Different ways of understanding local vulnerabilities and risk

In preparation for our upcoming learning journey in Mindanao, Asian country teams are conducting vulnerability and risk assessments (VRA). Several participants have raised a flag and asked why we should conduct a VRA, when they currently use the Participatory Capacity and Vulnerability Assessment (PCVA) methodology to plan risk reduction measures.


Here are some reflections on why anyone would want to do a VRA, how the PCVA and VRA are different, and the question of whether they should be considered mutually exclusive or complementary.

Before going into details let me try to boil it down and simplify it, just in case you stop reading at the end of this paragraph: The PCVA relies mostly on data provided by community members, while the VRA relies on a mix of data provided by experts and community representatives. The way in which input is combined and analysed is different in both cases, with the VRA systematically analysing the vulnerability of individual community groups. The PCVA takes longer to implement than the VRA.


PCVA and VRA are undoubtedly complementary, but they both take time and resources to conduct – both of which are increasingly tighter and harder to come by. It is therefore important to consider what each methodology provides, because, more often than not, you would probably want to choose to implement one or the other at one given moment in time, based on your specific needs.



Photo caption: A thorough understanding of risks leads to an appropriate prioritisation of activities, enhanced food security and increasing + more stable income. In this image a farmer from Aknaghbyur, Armenia, is satisfied with her crop selection.    


Now my take on the details:



Strong reliance on data provided by community members – a good deal of
which is based on perception


Data that feeds into the analysis is the consensual result of community representatives’ and experts’ opinions

Secondary data used mostly to validate community  input, while analysis is based on the group’s views


Secondary data used to develop a robust understanding of how hazards affect activities and groups in the community

Exercise conducted in 5-10 days; normally four or more facilitators required (more days and/or facilitators in case of communities with more than 200 households)


Exercise conducted in 2-3 days; one or two facilitators required

Prioritisation of assets and risks is based on local knowledge and on the secondary data available to community members

Prioritisation of assets, livelihood activities and risk reduction measures is based on a combination of local knowledge and locally-adapted secondary data


Although social groups are identified, the risk analysis does not systematically assess the impact of hazards on each of these groups – and therefore may not identify hotspots

The community is disaggregated into vulnerable (and potentially vulnerable) social groups, livelihood activities and care-related activities. It then analyses the impact of hazards for each of these; including an analysis of women-specific risks


The basis for identifying risk reduction measures are: the perceived probability and impact of a hazard, and a prioritisation of assets based on a consideration of their importance

Risk reduction measures are selected  based on an analysis of the specific vulnerability and potential of identified groups or livelihood & care activities


Long term adaptive capacity is not systematically built into the identified risk reduction measures

The identified risk reduction (or adaptation) measures are scrutinised in a process that contributes to building in adaptive capacity components, ensuring that measures build the community’s resilience in the long term


The onus of analysing the vulnerability of assets and activities rests on community members

The understanding of the vulnerability of groups and activities is based on a multi-stakeholder deconstruction of the components of vulnerability: exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity


Focuses on weather, climate, geological and other DRR related hazards

Takes a multi-hazard approach, i.e. analyses the impacts of weather, climate, geological, DRR related, ...as well as... social, political and economic hazards



I hope this table starts to suggest that if you have conducted a PCVA in a community some time ago, doing a VRA today will add value; it will give you further information and it will either validate your findings from the PCVA, or highlight social groups or livelihood/care activities that had not been identified or whose risk had not been thoroughly assessed. The VRA should, in this case, use the information from the existing PCVA to enhance its initial understanding of the context.


If there is no PCVA or no existing context analysis of the community you are planning to engage with, then choosing between a PCVA or a VRA – or, for that matter, a rapid care analysis, or other similar tools – will depend on your ultimate objective, your entry point, the initial understanding of hazards facing the community and the available resources.


For those of you participating in the learning event, I strongly encourage you to try out the VRA and reflect on its added value in the context of your work. Later, in Mindanao we will discuss the experience, ways of strengthening, merging or differentiating these tools – and potentially others!? 


Share your comments or questions below, or send a message to Daniel Morchain, Global Adviser - Resilience, Climate Change Adaptation and Agriculture.

