Reducing the risk of natural disasters: the policy and practice of institutional donors
by Sarah La Trobe, Tearfund February 2004

The developing world has witnessed a significant increase in human and material losses associated with ‘natural’ disasters. The number of people affected by these disasters was three times higher in the 1990s than in the 1970s, and economic losses were five times higher. This upward trend in disaster losses is expected to persist with the continued expansion of populations, environmental degradation and climate change. The threat that disasters pose to development gains has increasingly been acknowledged by donors, governments and financial institutions, yet still insufficient attention is being given to disaster risk reduction.

In early 2003, Tearfund undertook research to gain a better understanding of how institutional donors are responding to this issue. Interviewees included representatives of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the governments of the US, Canada, the UK, Sweden and Switzerland, the European Union (EU) and the UN. This article reports the key research findings.

The lack of a ‘preventive culture’

The majority of donors canvassed for the research are convinced that risk reduction in the form of disaster preparedness and mitigation is essential to protect vulnerable communities from natural hazards, and to safeguard development. A World Bank interviewee observed: ‘If we are in the business of reducing poverty … one of the mechanisms for this is reducing risk’. Donors also claimed that risk reduction is a cost-effective intervention in countries vulnerable to disasters. The observation of one informant from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) at USAID was representative of many: although the cost-effectiveness of disaster mitigation and preparedness cannot be proved, ‘There’s no doubt in our minds that spending money on good mitigation and preparedness activities more than pays off’.

Despite such convictions, however, the research concluded that risk reduction remains a relatively low priority within donors’ relief and development planning and programming. As an independent consultant put it: ‘It is hard to find institutions willing to say, “Let’s invest now for deferred benefits later to prevent something that may not happen”’. This position is a persistent enemy to the development of a preventive culture, in which risk reduction is accepted as a necessity in disaster-prone regions.

The need to ‘mainstream’ risk reduction

Both donors and consultants offered a variety of explanations as to why donors award risk reduction such a low priority. The most frequently-given was that risk reduction is not ‘mainstreamed’ into development; in other words, it is not systematically integrated into all development programmes. Other explanations included a lack of knowledge of what risk reduction is and how to do it; the fact that neither relief nor development sectors within donor organisations ‘own’ risk reduction as their specific responsibility; and the fact that risk reduction competes with other pressing development needs. These three key issues are referred to in the research as ‘Knowledge’, ‘Ownership’ and ‘Competition’. The research proposes that these three issues are not, in fact, additional to the mainstreaming problem, but symptomatic of it. Paradoxically, whilst each issue is an effect of the primary problem of lack of mainstreaming, each also acts as a barrier to solving it.


Development specialists within donor organisations frequently fail to integrate risk reduction into their work because they lack awareness and understanding of what it entails, both as a concept and in practice. Contributing to and perpetuating this lack of understanding is the fact that most organisations fail to communicate effectively between sectors and departments. The majority of risk reduction specialists interviewed for the research were located in humanitarian aid departments, and their knowledge of the issue was not shared with development departments as a matter of course.

Another factor contributing to confusion surrounding the concept and practice of risk reduction is that it is very broad in scope. There is a wide range of preparedness and mitigation activities (across a number of sectors), and a wide variety of agencies work in this field. This broad scope, or as one informant put it this ‘nebulousness’, can prevent risk reduction from being recognised and reported on as such. For example, the European Parliament has mandated the EC’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) to spend 15–20% of its budget on disaster preparedness, but as one ECHO informant noted, achieving this target ‘depends on what we are defining as disaster prevention’.

Finally, the breadth of terminology used by the disaster management community to describe risk reduction can also contribute to a lack of understanding of the issue. While science has, undoubtedly, contributed much to reducing the scale of disaster losses, the use of complex mathematical formulas to understand risk and vulnerability can hinder practical implementation in the field.

The research recommends that individuals with a sound understanding of risk reduction (often those within the humanitarian aid sector) should communicate more effectively with relevant development departments. This may require adopting developmental language, and emphasising the links between disasters and poverty. Well-documented case studies, although context-specific, are useful in demonstrating to development sectors both what is meant by disaster risk reduction, and how it can be implemented. Although risk reduction cannot stand alone if it is to be effective, a separate disaster risk reduction unit may be necessary, to pilot projects, develop case studies and training materials and ensure the dissemination of these throughout an organisation.


Neither relief nor development sectors within donor agencies fully ‘own’ risk reduction as their specific responsibility and, consequently, the issue falls between relief and development processes.

Looking at the subject from the perspective of the relief sector, many of the concepts associated with the design and delivery of risk reduction projects demand a developmental approach and mindset over a period of time far longer than the average relief intervention. An interviewee from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) observed that, although the SDC’s humanitarian aid department is Switzerland’s mandated implementing agency for disaster risk reduction, it cannot provide the long-term approach that preventive action requires. Similar observations were made by individuals from other donor organisations. Consequently, there is a general acceptance within the disaster management community of the need to increase the level of ‘ownership’ of risk reduction among development sectors – which arguably are in a stronger position to reduce disaster risk on a global scale.

