Wisdom of Life

Holding their Ground: The Empowerment Imperative in Disaster Risk Reduction


Holding their Ground: The Empowerment Imperative in Disaster Risk Reduction

by: Robert Francis Garcia, APG

(Paper presented at the IFRC Experts Meeting on Law and Disaster Risk Reduction on 25-26 February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)


The Case for Disaster Risk Reduction

Typhoon Haiyan, or “Bagyong Yolanda” as we call it in the Philippines, is but the latest of a string of extreme events that reminded us yet again of the need to take disasters far more seriously than we already do.

Days before Haiyan struck, I was in Bangkok for another meeting. My colleagues and I however can barely focus on our agenda as we kept hearing news of the coming onslaught. We all listened in suspense, with the approaching typhoon being invariably described as the “strongest that would ever hit land,” packing a dizzying 350 kph wind speed as it approached the Eastern part of Visayas. It was a catastrophe-in-the-making,

And it was.

We cannot really say that the warnings went unheeded. There were preparations indeed. Taclobanons in Leyte – no stranger to disasters – took shelter in solid houses that protected them in previous storms; military rescue teams were prepositioned at the barracks near the Tacloban airport; communities were evacuated in camps. Alas, concrete houses were smashed; rescue teams were the first to be wiped away; evacuation camps were inundated.

Could we have prepared better? To be sure, but perhaps there are times when we just can’t really be prepared enough.

Haiyan has underscored the urgent need for emergency preparedness. Countries and communities need to have the proper tools and the mechanisms in order to deal with disasters when they strike. Rescue boats and sniffing dogs should be ready for action; radio equipment should be on standby and evacuation camps should be identified beforehand; food relief and drinking water should be readily deployable from accessible stockpiles.

In short, everyone should be alert and ready for action. But then again, as often been said: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. This is as much true in the medical profession as it is in dealing with disasters. Preparedness to respond is essential to surviving, but what is more essential is for all of society to cooperate in order to reduce disaster risks, if not prevent them altogether.

For the organization to which I belong, Oxfam, disaster risk reduction (DRR) is simply about helping people become less vulnerable to disasters. This entails analysing disaster risks and addressing the causes of vulnerability.  We try to align our views and actions with the global consensus and generally accepted principles, such as those spelled out in the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), which has five priorities for action:

1. Make DRR a Priority

2. Know the Risks

3. Build Understanding and Awareness

4. Reduce Risk

5. Be Prepared

Nine years after the HFA, people all over the world still reel from ever-worsening disasters. Much remains to be done.


An Enabling Legal Terrain for DRR

It is without doubt that DRR requires an “all-of-society” approach and is necessarily multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary.

One particularly essential component in the promotion of DRR is law. Why? Because, as the IFRC puts it, “There is really no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. Disasters happen because natural events combine with human vulnerability.” That vulnerability is something we can change through appropriate and relevant laws, which “strengthen protec­tive infrastructure and assist governments to move people out of harm’s way…help communities understand the risks they face… moti­vate, organize and promote cooperation between govern­ment, civil society and the private sector, and guard against forgetfulness when it has been a long time since that last major crisis.”

Furthermore, laws can mandate risk analysis and mitigation measures, guide land use planning, set standards for response and reconstruction, improve knowledge and education, and allocate funds and resources.

Increasingly governments are recognizing the need to legislate measures that would reduce human vulnerability and increase resilience. The Philippines for example in 2010 has passed RA  10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction Act. It is a comprehensive law, providing, among others, the setting aside of a National DRRM Fund (NDRRMF) and Local DRRM Fund (LDRRMF), explicitly emphasizing the need to dedicate resources at all levels for mitigation and disaster response.  What distinguishes the law further is that it mandates the “participation of civil society organizations (CSOs), the private sector and volunteers in the government’s disaster risk reduction programs towards complementation of resources and effective delivery of services…” This commitment for multi-stakeholder engagement was reflected in the very structure of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), where seats were allocated for representatives of civil society, the academe, the Philippine Red Cross, faith-based groups, and the private sector.

Meantime at a larger scale, regional formations are also recognizing the value of legal agreements to address disaster-related issues. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in particular has ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), which entered into force on 24 December 2009. Having the power of a treaty, AADMER is a legally-binding agreement that promotes regional cooperation and collaboration in reducing disaster losses and intensifying joint emergency response to disasters in the region. AADMER also serves as the ASEAN’s affirmative response to the calls of the HFA.

Now more than four years after the ratification of AADMER, strategic elements for its implementation have already been put in place. Foremost of these is the establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), which is the main operational engine of AADMER and currently serves as the chief regional body for disaster monitoring and coordinated response.

One of the principles of AADMER is the active participation of stakeholders, which is in line with the ASEAN Charter’s purpose to promote an open, inclusive and transparent people-oriented ASEAN. The AADMER Partnership Group (APG) saw this principle as a strategic policy opening and began engaging ASEAN bodies by lending support to AADMER implementation. The APG is a consortium led by Oxfam and is made up of Child Fund International, HelpAge International, Mercy Malaysia, Plan International, Save the Children and World Vision. APG began engaging with the ASEAN in 2009 with the drafting of the AADMER Work Programme, for which we provided advisory support. The collaboration continued through the years, and by the middle of 2013 we were able to systematize the modes of engagement between civil society and ASEAN, which was through the mutual adoption of a shared partnership framework.[1]

The collaboration continues to hold promise, especially as we reach the nodal point of 2015.


Empowerment as a Process and a Goal

These two laws that I have just identified, the Philippine DRRM Act and the AADMER, are just two examples of how national legislation and international binding agreements can continuously be updated and improved in line with the constantly changing environment and disaster landscape.

These however can hardly make a dent if they are disconnected and detached from how people live their lives. Laws, however polished and up-to-date would be irrelevant if there is no reciprocating action from below that gives attention to people’s specific vulnerabilities and privileges their empowerment.

But what do we mean by empowerment? Perhaps we can understand the notion better if we look at its various dimensions.

Championing. On a first level we can speak of the need to reach especially vulnerable sectors and communities – those who are rendered helpless and hopeless in the face of a severe calamity.

HelpAge, for example, says that “almost two fifths of people killed by Typhoon Haiyan were over the age of 60 – despite the fact that this age group makes up only 8% of the general population in the worst affected areas. As with previous natural disasters, the data suggests older people have been disproportionately affected.”

The Disability-inclusive DRR Network (DiDRRN), echoes the same concern towards their sector of focus: the persons with disability. DiDRRN draws attention to the fact that “disasters are neither felt nor distributed evenly. The disproportionate impact of disasters on individuals and families excluded from conventional disaster preparedness programmes is only recently beginning to gain the recognition it deserves…

“The HFA, which ends in 2015, pays little attention to disability. The fact that disability dramatically increases risk, irrespective of age or gender, has only recently been gaining attention at the international level.” (Alex Robinson, ASB).

Older people, persons with disability, women, children – these are normally the groups considered to be most vulnerable to disasters. It is essential that emergency response and DRR mechanisms deliberately address their differentiated needs. It is crucial as well that they have champions – people and organizations that represent their interests, render them visible, and make them count.

But empowerment does not end there. We need to go beyond speaking on their behalf.

Taking Part. As the disability network put it, “Nothing about us without us.” The greater challenge in fact is not how to effectively represent the interests of the marginal and the vulnerable, but how to create spaces upon which they can speak and act for themselves and be part of the whole process.

ChildFund, for example, have set up “Child-Centered Spaces (CCS) across Palo and Tolosa towns, just outside Tacloban City, which was hit particularly hard by the typhoon,” where children and youth who were severely affected by the typhoon went through games and activities that helped them cope with their trauma. Some of the volunteers were themselves traumatized, “These children and I have been through the same experience,” said Darlene, one of the volunteers, “and when I help them overcome their fears, I feel myself making peace with mine.” (Martin Nañawa, http://blog.childfund.org/2013/12/young-haiyan-survivors-help-each-other/, ChildFund Philippines)

At this point we come to the third and, I argue, the highest level of empowerment:

Collective, Strategic Community Action. Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (CBDRRM) is all about harnessing the collective powers within a community, with its members “actively engaged in the identification, analysis, treatment, monitoring, and evaluation of disaster risks in order to reduce their vulnerabilities and enhance their capacities.” [From the Scale Up, Build Up (SUBU) Project: Strengthening local alliances and advocacy, empowering champions on disaster risk reduction, http://drrknowledge.net/cbdrrm/ ]

At Oxfam we tried to put this principle in practice through our partners and through the communities we work in, such as those affected by typhoon Ketsana, or “Bagyong Ondoy,” in 2009. Focusing on the provinces of Rizal and Laguna, the post-Ketsana project transitioned from emergency response into mainstreaming capacity-building for communities on DRR. This included the adoption, among others, of more effective WASH systems and practices within a DRR framework particularly focusing on women, children and other vulnerable groups.

At the end of the project, the impact evaluation reported “Greater resilience of Typhoon Ketsana affected-communities from the Provinces of Rizal and Laguna under a (DRR) framework.” The community respondents declared increased coping capacity and ability to bounce back. They now have a DRRM plan, resources, an effective early warning system, and contingency arrangements, among others. Many have also credited the creation of a more robust law through the RA 10121 in the setting up of structures and systems.

These confident responses came from families who, five years back, have seen only utter devastation and lack of hope in the face of Ketsana as it drenched and inundated everything in its path. Their experience, and those of countless others, shows that a progressive and responsive legal environment, coupled with the organized actions of empowered communities and a vigilant citizenry, can spell the difference between helplessness and survival; between vulnerability and resilience.


Thank you.


Participants at the IFRC Experts Meeting on DRR and Law, 25-26 Feb 2014


Donna Lagdameo (Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre),

Hon. Rufus Rodrguez (House of Representatives, Philippines), and Bobby Garcia


David Fisher (IFRC Geneva)


Bobby Garcia (APG, Philippines)


Photo Credits: IFRC, Bobby Garcia, Akhteruzzaman Sano, and Donna Lagdameo


[1] This was the ACDM-CSO Partnership Framework (ACPF), which was finalized by a broad network of CSOs through an exhaustively consultative process and was officially adopted by the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM).