UNISDR – Disaster Risk Reduction

In May 2013 I worked as a reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. My mission was to attend daily sessions and write up brief reports for use by UNISDR. Below is a handful of my reports.

Parliamentarians’ Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

In a meeting attended by MPs from 26 countries, it was agreed that as climate change and disaster risk reduction are profoundly human issues, parliamentarians, who are the only stakeholders constitutionally mandated to speak on behalf of the people, are uniquely placed to have an immediate impact on the lives of those who have elected them.

It is increasingly believed that community-based actions should be the starting point of disaster risk reduction. So by acting with and on behalf of their constituents, the world’s 45,000 parliamentarians can take the lessons learned at ground level and use them to create legislation, allocate resources and ensure that legislation is implemented.

There is an urgent need for such immediate action, with many countries seeing a changing pattern of disasters, with both frequency and impact on the rise. The rate of economic growth in some countries cannot keep pace with expenditure on disaster recovery, so money spent on prevention, resilience building and risk reduction must be seen as an investment rather than a cost.

To bring about the necessary coherence to achieve this, governance for risk reduction must be strengthened at local, national and regional levels so that committed individuals and groups can work together to apply science and knowledge to the creation of policy.

It is proven that education and planning are essential in preventing natural hazards from becoming natural disasters, especially in areas affected by overpopulation and urbanization. Parliamentarians are well placed to ensure that this ground-level action is taken, and that care is given to all aspects of planning, including education, health, agriculture and zoning.

Before the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the corporate sector in Japan did not wish to take responsibility for disaster risk prevention. Following that disaster, however, there was a paradigm shift in attitudes to corporate responsibility that the private sector in the rest of the world has followed with interest.

Private Sector Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

Dr. Satoru Nishikawa has been successful in propagating the idea of Business Continuity Planning in Japan by using a positive rather than a regulatory approach, creating a win-win situation for businesses who participate in the development and implementation of disaster reduction and resilience strategies.  He has made it clear that businesses become attractive places in which to work and spend when they demonstrate corporate citizenship and take responsibility for the safety of their customers and employees.

Mr. Thomas Loster, chairman of the Munich-Re Foundation, agrees that the private sector must be involved in disaster risk reduction, and believes that if governments are able to encourage such participation then the activity will trickle down to customer level, creating much needed grassroots understanding and action.

Mr. Aras Papdopoulos, CEO of Titan America, also believes that the private sector should be encouraged to take a more active role in raising awareness of disaster risk. Companies should also be assured that when they invest in DRR, their investments will go towards the creation of resilient urban ecosystems in which business can continue to thrive.

EU Disaster Management – New Tools for Policy Making

During a conversation centring on the European Union’s new tools for policy making for disaster risk reduction (DRR), the room was reminded of the reasons for the importance of such policy making by Roger Bellers, Cooperation Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience with the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection branch of the European Commission.

Resilience, Mr. Bellers believes, is not just a buzz word, but is a way of saving lives, and in a world in which disaster losses are increasing, we must create greater capacity for DRR, as well as targeting policies at the most vulnerable in order to improve resilience from the grassroots upwards.

In order to take a collective risk management approach, different regional and international stakeholders should consolidate the tools they use, such as guidelines, funding mechanisms, early response systems, crisis modifiers and safety net systems.

Such consolidation was discussed by Thomas de Lannoy, Policy Officer for DRR at the European Commission. While guidelines on risk assessment are being written independently by European member states, he said, they are then being communicated to the Commission and disseminated throughout the region. Examples of risk management and disaster proofing in areas such as transport, energy and climate infrastructure are therefore being utilized at a regional level.

Philippe Quevauviller, Policy Officer for Enterprise at the European Commission, discussed the importance of implementing bridges of cooperation to make sure that research findings and their application to disaster risk management are transferred to end users. The Disaster Risk Reduction National Platforms are an important tool for such dissemination.

Public Awareness and Education in Building Community Resilience

While one of the key messages of the 4th Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) has been that our efforts must be focused on vulnerable communities, few members of those communities have been able to visit CICG this week. However, one of the conference’s most poignant moments was when an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy with severe disabilities asked the panel about education accessibility during the side event on the Role of Public Awareness in Building Community Resilience.

