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Lakshman Nadaraja/World Bank

Chapter 3 Project Planning

Vulnerability and capacity assessment

Photo: Lakshman Nadaraja/World Bank

Vulnerability is complex. It has many dimensions – economic, social, demographic, political/institutional and psychological – that affect people’s susceptibility to environmental hazards, in addition to their physical exposure to the hazards themselves. It is influenced by a number of factors, at different levels from the local to the global. It is also dynamic, changing under the pressure of these many different forces.

Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis/Assessment (VCA) identifies groups who are vulnerable, the factors that make them vulnerable, how they are affected and their needs and capacities, and ensures that projects, programmes and policies address these needs. VCA views vulnerability in the broadest sense, and therefore tries (where possible) to consider a wide range of environmental, economic, social, cultural, institutional and political pressures. It also considers the capacities, resources and assets people use to resist, cope with and recover from disasters and other external shocks.

Box 3.2 Defining vulnerability and capacity

There are many similar definitions of the terms ‘vulnerability’ and ‘capacity’ (or ‘coping’ or ‘adaptive’ capacity in a hazards/disaster context). The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) defines them as follows:

Vulnerability: ‘The characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard.’

Coping capacity: ‘The ability of people, organizations and systems, using available skills and resources, to face and manage adverse conditions, emergencies or disasters.’

2009 UNISDR Terminology on DRR (Geneva: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009),

VCA originated in the late 1980s and in one form or another is now widely applied around the world. VCA is a generic term: agencies attach many different names to the different VCA methods they develop (the term Community Risk Assessment is increasingly coming into use to comprise both VCA and risk analysis at community level). Operationally, VCA is used as a diagnostic tool (to understand problems and their underlying causes), a planning tool (to prioritise and sequence actions and inputs), a risk assessment tool (to help assess specific risks) and a tool for empowering and mobilising vulnerable communities. VCA can be applied at many different levels, from national and programme to community and household. Most VCAs are local, but many higher-level analyses have been produced (e.g. Case Study 3.3: VCA at national level). VCA can also perform a range of functions: scoping or screening, programme or project design, research, baseline studies and monitoring and evaluation.

Organisations working in DRR use VCA principally for problem identification, because reducing vulnerability is one of their prime objectives. In development projects it is applied mainly in the project appraisal or preparation phase as part of risk analysis or social appraisal, focusing on a particular geographical area or sector. Other project planning tools, such as social analysis and social impact assessment, and especially sustainable livelihoods approaches, may address similar issues. They may also use similar data collection and assessment methods, and their results can feed into a VCA.

Case Study 3.3 VCA at national level

In 2012–13 the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) carried out a country VCA covering urban and rural settings. Some 2,500 individuals were involved, including government officials, staff in official health, agriculture, veterinary and weather forecasting services, the police, MRCS staff and volunteers and members of the public.

Data were collected from reviews of official and other documents, key informant interviews with more than 500 people, focus group discussions and field observations. A variety of analytical tools was used, including mapping, historical profiles, case studies, seasonal charts, problem ranking, problem trees and trend analysis.

The key risks identified and discussed in the VCA were fire, floods, winds and storms, road traffic accidents, air and dust pollution, soil pollution, dzud (extreme winter weather) and infectious diseases. Targets for intervention were identified in each of these areas.

The Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment Study 2012–2013, Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar: IFRC and Mongolian Red Cross Society, 2013).

There are many ways to approach and implement VCA. Some guidelines are prescriptive, requiring all VCAs to be done in the same way, but many supply a ‘toolkit’ of methods, which allows greater flexibility to adapt to different needs and contexts. These should be consulted for detailed advice on how to plan and carry out a VCA (examples of well-tested and widely used toolkits are given in Box 3.3; there are many more).

Box 3.3 VCA toolkits and guidelines

Participatory Vulnerability Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide for Field Staff (London: ActionAid International, 2005),

VCA Toolbox with Reference Sheets (Geneva: IFRC, 2007),

Participatory Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (PVCA) (London: Christian Aid, 2010),

Participatory Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis: A Practitioner’s Guide (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 2012),

Community Based Resilience Analysis (CoBRA): Conceptual Framework and Methodology (Nairobi: UNDP Drylands Development Centre, 2013),

Figure 3.3 outlines the main steps in carrying out a VCA. This is just one standard model; organisations may follow their own, different, approaches. However, it should be remembered that vulnerability is specific to time and place and to particular hazard threats and groups of people. In practice, each VCA should be planned as a distinct exercise, according to its purpose, using the most appropriate approach.

