ISSUE 38 June 2007

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Disaster reduction terminology: a common-sense approach

by John Twigg, Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre

We’re all familiar with the scene: a training course or workshop (it could be on any topic) that starts with a long and detailed presentation on concepts and terminology. Your mind begins to wander; you look at your watch and count the minutes till the coffee break …

If you are working in a busy operational environment, theories and definitions seem all too often to get in the way of doing the job. This is particularly true in high-pressure humanitarian work, but it is a barrier to development practitioners too. Why is this so? Staff in relief and development NGOs interviewed a few years ago as part of a British Red Cross study provided some answers, at least as far as disaster reduction was concerned. They showed strong signs of resistance to the relevant language and terminology: it was ‘too much like jargon’, ‘off-putting’, ‘too difficult to explain’ and ‘too academic’. This view is understandable in the face of the elaborate academic nature of many definitions and terms, such as this explanation of ‘preparedness’:

Preparedness is a construct which connotes a process that entails activities designed to increase control in response to disasters.

There is undoubtedly a place for this kind of thing in the academic – in this case, sociological – literature, but practitioners may find it hard to digest.

Added problems arise from the many different ways in which terms are defined and explained. A term may be understood and used differently by different professional groups. Take ‘vulnerability’ for example. Architects and engineers have long applied it to buildings and other physical structures, but in the past 30 years it has been appropriated by social scientists, who have expanded its meaning to include socio-economic, political and institutional aspects. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that methodologies for vulnerability analysis have proliferated, based on different principles, prioritising different types of data, and using different data-gathering and analytical tools. ‘Mitigation’ has very different meanings in climate change and disaster management circles. In climate change, it means reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in disaster management would be seen as ‘prevention’; disaster managers use ‘mitigation’ in a sense that is much closer to climate change’s ‘adaptation’. A glossary published recently by the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security reproduces many different definitions of key terms in disaster work, including ‘disaster’, ‘hazard’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘capacity’, ‘resilience and ‘risk’. Such diversity and inconsistency are unsurprising when the concepts behind the terms are the subject of intense research and discussion among the different academic disciplines that take an interest in disasters – for instance, two multi-author volumes have been published in the past decade debating that most basic of questions: what is a disaster?

With the idea of risk becoming more dominant in discussion of disasters, the potential for ambiguity and confusion may be growing. Like ‘disaster’, ‘risk’ is a simple everyday word that has become overloaded with lots of different interpretations. Just as the adoption of ‘disaster risk reduction’ thinking has incorporated the older, separate components of disaster management and the disaster cycle (preparedness, response, recovery) into a more integrated ‘disaster risk management’ approach, so the everyday use of ‘risk’ seems to have expanded to overlap with, if not absorb, other concepts, such as vulnerability. One indication of this is that, in practice, the terms ‘risk assessment’ and ‘vulnerability assessment’ often seem to be used interchangeably.

Terminology never stands still. It adapts to shifts in thinking, by adopting new terms or expanding old ones. For example, in the 1970s people talked about ‘disaster prevention’; in the 1980s and 1990s this was superseded by ‘disaster mitigation’, which in turn was replaced by today’s fashionable term, ‘disaster risk reduction’. Terms usually become obsolete for good reasons. In the case of ‘prevention’, it became obvious that it was impossible to prevent hazards or escape their impacts completely. ‘Mitigation’ of disasters’ impacts was more realistic – but arguably too broad a term, since its meaning was often unclear or ambiguous (to everyone except engineers, who had always applied it far more narrowly to hazard-restraining or hazard-resistant structures). ‘Disaster risk reduction’ reflects today’s holistic thinking and integrated approaches to the disaster problem, but it too will become outdated in time.

Such matters worry academics, and rightly so, as scientific enquiry should lead to clarity, not confusion. But should practitioners worry about them? Does any of this matter at operational level? Ideas and language do have practical significance, of course: the way we think and speak about humanitarianism, development or disaster risk reduction shapes the way we approach our work in the field. But a lot of the debate seems to be hair-splitting (Do you know the precise difference between ‘capacity’ and ‘resilience’? Do you care? Does it matter?) Thinking about disasters is always developing, so pinning down a term or concept is like trying to hit a moving target. And it’s good that thinking moves on, otherwise we would still be seeing disasters purely as acts of God.

