Carolyn Edelstein, MPA
Natural disasters happen. When, where, and how disasters strike is hard to forecast, but they occur often, and increasingly so. Usually, we try to mitigate disasters by shoring up our defenses, mostly through large-scale engineering feats. We apply similar strategies everywhere in the world, regardless of local conditions.
Problematically, this concept of disaster management leaves little room for human agency, and tends to over-rely on skills and resources unavailable in many parts of the developing world. But there is a new conception of disaster management, and the change highlights the need for professionals in developing countries—Africa especially—to generate their own solutions.
The last two decades have witnessed an emerging paradigm of “disaster risk reduction.” It contends that disasters are not just events to which we should respond, but rather the result of human vulnerabilities to environmental hazards in local contexts. The roots of vulnerability may be a matter of an individual’s characteristics, like old age or a disability, or may have structural causes: a lack of affordable housing, poor government service provision, and high crime rates; at a macro level, the legacies of colonialism, the global economic system, and so on. The explanations for vulnerability—and people’s strategies for overcoming vulnerability—quickly grow complex.
As such, disaster risk reduction demands a highly contextualized response. Researchers partner with residents of localities to identify hazards, vulnerabilities, and sources of resilience. Data-gathering and fine-resolution mapping inform local risk management practices. Disaster risk reduction heavily emphasizes preparation and adaptation, not just post-disaster relief. Such efforts are most successful when they incorporate an understanding of existing practices and perceptions. Who better to conduct the work than resident scholars and practitioners?
There is a blanket need for more research, especially in Africa. Existing work has focused on Asia and Latin America, though the need to understand the African context is clear. In spite of rising disaster incidence, deaths from natural disasters have been decreasing everywhere but in Africa. Elsewhere, sudden-onset crises prevail. Africa, by contrast, experiences “creeping emergencies,” when slow-onset hazards like droughts become unmanageable, or when underlying challenges like HIV/AIDS and malnutrition turn a relatively small event catastrophic. In this context, the typical emergency relief-based response to disasters proves less effective than preventative disaster risk reduction approaches.
Not only are relief efforts less helpful, but development suffers when plans ignore local risks. Mozambique offers an illustrative example of this inefficiency. There, the World Bank financed the construction of 487 schools over twenty years, but just one disaster, the floods of 2000, damaged or destroyed roughly 500 primary schools alone. The World Bank, Red Cross, and others have shown that every dollar invested in preventative risk reduction measures saves between $2 and $10 in disaster losses.
To encourage uptake of disaster reduction in development, the UN declared the 1990s the “International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.” In 2005, 164 member nations signed the Hyogo Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, pledging to build a risk reduction approach into disaster management and development.
And yet, myopia persists amongst development agencies. The World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group found that disasters are “still sometimes treated as an interruption in development rather than as a risk to development.” Forty-four percent of current World Bank-supported country assistance strategies make no mention of disasters. More broadly, 96% of disaster-related assistance from the industrialized world still comes solely as emergency relief.
Better information may improve vulnerability reduction efforts, with added developmental benefits if Africans drive the effort themselves. Despite potential advantages of an African-led research initiative, the continent’s scholars produced only two of the African disaster risk-related research papers published in 2008. There were also few African programs for educating and training disaster management practitioners.
Early signs exist of a growing Africa-based field of study. A network of ten universities across the continent has started graduate-level programs in disaster risk science. Called Peri-Peri U, they model themselves after a research center based at the University of Cape Town, which primarily uses community-level risk assessments and spatial data mapping to analyze the vulnerability. The unit has the ear of government officials, community organizers, and a growing number of Southern African graduate students.
In 2011, the Peri-Peri network will seek renewed funding from the US Agency for International Development. Program reviews have consistently demonstrated positive yields of the new research centers for disaster management, and certainly for the emergence of a new generation of African-trained researchers, planners, and practitioners. With increased support, the local scholarship program can be scaled up and better tackle the urgent need to increase African preparedness to disaster risks.