ISDR Informs - The Americas


Training as a Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction and as Part
of Local Sustainable Development Processes

Jaime Valdés
Advisor, Disaster Risk Reduction
Delnet Program, International Training Center
of the International Labor Organization, (Delnet ITC/ILO)
Turin, Italy

This article presents the basic principles and theoretical framework for the training course titled “Disaster Risk Reduction in the Context of Local Sustainable Development.” The course is being implemented by the Delnet Program, which is part of the International Training Center of the International Labor Organization (Delnet ITC/ILO). The article was drafted using the contents of the course’s four instructional units and the paper titled “Theoretical Framework of a Specialization in Local Sustainable Development and Disaster Risk Reduction.”

Photo: UN/ISDR

General institutional framework: The setting in which we operate

There is a growing awareness that the devastating impacts of natural phenomena on our societies are inextricably related to the profound weaknesses of current development systems. This is attributable to many initiatives, among them:

(ISDR, 2000), the establishment of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA), the efforts of regional organizations such as CEPREDENAC in Central America, CDERA in the Caribbean, and CAPRADE in the Andean countries, as well as the interest shown by the governments, non-governmental and international organizations, and local community-based associations.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which 189 governments have pledged to fulfill by the year 2015, set forth the guidelines and targets required to implement a more just and sustainable model. The MDGs specifically address the concepts of risk and vulnerability. “All of these targets touch upon vulnerability areas which are closely linked to natural hazards, such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, ensuring environmental stability and partnerships for development. For example, the goal of improving the lives of thousands of slum dwellers around the world living in high-risk areas by 2020, involves poverty eradication, proper land-use planning and the improved understanding of vulnerability to disasters in densely populated areas.” (Source: )

The HFA reinforces this commitment by sharing and integrating its vision and offering specific and direct guidelines for its implementation, in which States are regarded as the main agents for disaster risk reduction. The HFA promotes the participation of key stakeholders from the government, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector, among others, through a systematic approach that defines anticipated outcomes, strategic objectives and priority actions for reducing vulnerability and mitigating the impact of natural hazards.

In order to facilitate support for national and regional efforts, the HFA calls on the international and regional community including international financial institutions and the United Nations System— to provide an enabling environment, build capacity and secure technical assistance, as well as to strengthen coordination among all actors, share information, establish monitoring mechanisms and increase resource mobilization in the framework of the UN/ISDR.

In this context, the issue of sustainable development and the need to integrate risk reduction into the development plans of every nation have become increasingly critical. Governments have pledged to adopt measures aimed at preventing future catastrophes, and national platforms have been created across the globe. International organizations have adopted strategies and plans, while regional and global institutions have been strengthened. Also, financial channels have been established and new institutions have been created at national and global levels, all with the purpose of promoting disaster risk reduction. In other words, an “ideal” framework has been established for processes to build more resilient societies.

The reality and the gaps

Despite the progress achieved through the establishment of principles to build safer societies, define development goals, and prepare vulnerability reduction plans, this way of thinking and acting has been and still is, rare among governments, international organizations and cooperation agencies. Unfortunately, there is a significant gap between the reality and the plans, commitments and agreements reached. Indeed, the current discourse remains disconnected from sustainable practices, and the prevailing attitude continues to favor a depredatory, dependent and myopic brand of development (or non-development) which only relates to the present and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities.

We witness with astonishment the consequences of climate change and its volatile effects on the most vulnerable societies: increasingly frequent hurricanes and their harmful consequences on the population and its livelihoods, the irreversible advance of desertification in various places throughout the world, migration between countries and regions, and from rural to urban areas; and the vertiginous expansion of new human settlements that offer no opportunities or basic services to recent arrivals who crowd into urban centers.

But we do not only witness greater vulnerability to extreme natural, environmental or migratory phenomena. We also observe that our societies are less resilient to the effects of simple, normal or cyclical events, some of which are associated with the Earth’s natural dynamics, such as seasonal variations and climate-related events like rains, winds, landslides, rising rivers, low-magnitude seismic events, etc. Decades earlier, such natural phenomena did not cause a major impact on societies and were not considered hazardous to people and their habitats.