Figure 3.3 Basic steps in VCA

ODI 2015

Basic steps in VCA

C. Benson and J. Twigg with T. Rossetto, Tools for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction: Guidance Notes for Development Organisations. Guidance Note 9: Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (Geneva: ProVention Consortium, 2007),, p. 106.

It is essential to establish a clear, shared understanding of what is to be analysed. Designing or selecting an appropriate analytical framework is key to the assessment. The framework should be user-friendly and adaptable. It does not have to be complicated, but it should cover all significant relevant issues, identify the most vulnerable and consider underlying causes of vulnerability, as well as the current situation. These issues are complex, and building up a comprehensive view of vulnerabilities and capacities requires time. Vulnerability analysis should not be rushed. It should also be carried out well before a potential disaster, allowing hazards and risks to be set within a broader socio-economic picture. It can also be done as part of long-term rehabilitation after a disaster, and in long-term development. As well as time, vulnerability analysis can require considerable resources. Many field agencies lack sufficient experience and skills to implement analyses effectively, and staff training in the requisite methods will probably be needed, though there are still few trainers in vulnerability analysis methods.

There are many different indicators of vulnerability and capacity. Some are more helpful than others, and some (such as indicators of coping ability) are particularly hard to obtain. Do not rely on only a few indicators, or those that are most easily identified. Careful triangulation of the different indicators is needed to build up an overall picture. Data may be unavailable, too difficult to collect, of poor quality and inconsistent. VCA teams often have to make the best use of what they can find. Data limitations should be acknowledged in VCA reports. Because vulnerability is not simple, and the data will be diverse, it may be difficult to reach agreement on priorities. Organisations carrying out vulnerability analysis may have to put significant effort into reaching a consensus on how to proceed. Finally, VCA should be an ongoing process, not a one-off, because vulnerability is dynamic and ever-changing. There should always be an up-to-date vulnerability analysis for the district or communities being assisted. In practice this rarely happens because agencies lack the resources to carry out repeated vulnerability analysis exercises. VCA is typically undertaken only at the start of a project or programme.

In terms of process, how the vulnerability analysis is done is as important as its findings. VCA is not just an information-gathering exercise: if done properly, with vulnerable people themselves taking part, it can raise awareness and increase knowledge of the risks people face and their ability to deal with them. VCA depends on the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders in providing and analysing data (be it at national or community level). As well as supplying more valid data through local expert knowledge and perspectives, this ensures wider ownership of the findings. The collaborative involvement of vulnerable people and external stakeholders (e.g. government officials) can stimulate a shared understanding of the issues and appropriate solutions, as well as having the potential to influence policy and practice elsewhere.

VCAs often fail to pay enough attention to the ‘capacities’ dimension. Identification and assessment of existing coping capacities is the starting point for building community resilience and can motivate community action. Engagement of communities in the VCA process is in itself an act of capacity building. The capacities of excluded or marginalised groups (e.g. children, older and disabled people) should not be overlooked (see Chapter 5). It is essential that the views of all groups in the community are heard – particularly those of women and the most vulnerable. VCA guidelines emphasise this and organisations working in DRR claim to be targeting marginalised vulnerable groups. However, there is evidence that these good intentions are not always put into practice: local men may dominate, vulnerable people may be overlooked (for example, disabled people are often invisible in VCAs) or local elites may attempt to control the process in order to benefit from the projects planned on the basis of the assessment (see Case Study 3.4: Local elites and VCA). Specific governance analysis is often valuable in order to understand the roles and influence of different organisations within and outside the community.

Case Study 3.4 Local elites and VCA

A series of VCAs in six villages and the capitals of two rural districts in Malawi in 2008 revealed a number of issues relating to local power relationships. In each village, the team conducted interviews with the village head, focus group meetings with community members and members of the Village Development Committees (VDCs), together with other interviews and group meetings with local government officials and field staff of local NGOs.

At village level in rural Malawi, VCA teams generally have to choose between two established social communications channels to manage community participation and ensure they collect complete and accurate information. Both options are linked to local power structures. The first involves the village heads: traditional authorities, holding office for life, with power over customary property such as land, water and natural resources. The second involves the Village Development Committee, a representative structure set up by the state.

In poor areas, association with NGOs and their projects can give local power holders access to resources such as vehicles or well-paid jobs, or it can be used to strengthen their power base by allowing them to control distribution of goods such as food aid, seeds and fertilisers and the management of local development infrastructure (such as irrigation systems or grain storage facilities). They therefore seek to develop long-term NGO connections, starting with involvement in the VCAs.

