The poor suffer most

Alcira Kreimer and Margaret Arnold describe how a new consortium is putting disaster reduction on the development agenda

Overseas development assistance may have been decreasing recently, reaching its lowest level ever in 1998, but contributions for humanitarian assistance for emergency relief have increased tremendously. Last year, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) appealed for more funds for disaster response than ever before in its history and provided assistance to more than 30 million people. In 1998 the international community provided well over a billion dollars in cash and in-kind services for emergency relief assistance, triple the amount of the previous year. The World Bank has provided more than $5 billion over the last five years to assist countries in rebuilding after disasters.

Reducing the impact of natural and technological disasters in developing countries is a key challenge for development in this century. Rapid population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, and global climate change all contribute to an increase in the size and frequency of disasters. And their most deadly impact is on the lives and living environment of the poor.

Development efforts have focused on helping the poor deal with many of the risks they face in daily life – such as in employment, health care, transport, education and water and sanitation. But disaster risk traditionally has not been a priority on the development agenda. When carefully laid development plans were tragically interrupted by natural disasters, the international community relied on organizations such as the United Nations and the IFRC to step in with relief services. When the emergency work was over, reconstruction efforts began to get the country ‘back on the development track’.

Reversing trends
Over recent years, the international community has come to realize that relief and development are not separate topics – that vulnerability to hazards has everything to do with poverty and development, and vice versa. We have come late to this realization, and we must act quickly to reverse this trend of building vulnerability and then reacting to disaster.

Increasingly, development organizations are making the links between poverty and disasters, and taking action to ensure that development efforts contribute to reducing their impacts rather than exacerbating them.

A number of partners are working together on an innovative initiative to change the way we think and act in the face of natural and technological hazards. Launched by the World Bank in February 2000, the ProVention Consortium is a global coalition of governments, international agencies, academic institutions, the private sector, and civil society organizations aimed at reducing disaster impacts in developing countries and making disaster prevention an integral part of development efforts.

ProVention is a coalition with governments to help them take charge to identify and reduce the risks they face, with the participation of their citizens. It is a coalition with civil society and communities to mobilize grassroots support for promoting measures to prepare for disasters and mitigate their impacts. It is a coalition with the private sector, which has a major role to play in promoting risk awareness, prevention, pre-emergency planning and pre-financing. Finally, it is a coalition with everyone in the development community to help put an end to the duplication and wastage that weaken our efforts. ProVention functions as a network to share knowledge, and to connect and leverage resources, to reduce disaster risk. It focuses on synergy and coordination so that efforts and benefits are shared.

UNEP, and several other United Nations agencies – such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – are important partners in ProVention, and are collaborating on activities that focus on the links between poverty, disasters and the environment.

The activities fall into three main categories which together make up a comprehensive risk management strategy:

  • Identifying risk.

  • Reducing risk.

  • Transferring or sharing those risks that cannot be eliminated or sufficiently reduced.

Any effective strategy to manage disaster risk must start by analyzing what the hazards are and what the vulnerability is to them. In this way, informed decisions can be made on where to invest efforts, and on how to design sustainable projects that will withstand the impacts of potential disaster events. In addition, a more complete understanding of the full economic, financial, and social impacts of disasters on a country will help to demonstrate the importance of including risk-reduction measures in any development strategy.

ProVention activities in this area include efforts to develop improved and standardized methods for conducting assessments of disaster damage and needs, and for using their results. They also collaborate with private reinsurers such as Swiss Re, Munich Re and Lloyd’s of London, and with the Center for Research and the Epidemiology of Disaster, UNDP and IFRC, to make a high-quality database of the socio-economic impacts of disasters more publicly available and to improve future data quality through systematically reporting standardized disaster damage assessment information. Another activity models the impacts of disasters on such macroeconomic indicators as growth of gross domestic product to make informed decision-making on investments possible.

Disasters result when an extreme natural or technological event coincides with a vulnerable human settlement. The risk of disaster can be reduced by lessening either the hazard or the vulnerability – or both. Strategies to avoid such hazards as earthquakes, floods or drought include landuse and development planning. Resistance strategies (such as building codes) ensure that structures are safe and can withstand the effects of extreme events. The need for scientific and technical knowledge must be addressed, and socio-economic, institutional and political barriers to the adoption of effective risk reduction strategies in developing countries must be overcome.

Community involvement
Awareness and knowledge-sharing play a key role in risk reduction, and so the ProVention Consortium supports workshops and other learning activities aimed at heightening stakeholders’ awareness of the threat of natural hazards and what can be done about them. For example, a very important technical workshop to explore how communities’ resilience to disasters can be strengthened is to take place in sub-Saharan Africa. There are already a number of well-functioning mechanisms and networks for generating forecasting information and hazard warnings in the region; but there is general consensus that there is a gap between the information available on hazards and the extent to which communities can prevent, and prepare for, disasters. This working-level meeting will focus on that gap and explore the issues of information dissemination, community preparedness, and disaster mitigation, as well as mechanisms to maintain livelihoods and recover from hazard events.

UNEP is a key partner in this activity, along with UNDP and WFP. Other collaborators include the African Development Bank, IFRC, and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS Habitat). The workshop, planned for the first of half of 2001, will gather experts from hazard warning networks/organizations, international organizations, local authorities and community groups, and make recommendations for policy and application at the local level.

