columnBy Ousman Njie
The attention to populations or communities affected by disasters depends very much on moral values and the setting of policies. Vulnerability on the other hand, involves several interrelated dimensions including individual capacities and actions, availability or lack of support and community resources that may facilitate or hinder problem solving.
Many people in poor communities are often vulnerable because of their weak links to social networks and lack of needed social supports. Social networks provide both emotional practical help in coping with stressors. The oldest, old, people from broken homes and those with severe mental disorders and other disabilities are often affected by social isolation. These groups of people are especially vulnerable during community disruption and disasters because they lack the resources to protect themselves. Psychological research on stress elucidates how socio-economic deficits, exclusion, illness, disability and other potential assaults make people to experience intense stress.
Unfortunately, disasters are affecting more and more human lives and material assets globally. This trend has necessitated paradigm shifts from relief and response to Disaster Risk Management. Disasters are no longer viewed as one-off events and responded to by governments and relief organisations such as the GRCS, without considering the social and economic considerations and causes of these events. Measures taken include public policy measures, disaster preparedness measures -- i.e. "contingency planning" approach to improve the efficiency of relief agencies such as the GRCS.
Despite these good initiatives however, there is a relative increase in disasters and in human and material losses from disaster events. This suggests therefore that the rise in disasters and their consequences is related to the rise in the vulnerability of people.
Although the evolution of approaches from relief and response to risk management has some influence on disaster management programmes, such initiatives are often inadequately funded and insignificant compared with money spent on humanitarian assistance.
Investment in long term mitigation efforts overtaken by the need for relief assistance in pervasive disaster events in the world. This is quite evident in The Gambia as well.
The paradigm shift in the main stream development practice is now characterized by emphasis on good governance, accountability and greater focus on bottom-top approaches. Asia is the world's most disaster-prone area. Based on severe experiences, there is a growing trend taking place in Asia, the evolution from the top down to bottom -top approach. Asia has realised that government and institutional disaster mitigation alone is not sufficient because they tend to pay little attention to community dynamics, perceptions, or priorities and to indigenous knowledge and technical know-how. The focus nowadays is the community-based disaster management approach where specific level needs, resources and capacities are met. Community-based disaster management requires an enabling and supportive institutional framework as well as additional assistance both in cash and in kind. This is where the role of the local governments and other donor agents are so essential. More efforts must be made to involve the private sector increasingly.
Certainly there is need to do more for the vulnerable people in The Gambia. This obviously means that a small proportion of the population with serious handicaps will require high expenditure because of the intensity of their needs in disaster situations. On the other hand, investing in vulnerable areas is investment for longer-term impacts and a disaster-reduction strategy. Socio-economic programmes through educational and training opportunities as well as income generating activities are development advantages which in turn reduce disasters.
Disasters are not just impediments to sustainable development but they result from the paths that development is taking. Planning processes must therefore incorporate disaster risk assessments. All development projects must make provisions for potential disasters and to ensure that communities are made more resilient and less vulnerable. The aim should be to make natural hazards mere emergencies rather than disasters. The focus must be shifted to the most poor people and vulnerable sectors of communities. Interventions should be community-based and community driven, with substantial assistance given to the grassroots operational actors such as the GRCS, in cash and in kind. With its pre-occupation and leading role in poverty reduction, government to consider enhancing the capacity and resource base of GRCS in its dual role in prompt emergency interventions and disaster mitigation.