Advancing Integration Series


People, Power and Rights: the ingredients for integrating resilience

Harjeet Singh, ActionAid International 
Disasters and climate change impacts are reversing development gains like never before. In the last 20 years alone, disasters have led to more than 1.3 million deaths, affected more than 4.4 billion people, and resulted in economic losses and damages of close to US$ 2 trillion (UNISDR, 2012). Based in Delhi, I witness the impacts of these global statistics in India and in the neighbouring countries. In 2010, Pakistan lost 1985 lives to the floods, and saw 5.8 % of its Global Domestic Product (GDP) eroded. The very next year Thailand lost 813 people to the devastating floods and their GDP growth rate for 2011 declined from 4.1% expected to 2.9% (World Bank, 2012). Apart from the huge immediate social and economic impact, disasters increase inequality in the society and affect invaluable ecosystems and socio-cultural fabric of communities.

The science is already predicting worse times to come. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explains that the world should brace itself for increased flooding, storm surges, droughts and heatwaves. With clear evidence in tow, environment protection can no longer be ignored by our development strategies, if we are to avert the potential climate catastrophe. Australia has taken the initiative to integrate disaster risk reduction, environment and climate change adaptation and mitigation (DEC) into its aid projects, programs and investments. Its efforts to integrate DEC beyond sectors and also into all four phases of the project management cycle – inception, design, implementation and evaluation – is a laudable step in a long arduous global journey. The integration of DEC is fundamental to achieving resilience by protecting development investments and addressing inequality.

At ActionAid, we look at the underlying causes that make a person vulnerable, which in turn impacts the ability to bounce back. Our analysis shows that vulnerability is primarily caused by three factors, i) social exclusion, ii) lack of skills, access to basic services and economic opportunities, and iii) lack of asset and secured access to natural resources. At the base of all three, we see unequal and unjust power in the society, which leads to unjust governance and unfair social attitudes. As the three factors mutually reinforce each other, individually or together, they deepen the institutional perpetuation of inequality and injustice.

While Australia aims to integrate resilience both in sectors such as health, education, water, sanitation as well as into the project management cycle, it is still a very technical approach. Integration, however, goes well beyond these technicalities and I would argue it is more of a ‘political’ process. A human rights based approach to resilience provides sustainable long term solutions for people and communities who are the most vulnerable, and whose lives and livelihoods are under the constant threat of destruction. The strategy to address the causes of vulnerability, therefore, needs to bring together social, economic, political and environmental aspects of a community and nation. People, power and rights must be at the heart of theory of change.

What does this mean in practice for practitioners and policy makers? The project management cycle must analyse the unequal power that exist in the society, the target area of the project in particular; between community and the implementing partner; and also between partner and the donor. All sectoral and management processes eventually converge at the people level, therefore people need to be at the centre in order to achieve integration successfully. For us, DEC integration may be a new concept that needs to be part of ‘our’ development projects, whereas people, particularly in the rural areas, have been living with these challenges for so long and have found their own way of living in harmony with their local environment. Once the community and the local authorities are aware of the factors that make them vulnerable, with little support, they can develop strategies to challenge power imbalances and address the underlying causes.

I strongly believe that only through empowerment of local communities and authorities, we can deal with the uncertainty and unpredictability climate change is posing. I also contend that empowerment should not just be seen as a process but also an indicator of success of our projects and programmes. Management processes therefore need to help facilitate rather than prescribe ‘solutions’ to allow and enable people to analyse their situation and develop solutions that change local conditions and the larger policy environment.

At this juncture, we cannot afford to miss the opportunity of integrating DEC into the new set of post 2015 goals: the renewed Millennium / Sustainable Development Goals, successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action and a new climate agreement. The implications are real and are felt at the local level. All schools must be disaster safe and environment friendly; lives of children, women and men should not be lost to due to weak infrastructure and disaster response systems and healthcare system must be able to withstand disasters and respond to the affected.

Australian Government should promote policies and practices that empower people and decision makers who are at the forefront of tackling the impacts of disasters and climate change. If poor people have the power and capacity to develop as well as influence the planning, the integration from local to global level will be a seamless process that will eventually help harmonize goals, strategies and success indicators for resilience building.