Mainstreaming disaster mitigation: findings of recent research
by John Twigg May 2002

Each year since the 1970s, natural disasters have, on average, caused more than 80,000 deaths and affected the lives of some 144 million people, the great majority of them in developing countries. During the 1990s, the economic cost averaged some $54 billion a year. Risk management therefore ought to be everyone’s business, and measures to protect against future disasters are widely acknowledged to be not only necessary but also cost-effective. The poor and socially-disadvantaged are usually those most vulnerable to and affected by natural hazards. This is the result of the social, economic, cultural and political environment in which they live – the so-called ‘vulnerability’ context. This is most apparent in the economic pressures forcing people to live in dangerous locations, but other underlying causes include population growth, political structures, national and international economic systems, the unsustainable management of natural resources and rapid urbanisation.

Between October 1998 and March 2001, I and other researchers undertook a project to investigate the extent and nature of current NGO work in this area, and examine the factors that encouraged or hindered their involvement in mitigation and preparedness. Through semi-structured interviews with over 200 people and the collection of internal and published documents, we studied 22 international relief and development NGOs based in the UK, and 40 NGOs in four developing countries: Bangladesh, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Zimbabwe. This article summarises some of the key findings.

Institutionalising policy change

Mitigation and preparedness appear to be moving up the policy agenda in a number of NGOs, largely as the result of a recent series of major ‘natural’ disasters. Many people in British NGOs spoke to us of the influence of Hurricane Mitch (October 1998), which, because of its massive impact on Central America’s long-term development, had forced them to reconsider their approach to natural hazards. The old view of disasters as one-off events is gradually being replaced by awareness of the connections between development processes and vulnerability. NGOs in Central America, for instance, argued that the root causes of the Mitch disaster lay in the vulnerabilities created by the region’s wider political economy. VOICE’s position paper for the Stockholm meeting on post-Mitch reconstruction in May 1999 argued that ‘the transition to sustainable development necessarily has to take into account prevention and mitigation as key concepts for reducing vulnerability’.

Shifts in thinking at the policy level have not been translated into regular operational guidelines and procedures for analysing and reducing risk and vulnerability. Before mitigation and preparedness activities can become embedded, institutions will have to overcome the substantial barriers imposed by organisational structures and ways of working. Within some larger NGOs, tensions between emergency and development teams are a particular constraint. Mitigation and preparedness have traditionally been discussed among emergencies specialists rather than development teams. More generally, pressures of work inhibit consideration of innovative ideas. This appears to be a systemic weakness in NGOs. In one UK agency, a project officer was handling 40 local partners in two countries; in another, one was covering 52 projects in six countries.

Nevertheless, committed and well-placed individuals can ‘work’ the institutional system to promote mitigation and preparedness, even in large and highly-structured NGOs. This view was confirmed by several interviewees, by our observations and by discussions with others who have worked in NGOs. In one medium-sized international NGO, a combination of a decentralisation policy, relatively relaxed head -office management, and a country director with a commitment to disaster work and a good sense of institutional politics meant that disaster mitigation was established as an integral part of the international portfolio, even though it sat oddly with the organisation’s other, sectoral, programmes.

Mitigation in practice

In addition to a series of reports, the research project produced 19 case studies of NGO initiatives in risk reduction. Activities covered included the creation of an emergency loan fund by a Bangladeshi NGO providing savings and credit to tribal people; the construction of earthquake-resistant housing in Peru and Yemen; the promotion of soil and water conservation and indigenous drought-resistant crops in Zimbabwe; identifying and preparing safe areas for Cambodian villagers to escape floods; the coordination of disaster preparedness and response in the Philippines; research into different farming systems’ resilience to Hurricane Mitch; cyclone early warning in Bangladesh; and training of trainers in West and East Africa.

Some important cross-cutting issues emerged. First, the overall quality of information was disappointing. NGO experiences are rarely written up and disseminated, while internal documentation was patchy. Second, monitoring and evaluation were poor, and focused on performance rather than impact. Admittedly, there are problems in assessing work whose result is that a disaster does not happen. Nevertheless, the considerable efforts to improve monitoring and evaluation in development and humanitarian circles were not reflected in the initiatives that we studied. Third, many of the projects endeavoured to reach the most vulnerable groups, but in many cases the information available could not prove that the NGOs were supporting such groups effectively. Until NGOs can make a convincing case that they are reaching the most vulnerable, they may find it difficult to obtain funding from donors for disaster mitigation. There was also a tendency for projects to address the immediate causes of vulnerability – for instance, living in unsafe locations or housing – rather than deeper socio-economic causes. Gender-related vulnerability was commonly recognised, but measures to tackle it were rare. There was some indication of a shift by NGOs towards community-based mitigation and preparedness projects, but in many cases it appeared that ‘participation’ was confined to involvement in carrying out tasks, rather than in planning.

