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When Disasters are Slow not Sudden: Poverty, Hunger, Drought, Disease and the Failure of Development

Time (GMT +00) 12:30 14:00
Terry Jeggle
, UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR)
Ken Westgate, Regional Disaster Reduction Advisor, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Nairobi.
Tony Baldry MP
, Vice-Chair, APGOOD

Tony Baldry MP, in the chair, opened the second meeting in the 'Disasters and Development' series. He introduced the topic and the speakers.

Terry Jeggle of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) began by saying that the fundamental issues being addressed in the context of disaster risk reduction are developmental but how events are characterised (i.e. as 'disasters' or even as 'slow, onset disasters') can limit our understanding and subsequent action.

He pointed to the fact that where people live, from both a geographical and geophysical perspective, as well as the kinds of livelihoods they pursue has a substantial impact on their exposure to different disasters. Moreover, knowledge of what to do and how to react in these situations is fundamental, especially for populations in disaster-prone areas. This was clearly lacking in many of the coastal areas hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2005.

He posited that the critical link between disasters and development lies in the need to be more attentive to and aware of the risk factors that populations are exposed to, as this feeds into how resources are allocated which currently varies greatly depending on whether one is speaking about disasters or development.

Particularly in densely populated urban areas, issues of public space, health, water access, and construction techniques are essential components of disaster risk reduction and should be more robustly incorporated into strategies. Additionally, investment should be channelled to minimise the exposure of people in other types of risk-prone environments, such as drought-prone areas.

Mr. Jeggle then moved to look at what he called 'time considerations' in relation to disaster risk reduction. He said an appreciation of the role of time and timing in the development of disaster risk strategies provides a major opportunity to build response capacity. This applies to operational as well as political considerations. Particularly in the case of slow onset disasters, there is a need to establish a robust developmental approach by analysing how resources are distributed within states. Governments, he said, should be allocating more finance and personnel to risk reduction and capacity building. Disasters are often conceived as an interruption to normalcy, which is a mistake. These events will continue to be a feature of peoples' lives, despite the unpredictability of their precise timing.

Though Jeggle conceded that this had obvious cost implications, he argued that having to address the majority of problems in the aftermath of disasters often results in higher costs. What is more, these can end up being more complex and difficult to address, particularly when livelihoods have been affected.

He concluded by stating that:

  1. Disaster management is not a specialist profession. In order to reduce the impact of disaster risk, root causes must be addressed and this should be undertaken by combining the expertise of a many different kinds of people including sociologists, emergency service professionals and development experts.

  2. Sharing knowledge and technology is important. Applying existing expertise and knowledge is essential to reducing vulnerability. Adequate use of technologies such is building reinforcements need to be made.

  3. How resources are used is vital. There is nothing to stop budgets being used in different ways. For instance, by allocating a portion of development budgets towards creating safer conditions for vulnerable groups.

  4. Mechanisms exist. ISDR's 'framework for action' outlines specific areas of activity to help strengthen disaster preparedness. Also, the World Bank's Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery has recently been established to provide funding towards risk reduction.

Ken Westgate commented first on the event-driven nature of the issues that are dealt with in this discipline. For this reason, he had entitled his speech 'Recurrent drought and development thinking outside the box.'

He stated that practitioners in this area are often trapped by their own terminology. There is still have some way to go with regard to this, but the focus has started to shift successfully in recent years.

He stated that 1979 was an important year for Oxfam. Pol Pot was overthrown in Kampuchea and Oxfam was the first agency to enter the liberated country with emergency relief supplies. This received much media coverage via John Pilger and the Daily Mirror and money flowed in from the public, causing Oxfam's income to increase considerably. After this coverage ended however, their income slowly retreated.

Certain people have said more recently that Africa needs an 'African tsunami.' What they mean is the profile of the disaster currently occurring in Africa is not as high as it should be. This is because these kinds of 'slow disasters' are not as media-friendly as sudden, onset disasters such as tsunamis.

In Niger in 2005, the BBC featured regular pictures of starving children. This was treated by the media like a sudden onset disaster, though it was actually much more complex. The actions of the international community in Niger were also characteristic of a disaster emergency response, but this crisis was the result of very deep, long-term, structural issues. The images coming out of Africa all the time are just the tip of the iceberg - the major issues often lie hidden and unanalysed.

In Ethiopia in 2004, there was acknowledged to have been a failure in terms of an adequate response to these major underlying structural issues, as the country found itself in the same situation as 30 years ago. It was decided that a coalition of stakeholders should be formed. There was a collective belief at that time that 'we are doing development in emergency mode' but what was actually needed was sustainable solutions. The coalition is not effective yet, but for a time in 2004 there was a very good debate and much more thought about longer term issues.

In the Horn of Africa there is a food security meeting every two years to discuss the next round of food distribution by the government and the FAO. At this meeting, lots of different organisations jockey for position. More recently, some groups have started using this forum to talk about longer-term issues. There is now an urgent need to convert this debate into positive actions for the future.

