In Beyond Kobe we asked five questions concerning the understanding of disasters and seven concerning possible ways forward for turning that understanding into action. I return to those questions and direct them at the SFDRR. The conclusion is that while there have been improvements, the SFDRR remains strikingly oblivious to root causes of disaster—the same flaw that affected the HFA.
Questions Concerning Our Understanding of Disasters
There is enough knowledge. This was true before Kobe and is certainly true 30 years after the beginning of the first International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (UNDRR 2020a).
What do we know for sure?Footnote 6
Disasters are not “natural” (O’Keefe et al. 1976; Chmutina and von Meding 2019). The conventional and common-sense notion of a “natural” disaster is wrong and misleading. A harmful physical process or event can have a natural (earth-based, atmospheric, or space-based) component, but vulnerable (that is, unprotected) people have to be exposed. We also know that vulnerability is situational, not a permanent characteristic or property of some humans and not others. Vulnerable people are made vulnerable by deeply rooted social processes. People with power in society, and the institutions that wield and channel that power, can reduce or increase the burden of vulnerability or shift it from one group to another through policy decisions. Many of these policies have to do with domains not conventionally considered to belong to what has become known as “disaster risk reduction” (DRR). “Emergency management” and “disaster risk management” are yet narrower domains of conventional understanding and practice.
What the experience of 10 years working all over the world at scales from local to global under the overall guidance of the Hyogo Framework shows is that reduction of loss, injury, and death from natural hazards requires a comprehensive, whole society approach that engages all domains that touch people’s lives: education, health care, food and nutrition, sanitation, water supply, shelter, livelihoods and employment, mobility and infrastructure, energy, law, and government institutions.
In principle, the Sendai Framework began with a head start. We knew all this. In theory, synergistic and comprehensive implementation could be achieved through bundling the SFDRR’s targets together with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and with efforts to address climate change and assist adaptation to its inevitable effects, as well as reforms in the systems of humanitarian assistance, development financing, and urban management. In fact, this tantalizing possibility of coordination, alignment, and coherence takes the form of a series of post-2015 initiatives and frameworks negotiated separately, but all echoing the vision in the report commissioned by the then UN Secretary General, “A Life of Dignity for All” (UN 2013).
There are seven post-2015 initiatives. The dynamics of geopolitics and intra and interagency politics will determine whether they will be seen post-2030 as a powerful team that did, in fact, provide that promised life of dignity (and security) and be remembered as “the Seven Samurai.” Indeed, policy analysts see synergism among various post-2015 agreements as vital to the success of all of them (Peters and Tanner 2016; Saunders 2020). Without commitment, coordination, and action on the ground, however, they could be remembered as bumbling clowns fighting over funding and prestige and accomplishing little, and therefore remembered as “the Seven Dwarfs”:
Sustainable Human Development (the Sustainable Development Goals);
The Paris Agreement (within the UNFCCC: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change);
Addis Ababa Action Agenda (Financing for Development);
The World Humanitarian Summit;
The New Urban Agenda;
Various regional Peace and Security Initiatives.Footnote 7
The Sendai Framework started off with fully digested knowledge and experience of several decades of common efforts on behalf of enabling that “life with dignity for all.” Since the questions Peter Walker and I asked about the HFA were based in precisely that comprehensive understanding of development and disasters, it is fair to ask the same questions of the SFDRR.
Questions about Governance and Respect for People’s Rights in the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks
In Beyond Kobe we began by asking about government institutions, political will, inclusion and recognition of a human right to avoidable harm in natural hazard events or a human right to disaster mitigation and reliefFootnote 8 for everyone (Wisner and Walker 2005a). Recalling that the Indian Ocean tsunami profoundly affected how delegates, representatives, and experts at the Kobe Conference approached disaster, we noted that an effectively failed state such as was found in Somalia could not warn its coastal residents of the tsunami, whereas farther south on the same affected coast, Kenya and Tanzania had the capacity to issue a warning.
Likewise, in 2010, the extremely weak and corrupt Haitian state was unable to assist the multitudes who suffered in the 2010 earthquake, and this fact was carried forward into deliberations preparing for the world conference in Sendai and the Sendai Framework itself (UNISDR 2011a, 2015). The issue of stability and responsiveness of the state remained the core challenge. Throughout the HFA’s 10 years, civil society and experts called on central governments to decentralize the financial and technical means for local government units to engage in partnerships with civil society and local groups of risk bearers.Footnote 9 Most so-called decentralization under the SFDRR remains rhetorical or controlled rigidly by upwards accountability to the central state or, alternatively, to a donor country or international nongovernmental organization (Potetee and Ribot 2011; Gibson 2019). “Project-ism” is still the dominant mode of top-down DRR and plans, protocols and “log frame” choreography still blunt attempts to mesh with people’s skill and local knowledge to produce flexible, localized assistance.
Globalization and Disasters in the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks
What governments vet proposed investments, or require and enforce safeguards against the creation of new risks? What incentives, pressures, or institutional arrangements increase the chance that governments will screen proposed overseas direct investment from the point of view of ordinary people’s welfare for whom government has a duty of care and with whom a social contract?
Hyogo Framework. The Beyond Kobe assessment asked whether implementing the HFA would address concerns voiced by civil society and researchers over the impact of overseas direct investment on risk creation. Risk “creation” is used here in the sense of new or enhanced risk resulting from risk-blind investment by public or private entities, especially megaproject investments (for example, hydropower, mining, energy extraction, new ports, and satellite cities) that entail population displacement. It is important to distinguish between “construction of risk” that is a universal and transhistorical process in one form or another (Tierney 2014) and malfeasance and corruption by governments (Lewis and Kelman 2012). A good overview of risk creation and its drivers is provided by UNISDR’s Global assessment of disaster risk reduction 2013 (UNISDR 2013).
