When communities challenge our assumptions about vulnerability

May 10, 2016

An elderly village man in the Delta was asked ‘what types of people would be more vulnerable when a disaster strikes?’ 

Surprisingly he said, ‘the middle aged men in our village were more vulnerable while Nargis happened!’ 

In general, every development worker (including me) expect that the response to this question might be something like ‘women, children, elderly person and disable in our community are more vulnerable because of they are physically less capable to withstand the extreme conditions’. 

 

Although this is true in general, an old man from one of the most severely affected villages in Nargis had very different view on this. Technically speaking, he is an outlier. But his rationale behind his answer was interesting. 

 

In principle, he agreed with the concept of physical vulnerability. 

 

But, given his real life experience of Nargis, he said ‘When the cyclone hit our village, all physically vulnerable people were kept safe. 

 

In the midst of very powerful wind and storm surge and in the middle of a dark night, the men who were always supposed to be stronger than others came out, saved the others, searched people, stabilized houses to avoid collapse … 

 

A lot of middle-aged men in our village were dead’. 

 

Here, it is not to make a judgment on whether he is right or wrong. But an important thing is about the concept of vulnerability, which is very context specific. 

 

Depending on the culture and inherent mechanism in a community, like these ones in Myanmar, physically strong people may (voluntarily) place themselves in a position to take a riskier responsibility to protect the weak ones. 

 

Let’s see another outlier from a different study.

 

‘… it would be great if the support also goes to the better-off in the village … because if they have good business, we also get the jobs and our income would be secured.’

 

‘It is also good for us to get the support, both material and technical … however we are not expert in doing business like them, so the loss is more. 

 

We can’t cope with the loss; so at the end of the day, the profit is just enough for our daily living and cannot be saved for another investment’ 

 

‘…in our community, the better-off socially protect the poor’

 

These are the quotes from the project’s beneficiaries.

 

By looking at the two examples mentioned earlier, regardless of such strong internal systems in certain communities, these systems often fall in the blind spot of some development agencies. 

Instead of strengthening communities’ internal systems, organizations usually bring an exotic solution to address the inequality and vulnerability issues. 

 

I really doubt the solutions that are designed in the usual way (e.g. empowering too much on a selective group of community without promoting their meaningful coexistence - and engagement - with the other groups) will result in sustainable and equitable community development. 

Instead, it may result segmentation of the communities between each other. 

 

If a program could design their intervention to strengthen the existing systems, this will be very effective for the community. 

 

We can target to save the vulnerable but the strategies should be more comprehensive, rather than stand-alone vulnerability-targeted projects.

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