According to Ms. Kirsten Holst, UNESCO Liaison Officer in Geneva, it is just such children on whom we must focus our attentions at local, national, regional and global levels, with education for all being a key priority. UNESCO is working on building a comprehensive approach to education for disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, so that communities across the world can enjoy a culture of safety and resilience.

The right to education and safety are also top level outcomes for Save the Children, said the organization’s Senior Advisor for Education and DRR, Ms. Marla Petal. When children and youth are given access to comprehensive DRR education, they become pivotal in the dissemination of knowledge throughout their communities.

Also on the panel, Mr. Mohammad Munir Chowdury said that the need for DRR professionals in his country, Bangladesh, has led to the establishment of diplomas and masters courses in the subject, and many thousands of people have already trained in the management of disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Their motto, he said, is one which could well be applied across the world: “Know risk, no risk.”

What Binds Us? – Civil Society’s View on Building Resilient Communities

If Sharmila Aminath of the Maldivian Red Crescent could impress just two messages on the attendees of the 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, it would be these: that we must focus on vulnerable people, and that resilience is a life-long and on-going process.

Through working directly with vulnerable people in Maldivian communities, the Red Crescent has established grassroots definitions of the priorities of resilient communities, which include access to services, education, information, infrastructure and health facilities in an environment where economic risks and natural hazards are understood.

Action Aid Afghanistan has learnt similar lessons in its work with vulnerable communities, and believes that community groups need to be empowered to improve their own situation. Those most affected by disaster risk – the poor, women, children, the disabled and members of linguistic minorities – must be empowered. By addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability, such as lack of governance, social exclusion and lack of secured access to services, assets and natural resources, civil organizations can assist people in bettering their own circumstances.

From the perspective of the Catholic Relief Organization, the answer to the question of what binds us is a thirst for useful resources, which is why it has worked with various stakeholders in disaster risk reduction to produce the Towards Resilience Guide. The Guide seeks to address the problem of the inaccessibility of information to vulnerable groups, using simple language that makes it both comprehensible and translatable.

With so many organizations working towards the common goal of community resilience, many are recognizing the need for a cohesive approach. The Dutch alliance Partners for Resilience has brought together five NGOs to work on the building blocks of resilience, which they see as anticipation, response, adaptation and transformation. Their aim, shared by everyone working towards resilience, is for communities affected by disaster to be able not just to bounce back, but to bounce back better.

UN University: Comprehensive Climate Risk Management

Recent case studies by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) have concluded that what matters most to those affected by loss and damage at a household level are certainty, livelihood and food security, and how these things are maintained has a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction.

While it is essential that international organizations be involved with disaster risk reduction and management, especially in fragile or failed states, every group that suffers loss and damage must also be involved in their prevention and mitigation, which means that national and regional efforts should be coordinated with community-based actions.

National Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction are an excellent mechanism by which to achieve this coordination. While national governments are at the frontline of risk management and communities must endeavour to prevent and respond to loss and damage, National Platforms could play a greater role in bringing lessons learned at a national level to a local context, and act as a median point between traditional top-down and more inclusive bottom-up approaches, bringing policy coherence, coordination and strategy implementation to all levels.

The Knowledge Volunteers

When Carlo Lamprecht, former President of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, gave the keynote speech at The Knowledge Volunteers (TKV) conference on September 21, 2012, all present were reminded of the tremendous value of building intergenerational bridges to ensure digital inclusion and to share human values.

TKV was conceived a year ago by Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD) to encourage active ageing and intergenerational learning. At the conference, the seven partners, from the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK, each confirmed that those aims are being met every step along the way towards next year’s project completion.

In each country, young tutors are teaching those over 60 to use information communications technology. The older generation, referred to by participants in the TKV project as “Generation Plus”, are then encouraged to pass their knowledge on to their peers, so forming a large network of volunteers of all ages for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge.

As she welcomed all guests to the conference, Mirta Michilli, Director General of FMD, explained that the European Commission had funded TKV through its Lifelong Learning programme in an effort to build up a better society. “Especially in cities,” she said, “there are few opportunities for the generations to come together. As well as ensuring that older people are digitally included, this programme helps to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century by giving them the chance to use life skills and to face a professional environment.”

