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“Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and peoples”

23 Feb 2017Literature Essays

We often tended to look at the world around us as out birth given gift, a presence that is although unattainable, it is yet in sight for years to come. However, there have been heard constant alarm signals that point out the fact that the world is not only lacking any positive improvement, but has even increased its degree of involution in terms of the natural habitat, the environmental aspect, as well as the human society. As a result, today, we limit our questions to establishing the connections between the natural elements which have been given unaltered, and the human society, that has been on a constant move and change. Greg Bankoff, Georg Frerks, and Dorothea Hilhorst tried in “Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and peoples” to find a viable connection between these elements and possible answers for questions relating to the degree in which modern society plays a role in defining the future evolution of the world.

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The book in its entirety tries to underline a different approach to the concept of vulnerability seen as the result of the interaction between society and its components in relation to the environment. In this sense, while the traditional writings in the field focus on a mere description of the natural phenomena, the present essays point out the relationships that are constructed at the level of the society and the means through which the people exercise the constant pressure on the natural environment.

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From this point of view, it is important to take into account the exact process of cause and effect that develops between the people and the environment they live in. Moreover, in order to offer a comprehensive account of the processes described, the authors use examples from Asian, Africa, and Latin American countries that, given their current developing nature, are useful for pointing out the basic elements of their theoretical approach.
The book raises a certain number of questions that are essential for the world we live in today. The authors however, point out a few basic elements on which their theoretical approach is based focusing especially on the relation between the society and the environment and the factors that lead to the construction if a certain connection between the two.

From this perspective, the point that could be raised is to which extent this connection between people and their environment is defining for addressing vulnerability and risks and how it can be tackled with sufficient success and without excluding the current development trends. Although globalization, as a relatively recent concept is the subject of enormous debate, it is in fact the general trend world economies and political structures follow and, without a doubt, vulnerable entities cannot oppose it, but rather use it in their advantage.The current debates subscribe to a general trend that opposes two different set of approaches. On the one hand, there are those that offer the pure description of the situations on the ground, offering information totally impartial, such as statistics, numbers, and official declarations from the respective state; on the other hand there are those who see vulnerability as an obvious consequence of traditional, economic, and political factors that determined people to develop a certain attitude.

The strong point of the latter approach is the wider analysis that such conclusions develop. In this sense, by studying the overall perspective, one is able to have a more complex image of the reality in which different factors of vulnerability manifest themselves. At the same time however, the weak point of such an approach underlines the interpretative nature of the analysis. In this sense, while the first perspective offers a detailed factual blueprint of the society prone to vulnerability, the latter, the one in discussion, has a limited quantity of information and relies more on different assumptions and interpretations. This in turns gives the analysis a higher degree of subjectivity and a more an academic sense, rather than a scientific one.

Given the nature of the essays incorporated, the book applies the latter method of analysis and interpretation.Anthony Oliver Smith draws the attention on the role the construction of the society from its traditional roots plays in generating a certain culture that would eventually lead to its impact on the environment. However, he argues, the society must be made completely aware of the implications such a mentality have on the evolution of the environment. He concludes that indeed “we must recognize that the concept of vulnerability, with its interpretation of social forces and environmental conditions, is part of a larger effort to rethink the relationship between society, economy, and nature.” (Smith, 2007)

Surely, examples such as Chernobyl or those related to the misuse of industrial capabilities can be used in support of the argument; however, to which extent these were the result of an evolutionary culture based on the conception of disregard for the environment is arguable. On the one hand, the respective disasters could have been avoided by using higher security measures for the facilities, a measure that is dependent on the cultural and national specific to a limited degree. On the other hand, Smith tries to underline his point by giving examples of the hurricanes and other natural disasters, these have occurred all over the world, irrespective of the blue print of that culture.

According to Smith however, globalization is indeed a major factor when identifying areas prone to disasters in term of natural catastrophes. In this sense, the inequality this process promotes gives rise to areas in which resources are scarce, while in others they abound. This in turn creates a differentiation in mentality for the both sides, as one becomes more aware of its possessions and the other more eager to have them. The result is the different attitude of the two, which reverberates on the overall perspective on the environment in the form of “one big ecosystem with ecologically irrational results.” (Smith, 2007) This line of thought follows other general assumptions on the impact of globalization on the environment. Kirsten Dow discusses global warming, a consequence of a misused ecosystem, as being the result of globalization and, consequently, responsible for creating and maintaining vulnerable areas around the world. (Dow, 2005) Taking into account the great disparities that globalization, through its interdependent processed, creates, it can be said that, indeed, it plays a major role in defining areas of great vulnerability.

In regard to the homogenization of different regions in terms of their atomization in the relation with the environment, Stephen underlines the fact that globalization is the given force that unites but at the same time disunites peoples and regions. On the one hand it is the element that brings into contact all the places around the world, through its immense unseen capabilities. On the other hand, this tendency backfires due to the difference in natural resources, financial assistance, or the mentality of the respective people. Consequently, as Linda Stephen pointed out, “the regionalization and homogenization of vulnerability forms part of a global process in which ideological, economic and political tensions polarize the positions of countries.” (Stephen, 2007) Indeed, globalization is a two sided effect process. It can both help improve the nature of the vulnerabilities, or worsen them. Nonetheless, the process has integrated the entire world and any limitation of its scope would be futile. Therefore, while trying to release the tensions imposed by globalization, the modern society must accept its implications and results.

