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The meaning of vulnerability

The International Federation and Liesl Graz, who wrote the cover story in the last issue of Red Cross, Red Crescent (Issue 3-1997), are to be congratu-lated for taking another hard look at the concept of vulnerability. Understanding why and how people suffer is at the heart of providing effective, caring humanitarian assistance that not only helps people through an immediate crisis, but also supports them as they reduce their vulnerability to future crises.

As the magazine article points out, vulnerability can only really be understood in relation to people’s capacities. Everyone is vulnerable to some things. Everyone, and every group of people, also has capacities — experience, knowledge, talents, skills, resources, networks, ideas and attitudes — that enable them to plan, work, love, learn and live. A full understanding of who is vulnerable, and why and how, can only be achieved in relation to an understanding of capacities. Often, people who provide humanitarian and development aid talk of “capacity building.” From experiences with many groups once deemed vulnerable, I have become convinced that it is more salient to recognize and look for ways to support existing capacities. Perhaps people will develop new capacities — but they will do so from the base of their existing strengths and knowledge.

For aid agencies to address vulnerabilities, they must start from the premise that they cannot “do development” or “build capacities” for anyone else. People and societies will do these for themselves. Our task as aid providers is to help people reduce their own vulnerabilities by supporting and building on their capacities. Thus it is that the focus of the Federation on vulnerability leads to a renewed and strengthened focus on capacities — and how to support them with aid — as well.

Mary B. Anderson
Director fo the US-based Collaborative for Development Action and author of Do No Harm.


AIDS and vulnerability

I have read with interest the article published in Issue 3 -1997 on “A question of vulnerability” by Liesl Graz. I wonder if the author is familiar with the concept of vulnerability which Jonathan Mann and myself have developed since 1992 in several publications.

The first presentation of the concept appeared in
AIDS in the World (Mann/Tarantola/Netter eds, Harvard University Press, 1992). This was further elaborated in AIDS in the World II (Mann/Tarantola eds, Oxford University Press, 1996), and translated into guidelines for action in the context of conflicts in “Effets des conflits sur le risque et la vulnérabilité vis-à-vis du VIH/SIDA en Afrique: Ebauche d’une méthode analytique” (D. Tarantola in: A. Decaux, C. Raynaut eds, Urgence, Précarité et Lutte Contre le VIH/SIDA en Afrique, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1997).

The concepts laid out in the Red Cross, Red Crescent story are strikingly similar to those presented in our publications, and I wonder if they formed part of the materials reviewed by the author while preparing the article for your magazine. If yes, I regret that our publications were not referenced. If not, I am happy to note the convergence of thoughts.

Daniel Tarantola, M.D.
François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights
Harvard School of Public Health

Eds: Although the author used many sources in her research for this article, these did not include any of the above-mentioned publications. However, we are happy to make their existence known to readers who would like to further their knowledge of the subject.

Died in the line of duty

12 September 1997 Mr Shabani Nsanzebahiga and Mr Bucyensenge, two Rwandan Red Cross workers, were murdered in an ambush while escorting an employee of the Ministry of Youth, Miss Espérance, from the Red Cross youth camp in Nkamira to hospital in Gisenyi. She was also killed. The vehicle in which they were travelling was clearly marked with the Rwandan Red Cross emblem.

18 October 1997 Mohamed Bashir, a mechanic employed by the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, was killed when three ICRC vehicles were caught in the crossfire of an armed clash.

10 January 1998 Mr Gnapiragasam Thimoty Raveenthiran, 37, night watchman at the ICRC sub-delegation in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, was murdered when the sub-delegation’s offices were robbed and ransacked.

12 January 1998 Mr Sylvain Mutombo, 43, a driver employed by the ICRC delegation in Kinshasa, was killed by gunmen while on official business in the Congolese capital. His attackers then stole the ICRC vehicle he was driving.


The world map on landmines contained in Issue 2-1997 of Red Cross, Red Crescent incorrectly showed Mexico as a mine-affected country. This was an error which does not reflect the information provided in the landmines database of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which was the source of information for this map.

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