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Transforming disaster risk reduction for more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development

This article highlights key areas where efforts to reduce the underlying causes/drivers of vulnerability and risk need to be improved to create more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.
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This article (download available in right-hand colum) highlights three key areas in which efforts to reduce the underlying causes of vulnerability and drivers of risk to environmental hazards need to be improved in order to create more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development: 1) the role of context and culture in creating risk, 2) the need to better link disaster risk reduction (DRR), climate change adaptation (CCA) and development, and 3) the enabling of transformative change.

Note: This brief is part of a collection of “crowdsourced briefs” from the scientific community solicited by the United Nations to inform the Global Sustainable Development Report, which will be reviewed by policy-makers at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

1. Understanding context and culture in influencing vulnerability and resilience

Arguably, one of the most critical areas for improving vulnerability and risk reduction efforts is our lack of understanding of how context and culture, including organisational culture, influence the vulnerability and resilience of people at risk (IFRC, 2014; Thomalla et al., in press).

Contextual factors (e.g. cultural belief systems, social norms, economic systems, governance structures, and contextualised framings of problems and solutions) influence vulnerability and resilience levels to risk. However, our current understanding of culture in the context of risk is limited to acknowledging its importance in shaping perceptions, values, and beliefs and influencing how people conceptualize and respond to risk (Thomalla et al., in press).

Most risk-culture linkages (found in Dekens, 2007, Gaillard and Texier, 2010, Mercer et al., 2007, Schipper, 2010) have been too narrowly defined or are ancillary outcomes of research that focused on other questions. Cultural aspects are often overlooked in externally designed DRR activities designed given the difficulty in addressing them (Thomalla et al., in press). Limited understanding persists of how complex contextual and cultural factors and processes combine in different contexts to determine differential vulnerability and resilience within and across places (Calgaro et al., 2014) posing barriers to DRR (Kulatunga, 2010).

2. Linking efforts in DRR, adaptation and development

A number of commentators highlight the urgent need to understand DRR and adaptation in the context of wider social and economic development (Cardona et al., 2012; Schipper et al., under review; Schipper and Pelling, 2006; Thomalla et al., 2006) as disaster risks evolve due to a range of complex interacting social, economic, political and environmental factors.

Current pathways are unsustainable as growing populations and deepening social inequalities couple with increasing, cascading and teleconnected risks. Disasters now taking place are manifestations of outdated models in which risks were ‘managed’ through incremental adaptation. In the face of increasing risks, these models are resulting in patterns of exploitation, degradation and loss – of biodiversity, economic assets, culture and cultural heritage, mental and physical health and well being (Jaeger et al., 2007; Benzie, 2015) as well as human rights (Bronen and Chapin, 2013; Veland et al., 2013).

Development can exacerbate disaster risks, both long-term by increasing greenhouse gas emissions and short-term by worsening hazards. Yet, development is key to reducing vulnerability (e.g. by improving basic infrastructure). Similarly, disaster impacts can interfere with development pathways and outcomes (Schipper et al. under review). The development implications of DRR and adaptation and vice versa are perceptible, yet institutional barriers, including differences in language and methods, have reinforced ‘siloed’ thinking and blocked linkages between the three communities of practice (see Schipper and Pelling, 2006; Lavell and Maskrey, 2013). A rethink of current policies and improved coordination and complementary action between the three areas of DRR, adaptation and development is crucial.

3. Transforming society to reduce risks constructed through the interaction of poor development choices and pathways with environmental hazards

A transformational change in DRR, adaptation and development is needed to reduce vulnerability and create development patterns that are more inclusive, equitable and sustainable (e.g., Oliver-Smith, 2013; Pelling, 2014; Schipper et al., under review).

Pelling (2011, p. 50) describes transformation as ‘the deepest form of adaptation indicated by reform in overarching political-economy regimes and associated cultural discourses on development, security and risk’. The IPCC (2012, p. 564) defines transformation as ‘the altering of fundamental attributes of a system’.

