For richer, for poorer

This post was contributed by Jeff Dayton-Johnson, Head of the Americas Desk at the OECD Development Centre

John Stuart Mill decried Nature’s “injustice, ruin and death.” We tend to throw up our hands in despair before natural disasters like the earthquake earlier this month in Haiti — the human cost of which, though not yet tallied, is certain to be catastrophic: unjust, ruinous and deathly.

But is it “natural”?

A Policy Brief by the OECD Development Centre argues that “hazards” — drought, earthquakes, epidemics, floods, windstorms–are naturally occurring, but that “disasters” are not. It’s unfavourable conditions–like irregular urban settlements, environmental degradation and weak regulatory practices–that render a society more vulnerable and less resilient to shocks.

Consider the example of Hurricane Mitch, which struck most of the Central American countries in October 1998, ultimately killing nearly 19 000 people.

Though loss of life, injury, and economic damages of the hurricane were widespread in the region, one of the disaster’s most striking features was its uneven impact across the affected countries. Different countries had differing underlying vulnerability to a hurricane.

If we take per capita income as a crude approximation of vulnerability–richer countries are better able to withstand and recover–we find that the ranking of Central American countries in terms of the severity of the hurricane and a ranking in terms of the poverty of the country would be almost identical. In general, poorer countries fare worse when exposed to a similar shock.

Unfortunately, then, Haiti was not only exposed to the risk of earthquake (a geophysical fact), it was vulnerable to a disaster (a social fact). The coming weeks will demonstrate how resilient Haiti is after the quake.

In societies exposed to risk of natural hazards, there is much that policy makers can do to reduce vulnerability and build up resilience.

This starts with improving the health and education of the poorer members of the society, and extends to monitoring and enforcing building codes and standards.

International agencies and the private sector can play their part by exploring ways to create innovative financial instruments to pool disaster risk and to provide insurance against it.

Guest author

3 comments to “For richer, for poorer”

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  1. Dr Karey Harrison - 20/01/2010 Reply

    Proposing to enforce building codes is all very well, but unless cheap ways of meeting code (like bamboo reinforced adobe) and minimum compliance costs are found it will simply push more of the poorest people into homelessness or being faced with penalities for code breaches.

    • Jeff - 21/01/2010 Reply

      An excellent point. There are encouraging precedents. A local NGO in Peru facilitated rebuilding of houses destroyed by an earthquake with more earthquake-proof and low-cost locally-available materials (called quincha): these houses resisted a subsequent earthquake.

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