Disaster terminology

The formal language of disaster management contains a lot of technical terminology. How helpful is such language to NGO workers? We explored this by discussing the key terms ‘mitigation’ (which, interpreted broadly, means any action to minimise the impact of a disaster); and ‘preparedness’ (specific measures taken before disaster strikes, usually forecasting and warning, taking precautions such as stockpiling supplies and arranging for the appropriate emergency response).

Interviews revealed that these two terms have little resonance with NGO workers, especially those in development. The majority of interviewees did not use either on a regular basis. Those working in food security tend to use a completely different terminology. The fact that ‘mitigation’ has no equivalent in many languages is also a significant obstacle to its wider use. Nevertheless, interviewees demonstrated a good appreciation of disaster and vulnerability issues. They were much more comfortable with concrete examples than formal definitions: mitigation, for example, was illustrated as strengthening houses to withstand floods and earthquakes, crop diversification and reforestation. We concluded that some elements of conventional disaster terminology are unhelpful, and it may be time to discard the words ‘preparedness’ and ‘mitigation’, at least outside very specialist circles.

External influences

The research team looked at a number of external influences on NGO activity, notably availability of funds and relations with government. Regarding funding, the picture was mixed. There is little dedicated funding for mitigation and preparedness, but many NGOs have been able to raise funds for such work from development donors and budget lines. Two dedicated budget lines opened in the 1990s by the Department for International Development’s Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs Department and the European Community Humanitarian Office were key in stimulating NGO work in this area.

Governments can play a major role in determining the scope and nature of NGO activities. Many NGOs work with governments on disaster planning, and there were signs that such engagement may be increasing. This was particularly true at local level. We found governments working with NGOs on risk mapping, NGOs providing training to government staff, and NGO participation in government disaster committees. However, in many countries relations between government and NGOs are strained, even hostile. Even where they are not, government disaster-management plans typically focus on issues relating to disaster preparedness in its narrowest sense. A wider focus to embrace mitigation might encourage greater NGO participation.

Finally, the UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in the 1990s had almost no impact on NGOs in any of the countries studied. The initiative was dominated for much of the decade by scientists and engineers, failing to engage with field-level practitioners or the wider needs of vulnerable communities.

New directions

These findings add up to a major challenge for those trying to move disaster mitigation and preparedness into the mainstream of NGO work. Nevertheless, many of these barriers can be broken down. The following steps would help this process:

  • Generate more, and better, evidence of how mitigation and preparedness works in practice – and ensure that it is shared. Better evaluation and case studies are needed.
  • Replace some of the formal terminology of disaster management with more comprehensible, everyday terms such as ‘risk reduction’.
  • Find ways of fitting disaster issues into conceptual frameworks used in development thinking. The growing interest in development circles in sustainable livelihoods may be opening up space here.
  • Devise simple operational guidelines for assessing and addressing natural hazards and risk that can be grafted onto existing NGO procedures.
  • Improve networking between NGO staff. The enthusiastic response to our research project’s feedback workshops and the inauguration of an informal mitigation and preparedness network among UK NGOs are encouraging signs of interest; this needs to be maintained.
  • Staff in NGOs committed to mitigation and preparedness need to lobby much more forcefully, both within their own organisations, and with other agencies, especially donors.

NGOs are beginning to take risk reduction more seriously. Mitigation is still on the margins, but it may be moving towards the mainstream at last.

John Twigg is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre, University College London. The research project described in this article was funded by the Department for International Development’s ESCOR programme and managed by the British Red Cross. It was carried out by a team of independent researchers who are solely responsible for the views contained in the research reports. The reports are available online at; the 19 case-studies of NGO initiatives are at based on four of the research reports were published in Disasters, vol. 25, no. 3, September 2001.

References and further reading

Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters (London: Routledge, 1994).

Ian Christoplos, John Mitchell and Anna Liljelund, ‘Re-framing Risk: The Changing Context of Disaster Mitigation and Preparedness’, Disasters, vol. 25, no. 3, September 2001.

David Peppiatt, ‘De-naturalising Disasters: Reflections on the Changing Discourse of Natural Disasters’, unpublished paper, British Red Cross Society, 2001.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies World Disasters Report, forthcoming, 2002.