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What governance do we need to reduce disaster risk and enhance our democracies amid COVID-19 crisis?

Date:13 October 2020
Author:Angelo J. Imperiale
Disaster Risk Reduction Day
Disaster Risk Reduction Day

Some reflections on occasion of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction 2020

Since the call launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, the 13th October has been designated to celebrate worldwide the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), as an opportunity to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and advocate for reducing the exposure of local communities, especially the most vulnerable, to future disasters.

Over the last 20 years, 4.5 billion people have been directly impacted by natural hazards, and over 2.5 million people were killed by the negative consequences of disasters (Wallemacq and House, 2018). Floods and droughts affected the largest number of people (3.5 billion). The average number of disasters has increased from 165 per year (for the period 1978-1997) to over 329 per year (for the period 1998-2017), in other words, almost one per day. Over 90% of all disruptive events between 1998 and 2017 were climate related disasters, and climate change keeps creating dramatic consequences on people’s wellbeing and the environment, including: abnormal weather events such as extreme heat and droughts; loss of biodiversity; rising sea level; negative impacts on human health; and climate-induced displacement and migration. All this comprises the global climate crisis that, together with other global stressors (e.g. globalization, financial crises, deforestation, desertification, resource scarcity, migration, pandemics), constitutes the global risk landscape in which we live. The COVID-19 pandemic makes this global risk landscape more evident than ever.

This year, with a focus on “it’s all about governance”, the United Nations wanted to emphasize that disasters are outcomes from societal failures and poor governance in prevention, but that, conversely, good governance and adequate DRR and resilience building strategies can save lives and reduce the risks of future disasters. From a governance perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes two major features of the global risk landscape in which we live: (1) the ‘hyper-connectedness’ among communities, regions and states coping with the same global risk landscape, and (2) the injustice in how the extent and intensity of, and susceptibility to risks and impacts are distributed among the affected population. In such a hyper-connected global risk landscape, local capacities to prevent, mitigate and monitor disaster risks and impacts influence the capacity of a country and of intergovernmental organizations to cope.

The more there are vulnerable and unprepared communities, regions and countries, the higher is the risk, especially in case of a pandemic, that the disaster will spread within and across regions and all over the world. Furthermore, the intensity and frequency of risks and impacts are not equally distributed among countries, and within and among regions and communities within a country. Those communities and regions that are less prepared within a country, and those people who are the most vulnerable and exposed to risk, within a community, are likely to be affected most. The more there are vulnerable communities and vulnerable regions within a country, the more the whole country will be vulnerable to disasters and the more the disasters will spread across countries and be a cost at a global level.

In essence, now that new emergency and recovery funds are being made available to help states all around the globe recover from the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on “it’s all about governance”, lead us to reflect on which governance strategies states should put in place in order to end inequity, reduce vulnerabilities and disaster risks and impacts, enhance community wellbeing, and build resilience at all levels of society. However, for more than 40 years research in disaster studies proved that states, in times of crises and disasters typically rely on old-fashion, top-down, emergency-centered, civil protection systems which induce decision-makers to consider reducing the risks and impacts of disasters as being the business of a select few, rather than everyone’s business. In times of crises and disasters, (1) use of emergency powers by local and national political leaders; (2) adoption of military-type command-and-control approach over knowledge, technology, resources and responsibilities for risks and impacts mitigation and monitoring strategies; (3) derogation from public procurement procedures, anti-organized crime controls and environmental and public health safeguard policies; and (4) a narrow techno-scientific approach to vulnerabilities, risks and resilience are all components of the governance strategies (i.e. institutional, financial, risk management, physical planning and participation strategies) typically used by states to orient recovery interventions. These strategies lead to centralized knowledge, technology and resources, and constitute the mechanism through which centralized civil protection agencies operate and disaster capitalism takes hold. Rather than end inequity or enhance the capacities of societies in DRR and resilience-building activities, at the practical level, these arrangements facilitates the worsening of social risks (e.g. rent-seeking, elite capture, organized crime infiltration and corruption) and social exclusion, exacerbating inequities, vulnerabilities and associated disaster risks and impacts, thus creating a downwards spiral of public debt and disasters.

We live in an Era in which the cascading impacts that might be created when the risks comprising such a global risk landscape turn into disasters within and among countries, regions, and localities, and when states respond perpetuating business as usual may have unparalleled negative consequences on the functioning of our democracies. How states will cope and which governance strategies they will use to recover from the current crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic will influence the capacities of our societies and democracies to survive and prosper in such a global risk landscape. Keeping business as usual and using the same governance strategies that produced inequities and exacerbated vulnerabilities and disaster risks, and impacts in past recovery interventions will be the most serious threat for the future survival of our democracies.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on “it’s all about governance” should induce the international community to think thoroughly about new, socially-sustainable and inclusive institutional, financial, risk management, participation and physical planning strategies to orient recovery interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic. These strategies must overcome the constraints of old-fashion, military-type command-and-control approaches to risk reduction, and build socially-sustainable disaster risk governance at all levels of society. Rather than use emergency powers, derogations, and top-down planning, such governance should lead to new strategies through which equity, participation, social inclusion, mutual aid, cooperation, disaster risk reduction, social sustainability and community wellbeing are considered principles, means and desired outcomes of all recovery and re-development interventions.

About the author

Angelo J. Imperiale
Angelo J. Imperiale
Angelo Jonas Imperiale has a PhD in Spatial Sciences from the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. He has a Master of Philosophy (cum laude) from the University of L’Aquila, Italy, with a specialization in  complex systems theory and social sciences. He wrote a PhD thesis in Rural Sociology and Disaster Risk Reduction titled "The role of local communities in a global risk landscape". The thesis defines what is Community Resilience and explores the role of Social Impact Assessment to enhance it in vulnerable regions and post-disaster situations. His expertise is in the fields of Social Impact Assessment, community resilience, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development in vulnerable regions.

List of publications
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2020. Top-down reconstruction and the failure to “build back better” resilient communities after disaster: lessons from the 2009 L’Aquila Italy earthquake. Disaster Prevention and Management  (in press, online) 
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2020. The mechanism of disaster capitalism and the failure to build community resilience in post-disaster situations: Learning from the L’Aquila earthquake. Disasters (in press, online) 
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2019 Command-and-control, emergency powers, and the failure to observe United Nations disaster management principles following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 36, 101099. 
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2019 Reflections on the L’Aquila Trial and the social dimensions of Disaster Risk. Disaster Prevention & Management 28(4), 434-445.  
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2016 Experiencing local community resilience in action: Learning from post-disaster communities. Journal of Rural Studies 47, 204-219.
Imperiale, A.J. & Vanclay, F. 2016 Using Social Impact Assessment to strengthen community resilience in sustainable rural development in mountain areas. Mountain Research & Development 36(4), 431-442 . 

PhD Thesis
Imperiale, A.J., PhD Thesis, The role of local communities in a global risk landscape: Using Social Impact Assessment to understand, recognise, engage and empower community resilience in vulnerable regions,

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