Agents of Change: The Role of Children and Youth in Disaster


Children and youth have been regarded as passive victims in disaster situations, which are becoming increasingly frequent in our countries. Heretofore, the main concern has been how to protect children during and in the aftermath of a disaster. This article looks at links between the participatory experiences of youth groups in development and the emerging focus on risk reduction and disaster prevention. Case studies from El Salvador, Central America, illustrate the enormous potential of youth groups as agents of change in their communities. They also point to important mechanisms for actively involving children and youth in risk management and disaster prevention, which is critical to addressing climate change.

Foto: Thomas Tanner

Foto: © Thomas Tanner

Children, youth and isasters: vulnerability and creativity

The literature characterizes children and youth as a vulnerable group with specific protection needs during and in the aftermath of a disaster. Several health studies have looked at high mortality rates among children due to extreme events; over the next decade, an estimated 175 million children could be affected annually by climate-related disasters.1 In recent years, children and youth have become involved in risk management activities through the school system. This approach has mainly entailed the use of educational materials and measures to protect school infrastructure. There are also examples of the participation of youth groups in community-based analysis and decision-making processes pertaining to risk management.

Research on actions related to disaster risk and climate change: the case of El Salvador

Research involving youth requires a careful and sensitive methodological design. The primary method used to generate data for this study was direct contact with target groups and semi-structured interviews in households to gather information from other family members, as well as with governmental and nongovernmental institutions.

Community profiles

The communities of Potrerillos and El Matazano 1 are part of a sample of ten localities in El Salvador. They were selected as part of a broader research effort that also includes comparative communities in the Philippines. El Salvador is affected by frequent disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and landslides. Case studies show that this vulnerability profile is associated with its mountainous topography, as well as its high poverty rates. These two communities were chosen for a comparative analysis that juxtaposes two national scenarios: rural and urban areas. There are significant differences between these two social categories in terms of access to resources, production models, social dynamics, and political contexts.

Potrerillos is a rural village [canton] in Carrizal municipality, Chalatenango department, located on the Honduran border. Half of its population of approximately 427 is under 19 years of age. The community relies primarily on subsistence agriculture, and its main crops are sorghum, beans, annatto, squash and loroco (an edible flower). Most families rely on remittances sent by relatives in the United States, for a significant portion of their income.

El Matazano 1 is located in Santa Tecla municipality, La Libertad department. Approximately 56% of its population of 1,363 people is under the age of 19. Formerly an agricultural community, urbanization processes have overtaken its coffee and corn plantations. Because of its proximity to the cities of Santa Tecla and San Salvador, most locals now commute to urban areas to work.

Youth groups initiatives

With support from the Church, the mayor’s office, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), CARITAS, and Plan El Salvador, groups from these two communities have been trained as part of an effort to increase the participation of children and youth, and equip them with basic skills to manage their organizations. Trainings have covered topics such as youth leadership, risk prevention, first aid and drills, preventive health, financial management, children’s rights and computer lessons. Courses lasted between one weekend and a full week.

It is worth mentioning the importance of the training sessions on Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (VCM), an important methodology for assessing, planning and implementing risk management-related actions. The VCM includes a number of tools such as seasonal and historical calendars and community risk maps, among others.

The following components were examined:

  • Community history
  • Seasonal calendars
  • Community risk maps
  • Stakeholders analysis
  • Maps of community resources and capacity.

Following the conclusion of the VCM training, emergency committee members2 organized community presentations.

Children and youth as effective actors in disaster prevention

The children’s and youth organizations studied show that they play an important leadership role at the community level in four basic areas:

  • Strengthened capacity for risk analysis and identification
  • Ability to implement actions in response to risk, in keeping with the capacity developed
  • Communication skills on different topics including risk prevention
  • Decision-making.

The data reflect similar evidence from other countries where children’s and youth groups had developed important skills in identifying risks in their communities. The groups acquired such skills by participating in risk management training processes and exchanges. Children and youth show increased awareness of hazards such as landslides, floods, power lines that could fall down, excessive driving speeds, water pollution and deforestation.

Various methodologies have been used to develop objective perceptions of risk in communities. One of these is risk mapping which, based on a sui generis symbolism, identifies the most vulnerable individuals, families, and geographical areas.

Another important sign of their increasingly proactive role, is that children and youth are already addressing risks in their communities. Their activities fall into two categories: 1) Risk reduction, such as the construction of speed bumps, plastic trash pick-ups to prevent pollution, reforestation, and awarenessraising about risk management, and 2) Preparedness and surveillance, including measures to organize and facilitate effective warning, rescue and recovery operations in the event of a disaster. This is particularly true of the youth group in El Matazano 1, which has increased its capacity to manage temporary shelters, conduct victim censuses and organize brigades. In addition, when warning systems are activated in the area, children and youth patrol the most vulnerable areas to ensure the well-being of people.

All of the groups analyzed have also improved their communication skills, participated in activities to communicate risks that arise in the community, and used communications strategically to leverage resources for their projects. The new focus on the human dimension of vulnerability, rather than strictly physical aspects, has challenged the dominant approaches to risk regulation and notions about the types of hazards that experts should communicate to the public.


The examples of these two communities in El Salvador highlight the potential of children and youth to directly participate in development processes in their communities. Children and youth have built relevant capacities for risk management, not only based on physical aspects, but also on psycho-social and cultural elements.

In terms of psycho-social risks, there is evidence of consistent efforts to strengthen group identity and solidarity, which reinforces their status as relevant actors in their communities. It also helps them resist the risk of joining a gang, and reduces their sense of social exclusion due to their economic and social status or the feeling that they are merely observers of development. Contact with institutions that value their role has boosted their self-confidence and encouraged them to forge ahead.

In terms of culture, there is a strong presence of young people seeking to recover the cultural elements that shape their identity, especially in the context of globalization and the tendency to adopt lifestyles that are culturally distinct from local customs. This entails a much broader vision of what risk represents.


We are grateful for the support provided by Plan International in the United Kingdom and El Salvador, especially Mercedes García, Verónica Villalta, Monica Navarrete and Lily Pacheco. We would also like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the United Kingdom for providing financial support for the research discussed in this article.

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  • Thomas Tanner is a researcher who works at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) in the United Kingdom. He is a geographer who focuses on the link between poverty, adaptation and disaster prevention.
  • Gonzalo Rodriguez is a researcher in the field of social sciences at the University of El Salvador. He has participated in a number of studies that analyze the correlation between social capital and poverty.
  • Jimena Lazcano is a social scientist who works as an independent consultant. She focuses on children’s participation as a key element to their comprehensive development.