A Perennial Debate: Disaster Planning versus Disaster Response

In May we saw a historic first: the World Humanitarian Summit. Held in Istanbul, representatives of 177 states attended. One UN chief summarised its mission thus: “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set in motion an ambitious and far-reaching agenda to change the way that we alleviate, and most importantly prevent, the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

And in that sentence we find one of the enduring tensions within the disaster field: between “prevention” and “alleviation.” Between on the one hand reducing disaster risk through resilience-building investments, and on the other reducing suffering and loss through emergency response.

But in a world of constrained political budgets, where should we concentrate our energies and resources: disaster risk reduction or disaster response?

How to Close the Resilience Gap

The Istanbul summit saw a new global network launched to engage business in crisis situations through “pre-positioning supplies, meeting humanitarian needs and providing resources, knowledge and expertise to disaster prevention.” It is, of course, prudent to have stockpiles of humanitarian supplies strategically placed.

But is the dialogue still too focused on response? Could we not have hoped to see a greater emphasis on driving the disaster-resilient behaviours and investments, which reduce the reliance on emergency response in the first place?

Politics & Priorities

“Cost-effectiveness” is a concept with which humanitarian aid and governmental agencies have struggled over many years. But when it comes to building resilience, it is in fact possible to cost-justify the best course of action. After all, the insurance industry, piqued by the dual surprise of Hurricane Andrew and then the Northridge earthquake, has been using stochastic models to quantify and reduce catastrophe risk since the mid-1990s.

Unfortunately risk/reward analyses are rarely straightforward in practice. This is less a failing of the models to accurately characterise complex phenomena, though that certainly is a challenge. It’s more a question of politics.

It is harder for any government to argue that spending scarce public funds on building resilience in advance of a possible disaster is money well spent. By contrast, when disaster strikes and human suffering is writ large across the media, then there is a pressing political imperative to intervene. As a result many agencies sadly allocate more funds to disaster response than to disaster prevention, even though the analytics mostly suggest the opposite would be more beneficial.

A New, Ambitious form of Public Private Partnership

But there are signs that across the different strata of government the mood is changing. The cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, for example, have begun to use catastrophe models to quantify the cost of inaction and thereby drive risk-reducing investments. For San Francisco the focus has been on protecting the city’s economic and social wealth from future sea level rise. In Berkeley, resilience models have been deployed to shore-up critical infrastructure against the threat of earthquakes.

In May, RMS held the first international workshop on how resilience analytics can be used to manage urban resilience. Attended by public officials from several continents the engagement in the topic was very high.

The role of resilience analytics to help design, implement, and measure resilience strategies was emphasized by Arnoldo Kramer, the first Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) of the largest city in the western hemisphere, Mexico City. The workshop discussion went further than just explaining how these models can be used to quantify the potential, risk-adjusted return on investment from resilience initiatives. The group stressed the role of resilience metrics in helping cities finance capital investments in new, protective infrastructure.

Stimulated by commitments under the Sendai Framework to work more closely with the private sector, lower income regions are also increasingly benefiting from such techniques – not just to inform disaster response, but also to finance the reduction of disaster risk in the first place. Indeed there are encouraging signs that these two different worlds are beginning to understand each other better. At the inaugural working group meeting of the Insurance Development Forum in Singapore last month there was a productive dialogue between the UN Development Programme and the risk transfer industry. It was clear that both sides wanted action, not just words.

Such initiatives can only serve to accelerate the incorporation of resilience analytics into existing disaster risk reduction programmes. This may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the shameful gap between the economic costs of natural disasters and the fraction of those costs that are insured.

We cannot prevent natural disasters from happening. But neither can we continue to afford to spend billions of dollars picking up the pieces when they strike. I am hopeful that we will take this opportunity to bring resilience analytics into under-served societies, making them tougher, more resilient, so that when catastrophe strikes, the impact is lessened and societies can bounce back far more readily.

Managing Director, RMS
A Managing Director since 2012, Daniel currently has responsibility for driving content, innovation and replicable, strategic solutions across the entire RMS client base. He is also the Global Head of the RMS Public Sector Group, with overall leadership responsibility within RMS for relationships with its supranational, sovereign and local government clients. Over the last 15 years, Daniel has covered both government and corporate clients on every continent and in almost every sector, advising them across the full spectrum of RMS products on a variety of complex risks, from natural hazards, terrorism and pandemic to marine, supply chain and cyber. Prior to RMS, Daniel managed the group strategy and development function at BUPA, the 50,000 employee global health insurance specialist. He also has considerable start-up experience, having been a founding team member of an award-winning, P&C focused, SaaS company that was ultimately bought by Oracle. A frequent commentator on technology trends, Daniel has been published by Insurance Executive Technology, Risk & Insurance, The Institute of Economic Affairs and Middle East Insurance Review. He holds a double first from Oxford, studied for his MS at the Humboldt in Berlin and is a graduate of the Center of Creative Leadership.

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