2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction
Meeting series on The Future of Disaster Risk Management

Conceptual notions of disaster risk, causes and relationship to sustainable development
Expert meeting hosted by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements
26-28 February 2014, Bangalore City Campus, Bangalore, India



There is an apparent disconnect between stated progress in international, national and local efforts in disaster risk reduction on the one hand and continuously rising disaster risk and loss on the other. While loss trends from disasters associated with physical hazards such as floods, earthquakes, droughts and cyclones have been clearly significantly and continuously on the rise – at least in economic terms – even more worryingly, the risk of loss of life and of assets in the future is growing far more rapidly. In recognising this disconnect we recognise a challenge for disaster risk management and reduction: if the inputs and even outputs are, as we claim, increasing in quantity and quality, why is the outcome and impact of our efforts not perceivable in terms of a reduction in overall risk and disaster losses?

This question was explored in a meeting in spring 2013, held in San Jose, Costa Rica, that convened around 20  known and experienced practitioners, academics and managers in the field of disaster risk management from  around the world.

The resulting analysis offered one central explanation of the identified contradiction. There is a striking imbalance between how much has been done and achieved in managing and reducing existing risk (corrective practice) and how much has been done to reduce the accumulation of new risk through limiting and controlling the number of new assets and people located in hazardous locations and addressing potential future structural and social vulnerability (prospective practice). The propositions that derived from this central explanation and discussed at the meeting were:

  • The need for a significant re-conceptualisation and reframing of disaster risk and disaster and the ensuing disaster risk management practice.
  • The identification of incentives that may constitute tipping points for behavioural change and risk-sensitive choices at a significant scale (increasing the political, social and economic saliency of DRM).
  • The notion of transformative development and the positive externalities it signifies for risk reduction and control and increased resilience.
  • The implications of the findings from the above three concerns for governance: structural institutional arrangements and agency within and between different social actors.

These propositions will now be discussed in more detail in four meetings to be held during the first semester of 2014, each hosted by a different partnering institution, renowned for its ability to contribute new and relevant perspectives in social, political and economic analysis and management practices. A fifth meeting, hosted by Florida International University, will be held in May 2014, to bring together a selected group from the meeting series and consolidate the main findings and recommendations. This will constitute a major input into the 2015 Global Assessment Report and into the consultations for the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, and further contribute to discussions on future Sustainable Development Goals and climate change agreements.

That a disaster is not natural is now an accepted premise by many. However, through the notions they manage or the terms they use many others still  depict  disaster as being the flood, earthquake or cyclone itself  ( the physical hazard)  rather than the loss, damage and wider effects registered  once  a hazard event occurs. Hazard and disaster are seen as synonyms and the physical hazard is seen to be the direct and most important “cause” of disaster. Both typify what has been called a “physicalist” interpretation of disaster.  Such interpretations ignore or relegate the social conditioning of risk to a secondary or even negligent position.   Risk is understood as being exogenous and notendogenous to human agency and social activity. Endogenous in the sense it is the product of a process of social construction that involves decisions on location, building practices, environmental management and social organization, amongst others.

Beyond the exogenous nature of risk and disaster, the risks associated with potentially damaging physical hazards have also been given a life of their own, independent of other risks faced by society, and the notion of disaster risk is couched in predominantly negative terms as opposed to more holistically, as a play off between loss and opportunity.

The challenge for the meeting participants will be to unpack the above and other identified distorting conceptions or expressions; detail their consequences for the development of management approaches; propose an alternative framing of the problem and the recognise the significance for social practice and human agency. The aim of the meeting will be to :

  1. propose this in a language that can be understood by scientists, development practitioners and the interested layman, in  general, and
  2. offer insights into how this alternative paradigm can be disseminated and applied in the future.

In order to allow for new thinking, reflection and debate that may push the boundaries of the currently known, the meeting sessions will be framed by a series of open questions, several of which will come out of a brainstorming exercise on the first day. These questions may include:

  • How have the concepts of disaster, disaster risk and disaster risk management evolved over the last 40 years?
  • How have the debates on climate change influenced the discussion, definition and framing of so  called “disaster risk” and DRM.
  • Is there a “most accepted” notion of these concepts today and how have they been generated, constituted and framed? What are the key elements, drivers and management parameters of disaster risk they suppose and, what are the main components of disaster risk management they announce?
  • What are the main dissonant voices and distorting elements that exist today in gaining clarity as to the concept and significance of disaster risk? What are the “voices from the past” that still require quieting or reframing?
  • How is the relationship between disaster risk and human agency construed today? What is its relationship with economic and social development?
  • If risk is endogenous to human agency, what are the implications for our understanding of disaster risk in the context of mal-development and current trends in economic development, demographic, environmental and climate change?
  • How do today’s semiotics and semantics of disaster risk influence the way that it is managed (and will be in the future) and shape the saliency of DRM principles and practice?
  • Based on the discussion of fundamental conceptual issues, what are alternative imaginaries of disaster risk management that include other readings of its critical components?
  • In the constantly changing context – with climate change exacerbating the intensity and frequency of natural hazards, demographic densities and mal-development increasing exposure and vulnerabilities of peoples and systems – what is the imaginary for a sustainable development that addresses current as well as future issues?

