Matters Arising – The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

by | Apr 15, 2015 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Bernard ManyenaBy Bernard Manyena

About a month ago, 14-18 March, 2015, more than 6,000 delegates gathered at the World Disaster Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. Holding WCDRR in Sendai was deemed appropriate as this would not only remind delegates of the March 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster but also would provide an opportunity for Japan to showcase the concept of Building Back Better following a disaster.

The outcome of the WCDRR was the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), the result of marathon negotiations. Adopted by 187 UN member states, the SFDRR is a culmination of international efforts which can be traced from the 1990-2000 International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR).  Although the IDNDR viewed disasters as natural, there was compelling evidence that disasters were neither Acts of God nor Nature. Instead, disasters were socially constructed, thus rejecting environmental determinism in the disaster causation. Similarly, while the mid-term review of IDNDR, which was held in Yokahama in 1994, recognised the link between disaster and development, its assumption was still that disasters were natural. However, this changed 10 years later with the adoption of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA) by 168 UN member states in Kobe, Japan. With the HFA reached under in the wake of the Boxing Day South Asian Tsunami, this pushed the negotiations to higher levels to shift disaster causation to social construction. The HFA outcome was classed as substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries (UNISDR, 2005, p. 3)

But the actual HFA outcome had contradictions. While the disaster mortality risk decreased, not only did exposure increase faster than vulnerability decreased but also the economic costs continued to rise during the currency of the HFA. This suggests that the resources meant for poverty reduction, for example, continue to be diverted to cover for the economic losses. This outcome was not surprising as the HFA missed, ignored or paid lip service to some of the fundamental issues in 2005. Lack of measurable indicators, unclear financing mechanisms, underplaying the role of conflict in natural disasters causation, the superficiality of the disaster, climate change and development linkages, the fragmentation and siloisation of sectors, failure to recognise risk was endogenously rather than exogenously created, the explicit focus on the discredited and inappropriate reactive, top-down command and control mode, and above all, the confusing resilience discourse, were among the litany of matters arising that needed reflection at Sendai.

While delegates moved from session to session, government, intergovernmental and UN representatives negotiated the outcome document. The deadlock centred on coherence with the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change, international cooperation, technological transfer and conflict. As the negotiations went beyond the planned time of the conference closure coupled with exhaustion from the delegates after spending two sleepless nights, Japan came to the rescue by producing the final version of the SFDRR.

Reached under the shadow of Cyclone Pam, which devastated Vanuatu, the outcome of the SFDRR is classed as the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries (UNISDR, 2015: 6). Although the priorities for action are not fundamentally different from those of the HFA, the catch-all densely worded document does not only import the discourse from other disciplines but also incorporates the old and new discursive framings including small-scale disasters, people-centred disaster risk reduction, business resilience, Build Back Better, and all-of-society (whatever this means, but sounds like David Cameron’s forgotten Big Society). While a wordful might be better than a wordless document, not least to ensure all the (mi)stakeholders can justify their relevance, the question is whether the fundamental questions have been addressed.

We return to the matters arising. Indeed, the much talked-about global targets for measuring progress that were missed in the HFA have been incorporated into the SFDRR. This is good. But, phrasing the goal as to ‘substantially reduce mortality, the number of affected people, extent of disaster damage, and so on between 2020-2030 compared with 2005-2015, is likely to lead to confusion. What does substantial mean, and to whom? More worrying is target (c).

Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

Not only is the omission or commission of the prefix substantially reduce direct disaster economic loss but also the reduction has to be relative to gross domestic product (GDP). Let’s set aside the well-known arguments around problems and misleads of measuring countries using GDP. Target (c) means that as long as the ratio of GDP is greater than the disaster loss, we would have achieved the target. More and more neoliberalisation, hollowing, privatisation, profiteering and exploitation of resources to drive economic growth to increase GDP. Fair enough but sounds like circular reasoning. Is neoliberalisation not the major generator of disaster risk?

And the fragmentation and siloisation continues. Disaster risk reduction, sustainable development and climate change are separate. This contrasts UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moons opening address when he said, sustainability starts in Sendai. A footnote on page 6 of SFDRR states:

The climate change issues mentioned in the present framework remain within the mandate of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCC] under the competences of the Parties to the Convention.

While climate change is mentioned in the Sendai Framework, therefore, its operationalization remains with UNFCC and not with UNISDR. So is sustainable development whose operationalization remains with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The list goes on. Afraid of stepping on mandates of other UN agencies, terms such as conflict, HIV and AIDS and humanitarian which are constitutive elements of disaster risk reduction are absent from SFDRR. These fault lines, or rather, battle lines, do not end here; they are even stronger, wider and deeper at regional and national levels. But this separation did not sail through without a fight. While arguments on inclusion of sustainable development as an overarching framework were loud and clear, the arguments for recognising conflict as one of the major underlying causes of disasters was even louder, noisier and clearer from delegates. Erosion of institutions, population displacement and loss of livelihoods in on-going conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and Afghanistan, for example, exacerbated disaster causation. Interestingly, the Global Assessment Report 2015, authored by Allan Lavell, the Sasakawa award winner, provides convincing empirical evidence of the role of conflict in disaster equation. Nonetheless, this overwhelming evidence did not warrant the inclusion of the term conflict in SFDRR. The assumption here is that disaster risk reduction is a primarily targeted for stable and well-functioning governments, and where such conditions do not exist disaster risk reduction should not be of concern. Thus, the disaster risk reduction, should wait for the conflict to end, although we are aware that some conflicts, for example, Somalia, have been continuing for two and half decades.

International (financial) cooperation and technology transfer were the major culprits in the deadlock. On international cooperation the major sticking point was the inclusion of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which would place more responsibility on developed countries those that generate most pollution that causes climate change. Ultimately, a compromised document emerged at the end of the negotiations, with toned down language of mutually agreed terms.

These matter arising did not end with Sendai. The same issues will undoubtedly dominate the Sustainable Development Goals and the Climate Change negotiations scheduled for later this year.

So where does this leave us? It is evident by now that while the wordy SFDRR has opened space to multiple (mi)stakeholders, it has not addressed the matters that were missed or those that arose from the HFA implementation. The major drivers of disasters, neoliberal informed sustainable development, climate change, and conflict, which are underpinned by highly politicised financing mechanisms and technology transfer, have not been addressed. Nothing has changed. Yet, we know that disasters are political. Civil society and academics have to go back to the trenches and ensure disaster risk reduction becomes part of political manifestos by 2030.


Aluta continua!



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