Vulnerability persists and in many cases is exacerbated by the prevailing short-term visions of our societies, which tend to focus their efforts on addressing the effects of disasters, while ignoring the root causes giving rise to risk factors. Efforts are generally geared toward reacting to an emergency, without considering risk reduction or measures to prevent future consequences. Even after a disaster, the actions taken primarily focus on the emergency itself, humanitarian assistance, and at most, on reinstating basic services and restoring the status quo prior to the catastrophe. In a way, this is tantamount to rebuilding vulnerability and helps perpetuate the same “development paradigm.” Irrefutable proof of this is that humanitarian aid organizations continue to grow, while their counterparts in development are not being strengthened.

This mindset, which is deeply rooted in our societies, is accompanied by a number of other factors: the concentration of power and resources among the privileged few internationally, at the level of centralized State and at the individual level; weak citizen participation, transparency and social audit; the negative effects of globalization and economic dependency, which hinder the diversification of production in developing countries; damage to and the exploitation of renewable and non-renewable resources; urbanization patterns, endemic poverty, marginalization of broad sectors of the population, citizen insecurity, and the right to land use, among others. All of these factors increase vulnerability and contribute to a dependent, exclusive and limited way of thinking.

The forgotten sectors and the main gaps at the local territorial level

From the standpoint of the Delnet program of the ITC/ILO, risk reduction processes continue to overlook important sectors. This even applies to recent activities conceived within the new global institutional framework. There is much discussion regarding the roles and responsibilities of States, international and cooperation agencies, institutions of the United Nations system, and so forth. But what about the smaller actors, such as local governments or the unions that represent them nationally and regionally, or the communities themselves, their organizations and networks? Where are the women’s, neighbors’ and indigenous organizations, or the people who build our habitats, or the technicians and politicians who influence or make decisions in the territories? When these actors do participate in such processes, they are frequently the objects rather than the active subjects of local development planning and decision-making. And the very fact of their participation is the exception that proves the rule.

In the globalized world of today, perhaps our greatest mistake is that in our eagerness to seek universal recipes, the territories and people most affected by the development system and its vulnerabilities are forgotten. Political will, agreements, pacts, and regional and global mechanisms certainly are needed, as is consensus among the international community. It is important not to forget, however, that local solutions can also address global problems, and that historically in developing countries, communities and local authorities that have been marginalized by passive and incapable governments, have found the most diverse ways to respond to disasters and generate resilience mechanisms to deal with natural hazards, not to mention other risks such as globalization, neo-liberal policies and production specialization, all of which exacerbate vulnerability at the local level.

In addition to these forgotten sectors, profound gaps are apparent in several other areas. These include: training

programs to raise awareness about risk among decision-makers, officials, technicians and the community at large; the use of planning systems and tools that allow to project, define and design a better future at the local level with the participation and ownership of local stakeholders; and the practice, promotion and implementation of integrated local development processes that foster and incorporate disaster risk reduction. Where these processes do exist, they usually target limited areas, with little impact on the surrounding territories, much less still on larger geographic scales. Because of this, they frequently remain nothing more than a good example that authorities rarely revisit and replicate.

Governments and other entities working on disaster risk reduction and development must realize that if this way of thinking and acting persists, it will be very difficult to reduce risks, much less achieve the MDGs by the year 2015. Half of the established timeframe has already elapsed and we are still a long way from achieving these goals. If nations and the international community do not make greater efforts, in less than a decade we will witness yet another example of failed United Nations agreements, in this case, those geared toward progress in more sustainable forms of development.

Breaking with past paradigms

In general, the dominant system has failed to grasp the territory-based reality that disaster risk reduction must be closely linked to and incorporated into the different areas of economic, social, political and environmental development of society. The system has been unable to visualize or understand that efforts to achieve truly sustainable disaster risk reduction must begin with a prevention-oriented approach and culture. This perspective must be included in all areas: risk studies and analyses, land-use planning, and risk reduction activities, mitigation efforts, preparedness, early warning, emergency management, and reinstatement, recovery and reconstruction processes. In other words, risk reduction cannot hone in on one single, circumscribed aspect of the overall process. Activities preceding, during and following a devastating event must be complemented and strengthened, and must act as a bridge to create synergies and develop strategies for linkages and continuity among processes.

We must also be careful with one of the “new paradigms”, which is deeply rooted in certain approaches extolled by those involved in the issue, who –isolated and focused solely on the concept of risk– believe that development may be achieved by reducing vulnerability and potential risks. This approach can be dangerous insofar as it diverts efforts from the real responsibilities that characterize all development processes. Although risk reduction may contribute to a better way of life, we must bear in mind that only genuine sustainable development can achieve a more secure, resilient way of life, thereby reducing disaster risks, as well as a number of hazards in other critical aspects that impact people’s lives and ecosystems. It is critical to ensure that development does not augment disaster risk, and to let go the notion that risk reduction will automatically lead to development.