Omar Cardona brings about the issue of the theoretical approach of the notion of vulnerability by comparison to different ideas expressed on the matter. He underlines the fact that for a wider perception of both the determinant factors of vulnerability and the environment it creates, certain factors must be taken into consideration such as “the physical, economic and social susceptibility or predisposition of a community to damage.” (Cardona, 2007) However, he points out the fact that vulnerability and risks are somewhat interconnected and in order to tackle both of them, a coherent system of public policies is needed that would focus on the identification of the risks, their mitigation and eventually a proper response that would ensure a long time solution. (Cardona, 2007)

Indeed, this scheme would be feasible if one takes into consideration countries that actually have the institutional support for such projects. However, there are states, such as Cambodia, that lack this framework and, in order to deal with “natural disasters, especially floods and droughts in the last decades” it must rely on the international community for help. (Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, 1) While Smith dismissed the contributions a global society could bring, the fact remains that without additional help, states such as Cambodia “one of the most disaster prone countries in South East Asia” cannot recover or implement any programs meant to deal with this sort of situations. (Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, 6-11)

The theoretical approach that identifies the society as the one largely responsible for the pressures made on the environment point out indeed the human component of this scheme. However, as Roger Pulwarty, Kenneth Broad and Timothy Finan argue, aside from the sociological analysis and the interpretation of the cultural background, there are the factual data that must be taken into consideration when drawing up a map in terms of vulnerability. Taking the case of hurricane El Nino, they consider that the data provided by research institutes are more concluding in advancing a possible vulnerability threat. From this perspective, the data used are most of the times accurately researched upon and offer a stronger reliance and independence.

While the first approach relies on an interpretation of the findings, the latter offers exactly the facts without any subsequent interpretation. This technique, as stated in the beginning, is useful because it offers a clear and unaltered image of the overall conditions present in reality. A t the same time, it can be said that the use of “flows of knowledge and information and assessments of the policies and practices that give rise to these practices” enables both the population and policy makers to have an accurate account of the situation on the ground. (Pulwarty, Broad, and Finan, 2007)

In most situations, the examples that are given in support of any argument weight heavily on the overall image of the presentation of the material. Despite the fact that the information is essential, their illustration through practical examples gives them additional persuasive power. In this sense, Linda Stephan’s presentation of the situation in Ethiopia is stronger still due to the clear demonstration of the viability of the theory. Her major point of discussion revolves around the level of analysis of vulnerability which she considers to be most suited. She tries to exclude any possibility of corruption schemes by focusing not so much on the national level of development of programs meant to reduce risks and vulnerabilities but rather to refocus the strategy towards lower levels of decision making bodies. Indeed, the Ethiopian experience has pointed out the fact that without a proper institutional framework, the society as a whole remains prone to corruption and influence trafficking. However, if the sort of actions meant to reduce the vulnerability of the society in the face of globalization and other threats, an improved solution would indeed be a decentralization of the decision making process. This opinion is justified by the belief that no matter the disadvantages of the global world, its structure is essential for the eventual development of the nations. However, if the respective state has a limited capacity to absorb even the financial aid given by donor countries and other financial institutions, it is difficult to ascertain the degree of assistance the national government could offer those communities in need. From this point of view, bringing the decisions taken closer to its beneficiaries may prove viable solutions for establishing a series of plans and strategies that would improve the conditions in the area considered to be vulnerable. This approach would reduce the eventual discrepancies between the general guidelines for the entire country and the particular needs for one specific area. In the Ethiopian case, the agriculture system, gravely affected by drought and foods at the same time, had particular demands for every region of the country.

However, the problem of the Ethiopian government focused on the need and implicit demand of the international community to keep a rather controllable grip on the means through which vulnerability is dealt with. This perspective points out the limits of globalization and of interdependence.

Overall, it can be concluded that there are a great deal of issues facing the world today, problems that most of us are unaware of. Still, it is important to take these vulnerabilities into consideration in order to find the causes, and possible solutions. The present book tried to draw a connection between the social behavior and nature of the individual and the environment he puts pressure on. Moreover, they hinted to the existence of a culture that would contribute to the gradual degradation of the environment. From a personal perspective, I consider that in order to have an adequate place for the next generations to live in, it is important to refrain from any urges, both cultural and national, that would ruin the harmonious evolution of the environment. Also, I see globalization as the only solution that would ensure the development of all the countries in the world, at one time or another.


  • Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. “Mapping Vulnerability to Natural Disasters in Cambodia.” VAT Asia Case Study 5. 
  • Bankoff, G., Frerks, G., Hilhorst, D. (eds.) 2007. Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and peoples. Earthscan, London.
  • Cardona, O. “The need for rethinking the concepts of vulnerability and risk from a holistic perspective: a necessary review and criticism for effective risk management.” In Bankoff, G., Frerks, G., Hilhorst, D. (eds.) Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and peoples.
  • Dow, K. “Steps Toward Mapping Vulnerability to Climate Change.” Directions Magazine. July 2005. Retrieved 1 June 2007, from http://www.directionsmag.com/article.php?article_id=901&trv=1
  • Smith, A. O. “Theorizing vulnerability in a globalised world: a political ecological perspective.”In Bankoff, G., Frerks, G., Hilhorst, D. (eds.)Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development and peoples.
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