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OPINION: Linking vulnerability assessments to decision-making

An important but often neglected component of Vulnerability Assessments (Vas) involves the linkage between the final product and the real-world decision-making processes taking place on the ground. A great deal of energy and work goes into the technical aspects of VAs, often providing highly detailed and accurate projections and forecasts. However, VAs are only ever as good as their weakest component, and often the great technical work that goes into these is underleveraged due to the form in which the “user interfaces” provided for decision makers to access and utilise the technical information are constructed. A more granular approach, in which individual ingredients are provided in a user-friendly “ready to use” format, and can be “mixed together” by local actors based on their unique demands may be a good way forward as we seek to better link VA products and real-world decision-making.

Often, we find vulnerability assessments are conceived and designed with a focus on internal demand within the organisation that produces the VA. That is, the real target “users” of the VA, the decision makers that are in charge of legal and financial considerations, are often only considered in an ancillary fashion or once the VA has been launched. Businesses that design products for customers in this manner tend to last only a short time, yet in disaster risk and climate change communities such an approach is still pervasive.

A large part of this is due to the nascent nature of such assessments. Since vulnerability assessments, especially those related to climate considerations, are relatively novel, we are still in the formative stages of figuring out what should be in these documents, and even if they should be in document form (as opposed to some more interactive or “tool” oriented fashion). This is normal in all fields of inquiry, and must be taken under consideration: at each stage of improvement of the VA model there are different priorities to be addressed, with a steady maturing of processes as a “winning formula” is developed.

It is important to start to re-conceptualise VAs away from written report formats and toward the framework of other, more widely utilised decision making tools. Decision makers are often bombarded by so many competing demands that the “squeaky wheel” often gets the grease. Written reports can seldom become these “squeaky wheels”: these often take the form of other stakeholders that provide a louder voice, immediate demands that cannot be sidelined, constant budgetary constraints, and those that loudly adhere to the status quo.

In order to better leverage the great technical work that goes into these VAs, it is recommended that decision makers not only be engaged early in the process, but that they serve as beta testers of the product during the development process. Furthermore, milestones should be gated by real-world decision maker input as an important reality check to ensure usability is at the forefront of VA design.

Related to this local decision maker based demand, the UN ISDR, in conjunction with many Disaster Risk Reduction experts throughout the world, has been undertaking a process to establish priorities for a post HFA, MDG framework. An important concept that has emerged is the need to provide local level governments and stakeholders access to “ingredients” with which they may build their own “risk reduction recipe”. In this manner, top-down and bottom-up approaches can be linked together. In general, it is ok to present high-level ‘recipes’ (for example, a “dashboard” that quickly provides an overview of vulnerability drivers), but that also makes it easy to drill-down and isolate individual ‘ingredients’ (for example, the maize crop vulnerability component for a specific district).

Many of these approaches focus on a more demand-centric approach, shifting away for the conventional supply-driven approach that has dominated the field. It is ok to have a supply-centric approach as we approach a nascent field of inquiry; however, as we mature the field, the development of VA tools should be propelled along this path toward greater demand-centrism.

Chris Lavell is an independent expert on risk assessments and modelling. Over the last few months Chris has been working with CDKN’s team in India to bring learning from the design and delivery of vulnerability assessments in Latin America to Uttarakhand, India, where the State Government is working with CDKN to launch a vulnerability assessment. 


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