Training as a local tool and strategy for disaster risk reduction

We may ask ourselves, what do the issues presented here have to do with an article on training? Or, how should we structure a training process that contributes to risk reduction in the context of local sustainable development?

In the view of Delnet ITC/ILO, whose work is rooted in the field of sustainable development, a transformative training process must be based on the local reality, and on the strengths and weaknesses that inform it. These aspects must be understood and integrated from the standpoint of the territory and of the needs of the people and actors who influence local development from different geographic settings. Training cannot be divorced from reality and, in addition to raising awareness about risks, it must enhance understanding of the underlying causal factors through a comprehensive development approach.

Training cannot be regarded as a workshop, nor can it be separated from what should be a comprehensive process in support of local development. In other words, if we are seeking a sustainable strategy and a useful tool for a particular territory, training must be closely linked to the normal day-to-day activities of a society, with all of its many facets.

Training as an effective strategy for disaster risk reduction is understood in the context of this rationale, and the main challenge lies in recognizing that disaster risk must be regarded as the result of human activities. The approach taken must focus on changing existing development paradigms that emphasize profit generation at any cost, including the protection of human life and natural resources, and the survival of future generations. The overarching goal, therefore, is to raise awareness and create knowledge so as to change the approaches currently applied by policy-makers and technicians, the private sector and organizations linked to local development and risk reduction, as well as by communities themselves, since achieving a greater level of sustainability is everybody’s business.

There is now an unprecedented institutional and strategic framework in place that is ideal for forging ahead in disaster risk reduction and development processes. This framework has been strengthened by the agreements mentioned at the beginning of this article. The challenge now is how to put it into practice and implement these strategies at the local level. For starters, an integrated risk reduction strategy based on the sustainable development of territories may be a useful tool.

The training approach of Delnet ITC/ILO is intended to break with existing development patterns that predispose a community to be more susceptible to natural, man-induced and socio-natural hazards, and break away too from current trends in training and education processes for risk management and reduction at the local level.

From this viewpoint, training should not be fragmented and geared toward just one facet of the so-called “disaster cycle.” In other words, a comprehensive training process, as a development strategy, must train people in various aspects related to local development, prevention, mitigation, preparedness, recovery and reconstruction. Only by managing these aspects in an integrated fashion, will we be

able to make progress in changing the existing limited vision and approach to disaster reduction training. It is important to simultaneously introduce risk analysis and strategic planning tools for risk reduction on the ground.

Training centered on people and territorial resources

One of the most important resources of any community are its inhabitants and local actors. They possess valuable knowledge about their territory and skills that are well adapted to their endogenous needs. They are also acutely aware of the factors that generate risk and hinder development. Therefore, they are the best managers to guarantee sustainable development and a beneficial coexistence between society and the environment.

Training at Delnet ITC/ILO is based on local development management and risk reduction from a perspective of sustainability and the optimization of the internal resources available in a particular territory. Indeed, in planning, prevention, preparedness, response and reconstruction processes following a disaster, the main tools available to a community are its own capacity, skills, and strengths and, they must therefore be maximized and reinforced.

What do we understand by local sustainable development?

Local development is a strategy to take full advantage of the resources native to a particular territory. It encompasses a number of interrelated and interdependent elements: a) economic: factors associated with productivity levels conductive to integration into the national and international economy, and to sustainable development, compatible with both the environment and society, b) social and cultural: through the local capacity, knowledge, beliefs, values, actors and institutions which constitute the underpinnings of the development process, c) political-administrative: providing the framework for local authorities to strengthen and foster local development , as well as socioeconomic potential, by addressing and overcoming administrative, economic, organizational, participatory and political obstacles, and d) environmental: in the understanding that a territory’s natural resources and ecosystems serve as the basis for any sustainable process.

In light of the above, local development must be understood as a decentralized process specific to a particular territory, whose priority is sustainability in the medium and long terms. It should therefore foster economic growth, together with a durable systemic equilibrium among the socioeconomic, cultural, institutional and environmental characteristics of that territory.