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Comment by Daniel Morchain on November 22, 2013 at 12:45

Hi Chris (and everyone), thanks so much for your thoughts which are highly valuable and appreciated!

I am heading back from the 3 week long Asia - VRA journey :) which has really contributed to moving things forward re the PCVA, VRA issue. In sum, there's plenty of excitement about the tool, not least of which in the Philippines, where we are thinking that this kind of assessment should go beyond long term programming (hint: Yolanda-Haiyan).

The VRA was also implemented successfully across Asian countries, where the consensus is (you won't be surprised) that PCVA and VRA are indeed complementary - this was never in doubt - and that one of the valuable additions of the VRA is the true integration of expert input into the process, and how that makes it more complete and its analysis more holistic.

In this ever evolving integration, we are also looking to ensure that gender aspects are properly reflected, e.g. through bringing the Rapid Care Analysis tool closer. At the end of the day, everybody wants something that works and that doesn't become too complicated or unrealistic to implement - so that's the challenge...

Let's keep talking, and thanks again for your very relevant input!


Comment by Chris Anderson on November 22, 2013 at 10:28

Hi Daniel,

I hope the work in the Philippines has gone well ( say hi to them for me!). I've been meaning to talk to you about how this tool relates to PCVA, but as you've written this blog, I guess it makes sense to respond so others can join in! This may also explain a little why the 'flag' was raised by our colleagues in the Philippines.

Firstly - thanks! I've found it useful already, and this definitely moves forward on some of the issues we've known about with PCVA for a while.

As you know, Oxfam put years of effort in to developing and rolling out the PCVA approach globally. We've always seen it as a work in progress with new improved versions needed along the way. The exercise you have developed really takes things forward, and the 'next-gen' PCVA guidance and process should be stronger as a result. .

For me, this exercise is a part of the overall PCVA process  as it is alreadywhether or not that's what it ends up being called is not important - but the quality and coherence of the guidance and overall process is!

There are clearly weakness in the guidance and implementation of PCVA as it exists - and this exercise should go a long way to correcting that. But I would be wary of suggesting that this is new/different or potentially stand alone just yet.

On paper PCVA has always had a preliminary phase of secondary data review and key informant investigation ( check-out the practitioners guide). However....experience shows it is rarely given enough attention with not enough attention given to bringing in essential expertise. We have said for a long while that it needs to be rebalanced so that the preliminary phase takes on more importance to improve the quality/ reduce the time spent in primary community-based analysis.

As you suggest, teams tend to dive in to primary analysis with communities without having spent enough time or rigour on this phase. Nor or is the prelim phase done well enough in either methodology or conceptual scope ( i.e to think through a broad range of shocks and stresses - drawing on science - and focussing on impacts on poor people's LHs).

Ideally ( and I think the PCVA guidance says this) the preliminary phase should cover:

  • collating and reviewing secondary data
  • identifying and consulting expert informants
  • working with them to hone down the key areas of enquiry/ gaps to be investigated with communities themselves.

Spending more time and effort on the preliminary investigation phase should mean that we take up much less of the valuable time of community members in long and often needless focus group discussions, and that such time is really well focussed on filling gaps/ triangulating, being guided by local perceptions and importantly....action planning based on agreed priorities.

What the next version is called is not really important as long as the guidance is clear and joined up. That said 'Pre-Vulnerability Assessment' is potentially a bit confusing to people used to DRR terminology. I wouldn't  underestimate how well PCVA ( and the jargon therein) is lodged in standard practice across the NGO/ Oxfam system, so it's worth considering ( and consulting) how people perceive that this new guidance works with what they already know so that they link seamlessly.

What is really important  - and that this exercise/ guidance takes forward - is that the preliminary must gets a lot more emphasis in terms of importance and quality and that it's understood as being an equally critical part of the overall method of developing good analysis and planning for programmes that aim to build resilience/ adaptive capacity.

PCVA originated in the Philippines, so the timing of your work with those guys in this regard is great - there is nowhere better to understand what PCVA is supposed to achieve.

I hope these thoughts are helpful and welcome!



Comment by Thomas Tichar on October 22, 2013 at 15:19

Great, thanks! really useful to get this clarification. 


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