Nudging to save lives: Applying behavioral science to Disaster Risk Management in Haiti

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Young student in Haiti/World Bank
Young student in Haiti/World Bank

 

Marie is a Haitian mother of four children. She lives in a village far from the city, and is the owner of a cow, her family’s main source of income. One day, Marie wakes up to strong winds around her house. She turns on the radio to find out what’s happening, but the radio is out of network. She heads out of her house and down the road hoping to check with neighbors and runs into a volunteer with a megaphone yelling: “Evacuate immediately to the nearest shelter! A Hurricane Category 5 is approaching.”

She is not sure who this guy is - “Is he from the government? Should I trust him?” -  and has no idea what “Category 5” really means. She gets back home and starts thinking: “Should I really leave my house? God would never let something bad happen to us.

With winds getting stronger and very little information at hand, she gets scared and decides to evacuate. But when she is about to leave her house with her children, her oldest son says: “Mom, we cannot afford to lose our cow; I will stay to protect her.”  With little time to think, she decides to leave the house with her three youngest and to leave clear instructions to her eldest.

After walking some miles, they finally see a tap tap vehicle; but realizing they have no money to pay for it, they keep walking towards the nearest shelter. Upon arrival, the shelter looks overcrowded and filthy, with men smoking inside. Marie’s baby is crying, and she realizes there is no food or blankets for her children, and no running water in the bathrooms.  However, there is nowhere else to go. 

This story merely exemplifies some of the struggles that many Haitians encounter when faced with a natural disaster. Despite progress made toward greater disaster resilience in the country (notably, in disaster preparedness and emergency response, and on strengthening and expanding the national shelter network), many challenges remain.

Haiti’s geographic location makes it uniquely susceptible to hurricanes, and climate change is increasing their frequency and intensity. Haiti is one of the most deforested countries in the world, and hazards such as heavy rains devastate crops and livelihoods with a more challenging, longer road to recovery. Between 1961 and 2012, the country experienced more than 180 disasters, causing the death of more than 240,000 people. 

Some of these deaths could have been prevented had people evacuated on time to a safe location. However, as seen with Marie’s story, there are multiple barriers that could interfere with decision-making when faced with a catastrophic event.  Through qualitative research conducted by the World Bank in Port-au-Prince, Nippes, and the South departments, five main obstacles to evacuation were identified: 

  1. Often, the population does not receive the alert messages (Warning Alerts Failure), leading to an avoidable outreach problem caused by several organizational and governmental funding limitations.
  2. When the information arrives, messages are not always adapted to a format that the average person in Haiti understands, resulting in people not knowing where to go or what to do; nor do they feel urgency in evacuating (Unclear Language). 
  3. Even when the information arrives and is understood, sometimes people do not internalize the risk level. Not only is it difficult for the average Haitian to believe that a hurricane (low probability event) is going to hit their house (State of Denial), but also it is understandable that they fear for their livestock if they leave their house behind (Hyperbolic Discounting). 
  4. Even when people internalize risk levels, structural challenges may prevent them from evacuating. Many people do not have a shelter close to their homes or access to transportation, making it impossible to heed warnings (Lack of Resources). 
  5. Moreover, people that have had a bad experience in the past with collective shelters might be hesitant to evacuate. Often the experiences of collective shelters are bad as shelters can be unsafe, and often lack resources and proper management (Negative Experiences). 
Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD) - The World Bank.
Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD) - The World Bank.

This analytical work was a joint effort of the World Bank’s Disaster Risk Management and the Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD) to support Haiti’s efforts in strengthening disaster resilience. The initiative is supported by the EU and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery under the framework of the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction Program

Insights from this work have already been integrated in the design of the Strengthening Disaster Risk Management and Climate Resilience Project. The project provides meaningful opportunities to strengthen disaster preparedness and emergency response capacity, construction and rehabilitation of shelters, and dissemination of resilient construction practices. It takes into consideration the current mindset, beliefs of the target population and includes simplifying Early Warning System (EWS) messages with salient visuals, providing clear guidelines on evacuation, and highlighting consequences to help people react to the level of risk.

Incorporating a behavioral perspective into the project ensures the recommendations of the analytical work are positioned to combat the social, psychological, and structural barriers to efficient disaster risk management. 

Link to the full report: Using behavioral insights to improve disaster preparedness, early warning and response mechanisms in Haiti

Authors

Jimena Llopis

Behavioral Scientist at World Bank’s Mind, Behavior & Development Unit (eMBeD)

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