by Ann Witteveen
Since 1970 the number of people exposed to floods and tropical cyclones has doubled and the latest climate science indicates worse to come. Volatility in food and commodity prices has returned and more than 1.5 billion people now live in countries that face cyclical violence. The impact of these increasing ‘shocks’ exacerbate the high levels of vulnerability felt at household level – such as widowhood, childbirth, and unexpected illness. Some 100 million people are pushed into poverty each year by health care costs alone.
These are the issues examined in a new Oxfam briefing paper showing it is not by accident or twist of fate that poor people and poor countries suffer immeasurably more than others when disasters strike.
In relative terms, the financial impact of disasters is far higher in developing countries than rich ones. Almost anyone who is marginalised – because of their caste, colour, class, age, ability or gender – will likely suffer from shocks more than anyone else. The endemic discrimination that women face – in education, health care, employment, and control of property – inevitably makes them more vulnerable.
Power and wealth allow some people, corporations, and governments to mitigate the risks they face while directly or indirectly dumping those risks on people with far less capacity to cope. For example, food trading companies and banks have opposed measures that could help governments anticipate food shocks, with disastrous impacts on poor people struggling to afford even basics. The richest 11 per cent of the world’s population create around half of all carbon emissions, but suffer the least from the harmful consequences of climate change.
The building of ‘resilience’ or a household’s ability to bounce back from a crisis now is on the agenda of national governments, donors, aid agencies and civil society, including in Canada. This is a good thing but it must go beyond the technical fixes that have dominated the discussion so far – such as building community capacity to cope or preparing material assets.
Long-term resilience requires tackling the inequality and injustice that make poor women and men more vulnerable in the first place. This means challenging the social, economic, and political institutions that lock in security for some and vulnerability for many. Nearly all people in the world living on low incomes have no health or other insurance and 90 per cent of workers in poor countries have no social security. Social risk can and should be shared more evenly. Among the many ways change can occur are provision of living wages, progressive taxation, empowering women, and ensuring equality of access to services.
Women and men should not just be equipped to survive crises that make them poorer and more desperate and that imprison families in poverty, sometimes for generations. The ambition must be to help people thrive despite shocks, stresses, and uncertainty. Oxfam suggests that nothing short of a radical approach to increasing resilience will suffice – one that addresses structural inequalities that entrench vulnerability and that enables everyone to make choices about how to live their lives and have hope for the future in the context of uncertain change.
Ann Witteveen is Oxfam Canada humanitarian manager.
Debbie Hillier, co-author of No Accident, explains the issues in this video.