However, what types of transformations are actually needed? Evidence from recent disasters shows that building long-term resilience to environmental risks requires a fundamental shift away from current top-down and expert-driven governance approaches that are often characterized by vertical networks of power and influence and focus on technological quick-fixes and protecting prevailing economic interests. To address the deeply contextual issues facing disaster-affected communities, governance must facilitate more bottom-up and multi-stressor based approaches that build trust through greater transparency and accountability, include diverse stakeholders, incorporate local knowledge and experience, and place greater value on non-economic assets (Thomalla and Larsen, 2010; Thomalla et al., 2009). As disasters transcend political and national borders, horizontal agencies can also better facilitate interagency and cross-boundary collaboration (Boyland et al., forthcoming).

Although incorporating a diversity of stakeholders to encourage knowledge-sharing is beneficial, governance can become increasingly disconnected and fragmented (Alexander, 2006). The challenge is to bring together actors across and within vertical and horizontal networks to foster complementary, rather than conflicting, relationships, through co-governance or co-management to produce mutually-beneficial policies (Berkes 2009; Cundill & Fabricius, 2009; Evans et al., 2011).

External organisations may bring in large flows of money, supplies and expertise, gradually overriding the state’s responsibility to provide basic services (Bello, 2006). The humanitarian aid scene now incorporates a multitude of actors whose activities are increasingly blurred with those of national and local governments. A careful balance is needed between the role of governments and organisations, to not overstep government efforts or deepen dependency. Moreover, informal governance institutions such as local village councils and religious institutions have a crucial role as they often have a strong familiarity with, and often trusted by, community members.

Criteria and indicators for assessing transformative governance

Having strong institutions in place does not guarantee effective reduction of risk and vulnerability. An analysis of the self-assessments of progress of 121 local governments in DRR by Johannessen et al. (2014) found that local governments tended to self-report good progress in DRR capacity. However, ‘progress’ in DRR is often equated with simply establishing a DRR unit within existing governance structures, without necessarily integrating this work with other units. These assessments frequently focused on hazards and physical interventions, neglecting the socio-economic, institutional, political, cultural and educational aspects of risk. This is likely an outcome of the prevailing organisational culture that determines assessment indicators and constitutes a barrier for identifying more comprehensive assessment criteria (Johannessen et al. 2014).

New ways to elicit the perceptions, needs and priorities of different stakeholders

To address issues of both community and organisational culture ‘blindness’, and siloed thinking we argue that the use of holistic, ‘mixed-method’ approaches are key. Such methods are used to co-construct empirical evidence, that is: data generated from observing, interviewing, game-playing, and other participatory approaches including the knowledge of, or co-learning with, the stakeholders, rather than a top-down approach based on the a priori assumptions of researchers outside of the ‘system’ or context. One example is the process of using Knowledge Elicitation Tools (KnETs), developed by anthropologists and computer scientists (Bharwani, 2006) to explore current and future decision processes guided by the ‘world-view’ of informants and an iterative, ethnographic and participatory ‘game-interview’ process to reveal the ‘tacit’ drivers of decision-making. In the past, researchers have combined KnETs with agent-based social simulations to understand how individual decision-making which is influenced by seasonal forecast information, perceptions of risk, as well as day-to-day stressors (Bharwani et al., 2005, 2015), can result in systemic outcomes. These methods, used here in community-based setting, could be used to explore organisational culture in combination with socio-institutional network analysis, for example, combining quantitative approaches with bottom-up participatory ones (cf. Varela-Ortega et al., 2014).


DRR efforts are at a crossroads (Alexander and Davis, 2012; Oliver-Smith, 2013) and the post-2015 environment provides an opportunity to reshape the agenda. The post-2015 DRR framework discussions are occurring at the same time as the formulation of the new Sustainable Development Goals and a new UNFCCC agreement on international climate change action. At this critical junction, researchers must enhance understanding of the root causes of vulnerability and risk through a contextual and cultural lens, strengthen linkages between different communities of practice, and explore potential adaptive processes and transformations. Lastly, a critical evaluation of the post-2015 agenda informed by issues of power, competing value systems, social equity and justice is crucial.

Recommended citation:

Thomalla, F., Johnson, K., Bharwani, S., Johannessen, Å. and Butterfield, R. (2015) Transforming disaster risk reduction for more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development, Brief for the Global Sustainable Development Report 2015, Stockholm Environment Institute

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