Four Strategies to Reduce Disaster Risk in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Contexts


Jul 9, 2021

A worker holds bags and a box of humanitarian aid in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria, June 9, 2021, photo by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

A worker holds bags and a box of humanitarian aid in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria, June 9, 2021

Photo by Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on PreventionWeb on July 8, 2021.

Addressing the circumstances for the more than two billion people living in fragile and conflict-affected contexts (FCAC) is crucial for delivering on the United Nations commitment for disaster risk reduction.

Indeed, the U.N. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction says “leave no one behind.” But nation states are often unable or unwilling to provide essential public services, including those related to disaster response and recovery (DRR). As well, weakened formal institutions, challenges with humanitarian access and mistrust, and information gaps make implementing “standard” approaches to DRR incredibly challenging for international actors.

Our report on delivering the promise of the Sendai Framework for DRR suggests that four strategies can help reduce risk and improve resilience for communities living in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.

1. Systems Approach

First, a systems approach could help understand dynamics in FCAC and develop DRR interventions that are supportive of local contexts. Understanding local systems that existed prior to and during crises in FCAC could enable international cooperation to effectively engage and leverage the capacity of these systems to provide essential services and reduce their fragility to ongoing shocks and stresses. Efforts could therefore be made to identify and better understand the resilience of these local systems, such as by leveraging emerging systems-theoretic toolkits for DRR. In turn, this understanding could inform interventions that support their functioning and reduce risk.

A systems approach could help understand dynamics in FCAC and develop disaster response and recovery interventions that are supportive of local contexts.

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2. Adaptive Management

Second is considering adaptive management. Adaptive management is about making adjustments in response to new information and evolving threats. As the conflict environment is often dynamic and rapidly changing, the typical linear project management cycle may not lead to effective DRR interventions. Instead, flexibility could be introduced into the project management cycle, allowing interventions to be modified in response to evolving vulnerabilities, capacities, and shocks and stresses. Adaptive management is one way of doing this.

3. Localization

Third is localization. Localization in this context means working with and supporting the permanent, local actors who provide essential services—anyone from customary governance authorities, to private sector businesses, local water committees, or local suppliers—and doing so in a way that maintains humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, humanity, and neutrality. Given the frequent absence of local state authorities, changing dynamics on the ground, and the risk of losing impartiality or legitimizing certain actors, this can be challenging in FCACs. Still, working with local actors might allow a more direct path to engage with stakeholders to reduce risk and build resilience. Community-based approaches to DRR could be helpful here since they are a way of working with local actors. But they may need to be adapted or broadened to work with other actors that may be outside the community.

4. Building Trust

Fourth, and underpinning all of these other strategies, is trust: building and maintaining trust with communities, with the government, and with other stakeholders operating in FCAC is essential for accessing vulnerable populations, for working with critical stakeholders, and for ensuring post-project handovers result in continued reduction of disaster risk. However, international actors working in FCAC may find trust difficult to build and easily lost. Dialoguing, extended engagement with local stakeholders, maintaining the humanitarian principles, and assurance frameworks can all be critical mechanisms that international actors can use to build and maintain trust.

Applying these strategies may require changes in traditional donor models and international policy frameworks. On the funding side, donors could modify their humanitarian funding streams, making them multi-annual and more flexible to support short, medium, and long-term community needs. They might also move beyond immediate humanitarian relief and focus on longer-term and multi-sectoral needs, all the while working to share risk with implementing agencies as they adaptively manage responses and work through local actors in complex and challenging environments. Irish Aid's innovative blended model that integrates longer-term program funds with specific humanitarian program partner funding through multi-annual targets is one promising pilot of these types of mechanisms. Of course, all of these activities must be supported by robust international policy mechanisms.

International cooperation might move away from interpreting the localization agenda set out in the Grand Bargain as little more than granting to local civil society organizations, and instead work to partner with a broader spectrum of permanent local actors that also include state agencies and private sector business. Likewise, to help ensure the over two billion people living in FCAC receive the support they need, international frameworks that are focused on issues other than conflict (such as the SFDRR), could be modified to acknowledge the reality of FCAC, including the fact that strong state support cannot be assumed.

To be sure, there is need for more knowledge and learning. There is a growing body of work showing DRR in FCACs is feasible, but there are still major gaps in knowledge on just how people impacted by conflict are vulnerable to hazards; how they cope, survive, and in some cases thrive; and how international cooperation and governments might support the resilience of the fragile systems on which they often rely. Expanding systems knowledge and evidence-based findings through more research with NGOs on the ground, academics, and most importantly, communities themselves, will likely be critical to evolve best practices.

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He works across the hazard cycle, including response, recovery, and mitigation. Ronak B. Patel is the founder and director of the Urbanization and Crises program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. His research focuses primarily on the challenges and opportunities presented by rapid urbanization for humanitarian disasters and vulnerable populations. Bernard McCaul is GOAL's deputy director of Programme Design and Innovation. He was lead author of GOAL's Analysis of Resilience of Communities to Disaster, and Resilience for Social Systems Approaches. Experienced in developing and delivering large public private partnerships, McCaul is a trained advocate in systems thinking for development.

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