Better Resilience, Better Life: An Interview with Noura Abdi Farah

by Jiawen Fang, China, ELP 2014
Written on July 14, 2014.

As a student majoring in urban planning, especially focusing on poverty and slums, I had great interest in Noura Abdi Farah’s work during the poster session (Reducing the Urban Poor’s Vulnerability to Housing Risks). Therefore, I carefully studied her poster, and interviewed her about her education background, work experience and how this project works.

Image iconjiawen-11_2.png Fig. 1 See Noura in a different "smile".

Education background and work experience with both focus and diversity
Noura obtained her Master’s degree in Environment and Development from University of Lorraine, France in 2012. She is now working hard to apply for a PhD program about the forced migrations and climate change in Africa.

The focus of her education and work experience is the goal of helping the poor live a better life. Since poverty is such a complicated problem, Noura chooses one certain aspect – risk management. When asked why she chose this aspect, Noura smiled and answered with a simile, “What I am doing is like a cushion which slows down the negative impact of natural and social disaster on poor people.” She noticed the vulnerability and the lack of resilience of poor people in this fast changing world, but risk management is neglected to a large extent. Therefore, she decided to make her own contribution in a different, but effective, way.

With her interest in risk management, Noura has done a lot of work both academically and practically. Academically, she did some research on disaster risk management on water resources in the city of Rio and its resilience if faced with disasters in 2012. This research is based on the real water vulnerability of the city of Rio and she tried to see this practical problem in an academic perspective, with more systematic thinking using a set of theories. She believes that it’s necessary to take time and think over some problems in a theoretical framework, which would help come up with new, effective ways to work out the puzzle. In terms on practical work experience, Noura is now the professional consultant for the World Bank of the vulnerability, urban risks and disaster risk management issues. She also worked as the consultant at the Djiboutian Executive Secretariat for Disaster Risk Management (SEGRC) when she was in France.

Having realized the importance of diversity in urban planning and risk management, Noura has been trying her best to broaden her view and learn various skills. What I really admire about her is that she cans peak four languages fluently, French, English, Arabic and Portuguese. With the language advantage, she has worked in Djibouti, Brazil and France, which in turn, gives her practical field experience that drives various accomplishments in providing relevant assistance, support and research on development and disaster risk reduction issues during various phases of a project. In addition, Noura once prepared the RIO+20 conference by working for the UNISDE, which provided her a great opportunity to learn about the cutting edge technology and innovative ideas on environmental problems in a global perspective, especially concerning poor people.

The goal and effort to reduce the urban poor’s vulnerability to housing risks

Image iconjiawen-21_2.png Fig. 2 Poor Housing in Djibouti

Noura never forgets to make her own contribution to her homeland, working as a World Bank consultant. Now, World Bank is a major source of financial and technical support to Djibouti, where the poorest 20% of the population lives in temporary, informal housing without electricity or drinking water. What makes matters worse is that Djibouti is vulnerable to a wide range of natural and manmade hazards, including flashfloods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, pollution, conflicts and security issues. Noura told me that poverty, low-tech and ineffective development, and vulnerability to frequent disasters would form a vicious cycle that sets great barriers to development. One of the most effective ways to lift this curse is to improve the vulnerability, allowing the poorest of the population to access basic services, lifelines and essential facilities. The urban resilience to disasters or any other big changes will minimize losses and keep the economic development in a stable environment, increasing the effectiveness and sustainability of the socio-economic system (see Fig. 3). Therefore, now World Bank has been providing the technical assistance to the Ministry of Urban Planning, Housing and Environment and enforces the vulnerability reduction policies for the poor.

Image iconjiawen-3_2.png Fig. 3 The vicious cycle and virtuous cycle based on the urban resilience

With a strong theoretical basis and various work experience, Noura is leading the analysis of constraints impeding the development of a well-functioning housing market that consequently affects house access for the poor. To put risk management into practice, a technical guide will teach people how to achieve the quality and safety standards in self-construction. Noura, as well as her colleagues, are busy preparing the dissemination of the analysis report.

Overall, Noura’s work has renewed my understanding of urban poverty in the perspective of resilience to big changes. Urban planning is not only about planning land use, it is more like an organic system organization, with resilience as the core of its dynamic.