World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 3

Taking livelihoods seriously

This chapter focuses on livelihoods. Why do people live in dangerous places aware of the risks? Because that is where they can make a living. This is a significant challenge for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA).

Flood plains and volcanic soils are very fertile; coasts are good for fishing and farming; and fault zones in arid areas often have associated water supplies. All over the world, there are towns and cities that provide livelihoods but are located on coasts, rivers and fault lines.

People ‘discount’ the risk of the big event for a livelihood. Even if they might lose their home in a disaster, living in one place provides subsistence, jobs and economic opportunities they would not get if they moved elsewhere.

Culture is the way people enable themselves to live with risk: given that do not move out of danger, then their traditions allow them to live with risk without emotional collapse.

In high-income countries the term ‘livelihood’ is not used often; but it is widely used in frameworks and models for low- and middle-income countries.

Each livelihood requires certain ‘assets’ or ‘capital’. Farmers must have land and water, and if they don’t own it they must rent it or work as sharecroppers. A teacher must have a qualification and a bus driver a driving licence. The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) divides assets into five categories to better analyse livelihood systems and poverty and vulnerability: financial, human, physical, natural and social.

In many Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCA), evaluating these assets is part of the process.

In much of the world, the household acts as a basic economic unit in which livelihood strategies can be decided. Assets are operated in various ways to earn money, with each active member of the household (which, in low-income countries, includes many children) playing a part in the process. Some members may not actively earn money (often including women and children), but their work collecting water and fuel, cooking, caring for children, nursing elderly or sick family members is also essential.

People generally give a very low priority to the serious hazards that DRR agencies try to deal with, applying much higher significance to the problems of everyday life. They are willing (or forced by poverty) to live in dangerous locations to earn their living.

DRR and CCA organizations may think the people who face hazards are being irrational. And yet most believe they are being rational in deciding to be where they can farm, fish, labour, work in a factory and earn a living.

A warning from a DRR organization is not going to make people move if they believe that means loss of livelihoods over the longer term. The idea that information will make people behave differently (‘rationally’) in relation to serious hazards (the ‘information deficit model’) has been discredited.

It cannot be assumed that information or even education is a guarantee that people will face up to the risks they are confronted with. Culture, psychology and emotion intervene as ‘filters’ that alter the way information is used. Any new knowledge has to interact with attitudes and emotions.

Giving up a belief on the basis of new knowledge affects not only individuals’ own lives, but the way they relate to family and to everyone around them. The emotional attachment to perceptions of risk is so strong that it is also difficult to give up. As with other cultural practices, it is extremely difficult for a household to change unless everybody does.

In some cases governments suggest (or even enforce) evacuation from hazardous places, depriving people of their livelihoods.

Given that many people are compelled by poverty to live in dangerous places, the implications of livelihoods for DRR and CCA policies must be taken seriously. Another illustration of this is the reluctance of many people to evacuate, fearing theft or loss of assets. The damage to their livelihood from a false alarm may be as great as the hazard.

People’s livelihoods are their first line of defence against disasters. Livelihoods also determine the educational level of their children. A successful livelihood is also the basis for people’s capacity to protect themselves from hazards – to construct their homes in safe locations. Even when they have the income, many people will not necessarily protect themselves.

When people are asked what their problems are, very few respond with the risks that outsiders are concerned about that lead to serious disasters. Most people have a completely different set of risk priorities. The evidence for this comes from the many local assessments by the Red Cross Red Crescent and NGOs.

These assessments are normally done using participatory methods that are very similar in most NGOs. In hardly any do people include serious hazards. While men, women and children often have different priorities, it is very rare for any of them to include earthquakes, floods, hurricanes or other sudden-onset hazards.

Risk assessments like VCAs are often carried out with a predetermined hazard in the minds of the DRR organization or donor; DRR organizations approach local people based on funding they have obtained for dealing with certain hazards.

Instead of being interested in disasters, people typically mention everyday problems. Some analysis of disaster preparedness suggests there is little point in trying to engage people in DRR activities until these have been resolved.

The frequency and severity of hazards – and the number of vulnerable people exposed to them – is expected to rise with climate change. Climate change is also damaging the rural livelihoods of billions of people through the effects of changes in temperature, rainfall and seasonality – making more people vulnerable to all hazards.

‘Territorial functioning’ is a concept used in sociology in relation to people’s behaviour in which they show the importance they attach to places. It is primarily a defense mechanism that enables people to maintain emotional stability in the face of change.

Another relevant concept is ‘cognitive dissonance’ – the emotional stress that people suffer when they are forced to live with two contradictory ideas. Instead of being in emotional harmony, people experience dissonance because they cannot control all their circumstances. This is what can happen when people live with risk, for example, to make their living.

Culture and beliefs can function like this in religious interpretations of the hazard. Individuals accommodate the risk by believing something that makes it easier to bear dissonance. Beliefs are part of the process by which people are able to reduce the cognitive dissonance that goes with risk. The culture that is used to do this accepts that it is outside of people’s own control.

What is interesting is how little DRR or CCA institutions have learned from other disciplines, where the concepts outlined here are well known and have long been used to help explain people’s behaviour. Related attempts to bridge the divide and combine the different belief systems arise from recent projects bringing together traditional weather forecasters and ‘rainmakers’ in Africa with meteorological services.


These very significant aspects of people’s behaviour – risk priorities and livelihood focus - are often not incorporated in the design of DRR programmes. Unless much more attention and respect is given to people’s own priorities, behaviours and belief systems, it is highly unlikely that DRR and CCA can make enough impact.

A lack of effectiveness in DRR is now of even greater concern because of climate change and its effects on the frequency and intensity of climate-related hazards. This makes it imperative that DRR is made more effective. Given that people have to live in dangerous places, it is essential that any attempts to prepare for disasters and climate change are rooted in an understanding of complex priorities.

This means it is essential for DRR and CCA to confront the cultural issues that affect people’s willingness to take risks and the dangers they face. And the key issue is that in many cases, people will want to continue to live with risks in order to pursue their livelihoods.