How to respond to ‘drought’: rethinking standard approaches

Over the last four weeks, a blog series has asked what is the best way to respond to ‘drought’? This is an important question for a country like Zimbabwe, and with climate change the question will become even more important. The answer though is not obvious.

First we need to define what is drought in a way that is meaningful to local contexts, going beyond a conventional ‘meteorological’ definition with a focus on rainfall to thinking about the outcomes of multiple, intersecting factors.

Second, we need to understand how farmers respond to rainfall variability, and think about ways of supporting their own practices.

Third, we need to question the quick-fix temptations of technical, external solutions to drought – whether insurance or the whole paraphernalia of early warning, anticipatory actions and social assistance programming – as they frequently incorrectly assume that drought can be managed as a calculable risk (anticipated, predicted and planned for), when in fact we don’t know what the future holds, and uncertainty, even ignorance, prevails.

Finally, this has implications for how responses to droughts and disasters more generally are framed – not as singular events that can be predicted, managed and controlled, but always as uncertain, unfolding processes, where different responses are required, centred on building reliability through new forms of practice and professionalism.

Together these four themes are quite a radical challenge to the standard approaches to social protection, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance. However a shift from a technical, externally-driven approach to risk management and control to one that starts from understanding local responses to uncertainty and how reliability can be generated in the face of highly variable conditions is one that needs to be taken seriously. This requires some major rethinking of how standard programmes are designed and implemented.

So if you missed the series, here they are again.

What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions

Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe

Insuring against disaster: the politics of protection

Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

A sad post-script

This week we learned of the tragic loss on June 5 of Alex Magaisa from a cardiac arrest at the age of only 46. It is a terrible loss for Zimbabwe’s intellectual and activist community. In addition to being a law lecturer at the University of Kent in the UK, Alex was an avid writer and his Big Saturday Read gained a huge following. Although we didn’t always agree, his analyses were always stimulating and provocative and links to his writings regularly appeared on this blog. As a public intellectual, challenging the status quo through well honed arguments, always well written, Alex’s contribution to debate about Zimbabwe’s future was vital. He will be sorely missed.

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