However, as with relief sectors, risk reduction does not sit particularly comfortably with development specialists, who tend to perceive disasters as an unfortunate detour on the developmental path. In so doing, they fail to draw a link between the shortcomings of development and inherent underlying risks represented in the form of a disaster. An informant from the Humanitarian Affairs and Conflict Division of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) informed us that his development colleagues do not view disaster crises as integral to their work, but ‘a kind of anomaly to it’.

Another barrier to ownership is a perception that pro-poor development by its very nature reduces the risk of disaster, and hence the development community already ‘owns’ the problem. This was put to us by an informant within the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID):

The poor tend to be the most vulnerable members of society – hence they are often worst affected by disasters. Therefore, if your development brief is really pro-poor, and you are really tackling the root causes of poverty through your work, then surely you are reducing people’s exposure to disaster risk.

There is a logic to this, but also significant dangers. Some key mitigation requirements are not naturally related to protecting livelihoods, yet retain life-preserving importance. Second, the ‘pro-poor development’ approach can play down the importance of specific actions needed to reduce disaster risks. For example, every child being educated in a seismically active area needs to be taught basic seismic preparedness measures, yet this cannot safely be assumed to be part of development work.


Whilst many donors believe that much more can be achieved in the field of disaster prevention, implementing risk reduction measures in vulnerable regions remains a struggle. This is in part due to competing priorities.

Attempts by humanitarian aid departments to undertake disaster prevention are hampered by the rising number of disasters and increased pressure to respond. As an informant from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) observed: ‘The scale of human needs in the world today is so overwhelming, simply meeting humanitarian needs exceeds all the systems we have in place’. The answer to this problem is to mainstream risk reduction into development work, so that human and material resources for it can be increased. However, the need to engage with other important issues was frequently given by donors as a reason why more development finances could not or should not be invested in risk reduction. An interviewee from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) asserted that the priority given to the issue by the UN is ‘not a misrepresentation in relation to … the [global] scale of problems and issues’.

Whether the current level of priority awarded to disaster risk reduction vis-à-vis other development needs is a ‘misrepresentation’ is a fundamental question. Unsurprisingly, local communities finding it difficult to survive on a daily basis may view disaster preparedness as an unaffordable luxury. However, at a macro level, is a similar attitude of non-engagement acceptable? Non-engagement can be due to a number of valid development problems, such as trade and debt. However, it can also be due to invalid political priorities. As one consultant asserted, disaster risk reduction is sometimes ignored or its application delayed because of ‘confusing, conflicting, and unacceptable priorities as expressed by the affected country’. Whereas risk reduction is constantly fighting to prove its worth, politicians rarely raise the question of the costs and benefits of emergency relief programmes. This could be due to the high visibility of relief work, and the profile a government can acquire through being seen to respond to major disasters.

Addressing the issue of competition requires the development and dissemination of case studies and cost–benefit analyses to demonstrate the validity of risk reduction in development programming. It also requires building risk reduction initiatives into the existing context, agenda and priorities of developmental strategies. In this way risk reduction will be viewed less as competing with other development needs, and more as an integral and vital part of development itself. Our SIDA interviewee stressed the need to ensure that the risk reduction dimension is included in SIDA’s description of the meaning of poverty. If we manage this, he argued, ‘it would be such an integral element we wouldn’t need to see it as one area that competes with others’.

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At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, agreements on local, national and international disaster preparedness and mitigation were included in the Summit’s Plan of Implementation. While this was encouraging, time-bound targets for implementing the agreements were lacking, raising the question of how they will be implemented and monitored. There are also questions around how the Millennium Development Goals will be attained without a significant and widespread increase in investment in disaster prevention within the world’s most vulnerable countries.

A primary reason why donors do not give risk reduction the attention it deserves is because they fail to systematically integrate it into development planning and programming. Risk reduction must be viewed as an integral element of sustainable development, rather than an ad hoc activity for special circumstances. Clearly, the greatest progress needs to be made in development sectors of donor organisations in terms of understanding, owning and addressing risk reduction. However, relief sectors have a dual responsibility. They must seek to mitigate disaster risks where possible within relief interventions, and they may need to take the lead in promoting and developing a strong corporate understanding of the issue within an organisation.

Failure to mainstream risk reduction has long been the subject of discussion within the disaster management community, and as such Tearfund’s research does not make a new discovery. However, by identifying the main impediments to mainstreaming and proposing practical steps towards overcoming them, the research aims to encourage new and more effective risk reduction action by donors and other organisations, particularly:

• moves to integrate risk reduction into all development programming in disaster-prone countries, including the development of practical tools for community-based risk assessment to assist development professionals in their analysis and reduction of risks; and
• support for individuals and units focused on making this happen.

Institutional donors recognise that natural disaster preparedness and mitigation in certain contexts is cost-effective in preventing loss of life and livelihoods and safeguarding development. Failure to invest in risk reduction, therefore, is both illogical and morally indefensible. As our UNICEF informant observed: ‘the longer we delay in addressing risk reduction and preparedness, the greater the impact, scale and cost of emergencies’.


Sarah La Trobe is Tearfund’s Public Policy Officer, Environment and Disasters.


The full research report, co-authored by Sarah La Trobe and Paul Venton (Tearfund’s Disaster Mitigation and Preparedness Officer), is entitled Natural Disaster Risk Reduction: The Policy and Practice of Selected Institutional Donors. It is available from the Tearfund website at