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A Pragmatic Approach to Disaster

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Over the past fifty years, there has been a significant evolution in thinking about disasters among aid workers, economic development specialists, policymakers, community planners, academics and others involved in the disaster field.


The debate has shifted from the narrow concept of providing quick disaster “relief” based on a charitable impulse to a broader concept of disaster “management” that encompasses community involvement in prevention and preparedness, mitigation, emergency relief, rehabilitation as well as long-term development that incorporates both prevention and preparedness.


Instead of viewing disasters as single tragic events, they are seen by professionals in the field as part of a larger process or cycle, which requires a long-term perspective that addresses root causes as well as immediate needs. Integrating disaster prevention with long-term development is seen as the most effective way of saving lives and protecting livelihoods.


Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters

Some experts believe that disasters are neither natural nor inevitable but are the result of social, political and economic (i.e., man-made) factors that cause certain populations— usually impoverished and politically marginalized minorities, especially the elderly, 5 women and children—to live in circumstances that render them especially vulnerable to the impact of hazards like floods, earthquakes, typhoons, drought or conflict.


Programs that aim to reduce people’s vulnerability to these hazards lie at the heart of good disaster management.


Key Role of Local Organizations

Disaster management is based on the concept of active community participation in all phases of the disaster cycle. Rather than seeing disaster-affected individuals as victims or passive recipients of outside assistance, good disaster management recognizes local people and their community-based organizations—village committees, agricultural cooperatives, tribal councils, women’s associations, youth groups, etc.—as valuable assets.


When a disaster strikes, local people, working through their community structures and organizations, are the first to respond. They save lives. They know which members of the community are hardest hit, and they know what assistance is appropriate. What these local organizations may lack, however, are financial resources, organizational capacity, advanced equipment, and training in disaster prevention, preparation and planning.


Unique Role of Grantmakers

Disasters involve a variety of actors; governments at all levels, multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank, and private aid organizations can all play key roles. Collectively they provide the bulk of assistance and on-the-ground programs.


Foundations and corporate grantmakers have a distinct and crucial role to play in disaster management. Their resources may appear comparatively modest, yet given some of their strengths listed below, the results can be effective:

• A mission to serve the public good in diverse ways

• Ongoing relationships with local organizations

• A long-term perspective, often five to ten years or more

• An ability to convene key actors across sectors and to serve as a catalyst for crosssector collaboration

• A capacity to call attention to political, economic and social policies that exacerbate the vulnerability of populations to hazards

• Experience supporting research and disseminating results to interested parties

• Programmatic flexibility that permits them to respond creatively and strategically to disaster situations

• Administrative flexibility that permits timely action


At the same time, grantmakers face serious challenges when deluged with emergency grant requests in times of disasters. Decisions about disaster funding often fall outside a grantmaker’s regular program areas, with typically limited or absent in-house expertise on the complexities of disaster issues. Moreover, disaster grant decisions can be subject to emotional appeals and are often made quickly under perceived time pressures.


GrowZA assists foundations and corporate grantmakers to meet these challenges, to understand the disaster process better, and to make the most of their comparative advantages in disaster grantmaking.

Adapted from Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations