All of us are probably familiar with the folk tale of the three pigs; how each pig built a house in a different way, the lazy one out of straw, the not so lazy one out of wood, and the industrious one out of brick. And then along came the big, bad wolf that blew down the straw and wooden houses and left only the brick structure standing. Implied in this nursery story, however, is another message about what is considered best practice when it comes to risk management and disaster preparedness. The emphasis is all about applying the appropriate technology (a brick house) to withstand the perceived hazard (strong winds) that has come to constitute the dominant way in which disasters are conceived of and prepared for in western imaginings and policies. It is assumed that people are put ‘at risk’ from hazards because they are in the wrong spot at the wrong time; the proper response is to apply the necessary scientific expertise and technological solution to predict or prevent the threat and so reduce the risk.

The way societies think about hazards and disaster preparedness, management and recovery is as much a product of culture and perspective as are what might be considered good to eat or the rules for driving a car. Just as people are vulnerable to hazards for all sorts of different reasons, so societies try and manage their exposure to risk in different ways. And just like people’s tastes and a nation’s driving habits, there is always something to be said both in favour and against them: there are different ways of achieving the same result and no universally correct way of doing it. Of course, people always think the way they go about doing things is far better than the way anyone else does them and the same is true when dealing with disasters. Except some cultural perspectives command more attention than others do for all sorts of reasons that have to do with history, trade, power and language (Bankoff 2001). In particular, perspectives that envisage best practice in terms of technocratic solutions have come to dominate both theoretically and behaviourally the way disaster preparedness, management and recovery is gone about. At the very highest level of abstraction, it is all to do with what is considered to be the relative merits of universal as opposed to local knowledge. The impacts of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 appear to both reinforce and then question the way western people think about what makes communities and societies vulnerable.

By the 1980s, it was apparent in both the developed and the developing world that to be ‘at risk’ was not just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and of regarding disasters as purely physical happenings requiring largely technological solutions. Disasters were more properly viewed as primarily the result of human actions; that while hazards are natural, disasters are not. Social systems generate unequal exposure to risk by making some people more prone to disaster than others and these inequalities are largely a function of the power relations (class, age, gender and ethnicity among others) operative in every society. Critical to discerning the nature of disasters is a novel appreciation of the ways in which human systems place people at risk in relation to each other and to their environment, a causal relationship that is best understood in terms of an individual’s, household’s, community’s or society’s vulnerability (Hewitt 1983, Wisner 1993, Blaikie et al 1994, Cannon 1994, Hewitt, 1995 and Lewis 1999). Employing vulnerability as a conceptual framework in this manner, disasters often appear more as the consequence of misconceived developmental problems rather than natural events, as the product of the deficient relation between the physical and organisational structures of a society rather than as a break with its ‘normal’ lineal expansion (Ferguson 1999: 236-241). As a consequence of this change in thinking, the dominance previously accorded technological interventions that stress predicting hazard or modifying its impact have increasingly been called into question by an alternative approach that seeks to combine the risk which people and communities are exposed to with their abilities to cope with its consequences.

Assessing the relative vulnerability of communities applies equally to all societies but attention has particularly focused on developing countries whose poverty, undisciplined populations and poor governance are largely held responsible for magnifying both the frequency and the magnitude of disasters. While evoking great public sympathy across the western world, the devastation wrought by the Indian Ocean Tsunami on the coastal regions of Aceh in Northern Sumatra was used to call attention to just how vulnerable such people really are, an exposure that was perceived as compounded by the chronic conflict situation existing in Indonesia prior to the hazard with its already traumatised and victimised population, the disproportionate mortality among women unable to swim (estimated in one report to account for four out of every five victims) that was blamed on Islamic cultural inhibitions on public displays of female nudity, and to the area’s poverty that was somehow seen as inherent to that particular culture and place. Much less international media attention was paid to just how effective Indian relief operations had been and to how that country was able to both refuse external aid and even extend assistance to its neighbours, or to the way in which the Thai authorities effected an impressive recovery programme despite their initial reluctance to take seriously notice of the impending event. What western experts declare is now needed is to establish an Indian Ocean advance warning system to mirror the one in place in the Pacific. There is little debate about the relative expense of such a scheme, how it might deflect attention away from other more immediate hazards (given that the last tsunami of equal magnitude to affect the region was generated by the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 over 120 years ago), or to the questionable benefits that a thirty minute or so warning might have conferred on those areas of Indonesia worst affected.

