Advancing Integration Series


Disasters derail development. Why aren’t we doing more integration?
Rachel Scott, OEDC
You know all the facts and figures. Disasters are increasing in number and intensity, climate change is making them even more unpredictable, and a major catastrophe can wipe out decades of development gains overnight. We, the global development community, have got to do something about it. Design our programmes in a way that leaves people less exposed to disaster and climate risk, perhaps even try to prevent some of the worst effects. It’s that simple, right?

Wrong. Everyone agrees that we have a moral obligation to deal with risk, and that it makes sound business sense to protect hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in development from a 40 second earthquake. But doing something about it – as the Advancing Integration programme has found – is much harder than it looks.

How can development agencies, who in Busan reaffirmed their commitment to align to partner country objectives, work to reduce climate, environment and disaster risks if these risks are not prioritised by partner countries? Where do donors go to talk about disaster risk – given that there are no Ministries of Disasters? What to do when whole cultures think that disasters are ‘acts of god’ and shrug off active risk management? Even obtaining accurate information about risks can be problematic, especially at local level – where do you go to find information about environmental degradation or climate change impacts on a small rural community?

Creating the right incentives will be critical to overcoming these challenges. The hint of potential new donor funding – as the study found in Vanuatu – can help shift policy priorities. Civil society organisations can be a powerful partner for changing public and political attitudes towards risks. Shrewd timing of messages can also help; the devastating 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami put disaster preparedness   firmly on the agenda of everyone living or working in that area.

Even within donor organisations, there are challenges and disincentives that cramp coherent risk reduction programming. Donors, who often make programming decisions in far-away capitals, are unlikely to be aware of the catastrophic effects that landslides may have on remote communities. The ready availability of humanitarian funding may also have perverse effects; people are unlikely to invest in risk reduction measures if they know that humanitarians will come to their rescue in times of crisis.

How to get over this? There has to be a way for donors, both at political and programming level, to feel responsible for risk reduction. Risk reduction actions – against natural hazards, geo-political risks and economic shocks – must become more coherent.

Making sure that climate and disaster risk are properly embedded in the post-2015 development framework, and that there is consistency between what donors sign up to in the second Hyogo Framework for Action on disaster risk reduction, the “new” sustainable development goals and the agreement on climate planned for Paris’s COP 21, will be an important step. Working out who is responsible for what – and holding donors accountable for those commitments – will help send the right signals to those who set strategic directions and allocate funds.

Sharing risk information between donors, and promoting synergies between climate, disaster, development and humanitarian actors, will also be important. The Global Partnership for Effective Co-operation – which brings together nations, businesses and development organisations – could be a very useful vehicle for taking this forward.

And what about the challenges inside donor agencies? An Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Australia Reflections and Lessons study has highlighted the need for senior management support, organisational integration, inclusion in high-level policies, action plans, and methods for learning and dissemination.

These things are of course important. Experiences in other donors, for example on Ireland’s long road to adopting resilience as an overarching programme goal, demonstrate the need for a full change management process; starting with political will and strategic guidance, but also highlighting the need for new, flexible programming instruments and changes to the way the institution approaches innovation, results management and human resources.

Different bits of donors have different programming cycles and timeframes; these need to be harmonised. Donor staff often see risk as “complicated” – with the exception of certain front-running donors like Japan, it is tough to find a water engineer who understands the finer points of disaster risk. There is often pressure to design large “scaled up” development programmes – but this may hamper efforts to mitigate risks at community level. And donors may just be risk intolerant – a number of DAC donors, including Australia and the UK, are under intensive scrutiny from the domestic press; this may make them shy away from more risky ways of working.

Of course, there are ways around this. Focusing on implementation in the field – where staff is likely to be more pragmatic and have a better understanding of risks – might be a good first step. Seed funding for risk assessments – such as that provided by Australia to national risk management structures in the Philippines – can also be very useful. Ensuring that staff has adequate training and appropriate career incentives, will also help. And results targets and monitoring systems should be set up to encourage staff to work on risk and uncertainty – rather than guiding them towards certain results and value for money. Here, the guidance from ODI is welcome.

Yes, we all know that we have to do something about disaster, environment and climate risk. But getting from the moral imperative to effective joined-up risk reduction programming will require the right incentives, and some major changes to the way donors work. Let’s all encourage them to take those steps.