“Endogenous local development is sustainable when balance is reached among the four areas; when policies strengthen in a balanced and joint manner all the elements.”6

Strategic planning as a tool and a process

Inevitably, a risk reduction strategy must include the means and tools necessary to achieve its goal. In this sense, Delnet ITC/ILO regards strategic planning (SP) as a systematic tool for managing change and development through the identification and definition of the needs, goals and priorities that will contribute to the design of the best possible future for a given territory, community or society. It is a creative process intended to identify and undertake actions based on the characteristics of each place and the main issues, prioritized according to their importance, urgency and the resources available. The process focuses particularly on aspects critical for future development, in light of existing capacity, possibilities and available resources, leaving for later what is not immediately and absolutely necessary.

The primary goal of SP within a risk reduction process is to enable a given territorial environment to leverage its opportunities and capacities, neutralize its (internal and external) hazards, utilize its strengths to its own benefits, and overcome its weaknesses. SP is a tool that also serves to improve, strengthen and address other inherently beneficial aspects of development and, in that sense, goes beyond simply finding solutions in urgent situations.

Disasters and local development from a territorial perspective

Delnet CIF/OIT understands the term “local” from a territorial perspective: it refers to a physical setting where a society’s political, economic, social and environmental relations take place, which is also connected to regional, national or supranational geographic spaces. The physical setting is where risk becomes tangible and disasters materialize.

The training process takes into account that local sustainable development and disaster risk reduction are processes that transcend a circumscribed political space, a specific municipality or a particular community. These two processes consist of actions carried out in an environment with specific cultural, social, productive, demographic and environmental features, as determined by resources, strengths and capacity, as well as common hazards and vulnerabilities.

The political boundaries of a given area or municipality do not determine what is local or the scope of a particular disaster risk reduction policy, much less the impact area of a disaster (for instance, a river’s watershed may encompass several municipalities, therefore it is not sufficient to reduce disaster risk in one while degradation and poor watershed management continue unabated in the others). An area, then, may be considered local and yet be quite extensive in terms of its territory.

As a risk reduction strategy, the training process fostered by Delnet ITC/ILO is based on the premise —widely accepted by researchers, national governments, international organizations, NGOs, and scientists, among others— that it must be developed within a social context, and that it is closely linked to economic and productive practices, social and cultural factors, political-administrative mechanisms, and the relationships with the environment and ecosystems through which we develop, define our surroundings and coexist in a particular space. In other words, the process is related to the development patterns and means with which we build our societies and our habitat.

The increasingly negative impact of natural phenomena on people and their assets, and on livelihoods in particular territories, as well as the fragility of the existing, highly vulnerable and depredatory development systems, indicate that disaster risk reduction cannot be achieved on the periphery of development processes, nor can such processes be considered sustainable without risk reduction.

If sustainability is to be achieved at the local/territorial level, disaster risk reduction must include activities to identify, reduce or eliminate risks that have accumulated over time, as well as measures to prevent the future emergence of new risks. In this sense, it is necessary to address the structural causes that generate disaster risk, rather than just its “symptoms,” or the direct effects of disasters, as has been the usual practice.

Disaster risk reduction strategies, policies, actions and processes must strive to equip communities with the resilience necessary to withstand a catastrophic event, reducing accumulated risks to the extent possible, and ensuring that local development interventions do not increase vulnerability to threats or potential hazards.

“A disaster reduction strategy is inseparable from social and economic development, and from thoughtful environmental management. These are at the heart of sustainable development.” Living with Risk: A Global Review of Disaster Risk Reduction Initiatives, UN/ISDR, 2004.

Knowledge, analysis and planning in the area of disaster risk
A comprehensive training program on disaster risk reduction must focus on understanding the factors that produce risk. This entails a strong grasp of the physical phenomena (hazards) and susceptibilities (vulnerabilities) that predispose a society to suffer human, material, economic and environmental losses whenever a potentially devastating event occurs. The program must also have the capacity to create and analyze different risk scenarios (analysis of hazards and vulnerabilities), as a tool and as the initial step in the decision-making process. It must also include instruments that enable local actors to plan risk reduction activities. In this way, strategic territorial planning becomes the basis for future projections. In addition, the training process must consider that a disaster could represent an opportunity to change existing development patterns.

Disaster preparedness in the context of local sustainable development

Disaster preparedness cannot be regarded as peripheral to development process and risk reduction, as has been the traditional way of conceiving them. If it is true that our societies have not managed to pursue sustainable development processes that incorporate disaster management, and that high risk levels have accumulated over time in different geographical areas, then preparedness is even more critical. It is imperative to promote actions to protect life, assets and ecosystems; to reduce vulnerability, mitigate the negative effects of the phenomena that occur; and to create the conditions needed to address emergency situations and post-disaster recovery.

