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The Concept of Vulnerability – A Theory for the Problems of Tomorrow

© Colourbox© ColourboxWhen a society proves itself to be incapable of recognising its own vulnerability and a lack of resources prevents individuals from bracing themselves for a possible catastrophe, the way is then paved for natural phenomena to unleash their full destructive force.

Even a peasant keeping an anxious watch on the skies for a sign of the monsoon coming can mean poverty. This was the observation with which Amartya Sen heralded the concept of vulnerability into development politics and the social sciences at the beginning of the 1980s. The Indian-born economist and Nobel laureate had analysed various famines and, in doing so, had heightened his awareness for the significance of imminent natural disasters. He discovered that vulnerability did not just stem from the capricious moods of Mother Nature alone, but that natural disasters were more often than not able to unleash their full destructive force due to social institutions being either non-existent or poorly functioning.

“Natural disasters” are cultural disasters

Crop failures only turn into famines, if there are no compensatory safeguard mechanisms for the farmers and agricultural workers and if political institutions are either unwilling or incapable of intervening on behalf of the people concerned. There have in fact been actual cases of food being exported from a country, while sections of the population were starving – “natural disasters” are above all very often cultural disasters.

The concept of vulnerability was adopted and developed further by development researchers and poverty analysts. From their point of view the concept encompasses more than merely observing available resources, like disposable income for example, but also examining in what ways external strains like storms, floods and droughts make the scarcity and distribution of resources a problem. In more abstract terms vulnerability means being exposed to external stress factors that cannot be overcome with the help of the resources available. The question is however – can this concept, which was based on the situation in developing countries, be applied to the highly industrialised countries of the West?

“Silent risks” also greater for the poor than for the rich

© ColourboxUp to just a few years ago people in this country were still labouring under the apprehension that any possible hazards could be brought under control or at least sufficient resources could be made available to collectively compensate any individual damages occurring in the event of an actual catastrophe. Even if they were confronted with new strains, people did not believe that there was any connection between them and poverty, as put forward by the concept of vulnerability.

This might however be true in the long term. Social-epidemiological studies have shown in the meantime that it is in particular “silent risks” like polluted groundwater, particulate matter and noise that also put more strain on above all lower income levels in the industrialised countries. It was mainly the poorer sections of the population in industrialised countries, too, that were affected by the forerunners of climate change in the form of storms, floods, heat waves and landslides. Those that can afford it, leave the danger zone in advance – they are also better able to react to emergency situations. As we are faced more and more with the effects of climate change this “segregation of risk” is expected to increase, rather than decrease, in the not to distant future.

The disaster hurricane Katrina left in her wake demonstrated this perfectly. On top of an already inadequate disaster management program, the “privatised” evacuation plan came much too late and, for people without their own car, was hard to comply with. The bursting of the levees was further exacerbated by the failure of the crisis management team. It was the poorer districts of town in particular that were overwhelmed by the floodwaters.

General-interest services should come under public spending

Both aspects of vulnerability – the distribution of resources on the one hand and the strains on the other – clearly determine the range of intervention possibilities. On the one hand, those people who have enough money and have the relevant knowledge can do more to protect themselves. On the other, collective hazards can only be reduced, or at least channelled, by collective measures. Levees, reservoirs or the Bengali “cyclone shelters” can only be of benefit, if they are classed as freely available public resources. That is why (not only) this type of general-interest service is dependent on a community that functions and on democratic structures that promote the interests of all sections of the population. The effects of climate change are going to put more and more pressure on the state as a regulatory body. If the state back-pedals here and allows the private sector to take the responsibility, the vulnerability of society as a whole, and thus the vulnerability of every individual, will be even greater. In this context the concept of vulnerability can contribute like no other factor to making the connection between ecological and social issues visible.

Alban Knecht
is an assistant lecturer at the Munich University of Applied Sciences and at the University of Munich. His research focus is on social politics, poverty and social inequality.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2010

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