Book Review: The Invention of Disaster

Book Review: The Invention of Disaster: Power of Knowledge in Discourses of Hazard and Vulnerability.  Author: JC Gaillard, Professor of Geography, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Publisher: Routledge by Taylor and Francis Group London and New York. ISBN: 978-1-138-80562-0(hbk); ISBN: 978-1-032-16272-0(pbk); ISBN: 978-1-315-75216-7(ebk);DOI: 10.4324/9781315752167. Pages: 252; hardcover price $128.00; eBook: $39.16; Amazon hardcover price $137.66 USD.

The book is part of Routledge Studies in Hazards, Disaster Risk and Climate Change. Series Editor: Ilan Kelman. For more information:

Keywords: Disaster; hazard paradigm; vulnerability paradigm; climate change; risk; disaster risk reduction; capacity building; resilience; Sendai Framework; Paris Agreement; enlightenment; modernity; postcolonial; Western hegemony; neoliberalism; pantometry; dispositif; anthropological particularism; participatory pluralism; discourse; power; governance

Reviewer: Irmak Renda-Tanali, D.Sc. is a disaster risk management specialist, currently working for the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC Global).

This book is a discourse on the current disaster risk reduction paradigms, suggesting that they are dominated by Western postcolonial dialectic that does not necessarily take into account the unique and diverse experiences of millions of people across very different cultures. This problem is more salient in the context of climate change adaptation policies.

The author critically posits that the understanding of disasters and strategies to reduce disaster risk is built upon fabricated divides between a ‘safe’ West that has allegedly built up the necessary knowledge of disaster risk and developed appropriate strategies so that there are fewer human casualties, and a ‘dangerous’ rest of the world needs to learn from the “common sense” created by the West.

The author posits that the attempt to reduce disaster losses by bridging the “nature/hazard versus culture/vulnerability binary” by the Western governments in the lesser developed parts of the world has only been partially effective. The neoliberalist interventions at the local levels in other parts of the world, aside from only a few tangible outcomes, have largely been ineffective. This is despite the fact that climate-driven discourse and frameworks generated by the Western world (particularly the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) focus emphasis on adaptation and inclusiveness and participation of those at risk including indigenous people, migrants, people with disabilities, women, and children. The seeming failure to achieve tangible outcomes is because of the repackaging of the Western-style normative and regulatory governmental approaches to climate change adaptation to non-Western cultural settings. The climate change adaptation imperatives often overlook the underlying unequal power relations that prevent access to resources that foster adaptation. Those imperatives by the West are based on the dominant discourse that nature is a threat itself and climate change is a long-term challenge. This does not sit well with indigenous or local populations (or at-risk populations) whose planning and decision-making mechanisms differ from those of Western governments. The locals perceive foreign-designed projects, not for their intended long-term outcomes, but rather in the context of pressing daily priorities. Locals usually see such adaptation projects as threats to their daily needs: expenditures towards realignment of government priorities that could lead to significant cuts in health and education which matter in the short term. Thus, ([or project implementers], reframing the climate discourse within the context of everyday needs and emphasizing their importance within local cultures and traditional forms of government could not only strengthen people’s coping capacity but also empowers them and does not necessarily undermine the importance of climate change.

The author also challenges the “inclusion” agenda of the Sendai and UN Climate Change frameworks. That Western formulated term “at-risk populations” leads to “exclusive inclusion” as it is based on the implicit assumption that the at-risk populations are outside or at the margin of the society. Categorizations or rather labeling groups such as people with disabilities versus people without disability, women versus men, children versus adults, etc. would put people in narrow and exclusive boxes. These boxes do not allow for intersecting situations such as an elderly woman with a disability, or they lead to stereotypes. Labeling certain groups as vulnerable justifies the intervention of outside actors (i.e. Western governments) and prolongs an “imperialist legacy”.

The book is organized according to 11 chapters, each as an attempt to explain further the above issues as well as additional arguments.

The book delves into the theoretical underpinnings of disaster scholarship with heavy references to the works of various disaster scholars (e.g. White, Quarantelli) and heavily quotes earlier (Kant) and contemporary (Foucault) seminal philosophers of enlightenment, governance, and power.

The book’s contribution is its effort to critically deconstruct the current disaster governance paradigms formulated by disaster scholars, international aid organizations, and Western governments across the globe and provides thought-provoking arguments regarding reducing vulnerability and increasing resiliency against disasters with bottom-up rather than top-down approaches. It takes a highly philosophical approach but presents constructive criticism and lands on solid ground with useful takeaways.

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