SENDAI, Japan – Without better preparation for disasters – whether they be earthquakes and tidal waves, extreme weather events, or future pandemics – we put lives and economies at risk. We also have no chance to be the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.
Just a few days ago, the world was again reminded of our vulnerability to disasters, after Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall, devastated the islands of Vanuatu. Some reports found that as much as 90 percent of the housing in Port Vila was badly damaged. When the cyclone hit, I was in Sendai for the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place only a few days after the fourth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. That quake and subsequent tsunami tragically resulted in more than 15,000 deaths and caused an estimated $300 billion in damage.
The World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu had some answers in a live-streamed conversation, Building Shared Prosperity in an Unequal World, with Chinese media entrepreneur Yang Lan in the lead-up to the institution’s Annual Meetings on Wednesday morning.
In addition to their often devastating human toll, natural disasters can have an extremely adverse economic impact on countries. Disasters can be particularly calamitous for developing countries because of the low level of insurance penetration in those countries. Only about 1% of natural disaster-related losses between 1980 and 2004 in developing countries were insured, compared to approximately 30% in developed countries. This means the financial burden of natural disasters in developing countries falls primarily on governments, which are often forced to reallocate budget resources to finance disaster response and recovery. At the same time, their revenues are typically falling because of decreased economic activity following a disaster. The result is less money for government priorities like education or health, thereby magnifying the negative developmental impact of a disaster.
To address this problem, the World Bank Treasury has been helping our clients protect their public finances in the event of a natural disaster. The most recent innovation is our new Capital-at-Risk Notes program, which allows our clients to access the capital markets through the World Bank to hedge their natural disaster risk. Under the program, the World Bank issues a bond supported by the strength of our own balance sheet, and hedges it through a swap or similar contract with our client. The program allows us to transfer risks from our clients to the capital markets, where interest in catastrophe bonds is growing.
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When I turned 22, I was struggling a bit. I was just two months into my first year at Harvard Medical School, and I had gone from an undergraduate environment at Brown University where I was an activist with a diverse group of peers to a situation where I was memorizing anatomy out of a textbook each and every night. It seemed a real letdown.
Over the next months and years, I met fellow activists including Paul Farmer, with whom I co-founded Partners In Health, and that opened up new possibilities. A few years later, I entered a PhD program in anthropology. Both connected the lessons from medical school to real passions of mine.
When I was 22, one thing naturally led to another. Even so, I wish I knew then what I understand better now about preparing myself for the future. I have three suggestions that I wish someone had told me when I was younger.
Women: Just when you thought it was safe to leave the kitchen, drive, vote, or wear pants, think again. Try Googling “Women should not,” and watch what the autocomplete function brings up. Top responses include “be allowed to vote,” “be in combat,” and “be in church.” This glimpse of the deep and pervasive sexism in our collective conscious inspired a UN ad campaign featuring women’s faces with their mouths covered in these slurs.
These disturbing messages did not emerge out of nowhere. They reflect social norms, and their rigid persistence reminds us that norms change slowly, when they change at all. According to the World Health Organization, at least 35% of the world’s women have been assaulted at some point, and many men and boys have also been victimized, particularly when their behavior goes against dominant norms.
If you saw how poor I was before, you would see that things are getting better.
When I hear stories like that of Jean Bosco Hakizimana, a Burundian farmer whose life was transformed by a cow, I get excited about the change we can all make. Jean Bosco’s income is improving, his kids are eating better, his wife has some nice clothes, and his manioc fields are yielding better harvests — all thanks to the milk and fertilizer from this one cow.
A similar story is playing out in more than 2,600 communities across Burundi, offering new life to a people once decimated by civil war. These community agricultural programs sponsored by the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the poorest, show that development doesn’t have to be that complicated and that collective effort can make all the difference.
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Standing atop a disused amphitheater in a disused airforce base, we could see over the surrounding area. On the right, a sea of shacks nuzzled together in hope and desperation. On the left, stretches of cracked concrete with just one shack here, one shack there.
The emptying expanse to the left was the story of success. More than three years after the massive earthquake that shattered so much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, rental subsidies were moving households quickly out of camps to houses in the community.
For almost a year, the World Bank has been supporting the Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) in Haiti, where much of the country is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake. Through this program, 1,000 low-income Haitian girls between the ages of 17 and 20 who did not complete secondary school have been able to receive vocational and technical training in areas of work not traditionally open to women.
The program seeks to ensure that these young Haitian women can enter the labor force with skills and experience. Internships are an integral component of the training they receive. In this context, the acquisition of technical skills suited to labor market needs and a change in mindset are critical to altering this situation in tangible ways.
I had the opportunity to go to Port-au-Prince when the program was launched and meet the future beneficiaries. I returned a few weeks ago to observe the progress made.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim’s trip to Haiti on Nov. 6 and 7 included holding meetings with the country’s senior political leadership, attending the opening of a hospital, delivering a speech at a poverty conference, and visiting several Bank Group projects.
And it also was a journey back to a country where he had helped provide health care starting in 1988 through Partners in Health, a Boston-based NGO that he co-founded. In a short video below, Dr. Kim gives his assessment of the visit and explains why he feels hopeful about Haiti’s future.
Looking at communities across our planet, there is a brutal lack of resilience in our modern lives. Cities have expanded without careful planning into flood- and storm-prone areas, destroying natural storm barriers and often leaving the poor to find shelter in the most vulnerable spots. Droughts, made more frequent by climate change, have taken a toll on crops, creating food shortages.
In the past 30 years, disasters have killed over 2.3 million people, about the population of Houston or all of Namibia.
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