Another ProVention activity aims to assess the international community’s experience in providing reconstruction assistance to developing countries following major natural disasters. A number of efforts have focused on evaluating the response and relief phase of disasters, but this will analyze the reconstruction and recovery phase, with a focus on such issues as:

  • The coordination of donor support in the reconstruction efforts.

  • The reconstruction strategy.

  • Linkages with the relief phase.

  • Efforts to deal with the most vulnerable groups.

  • The integration of prevention and preparedness measures for future hazard events.

The activity is proposed as a multi-national, multi-donor effort to identify lessons for continuing and future efforts to assist reconstruction after disasters.

It is not always possible or prudent to eliminate all disaster risks. So a key element in effectively managing them is realizing that risks that cannot be eliminated can be shared so that no one party bears the entire burden of disaster damage. Private insurance markets in most developing countries are nascent or non-existent and so, by necessity, the public sector absorbs much of the impact of disasters. As a result resources targeted at development goals are diverted toward emergency relief and recovery when disasters strike.

A key element in effectively managing disaster risk is realizing that risks can be shared so that no one party bears the entire burden
ProVention partners including the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank, are combining efforts to explore the role that increased insurance and reinsurance for natural hazards can play in reducing the social and economic impacts of disasters in Central America. A workshop with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the World Bank, in January 2001, analyzed the relevance of both traditional insurance instruments and non-traditional mechanisms for transferring risk – such as capital markets instruments, guarantees and weather derivatives – to reducing the vulnerability of poor people exposed to natural hazards.

It is the poor that are hit hardest by disasters, and they normally have no access to formal insurance mechanisms to protect the few assets they have. So the World Bank and UNDP are collaborating under ProVention to develop microfinance and microinsurance options that will help the very poor to protect their assets and livelihoods during times of disaster. The role of other social protection mechanisms – such as social investment funds – is also being examined to determine how they can help the poor rebuild their lives and livelihoods after disaster, and how they can foster disaster prevention and mitigation programmes.

Each activity of the ProVention Consortium aims to build on the comparative advantage of its partners, and to leverage resources to achieve the goals identified as priorities. The fruits of these efforts can advance disaster prevention efforts and help developing countries build a more sustainable future

Alcira Kreimer is Manager of the World Bank’s Disaster Management Facility, and Margaret Arnold its Senior Program Officer.

PHOTOGRAPH: Duc Chinh Pham/UNEP/Still Pictures

More information on the ProVention Consortium can be found at More details on the World Bank’s Disaster Management Facility can be accessed at

Realigning the World Bank’s Strategy to Reduce Disasters

Over the last two decades, the number and scale of natural and technological disasters have increased at great cost in terms of death and physical destruction. In 1999, natural catastrophes and man-made disasters claimed more than 105,000 lives across the globe, and resulted in total losses of around $100 billion. The landslides in Venezuela alone caused around 50,000 fatalities, the Izmit (Turkey) earthquake 20,000 and the cyclone in Orissa (India) 15,000.

There has been a corresponding increase in demand for World Bank assistance. It has provided an average of $1 billion per year to help countries rebuild after disasters. Lending for reconstruction and disaster mitigation totals well over $23 billion since 1980. Many of the Bank’s client countries have received successive reconstruction loans, as disasters strike them time and again. These events are a tremendous challenge, as they wipe out investments, and undermine the Bank’s efforts to fight poverty. The international community has come to regard disasters as part of the development issue. And the Bank has learned that measures taken to reduce the impact of disasters can make substantial advances in the fight against poverty.

As the largest provider of reconstruction assistance the World Bank is bringing its strategies and procedures up to date to promote proactive ways of integrating the prevention and mitigation of disasters into its development work. In 1998, the Disaster Management Facility (DMF) was established to lead efforts in this area. This provides a central technical resource for Bank staff and operations, and examines strategic issues aimed at helping its client countries better to manage disaster risk and at reducing the risk to the Bank projects.

The DMF is working to ensure that risk analysis is integrated into the design of projects and that Country Assistance Strategies and projects include effective prevention and preparedness measures. The unit is exploring ways to ensure that investments in social and economic development are properly protected. Reconstruction projects – such as those following the Turkey earthquake and Hurricane Mitch in Central America – are going beyond mere reconstruction to focus on how to rebuild better so as to strengthen resilience against future disasters. Training is being developed to enable staff to design safer investments and empower communities to reduce their vulnerability to disasters. World Bank policy on emergency lending is being updated to allow it to have a more strategic response to disasters and a stronger commitment to preventing them.

The Bank’s strategy to reduce disasters is strongly based on building on the expertise of its international partners. Through the ProVention Consortium, it is collaborating on such activities as generating evidence on the economic and financial impacts of disasters on longer-term development; developing methodologies and standards for conducting damage and needs assessments following a disaster; and exploring innovations in transferring and financing risks to see how they can help the poor. The results will help the Bank and all partners involved to advance their efforts to reduce disasters, and in turn, enhance their efforts to alleviate poverty.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles in other issues:
Mary Lean: Changing the in-vironment (Culture, values and the environment) 1996
Carlos Joly: Insuring the future (UNEP 25) 1997
Mark Malloch Brown: Empowering the poor (The Environment Millennium) 2000
Kristalina Georgieva: Disproportionate effects (Beyond 2000) 2000
The World Bank Group Disaster Management Facility: