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Indigenous coping strategies

There is an argument that ‘vulnerability’ is a concept constructed historically by outsiders – often anthropologists looking in on indigenous cultures – that are alien to their own experience.

Greg Bankoff (2001) took this cultural view of vulnerability and offered a critique of how vulnerability has been perceived in development and disaster risk circles as weaknesses. Many of the vulnerabilities that the colonial observer witnessed were the result of their two cultures meeting: conflict, disease and population displacement. This myopia caused highly adapted, locally-appropriate coping strategies to be overlooked.

Broadening the traditional Western perspective on vulnerability can help us break free from a simplistic one-dimensional view to take account of how societies have been shaped, historically, by repeated exposure to hazard risk, and reached some balance with both the natural and threat environment.

Bankoff worked extensively with communities in the Philippines where people are exposed to typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, drought, pests, disease, conflict and more. He characterises this way of living as ‘a culture of disaster’.

Bankoff explores the colonial view which perceived ‘other’ areas of the world as ‘dangerous’ and in need of cultivating, according to certain stereotypes:

  • From the 17th- to the early 20th centuries as indigenous populations and Western settlers succumbed to disease, ‘the cure’ was Western medicine

  • Post-1945, Western investment and development aid was the solution in poverty-stricken regions

  • Late 20th century, exposure to hazards and natural disasters required a Western management approach

Development, post-1945, was built on the widely accepted goals of economic growth and material gain. As a consequence many societies felt themselves ‘under-developed’, suggesting poverty and backwardness. The term ‘third world’ reinforced the characterisation. This view continues despite the development of high-technology cities in most countries and the globalisation of culture.

Historically, exposure to hazards has been influential in shaping human culture. A society’s past accommodation and exposure to disaster has influenced its development in shaping political structures, economic systems, the environment and social order. It may not be obvious why a community behaves in a particular way and appears to follow certain customs or have certain beliefs, but such observations should be reassessed in the context of how people come to ‘live’ with extreme environments.

There are numerous examples where people recognise potentially threatening situations before a disaster occurs. The early signs of an approaching tsunami, for example. Where hazard risk is greatest, people often reach an accommodation with such lived risks leading to the development of a ‘culture of disaster’.

Chronic, regular and familiar threats become integrated into normal experience and part of in-built coping mechanisms. Care must be taken not to generalise based on individual cases, as often they are particular to a specific context.

The Western view identifies parts of the world where poorly-governed disadvantaged people live in a fragile, unsafe environment. This narrow concept of vulnerability, therefore, characterises communities as weak and passive. Much of that vulnerability results from rapid and unsustainable environmental change due to intensification of agriculture, urban development and climate change triggered predominately by emissions from more economically-developed countries.

In an increasingly globalised world, people are more mobile and tend to have less depth of knowledge about their environment and their neighbours. As the frequency and intensity of disasters increase, we are losing the locally-specific coping capacities we used to have – or those we have are no longer fit for purpose, due to rapid change.

The way we shape knowledge about the natural and social worlds reflects the ways we have defined professional disciplines, which constrains our thinking. Much has been said about the value of cross-disciplinary working, and this is a field that demonstrates the advantages of greater collaboration between disciplines. The proposition is that we have to free ourselves from conventional views and thoughts on vulnerability to better understand the perspective of those most at risk. It is necessary to pay much greater attention to local knowledge and experience, local environmental and risk management practices.

Vulnerability as a concept has proved useful but its practical application is hampered by its one-dimensional view of the processes that transform a hazard into a disaster. We must consider the historical, social and environmental conditions before a disaster and think beyond ‘vulnerability’ to ‘adaptability’ – how a society has adapted over time and the potential to adapt in the future.

Your task

Comment on the approach described and how this might influence the way vulnerability is understood.


Bankoff, G. (2001) Rendering the World Unsafe: ‘Vulnerability’ as Western Discourse. Oxford: Overseas Development Institute/Blackwell

Bankoff, G. (2003) Cultures of Disaster. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge

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This article is from the free online course:

Community Preparedness, Recovery and Resilience: An Introduction

Coventry University