The knowledge exchange which is central to this programme perfectly matches the life skills and experiences of one generation with the practical abilities which seem to be easily acquired by another. As Carlo Lemprecht pointed out: “Use of computers and the internet seems to come naturally to our grandchildren, but we must remember that it was only 20 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the http code – the foundation of the World Wide Web – when working for CERN right here in Geneva. This cross-generational exchange builds bridges of both knowledge and human values.”

Members of Generation Plus whose working lives did not involve the use of information communication technologies, or ICTs, are often intimidated by computers and think that the technology is beyond their learning capacities. The TKV project overcomes this reluctance, however, by starting new learners with “the ABC of ICT”. This foundation course familiarises learners first with the essential hardware of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then with the fundamentals of its use. Step by step, the learners gain confidence in their interactions with the computer, until finally they are able to exploit their PCs for such activities as e-banking, e-shopping, booking travel and social networking.

At the conference, video testimonials were shown from project participants representing Generation Plus. One woman from Prague bought her first computer at age 70. “And now,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”

A man, also from the Czech Republic, was forced by illness to take early retirement, and found himself feeling lost and alone when his wife was out at work. Having now received communications technology training through TKV, however, he says, “If I’m sick or can’t leave the apartment, the computer can help me to contact other people. I know there’s always someone out there to talk to.”

Also significant was the testimonial of the most senior member of Switzerland’s ICVolunteers team. 90-year-old Magda Boon-Dènes said she finds the internet a wonderful tool for looking up anything she might want to see, from a forgotten recipe to a video of Fred Astaire dancing.

The benefits to the young volunteers who are training the Generation Plus learners are no less significant than those that their older peers are enjoying. Mirta Michilli pointed out that the young volunteers are not only learning how to communicate their knowledge, but are also developing a sense of social responsibility.

François Ledoux of Intel Corporation, which sponsors the TKV project, praised the role of these and other volunteers in making our communities better places in which to live and work. “By donating their energy, time and professional skills,” he said,” “volunteers can establish a foundation of lifelong learning and social awareness that may not be achieved through standard educational practices.”

This was also stressed by Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, who said that through volunteering we practice “the best dimensions of our humanity. Many of today’s young people, he said, “are not in employment, education or training, and social innovation is required to tackle the challenges with which they are confronted. At the same time, people are living longer, which means that the concept of ‘older’ is changing, and it is important to ensure that people are not digitally excluded once they reach retirement age.”

The TKV partners have enjoyed the on-going experience, over the past year, of transforming the theory of TKV into an actual working partnership between volunteers and learners, and have themselves learned a great deal as they tried to find solutions to the real social and practical problems which in some instances have threatened to derail their participation in the programme. In Greece, for example, the economic crisis has presented significant challenges to project partner 50Plus Hellas, but the enthusiasm of the young volunteers, teachers and learners has helped the course to carry on regardless.

“Nothing worked in Greece from July to September,” said Myrto-Maria Ranga, Project Manager at 50Plus Hellas, “but TKV has still been a tremendous success. We’ve had so many expressions of interest from members of Generation Plus that we’ve had to create a waiting list. Social inclusion is a human right and one of the goals of this project, and by working for and with older people, we are able to give a voice to a section of our society that could otherwise be marginalised.”

50Plus Hellas and other project partners found that it was important to involve public organisations in the programme from the start. “At the beginning,” Myrta said, it was difficult to persuade politicians of the potential of a project such as this one. Now, though, they understand the value of intergenerational communication, and are more willing to support our efforts.”

Project partners also learned the importance of flexibility in their approaches to the courses to accommodate the needs of the local participants. According to Raluca Icleanu of the Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta (SREP) of Romania, “The structure of the courses must be based on the needs expressed by the target group. We make sure that we define course times and dates with our teachers and learners, taking into consideration where they come from and what time they finished school and work and so on. This ensures that our courses accommodate everyone’s needs, and we therefore have a very low dropout rate.”

The central role of communications technology in the 21st century was highlighted in the closing moments of the TKV conference, when ICV Executive Director Viola Krebs pointed out that all of the communication between the TKV partners had, until last week, taken place in a virtual environment. Viola invited all partners to sign a physical Memorandum of Understanding to commemorate the rare occasion of their meeting. The handshakes exchanged between the partners were a marked commitment to the continued success of this ambitious project.