Adaptive governance as a catalyst for transforming the relationship between development and disaster risk through the Sendai Framework

Submitted by Ruth Butterfield | published 7th Feb 2019 | last updated 6th May 2020
Earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Photo: Sonny Inbaraj


The implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction requires non-traditional management and governance approaches for substantial reduction of disaster losses to occur. Adaptive governance (AG) has been identified as a mechanism through which to fundamentally change the relationship between development and disaster risk, with potentially far-reaching implications for science, policy and practice. At its core are collaboration, multilevel collective action, and continuous learning for building knowledge and effective social-ecological systems (SES) management.

This paperpresents evidence of AG in the articulation of the Sendai Framework and explores its potential as a ‘non-traditional’ approach to disaster risk reduction (DRR) in tackling the challenges of complex SES and multi-level socioeconomic, cultural and political factors and processes. Taking an AG lens, we analyse the prevalence of AG characteristics and determine which of the Sendai Framework's components would require an AG approach to facilitate a transformative agenda for DRR. We also identify opportunities for employing an AG approach beyond what is already articulated to further enhance disaster resilience and to foster equitable, resilient and sustainable development. Our findings indicate significant references to AG in the Sendai Framework, and we posit that the Sendai Framework could indeed be an important “window of opportunity” for transforming DRR through AG. We conclude by discussing the challenges that must be overcome for AG to provide practical solutions for the urgent transformations required in DRR, and by calling for further research to identify the spaces and pathways through which deliberate transformations might occur.​

This paper was originally published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction on 31 January 2018.

*Download the full open access paper from the right-hand column. A summary of the key points from the paper is provided below.

Methods and Tools

We analyse the stated objectives, priorities, language, narrative, as well as the institutional and governance arrangements of the Sendai Framework, to identify the extent to which AG principles are present, the importance of AG for DRR, and the potential of AG in the implementation of the Sendai Framework.

We first determine how the Sendai Framework's ethos aligns – or can be aligned – with AG, and identify the Framework's components that would benefit from adopting an AG approach to enable a transformative agenda for DRR. We then identify opportunities for its application beyond what is articulated to further enhance disaster resilience and to foster practice that places the causes of social vulnerability at its centre and strives to achieve equitable development outcomes.

We combine a content analysis and a thematic analysis of the Sendai Framework with the aim to understand the articulation of the Framework and to help in the analysis of the four characteristics of AG. A systematic review of the literature on AG and DRR is used to identify the keywords and phrases used in the AG literature, to define the research questions, and to determine the analytical categories for coding and the level of analysis. The keywords are then used to examine the presence of AG principles in the text of the Sendai Framework. The frequency of different AG keywords identified in the content analysis of the Sendai Framework document are categorised under the four characteristics of AG.

By analysing the presence of AG in the articulation of the Sendai Framework, we determine the components that would require an AG approach to enable a transformative agenda for DRR. Key transformative aspects of the Framework which make the AG approach tenable and necessary are also identified. Opportunities are identified for employing this approach beyond what is already articulated in the Sendai Framework with the aim to further enhance disaster resilience and to foster practice that places the causes of social vulnerability and equitable resilience at its centre, and to integrate DRR with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Lessons Learnt

Our analysis shows that the articulation of the Sendai Framework has several synergies with the core ideas of AG. We demonstrate the novelty brought to DRR by using an AG approach and identify opportunities for employing AG in the implementation of the Sendai Framework. The Sendai Framework presents an important window of opportunity to enable the transformation of DRR through AG by acting as a vehicle for promoting novel, innovative and contextualised DRR policies and practices that consider pertinent realities, capacities and levels of development, whilst respecting relevant policies, priorities and jurisdictions. This has the potential to overcome the existing barriers between communities of practice in development, DRR and humanitarian work as it promotes collaborative, participatory, informed, and inclusive governance across all scales. This is an essential catalytic value of AG, without which the Sendai Framework would likely be less potent.

However, despite the potential of an AG approach to enable the transformation of DRR in the implementation of the Sendai Framework, it would likely face challenges, which would need to be overcome to provide feasible and appropriate DRR solutions. Most of these challenges relate to the rather broad and ambitious goal of the Sendai Framework, which requires more integrated, interdisciplinary and inclusive approaches by all stakeholders, including those outside the traditional DRR community of practice. The AG approach confronts the fundamental structures and processes, such as institutions, governance, politics, as well as social and organisational culture that drive levels of vulnerability and resilience over time and space. Solutions to these challenges, and the transformations urgently needed in DRR to address the causes of vulnerability and to achieve more equitable, resilient and sustainable development outcomes for all, will require interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches in research and practice not seen to-date.

AG itself also has important limitations as its core purpose is not to promote transformation. Rather, it has been developed to promote stability of fundamental functions and goals in dynamic contexts. More theoretical and empirical studies are required to determine how AG, or specific elements of it, can support the kinds of visioning, decision-making and action that can be described as transformative. Future research will need to carefully consider the biases and gaps generated by an AG approach and allow for a systematic production of questions on what can be done beyond or instead of AG. Empirical research is needed to demonstrate how AG could be operationalised in DRR projects, and how it could further improve the relationship between DRR and development.

Further research is also needed to identify the pathways through which transformations in DRR can occur. Two innovative approaches are currently being developed in related work by the Stockholm Environment Institute. One focuses on making visible the trade-offs in development and disaster risk reduction decision-making processes and their potential consequences in creating disaster risks in order to make more informed decisions that support sustainable, equitable and resilient development. The other identifies critical issues that need to be addressed as part of interventions that seek to achieve contextualised, equitable resilience.

Further resources