A New Participatory Educational Model For Community-Based Training On Disaster Risk Management

Ing. Ibia Vega Cuza
Dr. Fernando Guasch Hechavarría

Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Sismológicas,


Between 1998 and 2004, a number of community-based projects were implemented in Nicaragua and the eastern region of Cuba. The primary implementing agency was Médicos del Mundo—España [Doctors of the World/ Spain], jointly with experts and specialists of the National Center for Seismological Research of Cuba (CENAIS). Despite the fact that these projects had been developed within different scenarios, they were adapted to these new realities. Interventions were carried out by applying an “anticipatory approach” to disaster situations in these communities. This helped bring to light the pivotal role that communities, if properly organized, can play in controlling factors that generate more vulnerability to the hazards identified in their respective areas. In other words, actions taken were based on the contextualization of existing risks in environments where communities carry out their daily activities, going from general issues to specifics, and identifying the cause-effect correlation.

An intervention methodology was developed for all these projects, based on risk management as an effective means for reducing vulnerabilities in a timely fashion, and tackling factors conducive to these vulnerabilities in order to reduce existing risk levels in all communities involved. The starting point was the recreation of a historical scenario, which entailed assessing the impact of previous events in the region, based on the changes experienced in the current environment (dynamics of temporal scenarios), and recognizing the potential of new hazards to cause damage, especially regarding anthropogenic activities and their impact on nature. This process was sustained by the historical memory of the population, which enabled us to identify community leaders who played the role of facilitators in the training sessions.

Under the guidance of these leaders, the population developed community structures or drew on existing ones, such as working committees and other groups, which were previously trained through workshops. These structures were responsible for disseminating knowledge among the rest of the population, so that they were able to place themselves in different scenarios, recognize existing hazards, assess vulnerability factors and distinguish areas of potential risks. Along these lines, the training plans developed were different in each community, depending on the particular scenario in which the interventions took place. For instance, in the case of El Crucero Municipality, Nicaragua, a very singular plan was developed. The plan was different from the ones previously used in other scenarios established in Cuba. Because El Crucero has an illiteracy rate greater than 40 percent, we used more participatory methods and group techniques so that the population could learn by doing. This approach helped us demonstrate that direct hands-on involvement can help these communities change their current situation.

Based on these interventions, community risk maps were developed and spearheaded by the residents themselves. The information gathered in these maps indicates their recognition that local vulnerabilities can turn into emergency situations. The principle of determining expositive risk was applied, as well the preventive calculation of potential victims. The primary outcome of the risk maps was the involvement of the community in order to foster self-sustainability and local responses. By using color-coded scales in the risk maps, communities were able to include vulnerability factors and distinguish risk areas.

It is worth mentioning the work done with young children in all municipalities through school activities that included the scenarios developed. In the case of the Cuban municipalities, the education system facilitated training activities in primary schools, community and school libraries, and the Palacios de Pioneros [pioneer school organizations], a very important space used to train children in Cuba.

Foto: C. Cuauhtémoc

Foto: © C. Cuauhtémoc

Basis of the participatory educational model

Experiences gleaned during the development of projects implemented, coupled with the need to efficiently translate the research results into risk scenarios to facilitate community-based training —in other words, develop educational tools to build the resilience of communities— laid the foundation for consolidating a research methodology and related training on the educational model that we have called “Aprender a convivir con el riesgo” [Learning to live with risk]. The educational model has already been validated in a number of municipalities in Cuba, through materials used as the basis for community-based preparedness and risk management. The results have been positive thus far, and the materials have been incorporated into work structures and school curricula.

Regarding the cause-effect correlation, this model enables communities to identify themselves with their own scenarios and environments in order to recognize existing hazards, assess vulnerability factors, distinguish potential risk areas, and apply solutions aimed at improving self-sustainability. The model also allows communities to build their response capacity and reduce their level of external dependency, a form of induced vulnerability. The model addresses the contents in a logical order to learn and understand the elements that lead to disaster situations. For this reason, it is feasible to apply this model to general or contextualized scenarios, regardless of the geographical location, natural features, latent hazards, political and social conditions, or education levels of communities involved.

The educational model is composed of five modules that allow us to reflect with the communities on all the elements needed to recognize the origin of natural phenomena that constitute hazards in our physical areas, analyze the weaknesses that generate vulnerabilities, learn to assess and recognize risk and potential damage, and learn how to better prepare for emergency situations. Along these lines, the model recognizes the dialectics of nature and the dynamics introduced by human interaction with the environment. The model also recognizes the importance of education at the municipal level, especially to build the capacity needed to understand the scientific information produced by specialized bodies.

