Disaster Reconstruction and Risk Management for Poverty Reduction

By Arnold, Margaret | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Disaster Reconstruction and Risk Management for Poverty Reduction

Arnold, Margaret, Journal of International Affairs

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States in late August 2005, and the world was shocked by the images of the thousands of victims stranded in the Superdome of New Orleans, many people asked, "How could this happen in the United States?" The images broadcast from New Orleans and other affected areas resembled too closely what we typically see in developing countries. Yet while the parallels are many, the most striking one is the impact of natural disasters on the poor. While those with the means to heed the evacuation order fled the area, those left behind were the most vulnerable: the sickest, the oldest, the youngest and the poorest. Katrina provided a grim reminder that any city can be caught unprepared for disaster, while also reminding us of the level of poverty that exists in parts of one of the world's wealthiest nations.

The tragedies that Katrina wrought upon the United States are much more common in developing countries, particularly among the poorer segments of the population. It is this undeniable link between poverty and the impacts of disasters that makes disaster risk management an integral part of the World Bank's mission to fight poverty Natural disasters are a major source of risk for poor people. However, this vulnerability also happens to be one of the most overlooked dimensions of poverty. One possible reason is that disasters have traditionally been considered a humanitarian assistance issue rather than one of development. Relief and development were viewed as two different "industries" with very separate mandates, actors and sources of funds.

This approach is being reconsidered by members of the international community, and particularly by its largest reconstruction and development investor, the World Bank. If the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved, then the reduction of disaster risk must be addressed in an aggressive manner. This article reviews various experiences in disaster risk management, particularly those of the World Bank, explores the inadequacies of the traditional approach that has focused on reaction and recovery and looks at efforts to change the policy frameworks that attend this field.


The World Bank has a long tradition of supporting the disaster management efforts of its client countries, particularly in post-disaster reconstruction. In fact, "reconstruction" is literally its middle name--the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Beginning with the European reconstruction efforts after the Second World War, the World Bank has always played a major role in post-disaster reconstruction and recovery. Since 1980, the World Bank has approved more than $14 billion to support over 160 emergency reconstruction projects. However, this underestimates the amount the World Bank has provided in post-disaster reconstruction support, as these figures do not include amounts reallocated from ongoing development projects in the immediate wake of disasters. In these scenarios, the World Bank typically reviews the ongoing country project portfolio to see what funding can be released for emergency relief. These amounts remain under the original loan or credit agreements, and often go unnoticed in disaster lending figures. The amount of reallocated funding probably adds another 30 percent to overall reconstruction figures.

Through its development projects, the World Bank has also provided support for ex ante risk reduction investments. Nearly 390 additional projects approved since 1980 have components dedicated to mitigating the impacts of disasters. The total lending amounts of these initiatives near $27 billion. However, this figure overestimates the amount invested in pre-disaster risk reduction, as it includes the entire loan amount of projects that may include risk reduction components. For instance, a forestry project may incorporate funding to train firefighters, promote fire prevention in communities, build firebreaks, etc.

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