Does Vulnerable Mean Helpless?

What does it mean to be fragile? What does it mean to be vulnerable? In today’s development discourse, these terms are regularly applied to states prone to conflict or at the forefront of the impacts of climate change (or both). The ideas of fragility and vulnerability tend to underpin entire policies and frameworks towards development, and in this age of climate change, particularly resilience and adaptation.

So what happens when we categorize a state as fragile? Are we throwing over existing strengths? What happens when we categorize an entire country as vulnerable? Are we telling the citizens of that country that they are weak?

Another problem is the competing definitions of the flip-side of fragility – resilience, which has been written about previously on this site. Given the diversity of challenges, of strengths and assets between and within countries, it is very difficult to apply a universal definition not only of resilience, but also of fragility. Moreover, while the international community tends towards applying definitions to entire countries, the situation is more complex than that. A country is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the government, the geography, the environment, the natural assets, the human assets, the history, the culture(s) and the people themselves. One or more parts of a country may be fragile or vulnerable, but rarely can the entirety of a country be deemed fragile.

For example, fragility is defined as ‘the quality of being easily broken or damaged’ (Oxford Dictionary). While a government may be fragile, the people very likely are not, or are at least far more resilient. I believe the people of Syria, of Iraq, of Palestine, of Somalia… they all demonstrate just that. They are vulnerable, indeed, but they are not fragile. They get on with their lives. They need help (and don’t we all from time to time) but they are not helpless.

This begs the question of how definitions impact our perception of the type and size of intervention a country needs, as well as how the local population of a ‘fragile’ or ‘vulnerable’ country perceives a development intervention.

We work in an era of ‘global frameworks’, of ‘sectors’ and of holistic definitions. We are pretty attached to our frameworks, and, despite shouting from the sidelines, of our sectors, too. We have frameworks for sectors like DRR and CCA, for environment sustainability, for governance, for health care… all issues that are wrapped up in a collective bow when it comes to the day-to-day existence of the average person. People do not sectionalize their lives, so it doesn’t make too much sense that development take that approach.

When we use frameworks to help define sectoral interventions, we like to use those holistic definitions of sustainability, of resilience, of vulnerability and fragility. And then apply them to entire countries. All of a sudden countries at risk due to climate change, like small island states in the Pacific, are ‘vulnerable’ and ‘fragile.’ Indeed, they are – to climate change and its associated risks like food security and health epidemics. But these terms lend to a perception that communities cannot help themselves, when in fact it is only one aspect of life where vulnerability prevails, or where the cracks of fragility are apparent.

Sadly, though, once the term(s) are applied in one sector, they metamorphosize into all encompassing approaches across the board. And so programmes are designed through a lens if helplessness rather than leveraging existing community capacities. We subconsciously equate ‘vulnerability’ with ‘helpless’ to the detriment of the communities (who don’t like that title) and development programmes which fail to capitalize on the rich history and local knowledge that can improve resilience and promote sustainable development.

How do we overcome this? In theory, these ‘titles’ are applied for the purposes of directing funding where it is needed most. My jaded view is that sometimes it is used for political expediency – to call a country vulnerable or fragile to demonstrate commitment to issues without really understanding the ramifications of such. We need to understand what we lose as well as what we gain by bandying these terms around.

I believe that development practitioners need to begin with themselves. Individuals don’t like to be pigeon-holed, so when designing programmes for ‘fragile’ or ‘vulnerable’ states, think about what that means to the communities that live there. Think about how that changes objectivity to subjectivity from both the donor and the beneficiary perspective. We want to promote resilience and sustainability. So should we be using terms that lead to perceptions of helplessness? Probably not.

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