Preventing Disaster: Realizing Vulnerabilities and Looking Forward

By Burnham, Gilbert | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Preventing Disaster: Realizing Vulnerabilities and Looking Forward


Burnham, Gilbert, Harvard International Review


The past 16 months have seen major disasters in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions have had their lives changed forever. Some attention has focused on a possible increase in the frequency of natural and man-made hazards that are responsible for these disasters. However, the right place for our attention is on the increasing vulnerabilities related to geography and livelihood. As new disasters occur in 2006, we cannot lose sight of what we should have learned from the disasters of 2004 and 2005. Serious thinking on these lessons can protect the lives of those who continue to live in circumstances particularly vulnerable to disaster. These are issues we cannot further delay addressing.

How the world responded to the tragedy of the December 26 tsunami will continue to be examined in detail through expert panels, workshops, and reports. The same will be true for Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake. Less attention will be paid to the planning and preparation that could have mitigated these disasters. Predictably, only some passing mention will be made about the lack of community disaster management capacity or the manifest failure to reduce the obvious vulnerabilities that resulted in widespread loss of life and property.

At the heart of these disasters was the failure to develop effective national disaster management capacity--the capacity to plan and prepare for response, to coordinate assistance, to develop policies on reconstruction, and to confront the vulnerabilities of the population.

Development of a national disaster response system stretches from policy formation in central government to community preparedness. It is a plodding and unexciting process that requires updated legislation and emergency operations plans at many levels and in many sectors. A variety of often disparate stakeholders must plan together, competing goals and highly variable capacities must be reconciled, training programs must be required, and capacities must be repeatedly tested. These initiatives need not be expensive to be effective, as demonstrated by cyclone response programs in Bangladesh and hurricane preparedness efforts in the Caribbean states. They require perseverance and unified focus by a capable team as well as consistent political support. External organizations also play an important role in helping make this happen.

The popular image of disasters comes from pictures on television of the desperate homeowner, the harried relief worker, and the various logos of relief organizations. Little credit is given to the long and unflagging support provided by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the consistent efforts of the Pan American Health Organization, or the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in helping countries build their disaster management capacities in quiet and undramatic ways.

There have been no headline-grabbing presidential initiatives for disaster preparedness, no Millennium Goals for disaster management. The UN International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction quietly closed its doors in 2000 and its successor, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, is not making big waves. Promising major disaster relief initiatives or sending prominent public officials, such as former presidents and prime ministers, could give disaster preparedness a higher media profile. An all-out effort on the part of prosperous nations to strengthen disaster management capacity in less developed countries is the only way to create long-term stability and reduce human and economic losses worldwide.

Responding to specific disasters by providing hand-to-mouth help is not the best way to help countries suffering from the effects of a natural disaster. Creating a standing fund to draw from to meet disaster needs immediately, sidestepping the present flash appeal process, could speed relief and make for more effective intervention. …

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