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Development aid has always been subject to a protracted debate concerning its effectiveness with arguments given on both sides. A major part of this debate, especially for the period covering the cold war has been to what extent aid to developing countries is enmeshed with political and strategic considerations on the part of donor countries. Humanitarian aid, referring to aid following disastrous events, has mostly stayed on the sidelines of this discourse, primarily due to the supposedly moral and humanitarian components that are imbedded in it.

On the face of it, the principles that underpin the humanitarian and relief sectors, namely proportionality, neutrality, impartiality and independence should make it less prone to controversy. However, the increased frequency and destructiveness of natural and man-made hazards of the last few years have come to question that received wisdom. In addition, the institutional separation model that characterizes the relief and development sectors has largely failed in the past, bringing to the forefront the twin concepts of risk and vulnerability, and the inextricable links between natural disasters1,2 and human development.

As a result, risk reduction3 has gained prominence and is increasingly seen, at least in rhetoric, as a critical component of sustainable development. This is due to the increased recognition that hazards can be considered an act of nature but disasters are essentially man-made and are often exacerbated by the development process. Drawing on recent examples in Ethiopia and Niger, recent floods in Mozambique and India and the aftermath of hurricane Mitch in Latin America, this paper will make the point that the set of barriers that impede on risk reduction financing are mostly related to the perverse incentives—both political and strategic—that drive donors and aid recipients after the onset of a natural disaster, and how these impact the perceptions and financing of risk reduction strategies.

These perverse incentives are usually exposed and aggravated by events that receive extensive media coverage. Politicians in donor and recipient countries are often more willing to provide and receive relief aid than to invest in disaster reduction activities. These aligned incentives on the part of donors and recipients give rise to a tragic case of moral hazard, and in some instances to a perception of opportunistic behavior on the part of relief agencies. As a result, disaster relief will have a propensity to be overzealously funded while disaster risk reduction will remain the poor cousin in development cooperation.

There is also an increasingly fact based recognition by the international community that disasters generally affects the most vulnerable members of society, namely the poor. As this paper will discuss, the fact that humanitarian assistance is rooted in a shared belief that there is a moral imperative to assist people in times of stress makes it a highly reactive field. However, as a survey of World Bank task managers indicate, the best way to address the needs of the poor in natural disaster projects is to ensure that prevention and mitigation programmes are developed to guarantee that their homes did not fall down in the first place (World Bank 2006a). Drawing on these case studies, it will be argued that the same standards of entitlement to assistance due to a shared humanity that form the critical building block of humanitarian assistance in times of dire need should be applied to disaster risk reduction efforts.

Finally, this paper will touch a bit on the efforts that are under way to mainstream disaster risk reduction and preparedness into development projects. I will also outline the recommendations made by Tearfund after an extensive survey of the different development agencies on the issues pertaining to a better coordination of risk reduction and development projects, and also the minimum standards that will be required for better execution (La Trobe and Venton 2003).

  1. A disaster is defined as a function of the risk process. It results from the combination of hazards, conditions of vulnerability and insufficient capacity or measures to reduce the potential negative consequences of risk.
  2. Natural hazards become disasters if they induce a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources. This study will concentrate on climate related events—hurricanes, cyclones, floods and droughts—but the same conclusions should be reached regarding other types of hazards such as earthquakes as the inherent vulnerabilities are similar when viewed from a holistic perspective. Most of the aggregates presented in the aid section also include data on natural disasters that are not weather related.
  3. A critical distinction will also be made between rapid onset—wind related events and floods—and slow onset events—droughts as the timing and time frame is key to the impact of these events and the type of response provided.
    Disaster risk reduction: Natural Disaster Risk Reduction activities will describe ex-ante policy and actions taken to prevent natural hazards from being natural disasters:
    Risk prevention: actions that are taken ex-ante to reduce the potential impacts of natural hazards whether they occur or not.
    Risk mitigation: Actions taken to reduce the impact of hazards should they occur while Risk coping actions taken after the fact.
    Adaptive capacity will represent the combination of ex-ante vulnerability to damages and ex-post resilience or ability to cope (Dayton-Johnson 2004).

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