Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Policy lessons to reduce disaster risks

Greetings from the new Crawford Building, at the Australian National University in Canberra, where Peter McCawley is speaking on "Preparing for megadisasters: Lessons from the Asian tsunami". Peter is a Visiting Fellow in the Arndt-Corden Division of Economics at the ANU working on policy for reducing disaster risks faced by the poor in developing countries. He is finishing a book on disaster preparedness.

Teach disaster reduction techniques

Below I have made some quick notes on Peters talk. The most significant point for me was "How do we make agencies learn?". That is, there are many detailed analysis's of what happened in previous disasters and lists of recommendations for change. But the national and international agencies involved do not appear to learn these lessons. The answer to this seems obvious to me: to make the organisation learn you teach the individual staff.

Last Saturday, the Australian Prime Minister announced that ANU would be providing training for the Australian Public Service. The ANU could therefore formally and officially teach disaster prevention to the Australian Public Service. Most of this training will be done online and therefore this training could also be made available to staff of national and international agencies. This training could incorporate open source software which would then be available for coordination of international operations.

I asked Peter about this and he commented that the problem was sustaining the effort: many of the post tsunami web sites are now moribund. I commented that the Sahana Foundation was set up to provide long term support for disaster software and proved itself in several situations (winning humanitarian awards). Perhaps this could be expanded to cover education as well. This could use the integrated education techniques I discussed with Last week Cameron Shorter a few weeks ago.

One of the audience recommended UNOGunog Humanitarian Reform and another (from AusAid) recommended the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System: Virtual OSOCC.

Notes from the talk

Peter cited "A ripple in development? Long term perspectives on the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami 2004" from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), 29 May 2009. He used this to help argue that the international aid response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami was large aid project, but not significant in the long term.

Peter criticised the Australian Government for not placing an emphasis on human security in the region. Instead the emphasis as on military security for nation states, not people.

He showed a reproduction of the "Great Wave off Kanagawa" and pointed out it is not a Tsunami.

Peter commented that the Asian tsunami had high levels of aid provided, compared to the Burma cyclone, due to political limitations.

Peter showed a graph of the economic stages of a disaster. There is sudden economic loss due to the disaster. Initial relief is local, followed by international relief. Rehabilitation follows, then high levels of economic activity during reconstruction, the a drop off in activity afterwards.

Livelihood programs are needed, but Peter comments that donor agencies have difficulty with these on a small scale and quickly. Rebuilding infrastructure is important, but can take years to organise, as it involves rebuilding roads, bridges, airports. Donors like to build large infrastructure projects but these do not provide rapid aid to the local economy.

Social capital may be lost if new housing is not design to suit local social structures. As an example emergency housing designed for a small nuclear family will not work for an extended family.

Peter commented that coordination is a major challenge following a disaster. Indonesia did well setting up a strong agency with a cabinet level minister in charge. The flow of finance can also be complex.

It occurs to me that these could be a role for the Sahana foundation, to produce software to help with coordination. This would only be in part about producing software, what would be more important would be to produce some de-facto standardisation of the paperwork required by different agencies.

One problem is looking after assets provided by aid. The local administrators now have the problem to manage these Peter commented that Indonesia has now a large stock of physical assets. There is no inventory of what has been provided, and funds for maintenance have not been given.

Peter argued that disaster risk reduction and preparedness needed to be carried out in advance of a disaster, rather than responding afterwards. He listed 8 lessons:
  1. Objectives: Delivery of aid is only one objective of those involved.
  2. Local responses: The fastest relief for the tsunami was provided by the local community, with little recognition/
  3. Coordination: International coordination is needed.
  4. Stages: Different: agencies respond at different phases
  5. Supply oriented donors: Donors tend to supply, not ask what is actually needed
  6. Finance: Problematic (I did not understand this point)
  7. Cost increases: Aid response may cause local cost increases
  8. Methods of spending: Cash or kind.

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