From the Tool Shed to a Learning Space: A short workshop on Vulnerability and Risk Assessments

4 Jul 2016 - 11:00

By Jesse DeMaria-Kinney and Dian Spear

The Adaptation Futures conference provided a wealth of information, ideas and networking opportunities for the 1,700+ people in attendance. And with 155 sessions, plus the Adaptation Expo and special ‘Tool Shed’ pavilion, all taking place simultaneously, attendants had to make some difficult choices! So, as we set up for our 30-minute Tool Shed session on Oxfam’s Vulnerability and Risk Assessment (VRA) we had no idea what kind of a turnout to expect. Needless to say, as people flooded into the Tool Shed, leaving standing room only, we were thrilled! But what did everyone come to see?  

Our ASSAR team members – Dian Spear and Irene Kunamwene (University of Cape Town) and Daniel Morchain (Oxfam GB) – described the VRA process, and shared their experiences of running VRA’s in Namibia and Botswana. We then invited the audience to participate in an experiential learning activity where they were guided through the five steps of the VRA: Preparation*, Initial Vulnerability Assessment, Impact Chain Exercise, Adaptive Capacity Analysis, and Aligning Findings with Opportunities.

Experiential Learning Activity

First, we asked participants to imagine being in a semi-arid area where vulnerable subsistence farmers are exposed to variable and unpredictable climatic conditions, with increasing extreme weather events, and live on staple foods such as pearl millet, sorghum, melons, beans, maize, and ground nuts. Next, we gave the participants different roles to enact, including: village elders, teachers, mopane worm harvesters, women traders, out of school youth, agricultural extension officers, and officials from the Department of Gender. We based these roles on the social groups and livelihood activities identified during our recent VRA in Bobirwa, Botswana.

We then asked participants to consider their vulnerability – framed in terms of exposure and sensitivity – to a range of hazards and issues. Using more examples from the Bobirwa VRA, these included social inequalities and injustices, a lack of access to services and natural resources, and climate change.

Finally, we asked participants to once again use role-play to create an impact chain for drought, focusing specifically on how drought affects the sensitivity and exposure of small-scale farmers and women.

The interactive nature of this exercise gave people a welcome break from slideshow presentations. But more than this, our session seemed to light a spark in participants, and conversations about VRAs continued even after our lightning-quick session had ended.

Next steps

ASSAR has already run VRAs in Bobirwa, Botswana and Omusati, Namibia. These provided an open space for diverse voices to be heard on crucial issues. Conversations contributed to clarifying the challenges affecting various levels of governance, and helped to build a common understanding of the root causes and drivers of vulnerability. The VRAs also helped to reach a better understanding of how climate change impacts different social groups, and to explore initial ideas about how to address these impacts and improve the resilience of diverse stakeholder groups.

Finally, the participatory-nature of the VRA demonstrates the potential for research-oriented activities that are done with, by and for stakeholders, to maximise the uptake of research findings and to contribute to a change in people’s lives.


*The Preparation step requires the identification of two groups of players critical to the VRA: the Planning and Facilitation Team and the Knowledge Group. For further information about the two groups and the methodology see Oxfam’s full guidance on VRA methodology here.