The meetings will be held in an informal and yet ordered manner to allow a free flow of ideas, challenges and critique. Discussions will be held under the ‘Chatham House rules’, i.e. ensuring confidentiality with regard to individual statements and in any related documentation. Contributions made by participants will neither be quoted in association with their affiliated institutions nor without prior consent. These principles are suggested to ensure an open and unhindered exchange of experience and thoughts.

Participants will be invited on the basis of their expertise (rather than their institutional affiliation), be it through their practical engagement in development sectors or business  or due to their extensive academic and/or policy experience in disaster risk management and related areas (such as economic and social development, environmental management, trade and business development, political and institutional economy). An adequate mix is sought of experienced and young professionals who have made a clear contribution to advances in the understanding and debate of the central issues.  In addition, an adequate regional balance will also be sought and an adequate representation of persons from the academic, private and practitioner sectors.

In the run up to the meeting, participants must commit to engage with the questions at hand through short (2 page maximum) written reflections and statements. The material collected in this manner will inform the debate at the meeting and allow for the group to focus on the key challenges identified in the preparatory phase. Further inputs will be provided in the form of selected writings chosen for their ability to reflect the progression of the conceptual debate over time.

Beyond the substantive discussion and the advance this will signify in conceptualization and framing of the problems, meeting attendees will be expected to offer clear exemplifications and cases of successful advance and practice that can illustrate the principles that are posited in the meetings.

Day 1 (26 February 2014)

Open Session on the relationship between concept & practice (invited guests from IIHS and local experts)

9:00 – 9:15 Welcome by Indian Institute of Human Settlements Aromar Revi
9:15 – 9:45 Short presentations to set the scene Chairs: Garima Jain and Bina Desai
Concepts, policies and international politics on sustainable development and climate change Aromar Revi
The relationship between concept/knowledge & practice/action: lessons and questions from 4 decades of disaster risk management (Allan Lavell) Examples from the international policy perspective Kamal Kishore
9:45 – 12:00 Open moderated session with presented case studies economics, climate change, poverty reduction and vulnerability studies Chairs: Aromar Revi and Allan Lavell

“What role do concepts play in shaping practice and vice versa? When does knowledge translate into action, how and why? How does action change our concepts and theoretical understanding in any particular field?”

12:00 – 13:30 Lunch
13:30 – 14:30 Working Groups on critical levers for behavioural change, value transformation and action Moderators: Allan Lavell, Garima Jain and Bina Desai

[Parallel to working group sessions, IIHS teams will conduct video interviews with participants on challenges and solutions for future DRM]

14:30 – 15:45 Feedback to plenary and open discussion Chair: Aromar Revi
16:00 Close of open session
Day 2 (27 February 2014)
09:00 – 09:20 Welcome by IIHS and UNISDR Aromar Revi and Andrew Maskrey
09.20 – 10:00 Introduction and agenda Andrew Maskrey and Bina Desai
The post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction Marco Toscano-Rivalta
DRM post-2015, sustainable development and climate change Aromar Revi
10:00 – 12:30 Session 1 (including coffee break) – Chair: Andrew Maskrey

Changing concepts and perspectives of disaster risk and disaster over the last 40 years intro by Allan Lavell
First round of statements from participants as summaries of their 2 pagers

12:30 – 13:30 Lunch
13:30 – 17:00 Session 2 (including coffee break) – Chair: Allan Lavell

Constructing a consensual image of disaster and disaster risk, Part I (common misunderstandings, flaws and discrepancies, status quo views, the weight of history and the reasons for their existence and persistence)
Second round of statements from participants and open discussion

Pre-evening Closed press briefing on GAR13 and GAR15, HFA2 and the post-2015  development agenda Andrew Maskrey and Marco Toscano-Rivalta
Evening Dinner (all participants)
Day 3 (28 February 2014)
09:15 – 09:30 Recap of Day 1 – Andrew Maskrey
09:15 – 12:30 Session 3 (including coffee break) – Chair: Kamal Kishore

Constructing a consensual image of disaster and disaster risk, Part I (moving from muddy conceptual waters to clarity by consensus, agreeing on the building blocks for understanding disaster, risk and risk management)
Third round of statements from participants and open discussion

12:30 – 13:30 Lunch
13:30 – 17:00 Session 4 (including coffee break)Chairs: Andrew Maskrey and Aromar Revi
Future semantic, semiotics and pragmatics of DRM – what are the critical pieces, what are the ways of going forward in establishing and firming up advanced and relevant conceptions of disaster risk, DRM etc?
Session 5: final remarks and recommendations.
17:00 Close of the meeting