International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

In the Spotlight: Communities


Strengthening Local Capacity for Disaster Reduction: The Experience of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)

The Project for Reducing the Vulnerability of the Countries Affected by Hurricane Mitch

In October and November 1998, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch underscored once again that during the initial impact of such a natural disaster it is the communities themselves that respond first. When these communities are isolated, in fact, they must often manage without external aid for several days.

At the request of the Ministries of Health of Central America, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) agreed to implement a project that focuses on strengthening local capacity for disaster reduction among the countries most affected by the hurricane: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The Project for Reducing the Vulnerability of the Countries Affected by Hurricane Mitch, funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), was launched on 1 April 2000. Pilot communities were chosen in each of the participating nations based on several factors, such as the damage wrought by Mitch, the presence of other hazards, and the availability of Ministry of Health officials in each community, to render the project feasible.

The First Year: Results

During the first year of execution, the populations of each community were studied and their strengths and weaknesses identified. This revealed a great deal of diversity both within and among countries, particularly regarding the stakeholders who have a significant degree of influence in each community.
Among the most important training activities carried out so far are the following:

  • Train-the-trainer workshops aimed at community leaders and local Ministry of Health staff.
  • Disaster preparedness workshops.
  • Workshops on disasters and social communication at the local level, directed at media workers, educators from the Ministry of Health, and others involved in social communication at the community level.
  • Intensive training of health sector staff on disaster reduction.

Opportunities for Work at the Local Level

There is little experience with disaster reduction at the local level, hence little availability of adequate training materials and tools. Even so, the Project’s community work revealed many opportunities for successful initiatives in this field.
In previous years, the Italian government had made a significant initial effort to establish local emergency committees, known as CLEs. Although there was not much follow-up and many of the CLEs fell into dormancy, the concept and value of CLEs remained rooted in the communities.

Another valuable lesson was that disaster reduction officials at the local level are self-evidently among the beneficiaries of their own actions. This not only provides considerable motivation (in lieu of financial rewards); it also means that they have first-hand knowledge of their neighbors and local environment, which would hardly be the case if decisions were taken at less localized levels.

PAHO’s profound knowledge of the health sector in the region and its experience with disaster preparedness made it possible to channel the project through the local health systems and, in the case of Guatemala, through PAHO’s own decentralized local offices, securing a considerable impact given the key role of the health sector in the daily life of most communities.
Social Participation

In order to achieve greater sustainability, the Project has been designed to be executed to a large extent by means of community self-management. This involves the participation of the local population not only in regular consultations but also in the decision-making process itself.

Trying to work at the local level is not without its liabilities. Sometimes, partisan politics comes into play, such as when the local government is in the hands of an opposition party. This can significantly hinder the sharing of knowledge, resources, and responsibilities. Even when such is not the case, government officials sometimes try to marginalize the local non-governmental organizations, viewing them as adversaries or, if nothing else, competitors for political and even financial capital.

However, this is not always the case. Particularly in Nicaragua, where there was a greater tradition of social participation, the pilot communities have managed to remain organized for disaster reduction across party and sectoral boundaries.
In the three years that remain, the Project aims to strengthen the participation of women in risk management, since they face particular vulnerabilities in disaster situations.

For more information, please visit: