Radix - Human Rights (continued)

Go to other human rights pieces


'PUTTING FLOORS UNDER THE VULNERABLE': DISASTER REDUCTION AS A STRATEGY TO REDUCE POVERTY

Mahatma Gandhi once said: " recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is of going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? "

Yasemin AYSAN
Chief, Disaster Reduction and Recovery Programme
Emergency Response Division, UNDP.

Presented at the World Bank Consultative Group for Global Disaster Reduction Meeting: June 1-2, 1999, Paris

Strategies to reduce poverty

In the 1990s, on average, about a quarter of the European development agencies bilateral project spending had clear linkages with poverty reduction, but there has been little explicit focus on reducing disaster risk as part of this strategy. Such linkages often become more apparent after disasters such as Hurricane Mitch. Prior to Hurricane Mitch, the countries of Central America were already among the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere. In 1997, 2.6 million Hondurans and 2.1 million Nicaraguans lived below the poverty line. This represented 50 per cent and 47 per cent of these countries' respective population. The development prospects of these countries were low even before hurricane Mitch that further affected 80 per cent of the regions agricultural production, including food crops and valuable export commodities. There are now two choices facing the development community working in Central America: to restore the pre-Mitch status quo of widespread poverty, environmental degradation and high vulnerability to disasters; or to implement a new model of development that is equitable, socially and environmentally sustainable and one that incorporates disaster reduction measures.

Responding to concerns about global poverty, Development Cooperation Agencies (DCAs) have adopted the international goal of reducing poverty by one half by the year 2015. These agencies have their own definitions of poverty, often in quite general terms. Many give priority to marginalised usually ethnic groups, and to women or female-headed households. Some also focus on the landless, especially in Asia. Only a few have a specific focus on those groups which need help because of 'special situations' such as conflict and emergencies. Virtually all the development agencies now recognise that poverty is broader than a lack of income or consumption. Other dimensions of poverty are emphasised most explicitly by the European Commission (EC), Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, include physical isolation, vulnerability, livelihood unsustainability, social exclusion and powerlessness, and discrimination against women, low-castes and ethnic groups. While all these factors have a bearing upon disaster risk they do not clearly make the link between disasters and poverty.

Links between disasters and poverty

While living standards have risen dramatically over the last 25 years and there has been great progress in alleviating poverty, population growth has meant that, the global number of the poor has remained steady, and regional disparities have persisted. Poverty is rising in Central Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa and still remain a problem in South Asia. While most poverty reduction strategies do not make an explicit reference to disaster vulnerability as a contributing factor to aggravating poverty there is enough evidence to prove the linkages between the two.

1.    There is a close correlation between disasters, poverty and environment. As the poor exploit environmental resources for survival disaster risk increases;
    At the macro level, the export of hardwoods and clearance of forests for commercial cultivation have been part of the national policies of many poor countries, often to make up for their debt.
    At the community level, poverty and lack of choices for alternative sources of income led the poor to exploit its environment to dangerous levels.
    The connection between destruction of the environment - forest, soil, wetlands and water sources - and disaster risk can be quite significant. Landslide, droughts and flood patterns are significantly altered in many parts of the world due to environmental changes. Similarly, major disasters such as the recent Hurricanes Mitch and Georges, have a long-lasting negative impact on the environment and, therefore, increase the risk of future disasters.

2.    Unplanned urbanisation continues to increase the disaster risk of marginalised urban poor who often live on unsafe land;
    In the past three decades, the urban population of developing countries has tripled to 1.3 billion. Paradoxically, many cities have become an engine of growth and a centre of poverty for millions of people. The growth in cities has been accompanied by a disproportionate growth in poverty. Today, one out of four urban dwellers lives in 'absolute poverty' and another one in four is classified as 'relatively poor'.
    Compounding this, many of the urban dwellers live in the most ecologically vulnerable areas, such as on flood plains and steep slopes and in poor quality housing.