The hurricane that devastated 233,000 km of the southern USA on 29 August 2005, on the other hand, was a timely reminder that it is not just the ‘poor’ who are vulnerable but that the ‘rich’ are, too, even if their exposure is of a different order. Moreover, the extensive media coverage that Katrina received graphically demonstrated to the rest of the world that no one country has an exclusive monopoly on poor people, opportunistic looters or ineffectual officials. While these points have largely found public voice in one way or another, commentary on the nature of the failed levee system protecting New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain has been more muted. The storm surge associated with the hurricane that breached the artificial embankments and caused most of the city to flood is seen as a failure of the appropriate technology and not as the application of an inappropriate one. That is, the 350 miles of levees were built to withstand a category three storm but not one of intensity four or five. The answer now as it has been on at least two former occasions when there was extensive flooding (after hurricanes in 1947 and 1965) is to raise the embankments higher than their present four metres. Each time the levees are heightened, of course, the magnitude of the next breach is also raised accordingly. Just like the pig snug in his brick home, people feel secure in the thought that they have got it right and that if there is anything more to do it is only to build a still bigger brick home.

This is not by any means to be seen as a criticism per se on the importance and relevance of technology and science in disaster preparedness, management and recovery. But over-dependence on them both physically and conceptually is as much a form of vulnerability and just as potentially devastating as any that afflicts the developing countries that are usually branded as disaster-prone. There is little consideration given to alternative strategies that are less reliant on technology and lay greater stress on land re-zoning and community-based disaster management. For most of the people alive today, hazards and disasters are simply just accepted aspects of daily life, what can be termed ‘frequent life experiences’ (Bankoff 2003: 179-183). That is to say, disasters should not be perceived as abnormal occurrences as they are usually depicted through the epistemological lens of western social sciences but as normal everyday events; ones, moreover, that people at both the level of society and community have had to repeatedly live with. Non-western-societies are rarely in a position to pursue the option of solely technocratic solution to risk management as they lack the financial resources to do so. Instead, the emphasis is on a more flexible use of technology, on the application of expertise that is affordable and adapted to local circumstances, and on enlisting people’s participation as an essential element in disaster management through the formation or encouragement of grassroots organisations and community level preparedness. In fact, many non-western societies (and western ones) have a long history of formal and informal associations and networks at the local level that help communities manage disaster and deal with misfortune (Linden 1996).

Too often our approach towards disaster management mirrors the wider divisions and cleavages between and within societies. Consider again the cultural assumptions behind the nursery tale of the three pigs: how the ‘lazy’ and ‘not quite so lazy’ pigs who built in straw and wood exposed themselves to hazard and only found safety by seeking shelter with their brother who evidently had both the forethought and industry to apply the appropriate technology to meet the hazard. Low and medium developed countries are continually being made to adopt technologically based solutions to hazards that they can ill-afford and that often prove to be of dubious efficacy. While a brick house may have protected the pigs from the wolf, what would have happened in an earthquake? Perhaps the other two siblings would have had to mourn the loss of a brother who persisted in living in an inappropriately built structure for a seismically active area. If the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina can be said to have any ‘lessons’ for us, it is to suggest that western developed countries may have as much to learn about disaster preparedness, management and recovery from non-western developing countries in terms of community-based assistance and the integrated flexible use of technology as the latter do from the former in terms of technocratic know-how and scientific expertise.

Greg Bankoff is associate professor at the School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland and visiting professor of disaster management at Coventry University.


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