The globalisation of vulnerability

Contributor: Ben Ramalingam

Most analysts agree that globalisation has become more intensive and dramatic in recent decades because of advances in technology, communications, science and transportation. While it can be a catalyst for development and progress, globalisation also carries significant and increasing challenges for aid policymakers and practitioners alike.

I: The new face of vulnerability?

Recent years have seen dramatic illustrations of the downsides of globalisation. Perhaps most significant of these has been the global financial crisis taking its toll on the poorest communities in developing countries.

However, the specific localised impacts and implications of such shocks often fall below the radar of research, analysis and existing monitoring systems. On the whole, these systems are too narrow in scope and too shallow in reach to capture the diverse, context-specific experiences of poor people. As Ban Ki-Moon noted in the preface to ‘Voices of the Vulnerable’ in June 2010:

“…in the face of the global financial crisis, a number of developing countries have proven to be remarkably resilient – if judged purely in terms of economic growth. At the same time, it appears that the burden of coping has been borne disproportionately by poor and vulnerable people. This reality is poorly understood…”

In fact, much work on vulnerability has been traditionally undertaken in ‘disciplinary silos’ – in highly specialised ways which are often in isolation from each other. Environmental vulnerability is assessed by the climatologists, nutritional vulnerability by the food security experts, market vulnerability by the economists, disease vector vulnerability by epidemiologists, and so on. The precise nature of vulnerability is often also heavily debated, leading to differences within the silos.

The gap between this ‘stove-piped’ understanding and multi-faceted reality becomes heightened when one considers the number of ongoing global crises. The financial crisis is just one of a number of global trends (that we currently know about) which are interacting and impacting the lives of poor and vulnerable people.

To take another example, the 2010 World Disasters Report focused on urbanisation, and found that “a high proportion of this urban growth is in cities at risk from the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and storm surges that climate change is bringing or is likely to bring.”

Along similar lines, the global food system is showing signs of strain once again. Work done during the last upswing in prices in 2008 suggested that a key requirement was better monitoring and anticipation of future bubbles. Unfortunately, anticipation has not led to preventative action. All the signs are that environmental disasters – driven by climate change – and a growing speculative bubble in commodities – driven partly by changing investor patterns in the wake of the financial crisis – are pushing the world into a new food price crisis.

In the face of these trends and shocks, there is a slowly growing recognition that vulnerability itself has become globalised. Interestingly this insight has not come from within the aid sector but from organisations such as the World Economic Forum, whose Global Risk Report 2010 shows that – like the world economy – vulnerabilities are now tightly interconnected.

Global shocks and stresses have multiple, unpredictable effects and increasingly demand – but do not always trigger – diverse responses at the local level. As recent research indicates, employing language which Aid on the Edge regulars will recognise:

“Cause and effect in global systems are distinctly nonlinear. Inputs and outputs may not be proportional: a cause with ever-so-slightly different parameters than the previous instance might result in a wildly different effect. Additionally, systems and their component sub-systems interact to produce feedback loops that can either amplify or stabilize resulting effects. Feedbacks blur the line between cause and effect. The global system is characterised by various sizes and degrees of complexity combined into a tangled and heaving mass of interdependent actions.”

Despite these shifts in the nature of vulnerability, international aid policy and practice are still dominated by narrow, parochial approaches. Take for example the findings of a report on chronic vulnerability in Africa which found that much of the analysis undertaken by international agencies did not examine root causes and tended to divide vulnerability into immediate and structural issues. The agencies then focused their efforts on the immediate issues, allowing the structural issues to be largely ignored.

By contrast, the reality of vulnerability for most poor people was found to be “complex and nuanced… vulnerability can be influenced by gender, ethnic group and generation issues, and by contemporary and historical social processes that are often not analysed and not explained.” (emphasis added)

It would seem that it is only after things go seriously wrong that the inter-relationships between the key drivers of vulnerability become of importance to international agencies. To cite one prominent and very current example, the densely urban population in Port-Au-Prince was up until January 2010 experiencing high levels of vulnerability and multiple climactic shocks.  It was only after the 12 January earthquake that aid agencies became sensitive to this interconnected reality, by which time it was already too late for many in Haitian population. As one satirical headline put it at the time: ‘Massive earthquake reveals poor country called Haiti to the world’.

These examples give weight to the criticism I have made elsewhere – that the international community employs a ‘catastrophe-first’ model of lesson learning, which puts the emphasis on disasters striking before action is taken.

There are often good practical reasons for this – anticipation is still in its infancy, prediction is largely impossible. However, without wanting to diminish these challenges, the key is to do much more in terms of changing our mindsets.

As we argued in an ALNAP study on humanitarian innovations, there is a crucial need to find ways to move away from this catastrophe-first model of learning, towards putting vulnerability first.

II: From ‘Catastrophe-First’ to ‘Vulnerability-First’: Three Ideas

This idea of putting vulnerability first has a number of possible implications, of which three are explored below.

Putting vulnerability first requires a better, more inter-disciplinary, understanding of the globalised vulnerability landscape among both policymakers and operational decision makers. As well as better shared data and analysis, we need to find better ways of breaking down disciplinary silos.

One way of doing this might be to examine how the ideas in one area might be transferred over to another. There is already some useful work in this direction, which seeks to generalise the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This suggests that vulnerability may be characterised as a function of three components: sensitivity, exposure and adaptive capacities. The UNFCC shows that such vulnerabilities can be understood through a combination of top-down modelling and scenarios with bottom-up, community-based approaches which recognise and build upon local knowledge and coping strategies. An interesting manifestation of this interdisciplinary approach in action is how the notion of ‘building back better’, a mainstay of disaster risk reduction, has found its way into the dialogue on the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Putting vulnerability first also means finding ways of communicating vulnerability understanding in ways that capture the political and humanitarian imagination alike. For example, some agencies have started using the evocative image of vulnerability defined as communities and individuals ‘living on the edge’. People are living on the edge if their lives and livelihoods are exposed and sensitive to shocks and stresses, and their adaptive capacities are constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed. Living on the edge suggests that a small push could send a community or individual over the edge.

Being forced to live on the edge can have profound effects on the way people conduct their lives. It can lead to coping strategies which are overtly risk-averse – poor farmers faced with unpredictable prices might start to act in cautious and non-entrepreneurial ways even during normal times, limiting their prospects of increasing their well-being. At the other end of the spectrum, as has been found in coastal communities in Bangladesh, the desperately poor may adopt a “gambler’s throw” strategy, risking all or nothing when they know that a major livelihood shock is inevitable.

The emerging globalised vulnerabilities have already taken their toll, on poor people, and will continue to do so: increasing the numbers ‘living on the edge of disaster’, changing their geographic distribution, and increasing the diversity and unpredictability of risks faced. Successive waves of impacts have fundamentally changed coping mechanisms, reduced long-term resilience for the sake of short-term coping mechanisms, undermining development prospects and making many communities more vulnerable to future shocks.

So we need to be paying much more attention to, and advocating for, people living on the edge of disaster, rather simply waiting until they have been tipped over the edge.

Finally, putting vulnerability first also means highlighting examples of good practice and innovations, and fostering national level and local engagement. Social protection, micro-insurance, community-based adaptive learning measures, and new national policy frameworks all have an important role to play in enhancing community-level and national resilience. It also means being honest about how far the international community still has to go as well as its inherent limitations. We need to see some significant organisational and professional changes in international agencies, who need to do more than simply ‘mainstream’ vulnerability. The globalised nature of vulnerability demands nothing short of a fundamental strategic re-orientation.

The final words go to Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, drawing on some of his work from last year, in which he suggests what this re-orientation might look like:

“[This] line of thinking helps us avoid the trap of simply rebuilding and repairing flawed structures of the past—be it an economic system overly reliant on risky speculation or a health-care system that splits a nation at its financial seams and yet fails to deliver adequate coverage…

… the resilience perspective stands in stark contrast to development paradigms and global policies that… offer only minor adjustments of current behaviors, and that tend to concentrate on technical quick fixes to get rid of the problems…

…it encourages us to anticipate, adapt, learn, and transform human actions in light of the unprecedented challenges of our turbulent world…”

Ben Ramalingam is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute. He chairs the strategy group of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. He is lead author of a 2008 Overseas Development Institute working paper ‘Exploring the Science of Complexity: Ideas and Implications for International Development and Humanitarian Efforts’.

This article has been reposted with permission. It first appeared on the Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog on January 11th, 2011. The original article can be accessed here.

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