Do we need a new global approach to disaster risk reduction?

by Tom Mitchell, ODI | | Overseas Development Institute
Tuesday, 11 June 2013 09:07 GMT

Informal settlers watch men gather recyclable materials from debris swept in by a typhoon from Manila Bay, Philippines, July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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The next global plan for disaster risk reduction must tackle the links between disasters, vulnerability and poverty

My recent blog assessed how 'disasters' fared in the U.N. Secretary General’s High Level Panel report on post-2015 development goals. This time, I consider the report’s implications for setting priorities for the successor to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), the global agreement on reducing disaster risk. The HFA, like the Millennium Development Goals, is also due for renewal in 2015. Here are some preliminary points.

The next HFA should:

1. Ensure ‘tacking vulnerability and its causes’ is the dominant message. Here, very clear links need to be made to the post-2015 development goals that help to underscore the critical intersection of disaster risk and the causes of vulnerability and poverty. If backed by a disasters target in a poverty goal, as suggested by the high level panel, the successor to the HFA can then become a vision, operational plan and implementation guide for governments and the global development community. This will take equal recognition of the small (‘silent’) disasters, as well as the headliners, and therefore place ‘development’-oriented policy responses at the core of the next agreement.

2. Improve accountability - embedding clear targets for reducing disaster losses, and signalling better data collection and analysis. The new HFA agreement will need an explicit accountability mechanism covering all of the groups involved in managing disaster risk, based partly on peer review and independent data assessment and backed by clear targets and indicators (potentially replicating those included in post-2015 goals). This will require a new global effort to improved disasters data collection and quality, in line with the ‘data revolution’ called for by the high level panel report.

3. Run until 2030, ensuring that the pattern of disaster risk in 2030 and beyond is a key signal for the level of ambition required. The successor to the HFA should run until 2030, to align with the tentative timetable for the post-2015 sustainable development goals. If it does run to 2030, the new agreement must consider what the geography of disaster risk will be like in 2030 and plan accordingly (the high level panel report even includes a proposed outcome for reduced disaster impacts by 2030). However, a 15-year period is too long to go without recalibrating the agreement, reviewing targets and indicators and taking account of evolving risks. Therefore, the international community should come together at least every five years to chart progress, revise priorities and renew commitments on the successor to the HFA.

4. Bury the humanitarian-development divide. Eliminating this divide will take some bold moves, though the high level panel report has given the clearest indication yet that disaster risk reduction is a core development and poverty reduction issue. In this vein, the new HFA agreement must talk about disaster risk management, rather than disaster risk reduction alone, which includes disaster risk reduction, risk transfer, preparedness, response and recovery. All of these aspects are essential if the impacts of disasters on poor people’s lives are to be substantially reduced. But it should be clear that disaster risk management is a development and a humanitarian concern. Removing the divide will also require organisational change. Disaster risk reduction must stop being seen as a subset of humanitarian action, and the HFA successor and the post-2015 goals should signal the need for reorganisation, especially in some key donor and multilateral agencies.

5. Foster private sector leadership, but don’t treat it as a panacea or a substitute. While businesses are key partners in efforts to manage disaster risk as reiterated strongly in the recent 2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Reduction, they should not be put on a pedestal or asked to substitute for government responsibility, especially given their limits in helping those living in extreme poverty. Instead, businesses should be seen as valued actors in systems shaped by governments and underpinned by local action. The new agreement must recognise this and encourage business to set goals and subscribe to targets at national level, with ‘do no harm’ as an absolute minimum.  

6. Not make complex, expensive ‘risk assessments’ a barrier to action. Instead, more emphasis should be given to: developing minimum standards for disaster risk assessments, promoting local scientific capacity to develop and update assessments and fostering political demand for evidence-based disaster risk management policies. As the high level panel report highlights, the real key to effective management of risks is to enable local government and community-level administrative units to lead on the agenda, so serving their information demands about disaster risk should be the priority rather than a supply-driven focus.

7. Encourage upstream investment, including by making disaster risk management a feature of development cooperation and national public expenditure. The successor to the HFA should lock in donor and domestic commitments to ex-ante financial support for measures to reduce disaster risk, particularly with better integration into regular investment flows. This should be made easier by a clear link to poverty reduction in post-2015 development goals. It should also suggest that all funding for disaster recovery should demonstrate how, exactly, it will reduce future risk. Any attempts to consider disaster risk reduction finance as a subset of humanitarian spending should be resisted. 

Of course, there are many other priorities - with just a handful highlighted here. The high level report, and particularly the positioning of disasters within a poverty goal, should trigger discussions about the institutionalisation of disaster risk management nationally, regionally and internationally.

Does the current architecture and organisational mix really help to eliminate the ‘silent’ disasters and the everyday risks that now form a major part of how we understand disaster impacts? Or do we need a different constellation committed to making disaster risk reduction a central component of poverty reduction efforts?

Tom Mitchell is Head of Climate Change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).