Disaster and Development

Collins, Andrew E.
Abingdon, UK/New York, USA: Routledge, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-415-42668-8, 285 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Majova, Lucia

Disaster and Development, a title in the Routledge 'Perspectives on Development' series, focuses on the analysis of two mutually influencing and interlinked disciplines: the author aims to illustrate that disasters and development are two parts of the same issue.

The negative impact of disasters on development is quite clear. Development as a process of improvement has always been undermined by the occurrence of disasters, where previous development achievements are damaged. Collins' perspective on disaster and development is taken from the other end; where development has either positive or negative impact on disasters, or where the stage and quality of development determine whether or not certain negative events become disasters.

Disasters are understood from the functional perspective of being a consequence of insufficient development of protection against vulnerability and insufficient adaptation to new conditions in times of crisis. This perspective empowers people to be the managers of disasters, rather than its victims. Despite the fact that risk reduction has been included in development practice, there is still a wide gap between the goal of reducing vulnerability and its achievement. This is probably one of the main motivations behind this book: to emphasise the importance of risk assessment and its reduction in development activities, and to advocate the involvement of all relevant institutions in practising this.

The text is written in a handbook style and serves to summarise and introduce the topic. This does not make it as useful as those publications which provide deeper analysis, but it makes good basic reading on the topic. Collins gives a good introduction to underlying frameworks that can be used in approaches to disasters and development. The role of institutions, such as states, international government organisations, and NGOs, is crucial to risk reduction, whatever their analytical standpoint.

The second chapter is full of complex contradictory or supplementary theories and interpretations of the influence of development on disasters. An introduction to past development perspectives, whose predictions have not been fulfilled, is from today's perspective irrelevant. On the other hand, the chapter also presents more up-to-date perspectives. This part of the book will be useful for those who are new to the discipline, providing them with a theoretical overview, as well as a good starting point for in-class discussions.

The third chapter looks at how disasters influence development, by reinforcing the need for disaster-reduction activities. In this sense, disasters can be considered as a positive factor, prompting continuous attempts to improve resilience and build capacity. In fact Collins' perception of disasters as opportunities is a recurring theme throughout the whole book and a very useful concept, thanks to its pro-active and optimistic approach.

The following chapter focuses on health in the context of disaster and development. This consideration may be thought surprising or even irrelevant; however, Collins successfully addresses the importance of health-related issues in the context of disasters.

The three remaining chapters focus on practice in disasters and provide coherent guidance for practical action. Giving general information that applies to most disasters, Collins also emphasises the importance of conceptualising each disaster as unique, because an understanding of the context is crucial for an effective response.

The chapter on learning and planning focuses on continuous cycles of 'learning by doing', because reflections on past actions, lessons learned, and a participatory approach constitute the most important part of effective and efficient disaster prevention and recovery. The chapter brings together various approaches to the assessment of disasters and development, and the level of detail contributes to a solid understanding of assessment practices in disaster management.

The roles of early-warning systems, of prediction, measurement, and the collection and analysis of quantitative and qualitative data are explained in the following chapter, with an emphasis on various approaches to the latter. The final chapter focuses on mitigation and high-quality responses in order to reduce the negative impacts of disaster.

This is an essential and highly useful handbook for all students of development practice. Collins introduces a complex topic in a coherent and understandable way. He includes examples from practice, with figures and tables that make the topic vivid and attractive for those without practical field experience. Each chapter is written in a logical sequence, with cross-referencing between chapters that demonstrates the author's deep understanding of the topic. Avoidance of highly specialised language makes the text easy to follow.

Although this is an introductory text which does not provide deep insight into each aspect of its complex topic, it is entirely suitable for its intended audience; but the book is enhanced by a large number of useful references and suggestions for further reading, making it more attractive to those who wish to gain a deeper insight into the issues introduced here. The only dimension that I find lacking is the need to address the primary causes of disasters, such as climate change. Here I disagree with Collins' argument that disasters are unavoidable: I would rather say some disasters are unavoidable. But this would be the subject of another book.