3.    The rate of population growth is highest in 'Least Developed Countries' (LDCs), many of which are also highly disaster-prone;
    The countries classified as the 'least developed' are growing at such a rate that their population will double in less than 30 years.
    Many LDCs, which are home to 80 per cent of the world's population, are also among the world's most disaster-prone, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia Ethiopia, Haiti. Considering that the poor in these countries are often the most exposed to disasters, the numbers of people affected are likely to double in the next 30 years unless serious measures are taken.

4.    Although natural disasters have an effect on the poverty and well-being of the people who are exposed to them, they are perhaps the least common cause of poverty.
    Rather, disasters expose the factors that make people vulnerable to poverty -unemployment, governmental instability, poor economic conditions, unjust economic and political structures, and lack of peace and security.
    While developed countries suffer greater economic losses in absolute terms, poor countries are impacted more severely in relative terms. Disasters are often unsolved development problems where poverty is a factor affecting both the choices for a safer environment and the inability to recover.

5.    Social and economic pressures make people vulnerable by forcing them to live in dangerous locations, without the resources to protect themselves;
    The daily need to find work and food has to override the more remote threat of disasters even for people who live along the highly cyclone-prone coastal belt of Bangladesh. Without understanding why people tamper with the environment or live in dangerous locations, it is not easy to find long-lasting solutions.
    Vulnerability to economic stresses caused by natural calamities induce fluctuations in income. This compels households to sacrifice potential investment. The poorest have fewest assets, so in general such households reach the threshold of collapse faster following repeated disasters.

6.    Repeated exposure to disasters can lead into chronic poverty;
    Households and communities can often get through the first year of a drought reasonably well. But, if it is repeated, losses quickly mount. Sub- Saharan Africa has continued to suffer natural disasters and political upheavals throughout the 1990s. These events remind us what is hidden in official poverty statistics: that the conditions of poverty are closely linked to vulnerability. Many households in Africa are regularly exposed to risks from poor weather, illness, political upheaval and economic mismanagement.

7.    Small-scale risks are often left to the affected people to deal with, which can be a major setback for the very poor.
    Governments and international agencies generally shoulder the burden of addressing large-scale disasters. However, there is some empirical evidence that a substantial number of households, especially the most poor, are often ill-equipped to handle even small-scale and localised risks. These groups often fall outside all safety nets and are gradually pushed into destitution without bring voiced.

Need for a Global Action

As the above examples highlight, poor households throughout much of the world face two disadvantages. First, the inability to generate an income. Second, vulnerability to physical, social, economic and political downturns. Drought, flood, conflict, inflation, sickness and recession hit these groups hardest. Furthermore, repeated exposure to these downturns reinforces their poverty. The circular nature of poverty an vulnerability does not preclude effective action. The best response will encourage national and local commitment to disaster reduction. However, global advocacy is equally necessary.

1.    There is a need for global lobbying for disaster reduction. While there are strong global lobbies for environmental protection or banning land mines which have achieved both public and political support, no such lobby exist yet for protection from disasters.

2.    The right to a 'safe environment' should become a human rights issue. People are entitled to know how risk-prone they are to disasters and should have access to a safe environment as part of human rights. Global advocacy to promote disaster reduction should be placed on the human rights agenda.

UNDP'S Commitment to the Global Disaster Reduction Agenda

UNDP has been contributing to disaster reduction through capacity building at the national and community levels, by supporting early warning systems in a number of countries, and through post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), which is a joint effort with the World Bank and UNEP, and the Office to Combat Desertification and Drought (UNSO) have been contributing to disaster reduction and poverty alleviation in their respective areas. With the recent establishment of the Disaster Reduction and Recovery Programme (DRRP) within the Emergency Response Division (ERD), UNDP is now in a better position to consolidate its efforts in the field of natural disaster reduction and able to provide better technical support and guidance to the field. The UNDP has a commitment to support the implementation of disaster reduction in the following areas:

1.    Mainstream disaster reduction into poverty reduction programmes. Over 80 per cent of UNDP's resources for programme countries go to LDC's and low income countries, where 90 per cent of the world's poor live. There is great opportunity to mainstream disaster reduction into these programmes.