However, since we cannot do away with concepts and definitions entirely, let’s ask what practitioners want from them. First, they must be expressed clearly, preferably in plain language. Second, they must be relatively simple to understand and communicate. If possible, they should also reflect practitioners’ own view of reality, acquired from their knowledge in the field and the communities with whom they work.

What would clear, simplified definitions look like? We aimed to reduce a mass of often complex and sometimes contradictory definitions to a few concise, basic explanations that would be generally accepted and understood by our readers: project planners and managers, mainly in development agencies. For example, we sidestepped the fine distinction between ‘capacity’ and ‘resilience’, using the latter as an all-purpose term meaning the opposite of vulnerability. And we used the ambiguous ‘disaster risk’ in place of the more accurate ‘hazard risk’ because ‘disaster risk’ is the term favoured in practice by the disaster reduction community. Our versions raised a few eyebrows in professional and academic circles, although we could arguably have simplified some of them further.

We also provided examples in some cases to make definitions more real and intelligible. Indeed, it may sometimes be better to focus on the common characteristics of key ideas rather than to seek to define them too precisely. Operational staff may respond to this approach more readily. For instance, the NGO staff interviewed in the British Red Cross study mentioned above tended to have a sound general understanding of the relevant issues, but preferred to explain specific terms and concepts such as ‘preparedness’ and ‘mitigation’ by giving concrete examples.

Does this mean we should give up seeking consistency in our terminology? Not entirely, for it remains important. In the case of contingency planning, for example, as Richard Choularton argues in his Network Paper: ‘More consistent use of terms related to contingency planning and preparedness is needed to help improve the sharing of experience, lessons and practice’. But there are dangers here, even where we avoid the over-academic approach and look for something more practical. One is that the drive towards consistency may develop into a struggle between different groups or organisations to impose their terms and meanings on everyone else. There is also the counter-risk that consensus achieved through committee will result in definitions that try to say too much in order to keep all the stakeholders happy. The definitions of ‘disaster risk management’ and ‘disaster risk reduction’ presented by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN ISDR) may have fallen into this trap (though to be fair its definitions of most other disaster terms are neater):

Disaster risk management: The systematic process of using administrative decisions, organization, operational skills and capacities to implement policies, strategies and coping capacities of the society and communities to lessen the impacts of natural hazards and related environmental and technological disasters. This comprises all forms of activities, including structural and non-structural measures to avoid (prevention) or to limit (mitigation and preparedness) adverse effects of hazards.

Disaster risk reduction: The conceptual framework of elements considered with the possibilities to minimize vulnerabilities and disaster risks throughout a society, to avoid (prevention) or to limit (mitigation and preparedness) the adverse impacts of hazards, within the broad context of sustainable development.

Let us hope that we can reach a greater level of agreement in time on basic terms and concepts relating to disaster risk reduction. There is already a strong push towards harmonisation among international agencies working in this field, led by UN ISDR. There are some parallel trends in intellectual circles, particularly in work on vulnerability, sustainable livelihoods and social protection, where previously separate discourses are coming together to create a more shared vision with a common language.

There is still a long way to go here. Meanwhile, practitioners can be guided by a few common-sense principles:

  • keep terms, definitions and concepts as simple as you can; it is better to over-simplify than to over-elaborate;
  • in defining terms, look for common ground and shared understanding to ensure widespread acceptance;
  • use key characteristics or concrete examples where definitions are difficult to explain; and
  • be clear to yourself and others about what you mean when you use a term.


References and further reading


John Twigg is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre and author of HPN Good Practice Review No.9, Disaster Risk Reduction: Mitigation and Preparedness in Development and Emergency Programming (2004). His email address is: j.twigg@ucl.ac.uk.

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