Published on Let's Talk Development

Reflections from the WDR road show

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Since the WDR 2014 launched in early October, members of the WDR team have been travelling to many cities in different countries to present the Report. These trips are colloquially known as the "road show"—a grossly misleading term since travel is mostly by air and the events are more characterized by discussion among professionals than by show-bizz.

I would like to take the time to reflect on what I have been hearing at three very interesting and well-attended events held recently at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University in Montreal, United Nations  in Geneva, and at the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), World Bank, Washington D.C. (full disclosure: I work there now).

Different disciplines approach risk in different ways. The health, economics, climate change, and disaster risk professions for example are all strongly rooted in their own traditions, terminologies, and approaches. I was therefore a bit nervous about how the Report's framework would be received.

In fact we received nice compliments on the framework. A Geneva representative of private sector employers shared that she has been grappling with articulating how vulnerability, resilience, fragility, and opportunity are linked, and that the WDR 2014 conceptualizes this very well. Academics in Montreal heaped praise on the framework as simple, intuitive, and compelling. We also got praise for emphasizing opportunity as the flipside of risk, which many found to be a novel and intuitive concept. Paraphrasing a bit, participants were saying that the Report's framework resonates and expresses complex interconnections they have been struggling to articulate themselves. Such intuitive clarity is the lithmus test of any conceptual framework.

The Geneva event drew around 100 participants from that city's global health, disaster risk management, and diplomatic communities. Risk and resilience are familiar topics to this community, and the discussion focused on how to scale up risk management in developing countries, not why it is important to do so or whether its benefits outweigh its costs (they do!). Panelist Andrew Maskrey from UNISDR noted that although countries have made progress on disaster risk reduction (under the Hyogo framework), economic losses from disasters keep rising year after year. He compared this situation to a marathan runner who runs faster and faster yet keeps falling further behind. Maskrey also thought our Report could have looked more into where these shocks come from—for example, destruction of the environment or the choice to put houses and factories in flood-prone areas. (In my view the Report is clear that risk is often endogenous). A participant from World Vision asked how our framework might apply to the Typhoon that recently hit the Philippines or to the potential for yet another famine in East Africa. Another participant asked how to deal with the fact that individuals notoriously misjudge the size of different risks.

Group photo with Rasmus Heltberg
Photo caption: from left to right: Rasmus Heltberg, Agnès Dhur, Andrew Maskrey, and Daniel Kull
Photo credit: Alina Truhina

The gist of my response in Geneva was that to scale up risk management, we need to understand not just the risks themselves but also the obstacles holding back progress on more effective and systematic risk management. Sadly, inaction often prevails in the face of knowledge about impending risk. We therefore have to find ways to build systems and institutions that can transcend election cycles and short-termism and make risk management happen. Hence our recommendation to set up National Risk Boards, with the power to hold governments' "feet to the fire" on doing the necessary (but not necessarily convenient) risk management actions and to ensure balanced attention to different types of risks.

The Montreal event had around 200 participants, mostly academics, students, and the private sector. Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark picked up on one of our slides showing that spending on preparation is a tiny fraction of spending on disaster response, asking what foundations and civil society organizations can do to fundraise for preparation. In Montreal I also enjoyed discussing with McGill academics how the WDR framework can be applied to research.

The National Risk Board recommendation was quite well received at all three events. An African diplomat asked for advice and support in setting up such a board in his own country. Others wanted to make sure that the National Risk Boards would integrate with existing coordination mechanisms for specific risks (which of course they should).

Many people commented on the huge risks in conflict-affected countries and how challenging it is to put better risk management in place in settings of violence and weak government capacity. This can also make it difficult to implement some of the Report's recommendations in those countries, as noted by panelist Agnès Dhur from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and Professor Philip Oxhorn from McGill. But much can be done even without National Risk Boards. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, champions of risk management can and do emerge from all walks of life. Participants seemed to appreciate our insistence that risk management is a shared responsibility where not just governments, but also families, communities, the private sector, and the international community play important roles. When governments are dysfunctional, these other actors and systems should take note and adapt their strategies.

Risk avoidance by donor agencies came up several times. It is hard to find funding for important but risky work in post-conflict settings characterized by frequent setbacks and uncertain results. There is no doubt in my mind that donors (including the World Bank Group) should more wholeheartedly embrace risk management (the Bank's current change processes may well do this). As we write in the Report, the risk of inaction can be the largest risk of all. Participants urged greater attention to risk and resilience in the post-2015 development goals, something I can only agree to.

Several people commented on the unequal distribution of risk. Some groups generate risk, some help manage it, and others just bear the cost of shocks. Another participant from World Vision emphasized that risk management is ultimately about justice. The links between inequality and risk management were also explored by Max Ashwill in Inequality in Focus.

Fully embracing that risk and uncertainty are intrinsic to development has implications for evaluations as we discussed at a lively internal event in IEG. We evaluators could do more to look at the quality of risk management and how much the agencies we evaluate help countries set up risk management systems. And projects may not generate results even when "inputs" are provided and "outputs" produced as planned. Sometimes, bad luck strikes. The question is whether programs and projects incorporated good risk management. Sometimes good luck happens. New opportunities emerge. Evaluators also need to ask whether projects made the most of new opportunities.

My colleague Andrew Stone has a habit of summing up meetings with an impromptu poem. Here is what he came up with:

WDR 2014

Moses admonished the Pharaoh:  "Tisk, Tisk!

You haven't protected your land against risk!

For plague, flood and frogs, a clear-cut corrective,

Is resources, information and action collective.

To avoid disaster on a scale bibilical,

Reset your course on a path counter-cyclical.

Prepare for the worst to ensure your endurance,

I'd also suggest some disaster insurance!

For even more guidance, please do take a look,

At WDR, which I call 'The Good Book'."


Rasmus Heltberg

Lead Evaluation Officer, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

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