Category Archives: Disaster Risk Reduction

Aid, what Aid ?

I had a chat with someone at a party the other day, about work and careers. During this conversation I mentioned that I tend to have my fingers both in development aid as well as in humanitarian aid, and seeing the person’s surprise got me thinking. We still like to tuck things nicely into drawers, and play in pretty separate leagues – the humanitarians in one, and the development workers in the other – are we not ? We eye each other – sometimes somewhat suspiciously – across an artificial divide (what divide?). Even those that give the money are often still divided (several bilaterals come to mind), as is the UN, really (with one or two notable exceptions of agencies that do both). And then we wonder why exciting stuff like Resilience is so difficult to grasp. Because it happens right on the divide.

The world in 2016 really brings it home. Europe is desperately clutching at straws to find solutions for the refugee crisis, everyone is (again) calling for ‘addressing the root causes’ and quickly money is pumped into ‘new’ programmes to do just that. At the same time we are staring helplessly at some of the worst humanitarian atrocities of our lifetime happening in Syria, and generally don’t know what else we can do other than pouring more aid into programmes – humanitarian or development (whatever?)

But we are still not connecting the dots, we pour money from separate pots into separate endeavours and wonder why there never seems to be much progress. So why don’t we team up for real and make this one aid system, no matter what happens ? Let’s face it, at the end we are trying to help people to a better life. There are many ways to do that, but the worst of options is to save their lifes, then go away (because the drawer system makes us) when we have achieved that, only to come back another day (when things are normal again) and start development programming. Or the other way round, when things go haywire we pull out the development funding, only to come back with humanitarian cash some time later when things have really gone bad.

If aid was a listed company it would have gone out of business a long time ago. The efficieny losses we incur by separating humanitarian and development aid are enormous, both in human and in real capital. I know, it has been tried (do I hear ‘early recovery’?) and of course now there is resilience programming. But deep down inside the divide remains, and we will continue to have conversations where we discover that people we meet in our line of work are either development workers or humanitarians, very rarely both. Unless that changes, and unless that changes also between institutions we are not going to improve people’s lives for real. Really.


World Humanitarian Day 19th August 2014

World Humanitarian Day 2014 is about humanitarian workers. Ours is a unique profession, at often work in very difficult places. The Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection have produced a video collage of interviews with aid workers on this topic which is worth watching.

Watch the complete collage

Watch my contribution

Disaster Risk Reduction at the community level

I am going around rural communities (they are agropastoralists) looking at DRR programmes they were part of. It strikes me that there is a lot of enthusiasm from those that had the benefit of preparedness training. Talking to one village disaster risk management committee I could see clearly that it moved them to a new level of forward thinking. They now manage the pasture for their livestock well before it runs out, set up a grain bank, and plan ahead for potential food shortages at the end of the dry season.

All good. But then I spoke to people in a place where they had already lost pretty much all of their coping mechanisms. Meaning, when they had the trainings they learned about managing their options – but they didn’t have any options left to manage. Which makes a disaster risk management committee little more than a talk shop without real impact on the community.

What does this mean for those planning DRR programmes ? Most importantly, giving people skills to handle their own situation can’t just happen anytime. When the shocks have already depleted the options, they first need to be put back on a steady footing with traditional humanitarian assistance. When they have some resources back is the moment to learn how to plan better for next time.

This makes a lot of the funds available for DRR difficult to use, if they come on the back of humanitarian funds, or are even integrated in humanitarian funds. It almost forces organisations to come in with DRR work when communities have barely recovered. It looks like this makes a case for standalone DRR funding, either more from the resilience perspective, or as additional portfolios from humanitarian donors that can be timed more sensibly, when shocks are over and people back on their feet.

So, having said earlier that humanitarians have a big role to play in Resilience – a large part of it being their knowledge of what preparedness means – I think that the when is very important. Which at the end of the day points to the old realisation that separating humanitarian and development money really doesn’t make that much sense, and that humanitarians and development workers should be working together much more closely to really make things work.

What is the role for humanitarian aid in the Resilience Agenda?

The “Resilience Agenda” is increasingly dominating the discourse in both humanitarian and development circles. Some argue that resilience is simply another term for sustainable development, while others see it as a distinct and crucial element of disaster risk reduction that is not necessarily addressed by conventional development approaches. In essence, it describes the ability of people (individuals, communities) to resist or recover from sudden shocks to their livelihoods. Tempting as it may be, it can nevertheless not be equated with livelihood capacity, and it is a mistake to narrowly define resilience with livelihood indicators. Rather, resilience has as much to do with skills and individual / communal capacity as it has with economic and food security parameters of people’s lives. This explains why it bridges the still existing divide between humanitarian and development approaches – humanitarians can enable and equip those potentially or actually affected by disasters with a set of skills and tools, while development workers can support the right components of complex livelihood systems that are needed to resist and recover from shocks.

Humanitarian aid clearly has a role to play in strengthening resilience. Firstly, humanitarians are best placed to understand shocks and the impact they have on individuals and communities. Secondly, they understand best how essential services can be maintained even in adverse conditions or during forced migration. Thirdly, they know what skills are needed for individuals to deal with the first hours and days of an emergency, before outside aid arrives. Finally, they are at the forefront of recovery efforts , therefore knowing best how livelihoods can be restored as quickly as possible.