Village headmen wanted the VCA assessments to be carried out under customary rules, with the village head convening and chairing community meetings. Village Development Committee members claimed the right to participate in the assessments separately, as the only representative structure at the local level. They seemed to perceive NGOs as allies in their struggle for public space, and saw the VCAs as opportunities to raise their profile and gain legitimacy in the community.

J. L. Penya and J. Nyrongo, Who Controls Development? NGOs, Accountability and Power in Rural Malawi (London: Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Centre, 2011),

The types of data collected and the way they are collected must be appropriate to the VCA’s scale, scope and purpose. Ideally, the information-gathering methods used should be comprehensive enough to capture the different elements of vulnerability and capacity without the exercise becoming too complex and burdensome. An initial scoping exercise can give a general picture of vulnerability in the project area, highlight key issues and identify information gaps. This usually relies on secondary data that are publicly available (e.g. social and economic surveys by governments, disaster impact data, the news media, analyses commissioned or carried out by international aid agencies and reports or research papers on past disaster events). Subsequently, additional primary data will be collected to complement and challenge the secondary data findings.

VCA will use a variety of sources and types of quantitative and qualitative information to capture the complexity of vulnerability in the project area (see Table 3.1 for examples of the range of methods and sources of information that might be used).

Table 3.1 Tools for assessing socio-economic vulnerability

Methods Application to vulnerability
Secondary data collection and review (official reports, economic surveys, census data, household surveys and other official statistics, research, early warning systems, reports by other agencies, etc.) Contextual information on a variety of issues including population characteristics, external shocks and stresses (e.g. rainfall and temperature trends), health (morbidity and mortality), the impact of previous disasters
Geospatial data (e.g. maps, satellite images, social mapping, transect walks) Identify physical and environmental features (including hazards), land use, other resources and infrastructure, location of populations and vulnerable sub-groups
Environmental checklists Questions to gain information about environmental conditions and concerns, revealing the relationship between vulnerable people and their environment (e.g. What role do environmental resources play in resilience? How do environmental hazards, degradation and changes affect communities?)
Sample surveys Quantitative data on dimensions of vulnerability (e.g. education, employment, health, nutritional status, household economies)
Interviews (individuals, households, community groups, key informants), focus groups Information from different perspectives (among communities, other local stakeholders, external experts) on events and trends that cause stress, differential vulnerability and the effectiveness of adaptive behaviour
Individual and household case studies; oral histories Data on different experiences of vulnerability and abilities to withstand environmental hazards and other shocks
Timelines Historical occurrence and profiles of longer-term events or trends (e.g. floods, droughts, epidemics, environmental trends and cycles)
Seasonal calendars Describe seasonal events and trends, identifying vulnerability context, livelihood assets and strategies (e.g. rainfall, food levels at different times of year, crop planting and harvesting schedules, food prices, changes in health status)
Preference, matrix and wealth ranking Reveal vulnerability of different groups’ assets to shocks and stresses, and strategies against this
Problem tree Identifies problems and their causes, and indicates possible solutions
Venn diagrams and other institutional appraisal/mapping methods Social capital, relations between groups, institutional and policy environment
Scenarios and computer simulations Explore possible future outcomes and model social-environmental interactions over time
Source: C. Benson and J. Twigg with T. Rossetto, Tools for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction: Guidance Notes for Development Organisations. Guidance Note 9: Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (Geneva: ProVention Consortium, 2007),

Agencies usually base their understanding on local-level data. At this level, VCA relies heavily on participatory techniques and tools (secondary sources of information – maps and other documents – can easily dominate the investigation and are often best used to cross-check information generated in the field). Such approaches give relatively limited coverage, geographically and in terms of the numbers involved. Because the methods used and data collected vary according to time and place, the results are not standardised and it can be difficult to compare findings. However, these drawbacks are outweighed by the advantages, including more detail and better insights into the multiple pressures that communities face and the causal links between them, local needs and priorities, people’s understanding of their own vulnerability, indigenous methods for dealing with risks and community capacity (actual and potential).

