Published on Let's Talk Development

When firefighting is not enough: The humanitarian community needs better risk management

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A new report by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow is a wakeup call to the humanitarian community to improve risk management. The report builds on and has several parallels to the World Development Report (WDR) 2014 on Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development, and I was therefore invited to speak at its UN launch in New York last week.

Humanitarian actors – a broad swath of UN agencies and NGOs – are the global community’s firefighters. These are the people that provide essential food and shelter in places like Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Somalia, Syria, the Sahel, and Tagloban, Philippines—many times putting their own lives on the line. The problem: humanitarian actors are set up to fight acute disasters but are increasingly being pulled in to complex and protracted crises. No longer is humanitarian assistance a short-lived gesture of support during an unforeseeable emergency. Of the 22 countries that had an Interagency Appeal for fundraising, 21 had at least one other crisis in the last ten years. The average length of time that a forcibly displaced person spends in displacement is around 20 years, yet most forced displacement continues to be managed as a short-term crisis.

The status quo is unsustainable, inefficient, and ineffective as the aptly titled OCHA report makes clear. Modern fire departments spend most of their time on fire prevention rather than putting out fires.  Yet when it comes to humanitarian crises, billions are spent on firefighting and very little on prevention. A serious rethinking of the international community’s approach to managing the risks of major crises and disasters is long overdue.

OCHA’s Savings Lives Today and Tomorrow shares with the WDR 2014 the focus on better risk management as the way to save lives, save costs, avert disasters, and unleash opportunity. It adopts the WDR’s definition of risk management as the process of confronting risks, preparing for them, and coping with their effects. Where the WDR 2014 focuses on how the development community can strengthen risk management, OCHA’s report does the same for the humanitarian community. Like the WDR, the report insists that the availability of information is not the key to improving risk management, citing examples from Somalia and elsewhere where early information did not lead to timely action. The report cites barriers to improving crisis risk management from lack of leadership, insufficient support from donors and the general public, organizational inertia, and the increasingly meaningless divide between humanitarian and development actors.

What can be done to shift from ad hoc crisis response to systematic risk management? The report has some good ideas on advocacy, more use of insurance, planning based on shared risk assessments, and hints at the potential need to reform humanitarian funding mechanisms. However, the report in my view doesn’t go far enough on how empowering citizens could help people demand more responsible risk management from their local and national governments. ICT, open data, and freedom of the press have the potential to transform the nature of governments’ accountability to their citizens and enable people themselves to demand better safety.

The report also doesn’t go far enough in advocating institutional reforms to risk management. Better risk management requires long-term preventative thinking in a world that often favors short-term, reactive approaches. Many clever people have advocated a shift from response to resilience to little avail. In the WDR, we recommend national risk boards and other institutional reforms creating formal entities responsible for overseeing risk management. In this spirit, the humanitarian community should consider creating a watchdog agency that holds everybody— donors, national governments, NGOs, UN agencies, and the MDBs—accountable for improving the balance between fighting today’s fires and preventing tomorrow’s.

This institutional reform should send a clear signal that the balance between response and preparation has to be improved. And then it should hold agencies and partners accountable for doing it in practice.
The webcast of the event is available online here. Pictures of the event are here.


Rasmus Heltberg

Lead Evaluation Officer, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

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