This translates into concrete action that a humanitarian organisation can support in (potentially) vulnerable communities and areas. With a good understanding of the impact of typical shocks in a particular environment, development and humanitarian programmes can jointly identify the most likely threats, their likely impact, and how people and services can be cushioned from them. This spans across the first three points listed above, i.e. understanding impact, understanding resilient services, and understanding resilient people (i.e. skills).

The area of skills is particularly interesting and remains less of a priority in typical resilience programmes. A recent study on disaster risk education in schools shows that while some countries have commendable school curricula where children are taught the locally relevant skills to deal with the impact of typical disasters where they live, globally this is an under-utilised area of strengthening resilience. There is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If children grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. No matter how good the outside response is, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives. There is clearly a strong case for investing into education and training, as relevant, to advance the Disaster Resilience Agenda.

The second key area where humanitarians can clearly contribute to better resilience in vulnerable communities is the resilience of essential services. This is where the resilience agenda is very close to the development agenda, and closely correlates with the wider Disaster Risk Reduction investment. Essential services that work well under ‘normal’ circumstances are a good start, and this is a task very much ‘owned’ by development programmes. However, humanitarians, with their understanding of what makes services resilient to shocks, must work closely with development programmes to e.g. ensure medical stocks can be maintained, water sources are protected against e.g. flooding, or schools can operate in adverse weather conditions or as mobile schools in situations of displacement. Ensuring this close cooperation, essentially bridging the development-humanitarian divide, is like skills a key and very worth-wile area of contribution.

Urban Disaster Risk Reduction – the case for civil protection skills

More and more often disasters affect urban populations in developing countries. There are simply more people at much higher density in cities and towns than in rural areas. And the poorest often live in inadequate housing or in unsuitable locations (prone to flooding or landslides etc.) because these are most affordable.

The aid community has understood this, and there is now a lot of practical work and thinking about how best to respond to disasters in urban areas. This addresses primarily the post-disaster response from the outside, and not necessarily how the people having to live in these areas can practice better disaster risk reduction.

At the same time, however, there are efforts to strengthen the resilience of these communities. A good way to do this is through educating children. DRR is now integrated to some extent in many school curricula in poor and middle-income countries at risk, although to different levels. A study last year by UNICEF and UNESCO in thirty countries shows that most often disaster-related teaching is most commonly found in the natural science, the geography, and the social science cluster of subjects. Only in two cases Disaster Risk Reduction was a dedicated subject, and only four countries have actual practical skills building in the curriculum, with disaster risk reduction being under Life Skills or even a dedicated civil protection subject as is the case in Cuba.

Much can be said for the latter, unfortunately rare way of approaching this. Coming from a country (Germany) with a strong culture of volunteer civil protection myself I firmly believe in the value of having a sizeable proportion of the community trained as fire fighters, first aiders, or civil protection volunteers. This to a large extent is driven by history, but has resulted in a comparatively high readiness of the general population for natural disasters. The severe and widespread floods a few months ago are a case in point – they were not simply managed well because Germany has the financial resources, they were mostly managed well because it can mobilise local volunteers almost instantly and for protracted periods.

While this is an example from a highly developed country, I would like to come back to Cuba. Cuba, a middle-income country at the lower end of the spectrum, has a similar level of readiness and preparedness for natural disasters, and has as a consequence dealt much better with recent tropical storms than most of its neighbours. Critics will point out that Cuba is also not necessarily a free society, but from what little I can see that doesn’t mean that the efforts that the country puts into civil protection (including a dedicated training period in schools) are necessarily forced upon the population.

The bottom line, and the argument I would like to make with this post, is that there is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If kids grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. Because it doesn’t matter how good the outside response is, and how much better international aid organisations are now geared towards urban disasters, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives.

I therefore think that we should invest much more in training urban communities in poor countries in dedicated civil protection skills, maybe to the extent of establishing organised structures. This could be through the existing Red Cross / Red Crescent Societies. This can and should start in schools, because as we know from life skills education, kids can make a lot of difference at home and in their community with what they learn in school.

How holistic – converged – complementary are Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience building programmes?

The drive for DRR and Resilience building has now been around for a few years. There is good literature on the topic – for example this recent book on Resilience that I find very good. I find, however, that inevitably the literature goes into sector-specific measures. I find this potentially risky, as more often than not projects end up covering specific sectors, either because agencies/government departments are specialised in sectors or because of sector-specific funding. Is it not necessary to look at a holistic approach to resilience and DRR and then determine what is needed to really fix it rather than building DRR/Resilience into sector-specific work which seems to be the common practice?
We often end up in this tunnel vision where we look at the country where we work as having special needs or being a special case. I don’t think with most topics this is the case. When I look at the work of local government in say European countries I see generally a holistic approach to disaster risk management. Of course there are sectors, and there are sector budgets, but most of the time there will be a group of people making the decisions as per the actual needs and gaps, and not externally driven. This is the benefit of having tax revenue which is not earmarked – and at the same time a strong argument for making sure that these groups (councils, committee, etc.) have the decision power and the funds to act for the good of the community. In this respect Kenya is a very interesting case – while they used to have the DSGs, District Steering Groups, to coordinate relief and development, with devolution they will now have real county councils with tax revenue that can be much more holistic in their approach. It is going to be interesting to see how they will perform – and how the development partners will support them. If we continue to offer them earmarked funds we will effectively block the potential they have to really strengthen community resilience to shocks.

An interesting addendum: Oxfam’s paper “The post-Hyogo Framework: What’s next for disaster risk reduction?” ( ) points firmly to a holistic, people-focused approach to DRR to mitigate the practice of working in silos.