Many other kinds of quantitative and qualitative information can be used, such as general social and economic surveys by governments and other agencies, drought and food security early warning systems, situation reports by operational agencies, news media stories, analyses commissioned or carried out by international and bilateral donors and anthropological studies. VCAs often use basic national-level indicators of socio-economic development (e.g. size of land holdings, per capita income, literacy levels, mortality and morbidity rates, access to clean water) for background information. These give insights into vulnerability, but the picture may not be complete, comprehensive or directly relevant to the location and communities the VCA is aimed at. Small agencies are unlikely to have the resources or capacity required for meaningful national-level analysis, and will usually have to rely on the work of larger agencies. Key informants can be very helpful in explaining systems and filling knowledge gaps, but may have individual biases. A number of online datasets provide information on disaster mortality, economic impact, hazards and other aspects of vulnerability and capacity (see Box 3.4: Disaster, risk and vulnerability datasets). The VCA may need to draw on several such indicator sets.

Box 3.4 Disaster, risk and vulnerability datasets

Online datasets such as those listed below provide national (and sometimes sub-national) data on aspects of risk and vulnerability:

Case studies of recent events are a valuable supplementary source of information on the impact of disasters, people’s vulnerability and agencies’ capacities. It may not be easy to find good-quality case studies, however: the published literature may be limited or hidden in academic journals. Agencies’ situation reports generated during major disasters are more accessible+Many are online, on the ReliefWeb site at but may only have a limited amount of information that is useful for vulnerability analysis.

At both national and local levels, it is essential to understand the ‘enabling environment’ of policies, institutions, laws, regulations and funding that can support or restrict a project’s aims. Assessing the capacity of government and civil society to manage disaster risk can be challenging, although there are a number of widely used indicator sets to assess progress in DRR at national and local levels, including relevant aspects of the institutional environment (see Chapter 18).

VCAs tend to generate more information than is needed and identify more issues than local-level agencies can address. Excessive data collection is expensive and – if not used – wasteful. The task of processing large volumes of information puts pressure on organisations of all sizes. This shows the importance of setting clear and realistic targets for a VCA exercise. To be fair, it is not always easy to judge how much information will be necessary at each stage of project design and implementation, or for whom (community organisations, NGO field staff and headquarters staff will have different information needs). Some fieldworkers have suggested that a picture of vulnerability could be built up gradually through a series of smaller assessment exercises rather than a single intensive, complex VCA. This would also enable an operational agency to fit its work around community activities, thereby reducing disruption. The main drawback to this approach is that the agency might be drawn into one area of intervention before the whole picture is clear and, as a result, find itself unable to address more significant problems should they appear later.

Data analysis usually presents more problems than data collection. Data sets contain a variety of evidence and indicators that are not easily triangulated, collated or analysed. Methodological guidelines have relatively little to say on the subject of analysis. This causes problems for many staff who have used VCA. In addition, organisations tend not to allow sufficient time and human resources for thorough analysis. As a result, the findings of some VCAs are more descriptive than analytical, especially where the evidence is mainly qualitative: this makes it difficult to set priorities for intervention. Where organisations follow an open-minded, participatory approach, the selection and weighting of indicators are usually left to participants in the VCA process, but this too causes problems for many field staff, who need appropriate training and guidance. Assessment teams should identify and focus on the most useful indicators, remembering that the indicators that are easiest to measure are not necessarily the most useful for analysis.

VCA should lead to action, but in some cases it is seen as an exercise in gathering information for its own sake. Specific actions resulting from VCAs might include:

  • preparation of community DRR action plans;
  • establishment or strengthening of community organisations to implement DRR initiatives;
  • repair, strengthening or redesign of vulnerable infrastructure and facilities;
  • relocation of vulnerable communities and facilities;
  • new land use, planning or building regulations and practice;
  • institutional and community strengthening to implement recommended actions and provide a basis for initiating future actions;
  • shift of emphasis to different economic and livelihood activities;
  • introduction of economic support mechanisms (e.g. micro-credit, cash for work) and social support systems to increase resilience; and
  • formal contributions to policy debates, especially regarding the underlying pressures contributing to vulnerability in the project area.

For many practitioners, one important question will be how much information and analysis is really needed before a project can start. There is an inherent tension in project work between the need for knowledge gathering and understanding on the one hand, and the pressure to act on the other. A rapid VCA can be done in a few days, even occasionally a few hours, although a more deliberative and participatory process is generally desirable. More extensive VCAs may take weeks or months depending on the type of project and the methods used.

Carrying out a VCA can raise community expectations that the organisation concerned will intervene to solve all the problems identified. This is rarely possible. It is therefore very important to discuss its purpose and likely outcomes with communities and other stakeholders at the outset. If this is not done, there is a risk that communities will be disillusioned or even angry, and the organisation’s reputation will be damaged as a result. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such problems do arise, possibly quite often. It may also be helpful to consider potential barriers to implementing DRR interventions recommended by a VCA and to identify ways of overcoming these.