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Measuring risk and vulnerability in South Africa - the UNU-EHS PhD Block Course

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The PhD Block Course "From Vulnerability to Resilience in Disaster Risk Management" highlights the complexity and importance of vulnerability and resilience in the field of disaster risk management. It takes place in Bonn, Germany and Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Fabrice Renaud, UNU-EHS, talks in this interview about objectives, participants and the alumni community.

Could you talk about the PhD Block Course that you organize? What is it all about?
The course informs practitioners and university students on approaches to measure risk and vulnerability. It highlights the complexity and importance of vulnerability and resilience in the fields of disaster management, development and risk reduction. The course takes place at the Disaster Management Training and Education Centre of Africa (DiMTEC), which belongs to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. We have had this very successful partnership with DiMTEC for four years already, over which we have jointly organized several block courses. 
What makes this course stand out?
One of the nice things about it is that it is an opportunity for UNU-EHS and DiMTEC to give back some of the expertise generated through our research activities to students that come from all over Africa. 
Who are your students?
Principally practitioners working in the field of disaster risk management. They hail from government or NGOs in South Africa and other African countries. Organizing the course in South Africa, we can reach out to the communities that we do not necessarily reach when we organize the course here in Bonn, where it is more academic and there are more full-time students who attend the course as opposed to students with a professional background. The course combines theory and practice, and the feedback we have received so far is very positive. The course adds value to their knowledge. We hope to continue and even extend this partnership with DiMTEC, a partnership that has worked fantastically well up to now. We also hope to continue contributing to capacity development in the region. 
Speaking of capacity development, what countries do the students come from?
In 2012 we had students from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. So, it is mostly Southern Africa, but in past years we also had people coming from as far as Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and Lesotho. We reach out to quite a lot of people. 
You mentioned that the feedback you received so far has always been positive. Over the past three years, you have built up an alumni community. Aren´t alumni the best promoters of your work?
We built up a UNU-EHS alumni community, covering not only the alumni of the block course but all our alumni who have been involved in our capacity development and education activities. Moreover, we were discussing the possibility of sending out a survey to the students who attended the first three courses. We hope to find out, with more than three years of hindsight, what the course brought to them, so that we can refine our teaching approach and content, in order to improve. This course targets African students and African practitioners as well as scientists. Hopefully, this alumni community will bring out the word on what has been done, so that we can reach out further and further within Africa. We hope to build on that strong base. 
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
First of all, working with extremely competent and highly motivated colleagues in Africa. There is great enthusiasm to contribute to the knowledge of key topics that UNU-EHS addresses globally. Climate change, adaptation, vulnerability, risk and resilience are all topics that are relevant to the sustainable development of the region. Researchers at UNU-EHS have unique opportunities to both learn from our colleagues based in Africa and share our own knowledge, generated from research activities globally. This “co-learning” potential is huge and very rewarding. As a concrete example, when we teach  the block course in South Africa, because many of the participants are practitioners, we truly learn quite a lot from their individual, on-the-ground experiences while at the same time share with them more theoretical knowledge that they are not necessarily used to seeing. 

Interview: Oksana Buranbaeva, UNU-ViE

Jessica Rosenfeld and Isabel Thompson contributed to this interview.