krisno Nimpuno of the Netherlands-Based Disaster and Emergency Research Centre would answer ‘yes’ to this question. He believes that so-called disasters are caused by our failure to take measures to reduce vulnerability, and that relief efforts make things worse rather than better. Not surprisingly, Will Day, Director of CARE International UK, disagrees with him.

Krisno Nimpuno

Disasters are caused not by natural hazards but by human vulnerability, our failure to adjust our lives to the known hazards around us.

Some natural hazards are natural phenomena beyond human control. Others can be caused by human manipulation of nature. Widespread deforestation has brought droughts, floods and landslides to many new areas. The enormous floods in Mozambique last year, for example, were caused partly by large development projects, such as dams and agricultural schemes, without proper measures to cope with the increased water run-off these caused. Agriculture may destroy the fragile soils where nomadic grazing is sustainable. Desertification is a glaring example of the tremendous destructive impact of misguided development.

Traditional societies and natural hazards

Traditional societies were usually able to live in harmony with nature. Development changes took place gradually within local communities with a good under¬stand¬ing of their social, economic and environmental conditions. Rash decisions and hasty changes were seen as risky and potentially damaging. Disaster management was thus an integral element in the development process.

A collective disaster memory is a vital motivating element in disaster reduction. It is much more difficult to develop a disaster reduction culture in response to low frequency hazards such as tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, but frequent hazards, especially seasonal phenomena such as cyclones and floods, are locally remembered well. Coping strategies then develop gradually, often through a process of trial and error. The reasons why certain structures fail are easily detected. Storm shutters, house elevation or flood thresholds may become part of the standard design of buildings in storm-prone areas. To be successful, disaster reduction must involve government and industry as well as the local population. In the Netherlands, government administration has long included special water management boards to control water levels. The Dutch culture and language are full of references to storms and floods and these have become efficient tools to strengthen sustainable development.

Nowadays, despite all our knowledge of meteorology, hydrology and seismology, the link between planning and natural hazards is fading. Development initiatives are often introduced from outside the community by higher authorities and project planners with limited local knowledge. Local interests and possible vulnerabilities may be ignored. Community participation may be a stated objective, but it rarely includes participation in decision-making. In this context the development planning process pays scant attention to vulnerabili¬ty. The end result is de facto institutional and administra¬tive separation of ‘develop¬ment’ from ‘disaster management’. It is this flaw in the planning process that lies behind many ‘natural’ disasters.

Disaster management

A natural phenomenon does not cause disaster in itself; it is the lack of protection against the hazard that precipitates disaster. Settlement on volcanoes can be justified if there is a good understanding of the likely course of mudflows, careful monitoring of volcanic activities, and full use of the engineering options available to reduce those risks. In seismic areas vulnerability is reduced by constructing buildings able to withstand tremors. The impact of earthquakes has sharply increased in recent years not because seismic tremors have become more powerful but because the brick and concrete structures that have replaced traditional buildings are more vulnerable to tremors. The buildings are also heavier and so more dangerous when collapsing.

Many building codes have been based on the dire experiences of past disasters: regulations relating to fire, drainage and water supply, ground water levels, building density and height aim mainly at reducing vulnerability to old and new environmen¬tal hazards. In self-help housing such regulations may not be enforced, and for this reason low-income areas are often especially vulnerable to disasters.

By assessing the hazards, countries, communities and indi¬viduals can identi¬fy their vulnerabilities and avoid disasters by reducing them.

In the case of technological disasters there is usually a thorough post-event investigation of all the events leading to the disaster. Everyone accepts that human error must be the cause of the catastrophe. With so-called natural disasters post-event assessments are rarely made. No serious efforts to analyse the contributing factors and so prevent a future repetition of events were made following the recent earthquake in Turkey or floods in Mozambique.

Good disaster management must also include disaster preparedness: measures to minimize loss of life and damage, organize and facili¬tate effective rescue and relief, and rehabili¬tate after disaster. Preparedness requires legisla¬tion and means to cope with emergency situations, includ¬ing stockpiling of supplies.

Relief operations

Relief is the humanitarian response in situations where disaster management has failed. The aim is to save lives and contain direct suffering. When recon¬struction develops, an important element is vulnerability reduction to make sure the disaster will not be repeated.

