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The title of the meeting “Measuring the Unmeasurable” was provocative and stimulating. Dealing with the concept of “vulnerability” across a range of disciplines concerned with sustainable human development, risk reduction, and human security in operational terms is a challenge. 

Source: Ben Wisner
Source: Ben Wisner

At one extreme, vulnerability is a fundamental characteristic of human existence, where intersubjectivity reveals the dependence of each individual on others and the individual’s proneness to loss, injury, and abandonment. At this pole of reflection on the phenomenon of vulnerability, the social sciences come close to their philosophical limits, and the “data” are qualitative. At the other extreme, vulnerability may be defined by climate science, engineering, or economics as propensity to specific, measurable negative effects or impacts. The quanta may be narrowly defined (as soil moisture and crop yields, a building’s behavior under seismic stress, or money). One way of representing this continuum of ways to comprehend vulnerability is provided in a background document.

Key Questions: Measure Vulnerability…

- To what? - Through what? - By whom? - For whom? - What for?

The disciplinary breadth of the participants was very large, a fact that enriched the discussions. Integration of reports of on-going research work in Sri Lanka following the December 2004 tsunami, flooding in Russia, and pre-disaster planning in Tanzania, Central America, and South Africa helped to center and focus so many wide ranging points of view.

An enormous number of fresh insights came out of the deliberations. These ran the full gamut from the use of qualitative methods such as story telling to capture perceptions of risk and vulnerability to fully quantitative methods involving remote sensing and econometrics.


In the end, however, everyone seemed to agree that the way forward in making the concept of vulnerability useful in development, risk reduction, and human security lies in answering some fundamental questions: Measurement of vulnerability to what? Through what? By whom? For whom? To achieve what?


- Maybe not un-measurable

- If un-measurable NOT unknowable (e.g. capable of description)

- Certainly not inaccessible to policy & practice

A report of the second meeting of the UNU-EHS’ Expert Working Group “Measuring Vulnerability” is in preparation and will be published early 2006. For orders please contact UNU-EHS, Ilona Roberts, Goerresstrasse 15, 53113 Bonn. For more information about the above topic, please contact the responsible scientists Joern Birkmann or Ben Wisner

All of the presented inputs at the 2nd EWG meeting will be available early 2006 in a publication. For more information please contact the above mentioned persons.

For further reading please download:

+ Please note, that the full versions of the reports will be published in the UNU Press book "Measuring Vulnerability to Hazards of Natural Origin" edited by Joern Birkmann, which will be launched early 2006.

All of the presented inputs at the 2nd EWG meeting will be available early 2006 in a publication. For more information please contact the above mentioned persons.

2nd EWG Meeting in Bonn 2005