Depending on the approach and the seriousness with which it is undertaken, disaster preparedness can be highly effective in mitigating the effects of a phenomenon, preventing damage, reducing both organizational and operational vulnerabilities, establishing emergency coordination mechanisms, and designing policies and strategies for post-disaster reconstruction. An approach to preparedness in the context of a territory’s overall development, and one that complements a comprehensive disaster risk management process, can contribute significantly to protecting property and livelihoods, saving lives, and reducing future risks. In other words, this is part of a long-term planning processes rather than a reactive mechanism.

“Risk reduction and disaster preparedness always make better economic sense than reliance on disaster relief.”7

Post-disaster reconstruction as an opportunity to advance development

Responses to crisis situations have been, and continue to be, argely focused on humanitarian aid and emergency management. In many situations, this can exacerbate the root causes of vulnerability following a disaster, when actions are not undertaken in a planned, coordinated manner in a view toward the territory’s development.

The challenge for a comprehensive training process in disaster risk reduction is to change this approach, bridge the gaps between humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and regard post-disaster recovery as an opportunity to transform the situation that generated risk in the first place, through comprehensive local sustainable development management.

Delnet ITC/ILO’s approach emphasizes that a reconstruction process should be geared toward transforming the status quo prior to the disaster, and should not be constricted by the supply of foreign aid in such situations. The process must anticipate leveraging the territory’s internal resources and, prior to the crisis, have in place development and resource management plans, investment projects, and an appropriate organizational structure that assigns responsibilities to the actors involved according to the reality of each territory.

Ongoing risk assessment, before and after a disaster, can quickly become the basis for the terms of reference for any action, project design or request for support during the reconstruction period. Prospective reconstruction planning and resource allocation allows for better distribution based on clear goals and real needs, in order to restore economic activities and mitigate the human suffering caused by the direct and indirect impacts of a disaster.

Solid reconstruction and development are based on the same basic principles. The lessons learned from reconstructions processes indicate that they cannot be pursued independently of other societal and territorial dynamics, which inevitable brings us back to actions, policies and strategies that should have been developed and implemented prior to a disaster. Reconstruction must be interpreted as a critical part of development issues and it should be closely linked to poverty and vulnerability reduction before, during and after a disaster.

The training process fostered by Delnet ITC/ILO, as a strategy for disaster risk reduction, emphasizes that the key to preventing, mitigating and, in the best case scenario, avoiding the impact of disaster is, first and foremost, to reduce risks before a catastrophe strikes. In case a devastating event should occur it is critical to have in place a solid preparedness plan to cope with the emergency and, once the disaster has struck, to ensure a rapid, effective and appropriate recovery and reconstruction process. One of the simplest factors affecting the quality of reconstruction is the quality of the process carried out before the crisis. Sound reconstruction practices are generally associated with good territorial development practices.

The training process takes into account that reconstruction must be regarded as a window of opportunity and an ideal moment to introduce the issue of disaster risk management into sustainable development planning, promoting proactive, ongoing strategies to consolidate safer societies.

The reconstruction process must focus on capacity-building among key local development actors and the affected communities, as well as on the improvement of general living conditions. It must target poverty reduction, the creation of dignified employment, and the promotion of economic development. The process should also guarantee the highest possible level of safety for property, livelihoods and, particularly, human life in the future.

Lastly, the comprehensive training process offered by Delnet ITC/ILO places particular emphasis on the practical application of the knowledge acquired throughout the process, which concludes with a disaster reduction and management project prepared from the standpoint of local sustainable development.

This training program, as a strategy for risk reduction in the context of local sustainable development, is a call to action for local stakeholders, decision-makers, technicians and the general public. They must understand that above and beyond expertise in local development and risk, and the use of risk-reduction tools, it is crucial to radically change the types of attitudes and actions espoused by the current development system, in the understanding that these have been primarily responsible for creating even greater vulnerability.



1The Hyogo Framework for Action for 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. Website:
2The Coordination Center for Natural Disaster Prevention in Central America. Website:
3The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency. Website:
4The Andean Committee for Disaster Prevention and Assistance. Website:
5Millenium Development Goals. Website:
Delnet Program, Course of Specialization in Local Development Management, International Training Center of the ILO.
7Living with Risk, UN/ISDR, 2004