Over the years relief management and technology has been perfec¬ted. It is now the most visible element of disaster manage¬ment; in the eyes of many, it has become identical with disaster management. The terrible waves of civil strife seen in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo created hundreds of thousands of refugees who would have perished without internatio¬nal relief. Relief has in this process become a powerful international industry, skilled at raising funds by presenting shocking images of suffering.

The sufferings of disaster victims may in fact be added to because relief workers have a tendency to base their support actions on their own social beliefs rather than on reality as experienced by the local population. There may be conditions that are normal and acceptable to them that appear to outsiders to be a disaster, for example annual floods in many delta regions. Reluctance to leave the damaged home aft¬er a disaster may be a logical reaction. The situation is compounded by the fact that many Western journal¬ists receive most of their information from other Westerners rather than collecting direct information.

Although the phase of saving lives is usually over in a matter of days, relief organizations often remain at disaster scenes for years. They rarely consider the requirements for an early changeover towards sustainable development. They tend to have no dealings with planning de¬partments such as economic and physical planning, housing and agriculture. Relief operations therefore fail to address the causes of disaster that lie in vulnerabi¬lities to ha¬zards. On the contrary, they crea¬te new vulnerabili¬ties by circumventing deve¬lopment regula¬ti¬ons. Relief has thus become the enemy of development.

Will Day

By definition, disasters are disruptive, damaging events that by their nature and scale overwhelm a local population. Recent disasters in Mozambique, Venezuela, El Salvador, India and Turkey demonstrate how dreadful these events can be.

Also by definition, when disasters strike, outside assistance is required. The concerted national and international effort that followed Gujarat’s devastating earthquake resulted in the saving of thousands of lives. Within hours of the earthquake, specialist organizations, development agencies and government bodies mobilized to provide assistance. This included search and rescue, burying the dead, provision of food, clothing, shelter, sanitation and medical assistance.

Relief provides the essential response that saves lives after a disaster. It is not intended as a development measure, ie one that seeks to build up assets or increase the poor’s access to resources. Rather, it is an extraordinary response to an extraordinary situation. The aim is to prevent further death by meeting basic needs on a short-term basis.

For longer-term considerations, relief turns into rehabilitation and reconstruction –and, if the political will is maintained, the desire to implement future risk reduction measures. The job for authorities and development agencies alike is to make the effective transition from relief to development: to assist in the shift from actions that meet basic needs alone to ones that build up household assets and capabilities, and re-establish the structures of society.

Disaster management is more than relief. Good disaster management is concerned with reducing risk before an event, through the provision of mitigation and preparedness, as much as providing timely support afterwards. Disaster management is thus a vital development activity. Without it, development efforts are always at risk. Disasters turn back the development clock, destroying years of effort, devastating local economies and perpetuating poverty. It is no coincidence that the poorest are most vulnerable: those with limited assets, living on dangerous land in flimsy houses, with little or no access to the safety nets of government, are almost always worst affected when disasters strike.

In future the scale and intensity of disasters is likely to increase as uncertain climate change combines with rapid population growth in many of the world’s poorest countries. Add to this the concentration of poverty through unprecedented urbanization and the scenario is disturbing. Recent events indicate that we may be witnessing the urbanization of disasters, threatening national economies as much as local populations.

Disasters, therefore, are the enemy of sustainable societies. Relief is the developmental intervention that prevents more death and sets the scene for rehabilitation measures that rebuild livelihoods. There has never been a greater time to develop relief capabilities nationally and internationally, given the context of increasing natural, social and economic change.

Krisno Nimpuno

Will Day’s comments seem to ignore the fact that all disasters are made by man and can be addressed by vulnerability reduction. The relief industry justifies its operations with the phrase ‘when disaster strikes’ and then proceeds with interventions that further ignore existing safety regulations and thereby add to the very vulnerabilities that cause disasters. The depressing reality is that few relief agencies bother to learn what preparedness is and they therefore lack the ability to disseminate such life-saving knowledge.

The claim that relief can succeed in a transition to sustainable development sounds good – I would love to see where this ever has been achieved. If a fraction of the money now used for relief were used for preparedness and vulnerability reduction, disasters would indeed be reduced. The relief industry is very capable of raising funds but regrettably uses these only in destructive relief routines.

An analysis of relief in the Netherlands claims that at least three-quarters of funds received never reach the victims, but are used for relief agencies’ operations. Is that so different in Britain?

