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Bridging the gap between vulnerable groups and vulnerable situations: Towards an integrative perspective on vulnerability for disaster risk reduction

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The concept of vulnerability has been used since the early days of disaster research and endorses the idea that disasters do not necessarily follow from specific events but depend on their interaction with specific societies (Tierney, 2014, 2019; Wisner 2016). During recent decades, and as proved by its prominence in recent UN disaster management frameworks, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN, 2015) and the Hyogo Framework for Action (UN-GA, 2005), the debate concerning the role of vulnerability in disaster risk reduction has increasingly gained momentum. Although this societal dimension of disasters is by no means an innovation of modern times, in recent decades a far more structured approach to identifying the factors which constitute vulnerabilities has been developed (McEntire, 2005). In this vein, the complexity of vulnerability has become generally acknowledged, which concerns the questions of how and to whom vulnerability is attributed. This has led to the following definition of vulnerability in the context of the United Nations disaster risk reduction policy: “The conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes which increase the susceptibility of an individual, a community, assets or systems to the impacts of hazards” (UNDRR, 2021). This definition and the associated guidelines, such as the 2015 Sendai Framework (UN, 2015), lead international disaster management efforts and allow for a structured approach on reducing vulnerabilities.

At the same time, and despite the definition above, the concept of vulnerability is still – and might, for good reasons, always be – highly contested with regard to its conceptualization and operationalization. This is not only a pragmatic question of how vulnerability can be approached in the best way for the strengthening of society but also the fundamental questions of who is deemed vulnerable for what reasons (e.g., are we all vulnerable to some extent or are there particular groups which are vulnerable?), what creates vulnerability and how vulnerability can be measured.

Two approaches are at the core of the discussion: (a) a group narrative, which assumes vulnerability to be a consistent, unchangeable and thus naturalised ontological characteristic of certain entities such as individuals or sociodemographic groups and (b) a narrative assuming vulnerable situations to be a dynamic characteristic of all potential entities. The former understanding (a) builds on specific individual characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, disabilities or poverty, as core aspects of vulnerability, in order to define vulnerable groups that are considered specifically vulnerable (Hilhorst and Bankoff, 2004). In contrast, the latter approach to vulnerability (b) stresses the highly dynamic nature of vulnerability, with all people and societal entities potentially being subject to situations that render them vulnerable, using the narrative of vulnerable situations (Wisner et al., 2004).

As this paper argues, both approaches are worthwhile, but require scrutiny of the shortcomings they entail. While the approaches are seemingly contradictory, they can and should be reconciled, as this paper demonstrates. This paper aims to outline and characterise such an approach. Starting with a presentation of the general concept of vulnerability (subsection 2.1), the paper shows its specific conceptualizations of defining vulnerable groups and vulnerable situations (subsection 2.2). Building on this, the paper demonstrates that neither of the two established conceptualizations of vulnerability is sufficient to provide an analytically substantiated, ethically acceptable and practically applicable framework for disaster risk management. Therefore, a combination of both is necessary (subsection 2.3). Finally, these theoretical considerations are translated into concrete political implications in section 3. This is achieved through five approaches: an adjustment of the ways we speak about vulnerability (subsection 3.1); a stronger linkage of disaster and social politics (subsection 3.2); improved disaster risk governance (subsection 3.3); a turn to local and community-related ways to operationalize vulnerability (subsection 3.4); and the inclusion of a challenge- and situation focused approach (subsection 3.5). Finally, the conclusion reflects on the potentials and problems of the proposed approach to understand and finally reduce vulnerability in and for disaster risk reduction.