Politics of Poverty

No accident: Resilience and the inequality of climate change and disaster risk

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New Oxfam report shows how vulnerability is not a random twist of fate.

Gina Castillo is the Agriculture Program Manager at Oxfam America.

Most of us think that accidents are unforeseeable and not preventable. But that is not the case when it comes to why people who are poor are hit again and again by events that make it difficult for them to escape poverty.

Today Oxfam released a new report, No Accident: Resilience and the Inequality of Risk. The report shows that disaster risk is being dumped on to millions of people living in poverty because of climate change and because of unfair practices.

Take weather-related events as an example. Due to urbanization and climate change, there are increasingly more people living in places that are susceptible to disasters. Since 1970 the number of people exposed to floods and cyclones has doubled. Those are the “big shocks”—the ones that get media attention and galvanize donors and governments into action, as was certainly the case when Haiti suffered its devastating earthquake in January 2010. Yet, there are also “small shocks” such as illness, death, or a harvest failure, that can push a family that is just hanging on to destitution.

Consider this figure below, which shows how one family in Port-au-Prince, Haiti coped in the year after the 2010 earthquake, which sadly killed two of their youngest boys. The father lost his job and the family was heavily reliant friends and neighbors who provided them with most of their meals until mid-May, as well as emergency-related grants and services. After this, they were forced to sell their livestock. An Oxfam grant allowed them to pay off their debts and to start a small business, but their household income still dropped by 88 per cent. Unfortunately, the shocks continued. The family invested in a market garden, which was later destroyed by Hurricane Tomas in October 2010. They also bought food to sell, but some of this was looted during election violence in November 2010.

Haiti resilience illustration
Figure 1: One family’s experience after the 2010 Haiti earthquake

We highlight this family’s story because it is not atypical.  People work hard to get out of poverty, as studies have shown.

So why is it so difficult for people to get ahead? In the aid world, we talk often of vulnerability. But we cannot talk about vulnerability as a random twist of fate. It’s about politics, power, and inequality. As a result, risk is dumped on poor countries and their inhabitants, asis certainly the case for climate change. 50% of carbon emissions are generated by 11% of people, the consequences of which are left to poor countries and the most vulnerable are the hardest hit. Women often face higher risks because of gender discrimination and cultural norms, yet shoulder the burden of managing families. They have fewer opportunities economically, resulting in lower income and fewer options when it comes to managing risk.

Why does this happen? Our research showed that while measuring vulnerability is difficult, countries with more vulnerable populations also tend to be those with greater income inequality. Governments need to tackle inequality and ensure that risk is better shared across society. Thankfully there is increasing awareness that excessive inequality is corrosive to growth.

Aid cannot fix inequality and disproportionate risk. Governments can. Targeted action to support society’s most vulnerable (basic services such as education health, and access to decision-making) is needed to even out inequalities, reduce risk, and build resilience.

Because some accidents are preventable.

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