26 Dec 2011
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Caroline Brassard identifies the missing capacities – political, operational and social – needed for an effective disaster recovery process, and the implications for public policy.

Caroline Brassard identifies the missing capacities – political, operational and social – needed for an effective disaster recovery process, and the implications for public policy.

Mega disasters occur when the response to a disaster completely overwhelms the emergency and relief agencies. Examples of ineffi cient preparation and response are abundant, such as Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005 and the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. The Asian continent has been home to most of the world’s recent mega natural disasters, ranging from tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and Japan, to earthquakes in China, floods in the Philippines and Pakistan and cyclones in Myanmar. Each case illustrates that mega disasters are a result of a combination of factors, such as a lack of preventive measures and prior preparation. In the context of Asian developing countries, the success of post-disaster management depends on this prior work as well as the ability to establish a good balance between relief, reconstruction and development.

With so many significant events occurring concurrently and at times simultaneously, appeals for emergency funding by international humanitarian systems often face “charity fatigue”. Yet, a multitude of smaller “natural” disasters can have a greater impact on an economy than a single mega disaster. The international humanitarian system is often prey to undue competition among and between agencies and a lack of cooperation and coordination. Coupled with the increasingly prominent role of private agents (such as private charities), the proliferation and fragmentation of players presents a serious threat to the efficiency of response.


Political capacity

In addressing political capacities for post-disaster management, we need to first remove undue competition across agencies involved in post-disaster management through tighter collaboration and greater transparency. An effective way to achieve this is to set up a framework for databases that can be used for monitoring and evaluating progress of activities by the various agencies. For example, the RAN database for Aceh and Nias (in Sumatra, Indonesia) reconstruction after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 is still publicly available and can be easily consulted.

Second, mega disasters require long-term preparatory work. This entails strengthening political capacities – and political will – to create new linkages and foster closer dialogue between stakeholders involved in different phases of preparatory work. Perhaps the weakest communication gap is between actors such as scientists involved in the risk identification and assessment phase and the agencies involved in the emergency response. Despite being at the forefront of disaster preparedness and relief, the Japanese government recognises this communication gap.

In Asia, which has seen its fair share of mega-disasters in recent times, there is still no real sense of urgency to collaborate at the regional level. Following the Asian Tsunami, the 10 ASEAN countries signed an Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) work programme for 2010-2015, which includes one section on technical co-operation and scientific research. However, implementation is notoriously weak, due to a lack of a sense of urgency, insufficient prioritisation and a low level of awareness.


Social media

The de facto decentralised response to mega disasters is also a product of the increasing importance of social media in informing the international community and the speed of resource mobilisation, including volunteers. The path-breaking speed of development of social media has redefined the way society can access information. In the context of mega disasters, documented evidence shared by survivors can greatly influence potential donors, as seen in the case of the Pakistan floods. Online donation platforms are abundant and donors can select particular organisations, projects and localities. However, some of these pay little attention to the relief, reconstruction and development continuum.

Yet, it is unrealistic to establish an accreditation system to ensure better quality control as these channels can be set up – and dismantled – almost instantaneously. Dealing with a plethora of small private charities or large philanthropic organisations requires not only developing basic guidelines for coordination and clarifying roles and monitoring processes, but also effecting a change in mindset. Multiagency collaboration is necessary in all phases of a disaster management plan, from mitigation, preparedness, response to recovery.

Hence, the focus for operational capacities should be on human resources. For instance, trauma caused by the lack of experience and training of volunteers can be irreversibly harmful. Creating incentives for good performance and disincentives for poor delivery can be a role played by the affected communities.


Social capacity

Lastly, Asian countries need to develop social capacities to build on the resilience of affected or vulnerable communities to natural disasters. Encouragingly, the regional progress report of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2009-2011) for Asia Pacific notes that participating countries demonstrate greater understanding of disaster management beyond relief and response, to include risk and resilience considerations. The resilience of communities can be defined as the degree to which affected communities (and its ecosystem) can self-organise, learn and adapt to a new situation.

Whether disaster community response is more likely to be defined by its vulnerability than by its resilience per se is a matter of debate. Recent responses to mega disasters in Asia have shown that crucial emergency relief is brought first by the affected citizens and the local organisations (formal or informal) already on working site. This was the particularly striking in the case of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. However, social capacities to involve communities in a more meaningful manner are sorely lacking. This includes taking advantage of the social media, providing training to community leaders and volunteer organisations.

The role of citizens and communities is not limited to the immediate response, and should be an integral part of the reconstruction and development phases. For example, a recent study on housing reconstruction in Aceh after the 2004 Tsunami concluded that the use of participatory approaches led to heightened accountability to both donors and beneficiaries if there was multi-directional flow of information; coherence and coordination; inclusive decision-making processes; and ground-level oversight. Too often, critical information including plans, agendas, budgets, sources of funding, time-frames, and expectations are shared only with higher levels. Feedback from affected communities in post-reconstruction points to the need to ensure greater engagement of the victims of disasters in the planning and construction processes.

The international humanitarian system which attempts to centralise post-disaster management is experiencing a host of problems, such as organisations “working in silos” and undue competition between agencies looking for funds and wanting to demonstrate the best results. By focusing on the three types of capacities – political, operational and social – countries in the Asian region will pay attention not just to organisational structures and physical infrastructures but to the social fabric of the affected communities. Public policy advisers for post-disaster management need a paradigm – and mindset – shift, away from “building back better” towards “building back smarter”. The motivation for this change in thinking has to be driven by vision and foresight prior to the next mega disaster.


Caroline Brassard () is Assistant Professor at the LKY School. She consults with various international organisations, including the United Nations Development Programme, and teaches aid governance, economic development policy and poverty alleviation strategies.

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