2.    Integrate disaster reduction measures into relevant development programmes in high risk areas. Responsibility for disaster reduction clearly rests primarily with disaster-prone countries and their authorities. However, external agencies could provide more effective support by mainstreaming the disaster reduction goal in all their activities. The objective of incorporating such measures would be twofold: to protect UNDP development investment from being affected by disasters; and to ensure that development programmes do not increase the risk of impact from disasters.

3.    Incorporate disaster reduction measures into all post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes supported by the UNDP. Disasters often provide the opportunity - political will, heightened public awareness of risks and resources - for future protection. UNDP country offices often oversee large post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes. More attention will be paid to ensure that disaster reduction is incorporated into these efforts.

4.    Utilise existing instruments for assessment and planning at country level, such as UNDAF and CCA for greater attention to disaster risks. The reform of the United Nations, launched in 1997 on the initiative of the Secretary-General is providing an opportunity to improve coherence among the UN agencies. The centre piece of this agenda is the adoption of a common framework , the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) which will serve as the basis for country-level programmes and projects of the various UN entities. UNDAF, where appropriate, will link with the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF) initiative of the World Bank. Common Country Assessment (CCA) of the UN is used to identify areas for priority attention. Among the 18 pilot countries where this framework is tested, there are already a number of countries, such as Mozambique, that have identified reduction of the vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters among the priorities of its national poverty reduction strategy.

5.    Develop and test indicators of vulnerability to disasters, and monitor changes through a Global Disaster Vulnerability Report. Targeting the most vulnerable is an objective of both poverty eradication and disaster reduction objectives of the UNDP. In achieveing this objective, UNDP/DRRP is in the process of developing a Global Disaster Vulnerability Report to monitor periodically disaster risk and vulnerability in selected pilot countries. In doing so, partnerships with a wide range of actors and working groups (such as the UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank Joint Poverty Monitoring Working Group) - will be established.

6.    Continue its commitment to support national capacity building, with particular emphasis on human resource development. Disaster reduction involves a complex set of activities and requires a wide range of skills - technical, administrative and management. Where there is shortage of skilled people UNDP will provide support to build national capacities.

7.    Stronger commitments to protecting not only lives but also livelihoods and support for poor people's own survival strategies. The UNDP defined a 'Human Development Index' at the beginning of this decade that emphasised the importance of choices and, in fact, defined human development as 'a process of enlarging people's choices'. UNDP will extend its support to include vulnerability reduction as an essential component of sustainable human development in all relevant advocacy and policy development.
   
For the most vulnerable people or the poorest nations, the choice seems to be limited between poverty and disasters. 'Putting a floor under the poor' was defined by Robert Chambers as enabling the poor to survive a bad time without having to become poorer. It seems both more cost-effective and more humane to invest in reducing peoples vulnerability to natural catastrophes than to wait until disaster strikes and then try to help them recover. A policy to reduce vulnerability to disasters is not necessarily the same as a policy against poverty, although the two have much in common. The UNDP hopes to contribute substantially to the Consultative Group for Global Disaster Reduction from its commitment to both agendas.

REFERENCES:
1.    Overcoming Human Poverty, UNDP Poverty Report, 1998.
2.    Population Growth Fastest in World's Poorest Countries, Population Reference Bureau, 1997.
3.    Population Density and Poverty Intensify Natural Disasters, Population Reference Bureau, 1997.
4.    Aidan COX and John HEALEY, Promises to the Poor: the Record of European Development Agencies, ODI (Overseas Development Institute) Poverty Briefing , 1:November 1998.
5.    Simon MAXWELL, The Meaning and Measurement of Poverty, ODI Poverty Briefing, 3: February 1999.
6.    Ana MARR, The Poor and their Money: What Have We Learned? ODI Poverty Briefing, 4: March 1999.
7.    OECD, Development Assistance Committee 1997 Report, OECD, 1997.
8.    OECD, Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution of Development Co-operation, Development Assistance Committee, OECD,1996.
9.    Robert CHAMBERS (ed.), Vulnerability: How the Poor Cope, IDS Bulletin, v.20,n.2, April 1989.


Back to the top

Radix: the source or origin; the root
Quick look up at Dictionary.com

For questions regarding this website, contact: maureen.fordham@northumbria.ac.uk | This page was last updated on 08 April 2003