Issue 38 - Article 5

Working with vulnerable communities to assess and reduce disaster risk

July 31, 2007
Bruno Haghebaert, ProVention

The importance of community-based participatory approaches is now generally recognised in the fields of disaster preparedness and mitigation and, increasingly, also in disaster response and recovery. The rationale for using participative approaches in disaster risk reduction is well known:

  • Local communities are the first responders when a disaster happens. In the hours following a disaster search and rescue and the provision of immediate assistance to the injured and homeless are almost entirely carried out by family members, relatives and neighbours. In the case of small-scale events, communities may be left entirely to their own devices, as there may be no external assistance available at all.
  • Top-down disaster risk reduction programmes often fail to address the specific vulnerabilities, needs and demands of at-risk communities. These vulnerabilities and needs can only be identified through a process of direct consultation and dialogue with the communities concerned, because communities understand local realities and contexts better than outsiders.
  • Even the most vulnerable communities possess skills, knowledge, resources (materials, labour) and capacities. These assets are often overlooked and underutilised and, in some cases, even undermined by external actors.

It is therefore crucial that at-risk communities are actively involved in the identification and analysis of the risks they are facing, and participate directly in the planning, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of disaster risk activities.

Over the last two decades, a diverse range of community-level risk assessment methods have been developed and field tested, mainly by NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs). The influence of participatory action research (PAR) and community development methodologies, such as participatory rural assessment (PRA) and rapid rural appraisal (RRA), is evident in many of these risk assessment methods.

Community risk assessment (CRA)

Community risk assessment serves a dual purpose:

    1. The primary purpose of a community risk assessment is to provide datato better inform local decisions on the planning and implementation of risk reduction measures. An effective CRA will contribute to a greater understanding of the nature and level of risks that vulnerable people face; where these risks come from; who will be worst affected; what means are available at all levels to reduce the risks; and what initiatives can be undertaken to reduce the vulnerability and strengthen the capacities of people at risk. CRA identifies specific vulnerable groups/individuals, based on key social characteristics such as gender, age, health status, disability and ethnicity (either through checklists or through a situational analysis). The process also includes an analysis of patterns of population density, livelihood security and occupational activities that increase the vulnerability of certain households and communities. Capacity assessment aims at identifying a wide range of resources: coping strategies, local knowledge, leadership and institutions, existing social capital which may contribute to risk reduction efforts, skills, labour, community facilities, preparedness stocks and a local evacuation plan. An additional and often overlooked aspect of a participatory risk assessment is the local perception of risk, which can play a key role in deciding on mitigation measures.
    2. The process of carrying out a participatory assessment and the ensuing action planning may be of equal long-term importance as the tools that are adopted to collect and analyse data on vulnerabilities and capacities. This process is one of participatory partnership and active long-term engagement with communities in defining their problems and opportunities. The process also enables communities to analyse and better understand their capacities and strengths, building collective self confidence. As such, CRA is both an assessment tool and an organising process.

Another advantage of the participatory approach is that, when it is conducted with mutual respect, trust may develop that allows ‘outside’ knowledge to be integrated with ‘inside’ knowledge. The result is a form of hybrid knowledge that is very robust and effective in reducing risk.

CRA has been mainly used to assess social vulnerability and capacity, but ideally it needs to be integrated with other risk assessment processes, such as:

    1. Physical, economic and environmental risk assessment.This requires a more integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to explore the synergies and links between the natural and human-made environment.
    2. Assessment of other risks and threats.In societies faced with multiple threats to lives and livelihoods (such as HIV, conflict and climate change), CRA has to become a fully integrated process that addresses all threats. These threats are often interrelated, for example HIV can lead to reduced resilience to drought and food insecurity.
    3. Post-disaster damage and needs assessment.In most cases different groups conduct pre- and post-disaster assessments. This artificial separation is unfortunate and wastes vital knowledge and effort. There are major benefits in the full integration of CRA with pre-disaster and post-disaster damage and needs assessments. Clearly, the assessment of damage and social needs after disasters represents a far more accurate measurement of vulnerability and resources than any predictive assessment. In addition, the data from CRA, concerning risks as well as resources, collected before a disaster can be valuable in designing and implementing effective disaster relief and recovery activities in response to local needs and demands.


