Disasters, climate change and development: what do we need to do differently?


September 30th, 2011

What is the missing link in disasters? According to Terry Cannon, in a session I attended today it is the attention to social and cultural issues that mediate preparedness and perceptions of risk. Terry highlighted the need to think more broadly about the challenges of addressing disaster risk, discussing the need to bridge institutional and local knowledge systems, and bring in knowledge from other disciplines – a theme taken up by his co-presenter, Katie Harris.

Where Terry focussed in on the mismatch between NGO/policy priorities and those of local people (for whom, empirical evidence demonstrates, disasters are seldom the most pressing concern), Katie explored the role of emotions in disaster preparedness. Bringing insight from psychological research, Katie discussed how an appreciation of emotions can help explain why preparedness campaigns repeatedly fail, revealing refusal to prepare as a rational act when understood from the perspective of those at risk – for whom ontological security demands a rejection of risk narratives that would challenge the perception of the home as a safe place, of nature as a benign force, and in the ability of society to provide protection.
 
The insider/outsider tension that Terry and Katie highlight was taken up in the title of the next presentation, by Terry Gibson from the Global Network for Disaster Reduction. ‘It’s all one’ captures the views of local people, for whom disasters and development don’t exist in separate silos. As discussant, I suggested that this is a stark challenge to NGOs – what are we doing? Whose priorities are we following? Why is there a mismatch between ‘our’ priorities and ‘theirs’? One response was to be found in Terry Gibson’s focus on social learning and negotiation processes to enable the co-definition, between development actors and local people, of the priorities for development action.
 
Terry Gibson’s presentation highlighted how the View’s from the Frontline Project, in which NGOs and CSOs undertake a comprehensive assessment of progress in disaster preparedness as a counterweight to government reporting on progress on the Hyogo Framework for Action. This work initially had huge success in opening up political space at the international level for attention to action at the local level. However, no sooner had this space been opened, GNDR realised that it’s language had been co-opted as a fig-leaf over a process that was as heavily top-down as ever. Part of the answer being explored is to adopt an approach that explicitly attends to power through a focus on politics, negotiation and contestation, working from the social learning literature that highlights the need for ‘double loop learning’ – changing not only actions (single loop) but also the assumptions on which these actions are based. Strong resonances, here, with the need to change mindset in disaster preparedness and start to understand why people behave as they do, rather than just assuming that our expert knowledge of mitigation measures is enough.
 
Thomas Tanner took the discussion on to consider tools for integrating climate change adaptation and disaster reduction into development. Sifting the preponderance of tools into three categories for analysis – process guidance, data and information provision, and knowledge sharing – Thom focused in on the first category and suggested that a significant benefit of these was to build awareness of climate issues at an individual level within the organisations that have developed tools. While highlighting the need for centralised, nationally owned climate information and disaster profile information, he also critiqued tools for bringing ‘the end of politics’ through a focus on techo-managerial fixes, and echoed Wilby’s suggestion that robust decision making would be more valuable than an endless search for climate information that only becomes more uncertain the more one tries to put it into action.
 
Thom’s call for a common approach to M&E was taken up by Paula Silva Villanueva, who presented an innovative approach that moves on from a preoccupation with indicators to an iterative, learning process that is specifically designed to support organisations in reflecting on their policies and programmes and to incorporate resilience as a framing for their work. The ‘ADAPT’ framework does this by encouraging: Adaptive learning and management that enable flexible planning; Dynamic monitoring that acknowledges changing hazard profiles and uncertainty; being Active in understanding social, cultural and personal issues, including the diverse interests of the actors that touch and are touched by interventions; are Participatory to promote self-reliance and problem solving; and Thorough, in looking across scales and at the underlying causes of vulnerability.
 
Edwin Elegado, from Plan International in the Philippines, explored much of this in practice in the context of a climate hotspot that is ranked third in the World Risk Index. By applying the Climate Smart Disaster Risk Management (CSDRM) approach, on which Paula’s work is based, Edwin compared the work of actors at three scales – the national Climate Change Commission, an alliance of seven cities in a common watershed, and an island town – finding that each had made substantial progress in the three CSDRM pillars: dealing with risks and uncertainty, building adaptive capacity, and addressing the underlying causes of poverty. Reflecting a common and important theme throughout the meeting, Edwin and Paula both highlighted that integration ultimately means dealing with the complex realities of local change, demanding political will, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and the participation of the people at risk.

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