How do we prioritize when making decisions about development and disaster risk? A look at five key trade-offs

Submitted by Michael Boyland 30th October 2017 14:36
Earthquake damage to houses in South America


Decision-making at all levels - from the individual to the national government - involves trade-offs. Actions that support one goal (say, expanding cropland to increase production) may conflict with another (say, protecting forests). The same is true with regard to development and disaster risks: making the most of coastal real estate, for example, will also expose more people and property to hurricanes. A dam that improves water supply to some areas may exacerbate drought or flood risks further downstream. We cannot eliminate all risks, but by understanding the trade-offs being made, we can better manage and reduce the risks. This SEI discussion brief outlines key trade-offs in decision-making on development and DRR across scales, in search of intervention spaces and opportunities to transform the relationship between development and DRR. 

This brief identifies five key types of trade-offs – involving power, equity, time, risk and aggregation. The power trade-off is about who gets to be part of the decision-making process and how power is shared. The equity trade-off relates to how the development gains and the disaster losses are distributed across the population. The temporal trade-off weighs short-term versus long-term gains. The risk trade-off is about which risks we weight heavily, and which matter less. Finally, the aggregation trade-off weighs macro- economic development gains against disaster losses. To act as a practical example, each trade-off is mapped against the principles of 'building back better', something which is typically aimed for in disaster recovery decision-making processes.

Five key trade-offs

The authors have developed a trade-off typology in order to systematically analyse the trade-offs involved in a given decision-making process. The approach considers both the risk rationale (i.e. how risks are conceived and perceived, and how they are weighed against one another and prioritized) and the processes through which development and risk trade-offs are framed, deliberated and negotiated. Table 1 below summarizes each trade-off and critical questions posed when analysing decision-making processes.

Applying the trade-off typology to 'build back better'

The idea of “building back better” starts from the recognition that rebuilding after a disaster provides an opportunity to correct past mistakes and lay the foundation for more equitable, resilient and sustainable development. From that perspective, it is a prime example of integrated development and DRR. Yet choosing to “build back better” is not straightforward. It involves real trade-offs that funders and development partners may not always recognise, some of which are quite evident to local people and can result in strong resistance. The typology can help us understand and address those trade-offs, as summarised in Table 2.

Conclusions and next steps

We know development is essential for reducing and coping with disaster risks, but development also often creates or exacerbates risks. Our analysis highlights the extent to which these negative effects are the result of conscious choices that could be managed better by recognizing and addressing key trade-offs.

Focusing on trade-offs moves disaster risk interventions upstream, to the processes that shape development and regulation. It acknowledges that those processes create and lock in risks. Focusing on the trade-offs made by decision-makers can thus help identify an “intervention space” where we can take a more proactive approach.

The TDDR trade-off typology aims to make it easier to recognize trade-offs in decision-making about development and disaster risk, even when they are not immediately obvious. The analysis and questions presented in this brief are a first attempt to systematically examine the multiple dimensions of decision-making pro- cesses.

The next step in our work is to test this approach in in-depth empirical case studies. Future research should also focus on how to operationalize this analytical approach, so that it can become an instrument to transform the relationship between development and disaster risk.