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?
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
· 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
· 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
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
· 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
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.
1. Overcoming Human Poverty, UNDP Poverty Report,
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,
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