Disasters are not a department: to reduce risk, we must empower communities

Published: 10 May 2011 14:16 CET

Bekele Geleta, Secretary-General, International Federation
of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

“Do something!” This simple message is the first one that governments hear when terrible events such as the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti appear in the news. It is also the message that advocates for disaster risk reduction have sent over the last two decades; it is not enough, we have argued, to be prepared for disasters, governments can and must do more to prevent them happening in the first place. And this will be the inevitable call this week, as representatives from governments and disaster risk management organizations from around the world gather in Geneva for the United Nations’ third Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Governments are listening. Increasingly, the language of disaster risk reduction is finding its way into national laws and policies around the globe. Disaster risk management agencies’ missions have been extended beyond ‘buckets and blankets’ to encompass a more rounded approach to disasters.  Ministerial and cross-departmental committees have been established at national and regional level to focus on disaster risk reduction and a growing – but still insufficient – number extend their membership to civil society organizations.

However, disasters do not strike departments or committees – they strike communities. In the long run, we will not be successful in reducing these risks if our laws merely distribute responsibilities among dedicated agencies and expert groups. Communities must also be empowered to take responsibility for reducing their own risks and in influencing decision-making and planning in disaster management.

Why? First, without public engagement and understanding about disaster risk, the political will for governments to act rapidly drains away. To maintain momentum on risk reduction, a community must have ‘hands-on’ responsibility. Second, communities have a unique understanding of their own circumstances – how and why they may be vulnerable to certain events. Third, once they understand their risks and requirements they may have more incentive to hold both governmental and non-governmental agencies accountable for their share of the work.

How can communities be empowered?  For one thing, they can be given a specific right to be educated about their disaster risks, as provided, for example, by recent laws in Algeria, Serbia and El Salvador. Community participation in local decision-making bodies can also be mandated, as it was in disaster management acts adopted by the Philippines and Zambia in 2010. Communities can also be given an actionable ‘right to protection’ to hold government entities accountable if they do not fulfil their duties, as is the case under Indonesia’s 2007 disaster management law. 

But we need to be even more creative in promoting community participation – and we may want to look at examples in other sectors, such as environmental protection, for inspiration. For example, in the Dominican Republic, regulations are being prepared and pilot projects conducted which will pay communities to actively maintain forests and water resources.  Similarly, in Nepal, forestry legislation allows for the creation of ‘user groups’ which are able to make a sustainable use of the resources of national forests in exchange for guarding them against encroachment by outsiders. These kinds of initiatives can, and should, be extended into other areas of community work on disaster risk reduction.

It is also important that disaster management laws expressly take into account the role of community-based organizations such as National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.  Their unique capacity to motivate and involve the most vulnerable segments of society can be greatly enhanced if the public sector includes them in planning and risk reduction activities.  The private sector also has a critical contribution that is often overlooked in disaster legislation.

Is there any question that strong governmental institutions are essential to preventing disasters?  Of course not.  However, this Global Platform is the perfect opportunity for us to admit that governments cannot do it all themselves and their laws should not pretend that they will.  Laws are not just good for creating institutions and committees, they can and should also help communities to help themselves.

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