Why we have not moved forward: Ten areas of knowledge/wisdom for three different threats


Sonia Pérez, Ph.D. in Social Developmental Psychology. Lecturer of the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Researcher in the Program of reduction of risk and disasters CITRID

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

Natural disasters have turned into current events not only due to the increase of their frequency and magnitude in our country, but also, and to a great extent, due to their pervasive diffusion through mass media.  This has had a great impact on public opinion and—unfortunately—on the people’s overall sense of vulnerability. Little has this feeling of consistent emergency contributed to a real debate on the structural, social and institutional conditions that have put Chile in a critical situation regarding the action we take when it comes to natural threats. Along with the promotion of ignorance, the insufficiency of the debate actively contributes to a semantic and discursive construction that has a subjectifying effect on the victims of natural disasters. This is because the way in which we either explain or silence the reasons behind the events will condition the opportunities for change that disasters can afford us.

In Chile, one of the most important silences in the debates and documents that deal with this problem is the inextricable relationship between disasters and development. The true danger of disasters appears when their relation to the developmental model and the possibilities of transformation for the country are ignored.  The first mistake is to think that the solution to these problems lies primarily with greater economic investment. Indeed, disasters are usually seen as an interruption of the country’s growth and as an obstacle for the economic model; however, their relationship to development is given by the influence of the type of model adopted—that is, of its objectives, processes and planning instruments—in the resilience capacity of the territories and localities.

A model that distributes unequally both its benefits and resources increases the risks of those who have been historically excluded, just as the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR) had warned a while back. In the end, the fact that the outbreak of a natural threat becomes a disaster is proof of an insufficient policy of environmental sustainability and the inefficiency in the sustainable transformation of societies.

When a disaster happens, some fundamental rights—human as much as environmental—may be violated in the name of development. Simultaneously, the opportunity offered by disasters to positively transform the territories can result in the increase of industrial activities that generate new risks and even damage to the biodiversity.

Such is the complexity of the relationship between disasters and development that the debate requires not only political constructs or scientific knowledge, but also the knowledge that helps us to envision the model we want for our country, where we want to go in terms of reconstruction, and what social sectors we will want to work with to make the decisions to prevent future disasters.

The following are ten areas of knowledge that can help us on the matter and contribute to the analysis of why it is we have not advanced as much as we can, ten areas of wisdom that are necessary to gain insight to enable a dialogue between the different sciences, the political world and society in general.

  1. Knowing what to prioritize. From prevention to reconstruction, the country’s efforts become scattered and their focus turns towards particular problems. The resilience of the infrastructure and the public works necessary to sustain houses, public institutions, market real estate and the necessary connectivity for industry all compete with the protection of public space, historical patrimony and the mental health of communities. Prospective risk management would allow advance planning to handle those that are considered less embraceable by our society instead of unsystematically responding to the emergency.
  2. Knowing how to be creative in the building of risk management models. In cases of natural disasters, the already existing instruments of planning and distribution of public benefits continue to be used, with a strong emphasis on the competition between individuals, and disregarding the existing overlap of different threats and different vulnerabilities. Thus, it is necessary to create intersectoral planning and equipment that give synergy to the solutions in health, education, work, housing, culture and social participation—all of these with a territorial vision that surpasses the current lack of coordination and superposition of isolated answers.
  3. Knowing how to integrate local cultures. Communities know how to inhabit their territories and how to relate to their surroundings and its problems. For this reason, social memory, territorial identities, environmental practices, solidarity networks and cultures of communitarian participation become the most valuable capacities when facing disaster experiences. None of them is integrated to the policies of prevention, emergency and reconstruction nowadays.
  4. Knowing how to transcend scientific disciplines. The contributions made by the natural and social sciences through comprehensive technology models are useless for understanding the territories prone to natural threats if these fail to dialogue with each other in the language of their disciplines or fail to produce knowledge more suitable for the characteristics and complexity of the threats. In this sense, it is crucial for the research into the reduction of disaster risks to be stimulated and maintained by an institutional structure that can generate transdisciplinary knowledge in the long term.
  5. Knowing how to legislate with participatory platforms. Nowadays, Chile has no specific law that regulates the management of disaster risks. Instead, there is an initiative of the National Policy for the Management of Disaster Risks, which aims at concrete actions for reducing adverse effects. This guideline for the different State organizations still has no institutionality and there will be no governance that guarantees it if we do not generate permanent spaces for dialogue with the different social subjects that know well how to create (rather than produce) forms of collective life.
  6. Knowing how to communicate socially with ethical principles. The lure of mass media to turn emergencies into peak ratings goes against the communities’ right to real facts. Thus, it becomes indispensable to regulate the validity of social information and to promote public trust so that people make informed decisions.
  7. Knowing how to recognize skills. Today the groups regarded as high-priority in the reconstruction efforts are defined by their situations of vulnerability as a deficiency condition instead of recognizing their local capacities. The integration of the gender approach to the risk reduction programs (to give an example) can mean much more than simply overcoming vulnerability, and can be understood as attending to specific priorities of key agents in the territorial construction process, with their various interests and forms of producing them.
  8. Knowing how to implement and monitor agreements. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 challenges Chile to reduce risk and protect human rights through a social participation approach and the guarantee of including groups historically excluded. Moreover, it reframes institutional responsibilities, and promotes governance with both communities and nongovernmental organizations as active agents, and with the State, which is in charge of bringing together diverse actors through collaboration. None of it will be taken as an opportunity for safeguarding dignity within the country if there is neither the instance nor the instruments that can guarantee it.
  9. Knowing how to educate. Although there is worldwide agreement that the role of education is fundamental for prevention, we have the misconception that it is focused on the integration of curriculum contents. Education also includes social learning, inside and outside of the school, and educational institutions—including tertiary education—can do a lot more to adjust the curriculum so that it reflects a more multidimensional understanding of disasters.
  10. Knowing how to make decisions. Lack of coordination and the overlapping of decision flows have been an endless issue within public institutions, so has the disquieting distance between government authorities (at all levels) and local communities. It is necessary to advance towards permanent participatory platforms where different stakeholders can dialogue. Reducing disaster risks implies making agreements as a society and between different sectors in order to fully understand the conditions that generate risks.

Not considering these areas of knowledge puts us in serious danger of losing momentum or veering off course. It is also a danger to forget that disasters are social and threats are natural; the social impact of disasters can be reduced with tools that belong to society, its organization and its culture—coexisting in this way with the geographic and climatic conditions that form part of our lives. We know that the greatest disaster of all is losing trust in the information and in the State, which turns every catastrophic event into a terrible blow against social cohesion and the governability of our society.

A third danger is to think that disaster risk is a particular. In fact, it is a system of linked risks embedded in social vulnerability that is the foundation of our society. According to the United Nations, the vulnerability of the communities generates new risks and constantly increases the impacts of the disasters in the economic, social, sanitary, cultural and environmental areas in the short, medium and long term. This has a clear reflection in the reality of our country: vulnerability is not a set of properties of the population, nor it works with independent variables. The poor man, the woman, the immigrant or the elder are not more vulnerable than others just because of their condition, as it has been systematized in the public policies discourse through the concept of “vulnerable groups” to prioritize the targeting of resources. Alternatively, we are a country more vulnerable to disasters because of our social inequality and, furthermore, due to the difficulty we have had in solving that issue. We are vulnerable because we have overly delayed the agreement on the country we all want. Each one of us is exposed then to be at greater risk or to experience risks different from those we had before a disaster, namely:

If the cities that are reconstructed are spatially segregated; if the productive activities that are reshaped continue focusing on the distribution of income in a sector of the population; if health service is delayed longer than a person with post-traumatic stress can endure; if after-fire reforestation is done with species that consume the water that is needed to survive; if there are no regulations or systems of protection against new environmental contamination; if there are no evaluations that determine the risks or other threats that might be present in the places to which the victims move; if the new forms of life do not respond to the communitarian projects nor they make sense to the local culture; if the rural localities keep receiving decontextualized support that does not cater to their needs due to centralist and urban strategies; if the specific needs of grandparents, children and indigenous peoples are neither understood nor met; if trust in the state interventions diminishes as much (or if rage increases as it has happened during disasters) so as to discourage individuals from taking part in the citizen decision-making again.

To sum up, vulnerability during disasters must be taken care of by attending to the social, economic, cultural and political risks that together diminish the possibility of coexisting with (and not just surviving) natural threats, so that we can fulfill our capacity of being, having and making a worthy life before, during and after crisis situations.

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