UNISDR needs a better definition of ‘Vulnerability’

Dr. Ben Wisner is a renowned academic and a GNDR Member Dr. Ben Wisner is a renowned academic and a GNDR Member

In this short piece, Ben Wisner makes an incisive critique of an aseptic definition of “vulnerability” provided by UNISDR where power relations, institutional failure and intentionality are omitted.

Models of vulnerability are, in fact, expanded definitions (sometimes taxonomies) that suggest to various degrees of detail the biophysical and social processes that combine to produce susceptibility to loss and harm and obstacles to recovery. These models are, for the most part, diagrammatic overviews or frameworks for asking questions (Wisner et al., 2012). As the UNISDR considers updating its terminology of disaster risk reduction, an important issue is just what questions its definition of vulnerability brings to mind. What domains of human life does it exclude by remaining silent about them? What domains does it privilege?

Birkmann (2006; 2013) suggests that vulnerability can be conceptualized at a series of increased degrees of complexity and scale. The definitions discussed below all fall within the three most complex conceptual spaces defined by his diagram (Figure 1).

Chambers was one of the first to introduce formally the term ‘vulnerability’ into the analysis of rural poverty. The term came as one of five elements that interlocked with each other, producing what he termed a ‘ratchet effect’ or ‘deprivation trap’ (Chambers 1983: 112): a condition of ‘integrated rural poverty’ from which it is very difficult to extract oneself. The other elements were political powerlessness, physical weakness (ill health), isolation, and income poverty (see also Wisner et al., 2012: 22).

Diagram of concentric circles of vulnerability

Figure 1: Birkmann’s Representation of the Scale and Complexity of Vulnerability Concept [Source: Birkmann (2013: 39)].


Wisner et al. (2004: 11) produced a definition that is often used: By vulnerability we mean the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard (an extreme natural event or process).

Anderson and Woodrow ([1989] 1998: 10), pioneers in the development of practical methods of vulnerability and capacity assessment (VCA) define vulnerability as ‘long-term factors which affect the ability of a community to respond to events or which make it susceptible to calamities’. They go on to distinguish among material/ physical, social/ organizational, motivational/ attitudinal vulnerabilities (pp. 13-14).

Alexander provides a very broad but useful definition (2013: 980): Vulnerability represents the potential harm incurred by a person, asset, activity or assemblage of items that is at risk. …[T]he risk is motivated by natural, technological, social, intentional, or complex hazards and the potential outcome is a disaster. As it is mainly the result of social, economic, political, and cultural factors in decision making, vulnerability is constructed socially.’

Alexander goes on to distinguish six vulnerability types (p. 982).

  1. Economic: people lack adequate occupation.
  2. Technological (or technocratic): caused by the riskiness of technology.
  3. Residual: caused by lack of modernization.
  4. Delinquent: caused by corruption, negligence, etc.
  5. Newly generated: caused by changes in circumstances.
  6. Total: life is generally precarious.

The UNISDR undertook to update and to modify its terminology after its ten year long programme of global risk reduction based on the Hyogo Framework of Action expired. The UN review of terminology is still in progress, however, as of August 2015, the newly established Sendai Framework of Action continued to define vulnerability as the HFA did. The definition is slightly expanded version of that found in UNISDR (2009), and reads as follows (UNISDR, 2015: 31).

The conditions determined by physical, economic, social and environmental factors, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impacts of a hazard.

Given the influence of the UN on governments and to some degree on scientists who advice governments, it is worth considering this definition in depth.

The first thing obvious is the flabbiness of this formulation. What is the difference between ‘physical’ and ‘environmental’ conditions? How is a ‘community’ to be defined? The suggested 2015 definition is, in fact, a return to the UNISDR’s 2004 definition (UNISDR, 2004). Strictly speaking this constitutes a great leap backwards compared to the 2009 version because the word ‘community’ was completely unnuanced in 2004. The reader is left assuming that this socio-spatial unit contains homogeneous people all vulnerable at the same time to the same degree. In 2009 this ambiguity was partly eliminated by the phrase, ‘Vulnerability varies considerably within a community over time’. Nevertheless, it would have been more accurate to say, ‘within a community and over time’, flagging the reality that there are winners and losers in every situation and considerable differentiation among people in primary socio-spatial units.

However, the problems with this definition go deeper than the use of loose language. Striking by its absence is any reference to politics (Mascarenhas and Wisner, 2012). Also missing are the power relations discussed by Alexander and Chambers. Institutional failures flagged up by Birkmann and by Anderson and Woodrow are not in evidence. Moreover, there is no room in UN bureaucratese for intentionality – either malign, as in Alexander’s notion of ‘delinquent vulnerability’ or beneficent as in the notion of ‘capacity to anticipate, cope with and recover from’ found in the definition by Wisner and his co-authors.

In short, words matter! (Figure 2) Silences also matter. Definitions depend on models and frameworks – implicit or assumed, or, often, explicit. Whatever their form, the framing of an issue (such as disaster risk reduction) nudges people to ask certain questions and not to think of others. To the extent that power, institutional failure and intentionality are missing from the UNISDR’s current (and likely future) definition, a new generation of researchers, practitioners and policy makers are being gently guided away from these areas of human life.


Figure 2: Words matter [Source: Foucault (2008)[1983] cover art (painting by René Magritte)]


  • Alexander, D. (2013) Vulnerability. In: K. Penuel, M. Statler and R. Hagen, eds, Encyclopedia of Crisis Management, pp. 980-983.
  • Anderson, M. and Woodrow, P. (1998 [1989]) Rising from the Ashes: Development strategies in times of disaster. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Birkman, J. (2006) Measuring vulnerability to promote disaster-resilient societies: conceptual framework and definitions. In: J. Birkmann J., ed, Measuring vulnerability to natural hazards, pp. 9-54. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, Tokyo.
  • Birkmann, J., ed (2013) Measuring Vulnerability to Natural Hazards. 2nd edition. Tokyo: United National University Press.
  • Foucault, M. (2008) [1983] This is Not a Pipe. 25th Anniversary Edition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Mascarenhas, A. and Wisner, B. (2012) Politics: Power and disaster. In: B. Wisner, JC Gaillard and I. Kelman, eds, The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction, pp. 48-60. London: Routledge.
  • UNISDR (2015) Proposed Updated Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction: A technical review. August. Geneva: UNISDR.
  • UNISDR (2009) UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction. Geneva: UNISDR http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/7817.
  • UNISDR (2004) Terminology: Basic terms of disaster risk reduction. Geneva: UNISDR.
  • Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T. and Davis, I. (2004) At Risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
  • Wisner, B. Gaillard, JC and Kelman, I. (2012) Framing disaster: Theories and stories seeking to understand hazards, vulnerability and risk. In: B. Wisner, JC Gaillard and I. Kelman, eds, The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction, pp. 18-34. London: Routledge.

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