The ProVention CRA Toolkit

In May 2004, the ProVention Consortium organised an international workshop on ‘Social and Vulnerability Analysis’. The workshop aimed to review current methods for community risk assessment, define elements of ‘good CRA practice’ and identify gaps. One of the key recommendations by the participants was the need to document and analyse the different methods used by various organisations, and collect good practice case studies. The main project partners in the development of the CRA Toolkit initiative were the Disaster Mitigation Programme for Sustainable Livelihoods (DiMP) at the University of Cape Town, and Dr. Ben Wisner.

The CRA Toolkit has four main features:

  • A register of 25 methodological resources and a compendium of 35 case studies. For most methods and case studies a guidance note has been developed. Each note provides a detailed analysis of the method and case study concerned, and a brief abstract.
  • A search tool, which allows users to carry out a search according to a range of predetermined categories.
  • A glossary of terms, which provides a detailed description of the different CRA concepts, methods and tools.
  • Additional links to CRA, community-based disaster risk management and participation materials.

Intended users of the Toolkit are international NGOs and their partner organisations, local government staff, risk researchers and CBOs active in developmental and/or humanitarian work.

The project team’s main findings with regard to the methodologies were:

  • There is a wide variety of CRA material in terms of type, approach and focus. Organisations have developed a broad range of methods (and acronyms), each according to their own institutional and programmatic interests.
  • Although all methods are aimed at ‘community-level’ risk assessment, not all material is people-centred and truly participatory in nature.
  • Most methodologies have been developed by INGOs and Northern experts, rather than by Southern NGOs and CBOs.

The project team also collected and analysed 35 CRA case studies from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Small Island Developing States. Key findings were:

  • Partnerships between NGOs and local government enhance the effectiveness of the assessment and action planning process.
  • Multi-hazard approaches are feasible and are more rewarding in the long run.
  • Using a livelihood approach in CRA has important benefits.
  • A blending of local and external knowledge is often highly effective in reducing risk.
  • CRA can also be used successfully in complex situations where there are multiple issues to be addressed in addition to risk reduction, such as community development, poverty reduction and conflict resolution
  • It is vital to plan monitoring and evaluation at the design stage and collect sufficient baseline data before risk reduction activities start.
  • Participatory approaches can also be used in post-disaster situations (for damage and needs assessment and recovery planning).


References and further reading

M. Anderson and P. Woodrow, Rising from the Ashes: Development Strategies in Times of Disaster(London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1989).

T. Cannon, J. Twigg and J. Rowall, Social Vulnerability, Sustainable Livelihoods and Disasters, report for DFID’s Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Department (CHAD) and Sustainable Livelihoods Office, 2003.

R. Chambers, Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last(London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1997).

Ian Davis, Bruno Haghebaert and David Peppiatt, Social Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis, discussion paper and workshop report, Geneva, 25–26 May 2004,

J. Twigg, Disaster Risk Reduction, Mitigation and Preparedness in Development and Emergency Programming, Good Practice Review 9 (London: HPN, 2004), especially chapters 6–9.

B. Wisner, ‘Assessment of Capability and Vulnerability’, in G. Bankoff, G. Frerks and T. Hilhorst (eds), Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People (London: Earthscan, 2004), pp. 183–93.

Future plans

ProVention aims to regularly update the good practice case studies in the CRA Toolkit in order to evaluate the long-term impact of community risk assessment and planning processes. More case studies will be added to the Toolkit in the near future. Organisations that would like to share their CRA experiences for inclusion in the Toolkit are invited to send case studies to Lessons learned from the CRA Toolkit initiative will be documented in a publication to be released in 2008.

Bruno Haghebaert is Senior Officer at the ProVention Consortium Secretariat, which is hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva. For more information, visit the ProVention website: The author would like to thank Ian O’Donnell (ProVention Consortium) (, Ben Wisner (Oberlin College) ( and Adolfo Mascarenhas (Links Trust) ( for reviewing this article. The CRA Toolkit is available at


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