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1. Introduction

The present paper is a non-academic and thus, hopefully, unpretentious, attempt at reviewing the literature on the role of local institutions and their interaction in disaster risk mitigation (DRM). The motivation for immediately cautioning the reader from the outset about the less than revolutionary character of this review is twofold: first, it is based on the appreciation that, unfortunately, there exist relatively few documented local experiences which are, honestly speaking, innovative and “worth writing home about” - a lot of disaster management is still organised almost exclusively by the military and/or central government; second, a deliberate attempt is made to keep away from the “dev-speak” jargon that has come to beset many recent laudible contributions to the development policy debate (such as the Sustainable Livelihoods framework), so that those (under pressure to keep) looking for new frameworks and methodologies will remain largely disappointed. On the other hand, what will be found on the following pages is a non-exhaustive compendium of strengths and limitations of local institutions involved in DRM and some suggestions for tapping the former and tackling the latter.

As recently as the late 1990s, scholars complained of “the absence of much social science research on disasters in developing countries” (Quarantelli, 1998: 35). There is still a relative dearth of research and (electronically available) information, in particular from Sub-Saharan Africa, and, while the situation is better in the case of Asia, the present review draws a lot of examples from Central America. Not least, this is because “in the 1990s, Central America has played a pilot role in efforts aimed at reducing natural disasters and has thereby achieved important progress not only in conceptual but also in practical terms. For this to occur, one of the essential features is the acknowledgement of the local-, and, especially, the local government, level in preventing natural disasters and the involvement of local stakeholders that this implies” (Bollin, 2003: 5 [transl. by author])[1]. To this must be added the tremendous impact in 1998 of hurricane Mitch and of the 2001 El Salvador earthquakes which, widely covered by the media, boosted awareness and catalysed changes in attitudes towards more proactive stances.

[1] There, the period from 2000 to 2004 was declared the Half-Decade of Intensified Efforts at Reducing Disasters. The Strengthening of local structures for disaster prevention is one of the explicit action areas of this initiative.

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