We noted in 2005 that the jobs economic globalization creates may funnel a large number of people into shanty towns, some in coastal cities, and that at the Kobe meeting the impact of free trade agreements on poor and marginal social groups was identified by civil society representatives as the number one risk factor of an increasing number of countries.
Sendai Framework. During the first five years of the SFDRR, the pressure on governments to allow large scale investment in hydropower, mining, large scale agribusiness, new technology cities, and luxury housing development has increased. Pressure on indigenous forest dwellers in Brazil’s Amazon has increased as has internal displacement of populations (Marchezini and Wisner 2017; Anderson and Elkaim 2018). This is a test of governance. Few governments reject a megaproject on the basis of its possible displacement of people, destruction of livelihoods and the biosphere.
Climate Change in the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks
Hyogo Framework. In 2005, we asked whether the HFA would effectively integrate efforts to slow climate change and adapt to its effects with the work of agencies that had evolved since the 1950s to deal with natural hazards as discrete, intense emergencies, as opposed to slow-onset, pervasive and extensive risks. We noted that few countries were doing enough on climate change.
Sendai Framework. The bundling of the SFDRR with other components of the so-called Post-2015 Agenda holds out the hope of integration, coherence, cooperation, and resultant economies of scale and comprehensive translation of knowledge into action. However, so far, the competition for funding and other silo behavior is still common (Kelman et al. 2017). The same frustrating tension between theoretical coherence and real-world institutional politics continues to exist when it comes to linking what are conventionally seen as “development” investments and efforts to reduce disaster risk.
War and Disasters as Backdrop to the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks
Hyogo Framework. The Indian Ocean tsunami that was the backdrop and elephant in the room throughout the Kobe conference affected some areas where protracted civil wars were taking place. Where there is war, there is little chance of building resilience against disaster. In Aceh, Indonesia and northern Sri Lanka at the time, people were trying to survive wars. As it turned out, the shock of the tsunami and demands of response and recovery supported a peace agreement in Aceh but, sadly, more hostilities in Sri Lanka (Khadka 2019). The Hyogo Framework’s implementation faced an uphill struggle for implementation in places where civil wars were on-going such as Colombia and Somalia, and in other places, where organized violence—or at least violent unrest—was the norm.
Sendai Framework. In 2015 and still in 2020, internally displaced people fleeing war live in conditions that make them vulnerable to disaster. Surveying the world suggests that violence and internal displacement is at least as great now, as the Sendai Framework attempts to go to scale, as it was then (IDMC 2019a, b). The number of humanitarian workers killed in the line of duty has risen. In 2000, the number was 41, by 2014 deaths had increased to 190, and in 2017 fatalities were lower, but still 139 (UNOCHA 2018, 2020).
Urbanization Impacts on Implementation of the Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks
Hyogo Framework. By 2005, most of world population growth was taking place in urban areas (WHO 2015). This trend persists (United Nations 2019). Moreover, much of this growth is in informal settlements. Many of these rapidly growing cities are on tropical and sub-tropical coasts exposed to storms and sea level rise. Halfway through the HFA implementation period, in 2010, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) launched a “Making Cities Resilient” campaign. By 2015, UNISDR could report that 3400 cities had joined the campaign, 640 had used the “local government self-assessment tool/scorecard” and 334 had used the scorecard “as the basis for creating or adapting urban development plans and taking decisions” UNISDR (2015).
Sendai Framework. The likelihood of creating new risks in the course of investment in cities and urban restructuring is known; the 2013 report of the Sendai Framework’s custodian, UNISDR, documented this risk-creation process.Footnote 10 Neither implementation of the SFDRR nor of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda (NUA)Footnote 11 shows evidence of increasing political will by governments to weed out investments that are blind to risk from those that are risk-informed. Nowhere is there mention of vetting or regulating overseas direct investment in cities in the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)’s report Making Cities Resilient 2019 (UNISDR 2019), and the “scorecard” used for self-assessment of resilience by cities includes just one item (Policies for location of new developments) among a total of 72 “Example Reference Documents” recommended to provide “Required Information” concerning the scorecard’s Ten Essentials (UNDRR 2020b). The main achievements listed in the World Economic Forum’s analysis after two years’ rollout of the NUA concern transportation, regional coordination among national governments, and engagement with local governments (Galal 2018).
One driver of “urbanizing risk” is the growing stratification between a new upper middle class and their demands for gated or secure high-rise accommodation, transportation infrastructure, drainage, energy, and other services. This demand has become a profit center for overseas investors who join up with local elites to gentrify neighborhoods. In one extreme case, an entire island city called Eko AtlanticFootnote 12 is being built offshore of Lagos, Nigeria, an investment in part justified as coastal protection from sea level rise. Once complete, this Lagos sibling city will provide high rise apartments, office blocks, shops, and services for a professional class who will no longer have to live among the mass of Nigerians or suffer floods and traffic jams in Lagos. The only problem with this investors’ dream is that the development is likely to divert coastal storm surge waters into low income coastal settlements (Onuoha 2017).Footnote 13
An additional challenge to implementing the Sendai Framework in such an urban context is mistrust and alienation. Stratification and increased polarity between the rich and poor breeds mistrust and noncooperation among the residents of self-built, low-income settlements, especially youth (Rocca 2019). Given the SFDRR’s commitment to youth participation in DRR, such mistrust and alienation is a serious obstacle to implementation.