What we’ve learned about vulnerability assessments and how to do them

Daniel Morchain Climate Change

How can a development intervention achieve positive change for all, especially the poorest and most marginalised? Conducting a vulnerability risk assessment, using our new guide, would be a good start. Daniel Morchain, Global Adviser on Climate Change Adaptation, Resilience and Agriculture, explains.

We all experience our own reality based on our individuality, our social capital, the context we live in and the circumstances that shape our lives – and these are mostly inaccessible to others, except those very close to us.

For example, a smallholder woman farmer in Northern Ghana experiences a number of challenges in relation to growing crops, accessing water, care-related responsibilities and difficulties in selling her surplus produce in markets, which are most likely beyond the understanding of even the most well-meaning ministerial decision makers. These diverse realities also need to shape development pathways, otherwise those in decision making positions may ignore portions of the population, or even effectively perpetuate marginalisation and inequality. 

…diverse realities need to shape development pathways, otherwise those in decision making positions may ignore portions of the population

During the last few years we have been working on our Vulnerability & Risk Assessment (VRA) methodology, a tool for assessing and categorizing the hazards that social groups are exposed to. The aim is that by identifying the social aspects of vulnerability and risk through genuine wide participation and joint analysis, fairer, more rights-based and more targeted development strategies will be reached.

The VRA combines people’s voices to create an all encompassing view of their realities which can be used to identify ways in which positive change can be introduced. While the process is likely to appeal mostly to development practitioners and decision makers, it has also proved to be a useful tool for researchers, and we have plans to use it for private sector engagement.

The key has been to bring into this analysis as wide a group of people as possible and to give them a voice in decision making spaces. The Knowledge Group is comprised of a key selection of actors who either depend on the landscape and/or have an impact on it: community, local, municipal, district and sometimes national government; representatives from local communities, women’s organisations, marginalised groups, researchers, development NGOs and the private sector.

During two days of discussion, the Knowledge Group defines, agrees and prioritises the key issues affecting the landscape in question as well as the different social groups living and operating in it, they look at how each group is affected differently and, finally, what can and should be done to reduce inequalities, reduce poverty and transition towards resilient development pathways.

Paul Joicey, Country Director of Oxfam in Myanmar sees the VRA as an empowerment tool, he explains:

‘It opens us up to genuine community-led action based upon individual agency and informed choice. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach… it integrates modern and scientific knowledge with traditional and community-based knowledge, this has been a gap in much climate change adaptation work.’

Dr. A Atiq Rahman, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS):

‘The VRA facilitates a necessary collaboration between different levels of governance and provides a space for marginalized groups to voice their concerns and work side by side with decision makers.’

When we conducted the first VRA, in Armenia in April 2013, we focused on crop yields and livelihood activities as important measures of assessing the vulnerability of social groups. From this initially rather technical understanding of impacts, the methodology has evolved to integrate in much more depth the social, systemic and governance aspects of vulnerability and risk.

the methodology has evolved to integrate in much more depth the social, systemic and governance aspects of vulnerability and risk
The most recent VRA exercise in Botswana in November 2015, for instance, explored the livelihood implications for unemployed youth of having few work alternatives to agriculture, while also having limited prospects in this sector due to deteriorating soil quality and frequent drought.

The Botswana VRA has also evidenced one important aspect of the methodology: the willingness of people, if pushed a bit, to jump from a passive, isolated state (such as disempowered, marginalised people, or at the other end of the spectrum, people in positions of authority used to top down thinking) to an active, collaborative state resulting in joint thinking and doing. These quotes demonstrate this:

Principal Economist and District Planning Officer, Bobirwa, Botswana

‘This exercise will influence and contribute to our draft district development plan, particularly the activities related to climate change. Because of the useful outcomes the VRA generated, we will fund workshops like this in other parts of the district.’

An unemployed young person taking part in the exercise and serving as translator

‘I’ve learned I don’t have to keep waiting for the government to do something, I can more proactively involve myself in finding ways forward.’

A member of the Knowledge Group

‘I’ve been thinking … the next time we should invite ourselves to each other’s meetings rather than wait for people to come from far away to do it.’

Understanding the key issues and social groups in a landscape is a key principle of the VRA, everything needs to be looked at in context without a pre-determined framing based on Western values, agendas and assumptions. Our how-to-guide to this process is something that has evolved in the last few years through implementation and reflection in about a dozen countries. If used correctly, paying due attention to the principles and strengths, and lessons learned, which are laid out in the guide, it will contribute to fairer, more rights-based and more targeted development strategies.