By Heidi Tuhkanen

Development and disaster risk reduction policies and actions are essential for global goals such as sustainable development and reducing societal risks. However, they are often seen as being at odds with each other, rather than mutually supportive. While economic growth has contributed to the overall global poverty reduction over the last 25 years, development driven by economic growth also creates risk. For example, rapid and unplanned urbanization without regard for the environment can leave areas with high concentrations of people and assets without natural defenses that functioning ecosystems, like wetlands or coral reefs, provide. On the flip side, regulation aimed at reducing disaster risk is often seen as being in opposition to or limiting economic development initiatives.

The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) has studied the misaligned relationship between development and disaster risk in order to develop ways to transform this relationship. One of SEI’s approaches to support equitable and disaster resilient development is based on the identification and anticipation of “trade-offs” made within post-disaster decision-making processes. Though our empirical work has taken place in the post-typhoon Yolanda reconstruction phase of Tacloban, Philippines, five years after the disaster, the broader literature base for our work indicates transferability to other regions and contexts of the world (Tuhkanen et al., 2018).

Trade-offs and equity, a complex relationship

Trade-offs are defined as a decision between two desired outcomes where a gain in one requires a loss in another. The losses, or how these decisions negatively impact society, are sometimes not at the forefront of decision-making. Trade-offs are common in complex policy situations where multiple objectives, stakeholders, scales, and time-horizons collide. These are decisions that determine which objectives, stakeholders, and areas are prioritized, and more importantly not prioritized, in the decision-making processes and the outcomes. At times, they are not even explicitly considered and are based on assumptions which can be questioned. To understand why we continue to make decisions which result in negative consequences and create risks, it can be useful to look at the trade-offs involved in the decision-making process (Tuhkanen et al., 2018), as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1. A typology framework of development and DRR trade-offs, adapted from Tuhkanen et al. 2018, p. 7-8 and Tuhkanen and Han, 2018 p. 2.

Equity is a common, yet critical, dimension of trade-offs made in DRR and development decision-making processes. These decisions and the resulting policies, interventions or practices are likely to affect people differently. The consequences can depend on where you live or work, your cultural or socio-economic background, your physical abilities, and your capacities to change your circumstances. The impacts of decisions might also differ across time and create consequences for future generations to deal with. This means that it is important to recognize the trade-offs: what was traded for what. We need to keep in mind who ultimately bears the losses and the risks, as well as the capacity of those groups to either cope or alternatively reduce those risks. Otherwise, we continue to maintain the misalignment between development and disaster risk, which is an obstacle for equitably and resilient development.

This begs the question, how can we work towards more aligned and equitable decision-making?

Recognize and correct for the power asymmetry in decision making processes

A more equitable outcome requires a shift in the distribution of gains, losses and risks across society. The challenge is that a shift in the distribution of gains and losses across society and changing the status quo meets with resistance from some stakeholders, particularly those who stand to lose power or privilege in this reconfiguration. Participatory tools and mechanisms which neutralize power imbalances can be utilized to develop a shared goal or to guide planning and investment. Based on their work in Sweden, Brink and Wamsler (2018) find that nature-based approaches offer local authorities opportunities for engagement of citizens or other stakeholders to develop a shared baseline or future scenarios. In areas that have experienced disasters, participatory mapping of risks with residents can also be used to validate technical hazard risk maps and can be used as an opportunity to increase residents’ awareness of future risks as well as collaborative planning of mitigation or response actions (Hordijk et al., 2016). ​

Utilize regulatory measures to support the sharing of risk and costs across society

Risk is unequally distributed across society due to differentiated vulnerability and exposure. Different groups in society have different capacities to reduce their risks, which may result in dramatically different outcomes after a hazard event. Laws and regulations can be used to support risk mitigation and prevention, as well as risk-sharing. For example, mandatory or incentivised insurance connected with discounted premiums for risk mitigation actions, can help to mitigate risk across society, increase the number of people insured (Mills, 2007). Higher coverage can help lower the cost of insurance and spread the costs of disaster losses across society. Public-private partnerships can help make the insurance affordable (McAneney et al., 2016).

Invest in disadvantaged communities to promote resilience

Decisions on where to allocate limited financial resources for risk mitigation or prevention versus post-disaster recovery and reconstruction are often based on financial calculations of post-disaster asset losses. However, while minimizing the overall value of asset losses, this favours investments into “high value” wealthy areas and fails to account for peoples’ different capacities to reduce risk, cope and recover. Thus, low income or otherwise vulnerable groups may be highly exposed to risk and disproportionately impacted by disasters. An investment strategy based on interventions in such areas can mitigate poverty and wellbeing losses and promote disaster resilience. Such interventions could include social programs and needs-based post-disaster support to affected households (Walsh and Hallegatte, 2019).

Exploring trade-offs related to equity highlights the importance of the processes that shape our decisions, as well as their outcomes across society. In short, to ensure decisions result in more equitable, resilient and sustainable development, attention needs to be paid to the participation of and outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized groups.

Further information

For more information on SEI’s work on trade-offs and transformation, please visit

Read more of Heidi Tukanen’s work on the SEI website



Brink, E. And Wamsler, C. (2018) ‘Collaborative Governance for Climate Change Adaptation: Mapping citizen–municipality interactions’, Environmental Policy and Governance, 28, 82–97. DOI: 10.1002/eet.1795

Hordijk, M., van den Brandeler, F., and Filippi, M.E. (2016) ‘Facing the floods. Community responses to increased rainfall in Guarulhos, Brazil and Arequipa, Peru’, in Roy, M.,  Cawood, S.,  Hordijk, M., and Hulme, D. (eds) Urban Poverty and Climate Change: Live in the slums of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

McAneney, J., McAneney, D., Musulin, R., Walker, G., and Crompton, R. (2016) ‘Government-sponsored natural disaster insurance pools: A view from down-under’, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 15, 1–9.

Mills, E. (2007) ‘Synergisms between climate change mitigation and adaptation: an insurance perspective’, Mitig Adapt Strat Glob Change, 12, 809–842. DOI 10.1007/s11027-007-9101-x

Tuhkanen, H., Boyland, M., Han, G., Patel, A., Johnson, K., Rosemarin, A., Mangada, L.L. (2018) ‘A Typology Framework for Trade-Offs in Development and Disaster Risk Reduction: A Case Study of Typhoon Haiyan Recovery in Tacloban, Philippines’, Sustainability, 10, 1924. doi:10.3390/su10061924

Tuhkanen, H., and Han, G. (2018).  How do we prioritize when making decisions about development and disaster risk? SEI Brief. Available at

Walsh, B., and Hallegatte, S. (2019) ‘Measuring Natural Risks in the Philippines. Socio-economic Resilience and Wellbeing Losses’. Policy Research Working Paper 8723. World Bank Group.  Available at

Heidi Tuhkanen is a senior expert at SEI and works with sustainable development and governance related issues in the urban context, with a focus on adaptation and DRR. Heidi is member of the IRDR International Centre of Excellence on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk hosted in SEI.