It is true that disaster management is a vital element in development planning, because prevention and preparedness are the key ingredients for vulnerability reduction. Relief is sometimes a necessary evil, because once a disaster happens some victims need outside life-saving assistance. But relief is always an anti-development intervention that increases vulnerabilities and therefore causes new disasters.

The position reflected in my original piece has not been changed by Will’s comments, but I would at any time be happy to be proved wrong.

Will Day

Krisno is looking in the wrong place. By arguing that agencies ignore preparedness and mitigation by prioritizing relief, he ignores the fact that the core business of many of the world’s largest NGOs is poverty reduction. The poorest will always be the most vulnerable to disasters, and good development programmes reduce vulnerability not only to these but also to the regular stresses that are part of living in poverty.

I absolutely agree that any disaster (be it manmade or natural) undermines development. How important, then, to be able to respond immediately in ways which meet acute need and simultaneously recognize the context and longer-term needs and aspirations of those affected.

To state that ‘relief is always anti-developmental’ is simply wrong. I do not contest that inappropriate responses have occurred in past years (have all development programmes succeeded?), and may well do so again. But Krisno surely cannot be suggesting that the world’s relief effort has not progressed beyond the collection of secondhand clothing distributed by the well-meaning.

Where I agree with Krisno is that the relief community (agencies and donors) needs to get better at understanding and applying disaster preparedness. This has always been the poor relation of the disaster management world, in part because evidence for its effectiveness is the non-appearance of people and situations on our television screens. We need to get better at publicizing success stories from Bangladesh, India and Peru so that policymakers and donors recognize the value of such work. Some donors are taking note: the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which disburses publicly raised funds, has recently changed its rules to allow for an important element of preparedness to be built into relief expenditure.

Disasters bring death, pain and suffering to people who by definition need outside assistance to survive and to rebuild. An effective response will always be necessary, and must focus on real need, in both the immediate and the longer term. While this tension between acute and longer-term needs can provoke tension within organizations, it is the resolution of that tension, and the focus on the longer-term gain from the acute response, which is informing best practice.

Krisno Nimpuno
is Director of the Netherlands-Based Disaster and Emergency Research Centre. He can be contacted by email at disaster.derc@usa.net

Will Day is Director of CARE International UK. He can be contacted at DAY@ciuk.org

Understanding ‘normal hazardousness’

James Lewis

What kind of development is required to reduce the impact of disasters? One approach is to recognize the ‘normal hazardousness’ of small and globally unknown disasters and in so doing to reduce the impact of the large ones which reach our headlines.

The smaller and more numerous disasters are, the more normal is experience of them. To deal with normal hazardousness, normal developmental inputs are required: myriad repetitive micro-funded projects for self-reliance at local community levels.

This insight reveals a serious impediment to our understanding of and approach to disasters. The images we receive are of massive events, but there are countless minor ones which no one hears of. If we ignore, or do not want, to attend to normal hazardousness, action only after the event will be less effective – and will cost more! Our images of massive disasters imply large resources and large actions.

Most people’s vunerability is caused by the actions of others, either knowingly or not, through systems and processes. The following are some crucial causes of vulnerability, either singly or in combination:

  • economic and social alienation;
  • concentrations of habitation in high-risk areas;
  • corrupt practices generally, and in the construction industries in particular;
  • inequitable land ownership and occupancy, for habitation and food production;
  • forcible deprivation of habitation or livelihood, eg by dam construction, war and conflict.

Relief is usually portrayed as occurring after the event, ‘when disasters strike’ – when the deaths and injuries have occurred, when homes and other buildings have been destroyed. But development can induce and facilitate survival; relief can only sustain it afterwards – when it is too late.

James Lewis RIBA is a Visiting Fellow in Development Studies at the University of Bath,UK, and a consultant in natural hazards and human settlements. This is a summary of the argument contained in his book Development in Disaster-Prone Places: Studies in vulnerability. He can be contacted by email at datum@gn.apc.org

Development in Disaster-Prone Places: Studies in vulnerability by James Lewis was published in 1999. Price £15.95. To order, contact IT Publications.
Tel +44 207 436 9761
Email    orders@itpubs.org.uk
Website http://www.oneworld.org/itdg/publications.html

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

Why Ford is supporting the new centre in Nairobi

Alliance magazine