Referring to drought specifically, Westgate stated that this is a pervasive, long-term onset hazard which impacts dramatically upon food security. The dimensions of hazards such as these differ a great deal from those of rapid onset disasters. Added to this, climate change is now another factor which also needs to be taken into account. The increasing unpredictability of weather patterns, which can lead to crop failure, the exacerbation of malnutrition and the increased incidence of certain diseases such as malaria, is a huge cause for concern.

In addressing the question of why drought has been considered 'merely' as a sudden disaster and a 'meterological phenomenon' which requires a narrow humanitarian response for so long, Westgate states that this is indicative of a failure to address the underlying factors which impact upon peoples' livelihoods. The 'humanitarian aid only' response merely returns people to 'normal', it does not remove their vulnerability. Their resilience to these factors will therefore last for only as long as funding is available. Certain communities especially, such as pastoralists in East Africa, are also very vulnerable to losing both their livelihoods and their assets, as they have nothing to rebuild from in the wake of a disaster.

Westgate stated that the language used after disasters, such as 'early recovery' and 'humanitarian response period' should be used with reference to longer-term actions too, but they are not currently fully understood as such. The distribution of food aid is also affected by drought - 'constant recovery' rather than 'early' would therefore be much more appropriate in these circumstances, especially if the drought has been recurring for a few decades.

In addition, the translation of drought early warnings into effective action are not always carried out effectively. Solutions are not just dependent on rainfall and variability. Furthermore, the focus of governance needs to move from the central to the local level, but they must also remain connected. Decentralisation often takes place only reluctantly, which often means that resources will not necessarily flow from the centre out/down.

In conclusion, Westgate stated that a disaster reduction approach would be useful in Africa as it emphasizes all stakeholders. There is a need to move away from the event-driven nature of the response though, as disaster risk should encompass all policy areas. It should also be a global process, and in Africa, a regional process too, via the African Union. Such a multi-level approach will enable mutual support for disaster risk reduction.


Points raised during the discussion included:

  • Regarding the contrast between the investment needed before a disaster and the cost after - who bears the cost upfront and who bears the costs downstream? Terry Jeggle replied that the international donor community bears the cost upfront for any funding for disaster risk reduction strategies. At the moment, this comes from governments and specifically, development and humanitarian departments, but there does need to be a systematically wider approach to include both education, health and other departments.

  • With regard to Mozambique, what is defined as a 'disaster'? Locusts, or hunger, poverty, and/or malnutrition? - but surely these are not the root of the problem? Ken Westgate replied that approaches from the disaster reduction field can help in these contexts as there are definite entry points. Development assistance programmes need to be placed in context, not just in crisis mode. Terry Jeggle replied that locusts were not attributed as the sole basis of the problem, particularly as there was a bumper harvest that year.

  • What about the political economy of disasters, especially with regard to pastoralists who suffer hugely due to political marginalisation, as well as other impoverished and politically marginalised groups? PRSPs have been seen as a mechanism to aid the transition from poverty to poverty and growth by many governments. Terry Jeggle stated that he agreed - the PRSP in Malawi was now called a 'growth strategy'. With regard to the political dimension, very impoverished groups are perceived as non-productive groups, so governance is also an important factor. Ken Westgate replied that both the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina both demonstrated that it is political decision-making that is really driving the issues. These are a big force but there is hope on the horizon in the form of a global platform for disaster reduction/recovery, as several UN agencies have restructured recently.

  • There is a problem in the 'silo thinking' of the UN and other international organisations - will UN reform tackle this problem? In addition, there are similarities between natural disasters and conflicts - there is always more attention focused on the situation after both these types of events. Should these issues be elevated to a higher level within the UN? Ken Westgate replied that there was certainly a close connection between conflict and natural resources, for example in Darfur. He reminded the audience that decisions taken with regard to conflicts also affect natural disasters. The UN must therefore make sure that this is definitely addressed through UN reform.

  • With regard to the new DFID disaster risk policy in chronic protracted emergencies, much work has also been done in the area of food security. DFID will also be organising an internal meeting in Uganda to discuss disaster risk reduction and food security, and to work out how best to work on these joint issues together. Ken Westgate replied that the emphasis within the UN is on country teams. There is therefore a need to bring agencies together and use their comparative advantages. For example, with regard to UNDP and FAO - UNDP can be involved with food security issues. In the early days, UN country offices wanted to integrate disaster risk issues into programmes and learn how, practically, this could be done. Although disaster risk reduction remains a cross-cutting issue, it still isn't fully integrated, however in certain countries there is still much enthusiasm for an integrated approach which should be used as a basis for realising this in the future.


The second meeting in this series on 'Disaster and Development' promoted a discussion of countries where chronic problems such as poverty, disease, hunger and drought are endemic, and of poverty issues more generally as factors in disaster vulnerability.

Committee Room 17