The “learning to live with risk” approach encourages communities and authorities to take an active role in disaster risk reduction, and recognizes the existence of increased, multiple hazards and vulnerabilities in Central America, especially in Nicaragua. In addition to assessing preexisting risks, the model raises awareness so that communities implement effective management strategies. Furthermore, the model allows participants to envision social vulnerability through a gender-based approach.

The following are the modules included in the educational approach:

  • Module 1. “Getting to know the world we live in.” This topic includes introductory elements needed to better understand natural events or phenomena, human activities and their interaction, which may generate hazards in our lives. The starting point is to recognize that Earth is a live and dynamic planet, where a number of processes and transformations occur in time and space. In turn, these cause the events that shape our lives. The module also explains the different viewpoints used to classify these phenomena.
  • Module 2. What threatens us? Module 1 addresses how dissimilar these phenomena occur due to the geodiversity of our planet. However, aspects such as exposure and likelihood of occurrence define the limits between phenomena and hazards. It is important to learn to differentiate between both concepts, since they are not synonyms, as they are usually considered by different sectors of society.

Similar to these phenomena, hazards are generally classified based on their causes. The module puts emphasis on the main natural and anthropogenic hazards in the region or communities where interventions took place. Their definitions, characteristics and likelihood of occurrence are also explained and documented with graphic material of the region. The purpose is to carry out contextualized training sessions, where, on occasion hazards identified are seen as part of the environment, without assessing the danger they represent. Communities are therefore guided so that they can conduct simple and preliminary assessments of existing hazards.

  • Module 3. Why do disasters occur? It is necessary to analyze why natural and anthropogenic phenomena, or a combination of both, are considered hazards and how they can turn into complex and adverse situations for human beings and the environment, known as disasters. These require immediate responses from society or the communities affected by them.

This module includes an in-depth analysis of two of the basic categories related to disaster management and assessment: vulnerability and risk, focusing on the types of vulnerabilities and the factors that originate them, since disasters occur due to the existence of scenarios vulnerable to the hazards identified. Disasters are the manifestation of preexisting risk in our communities, and thus they are preventable, predictable and foreseeable, based on knowledge management and use. The module also defines, in a practical and objective manner, the conditions that make our communities more vulnerable.

  • Module 4. What is risk management? This part of the approach includes conceptual elements that are necessary to understand what risk management entails. This is done by studying risk scenarios, a method considered to be effective in reducing vulnerability levels and risk areas in our communities, and hence the potential morbidity and mortality rates associated with emergency and disaster situations. The module also details the differences between the way disaster situations have traditionally been addressed, as opposed to the current approach, which is based on risk management. Likewise, Module 4 reflects on the way disaster-related issues are addressed in countries with different political systems.

Finally, this unit focuses on the models generated through research conducted by the National Center for Seismological Research of Cuba (CENAIS) on ways to avoid disasters through risk management.

  • Module 5. How can we achieve community-based preparedness? This module addresses ways to achieve preparedness based on a community-based organization, training and planning strategy aimed at disaster prevention and mitigation. This is what ensures community self-sustainability, adaptability and resilience to complex phenomena such as climate change.

Furthermore, based on the work experience gleaned with community projects implemented by our experts in the region, the module includes a number of actions that must be taken to increase the level of community-based preparedness. One such action is the development of community risk maps, an important risk management tool. Preparedness is complemented by mitigation and prevention measures taken directly in our communities, both individually and collectively, in order to reduce the risk of different hazards in the region.

Materials developed based on the educational model

Based on this model, we have developed and introduced in Nicaragua and Cuba two types of community-based training materials. The contents of the materials are adapted to the particular characteristics of each country and are documented through the work experience gathered in the communities involved.

In Cuba, we developed an educational kit for community-based training on local risk management, which includes three tools and a multimedia version:

- A risk management manual for community-based preparedness. - A series of educational papers titled “Communitybased preparedness for risk management.” - A facilitator´s guide.

In Nicaragua, we developed the educational manual for community-based training on disaster risk management, which is complemented with an educational video titled Aprender a convivir con el riesgo [Learning to live with risk].


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  • Vega, Ibia, Guasch, Fernando, Hernández, Eberto and Telecentro Technical Team TNC TV Granmense. Kit Educativo para la Capacitación Comunitaria en Gestión Local de los Riesgos. Santiago de Cuba, Fondos Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Sismológicas, CITMA, 2006.
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