Way back as an undergraduate I eagerly read Hewitt’s 1983 book ‘Interpretations of Calamity’. An edited collection of papers from a number of authors it offered a different perspective, a new angle (to me anyway) on what hazards were and how to study them. The book fits into a more general trend at this time to analyse hazards differently from the then dominant, scientific approach (with, admittedly, a cardboard caricature of science being contrasted), hence the term ‘alternative approach’ used by Hewitt.
So what is so different that the approach deserves the tag ‘alternative’? Hazards are no longer seen as sudden breaks with normality, abrupt geophysical events that are unpredictable in their occurrence and impact. Instead hazards are viewed in context. They may be physical in nature but their impact is always differentiated and there is always a human element to them. Beyond the simple ‘without people there are no hazards’ aspect, the developmental approach, as the name might suggest, focused on looking at where the impact of hazards was greatest – the developing world. The claim was and is that this is no an accident. Hazards and disasters highlight an ongoing process of underdevelopment, of lack of access to resources and to economic and political structures to empower people to respond and resist the impact of hazards. Hazards are not breaks with normality, instead they throw into sharper focus the normality of vulnerability and underdevelopment of certain sectors of the population and of the world. Some authors even suggested that such underdevelopment was an essential component of the world economic system, ensuring that certain countries never got to the level to compete with developed countries.
As you might guess, this view of hazards has an acute political angle, a key concern with development and social justice. Hazards that are ‘natural’ are no-one’s fault; hazards that are a product of an unequal society can be blamed on someone or some group. Again not surprisingly, Marxist and structuralist researchers were and are very active in this field and research has tended to focus on the poor and underprivileged in both developing and developed nations. From a Marxist beginning, the importance of social, economic and cultural factors in understanding differential vulnerability to hazards and recovery from disasters is now firmly engrained whatever the political persuasion you happen to be (at least I think so!) The approach is probably best explained through a couple of illustrations.
One of the classic illustrations of this approach is the issue of soil erosion in developing countries. In a dominant approach study you might measure physical properties such as soil fertility, slope angle, rainfall erosivity (how powerful the rainfall is so how much it can erode), soil erodibility (how susceptible the soil is to being eroded) – all terms found in the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) which I will chat about in a later blog. You might then recommend that the locals change their ways to reduce environmentally harmful soil loss (conveniently forgetting that they have somehow survived for hundreds maybe thousands of years in this environment using their framing methods). You might even draw on a convenient list of crops that would bind and help prevent soil loss. This highlights a classic tactic or claim about the dominant approach. The victims become those responsible for the problem. It is the farmers fault there is erosion; it is the farmers fault he farms the land that gets flooded by the storms in Bangladesh. The developmental approach doesn’t assume this. It asks a different set of questions.
A farmer in Nepal has a difficult enough life as it is without a Western expert telling them to stop doing what has worked for generations. They have to pay rent, they have to pay for the fertilizer and farming equipment they need to use the new crops the expert told them to use and their landlord insists they grow because they mean he can put their rent up. His wife (in a very sexist caricature here) is always on about the latest things they should have that her cousin in Kathmandu has. The children need to walk to school and he needs to pay for their education if they are to escape the same trap as he. Is this painting a picture of an uncaring, deliberately environmentally destructive farmer? Or is this painting a picture of someone struggling to become part of a wider society with all the pressures, demands and aspirations that this means as illustrated in Figure 1. This is the view of the developmental approach, soil erosion isn’t a sudden problem, it is part of the system, it is an inevitable consequence of the farmer’s position within a capitalist society.
Figure 1 Web of RealtioNs Affecting the Farmer (Note scale not mentioned as yet)
A farmer is nested within a set of hierarchical relations all of which constrain how he (or she but that is fairly unlikely in this context) can behave. If the economy alone is considered then something like Figure 2 could illustrate the farmer being nested in his own farm within a local economy, which is in turn nested in a regional economy which is itself part of a global economy. The farmer is impacted by the regional economy where as a tenant he needs to pay rent to a landlord who may be absent. The landlord may be enmeshed in a regional economy where cash is vital to maintain his or her lifestyle forcing the local farmer to grow cash crops to pay the rent in cash rather than any other form such as labour or goods in lieu of cash. Instantly, this drags the farmer into the global economy. Cash crops may require different farming practices from traditional ones plus funds for seeds, fertilizer, etc. Now imagine a drought hits the area. The farmer can not response as they used to with traditional methods as now their land is growing cash crops that aren’t use to the extreme natural conditions. The farmer can’t grow enough food for his family nor to pay the landlord. What has caused the disaster? The farmer or the relatively powerless position of the farmer in the world economy?
Figure 2 Hierarchy of economic relations affetcing farmer
Adding other layers such as society (Figure 3) and some complicated interactions are bound to ensue. Institutions are regional or national level, such as the government or state religion, will impact on the day to day life of the farmer and so influence how he behaves. Equally, however, these institutions are dependent on the individuals for their existence, without people governments can’t exist, but it is accessibility to these institutions that determines whether individuals feel they have the power to alter their circumstances. Access is partly determined by money, so economics weaves into the social. I have drawn circles as global, regional and local. This is really just for convenience you could define other spatial units, such as nations, development boards or even continental organisations, and other sets of relations for these units. The important point is that there is a nested set of relations that can very soon developed into a very complicated web of relations that constrain the behaviour of an individual. In these cases placing the responsibility for a disaster at the feet of an individual seems a little harsh.
Figure 3 Combining hierarchies: Economic and social levels - note units can differ in scale and there are inter-scale linkages to consider - in other words it gets very, very complicated!
A very useful starting point for understanding hazards using the developmental approach is:
At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters by Piers Blaikie, Terry Canon and Ben Wisner (2003)