Since 2000, it is estimated that floods, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural hazards have cost the world more than $1 trillion. These disasters have triggered significant social, ecological and economic devastation well beyond their immediate points of impact. As the President of Oxfam America, a humanitarian relief and development organization, I am often asked which characteristics makes one community more resilient than another and what can communities do to better prepare for natural disasters?

Under Administrator Raj Shah’s leadership, USAID has been trying to answer these questions and today released its first ever policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience to recurrent crisis. This guidance should be considered a breakthrough, and Oxfam congratulates USAID on a very thoughtful framework to saving lives and creating conditions where families and communities can prosper. The guidance outlines a real commitment to link short-term humanitarian response interventions with longer-term development programming by creating joint planning cells that work comprehensively to address both humanitarian and development needs in close coordination. This is not an easy undertaking. Oxfam, too, is trying to do a better job at linking humanitarian and development programming in countries where we work.

Medhin Reda in her teff field at her home in Tigray, Ethiopia. Oxfam America and partners are working on the Rural Resilience Initiative, which offers the poorest farmers a chance to buy weather insurance. For those too poor to have cash, they can pay for their premiums by working on community projects. The initiative also promotes a variety of tools that will help rural families build their resilience, including access to credit, encouragement to save, and steps to reduce the risk of disaster. Photo Credit: Oxfam America

For me, what makes some more resilient than others comes down to people’s rights. The question is: rights – who has them, who doesn’t and why? Risks and vulnerabilities are never equitably distributed:  poor men and women are more vulnerable because of the structure of their societies and economies.  Lack of access to economic assets, essential natural resources, or to political power translates into greater risk and vulnerability when crises hit. That is why it is essential that when we talk about resilience, we must also talk about issues of rights and equity and how they contribute to resiliency.  As USAID goes about implementing its new guidance throughout the world, this interrelationship should be at the core of the new framework.

As an example of how resilience, rights and equity relates in El Salvador, located in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to natural disaster, Oxfam has been part of disaster risk reduction programs in which community organizations have not only led projects to prepare communities to evacuate, but have also taken measures to reduce the chance of floods. Those same groups have helped bring about the enactment of civil protection laws, which has subsequently enhanced government investment, in risk reduction infrastructure for communities where it is needed most.

The new USAID guidance comes at a critical juncture when the world is looking more deeply than ever at how to assist people and their societies withstand and recover from a growing number of natural disasters. In many cases, national governments and the poorest and most marginal communities already have found ways to increase their resilience, and we should be doing more to enhance their capacity to prepare for and respond to crises. We would be remiss to not only support local capacity but to ensure communities’ successful approaches and methods to weather disasters are at the heart of our operational principles.