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A Foundation for Disasters?

22/04/2015 11:34 BST | Updated 20/06/2015 10:59 BST

Cross-sector Partnerships in Disaster Risk Reduction

Around the same time first responders were reaching the islands of Vanuatu, where Cyclone Pam killed 16 people and left more than 3,000 displaced, its president, Baldwin Lonsdale, was addressing delegates at the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. President Lonsdale stated that climate change was contributing to more extreme weather conditions reinforcing the need for better Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) planning, especially for small island states.

The impact on human life in Vanuatu acted as a macabre backdrop for the conference, although the effect of disasters over the last decade is backdrop enough. In the past 10 years, 700,000 people have been killed, 1.4 million have been injured and 23 million people have been left homeless. In total, more than 1.5 billion men, women and children have been effected and worldwide economic losses have exceeded US$1.3 trillion.

What did Sendai achieve?

The outcome of the World Conference was the Sendai Declaration and Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The 187 UN Member States attending the Conference approved seven targets, four priorities and a set of guiding principles. The global targets to be achieved over the next 15 years include a substantial reduction in global disaster mortality; a substantial reduction in numbers of affected people; a reduction in economic losses in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP); and substantial reduction in disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, including health and education facilities.

The Declaration has been criticised by many for being ambiguous, with no numerical targets or clear promises on financial and technological support for preventing disaster risks. Although the Japanese government committed US$4bn over the next four years to help implement the Sendai Declaration, the majority of countries are looking towards UNCTAD's meeting in Ethiopia in July where it is hoped that global financial systems will be empowered to release the funds to finance development, including investment in DRR, for the next 15 years.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that sustainability started in Sendai. It will be followed in Addis Ababa in July with Finance for Development, then New York in September for the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and finally in Paris in December for COP 21 and our last chance to keep human induced global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. If we are encouraged to view the outcomes of Sendai alongside the year of hope I believe 2015 represents, then are we judging too soon? Has Sendai done enough to galvanise partnerships across business, government and civil society to ensure DRR plays its part in ending poverty and seeing the world transition into sustainable development?

The need for cross-sector partnerships

We know that disasters impact people living in poverty the most, with women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities often the most vulnerable. We also know that the onset of climate change disasters are increasing and exacerbating the injustices experienced by poor communities around the world.

According to the UN's 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction annual global investment of US$6 billion in appropriate disaster risk management strategies could generate total benefits of US$360 billion. This represents just 0.1% of the US$6 trillion per year that will have to be invested in infrastructure over the next 15 years.

Many of the factors, both financial and non-financial, that need to be included in any cost vs. benefit analysis are already assessable. The question is, how do we mobilise finance and how can we ensure that financial and non-financial considerations are taken into account in assessing DRR management strategies?

According to the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) the creation of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), including working with governments to develop their investment strategies, leveraging the innovation of the private sector, and working with civil society to reach citizens, combines cross-sector skills and experience to ensure the right projects are delivered.

A strong focus of the Sendai Conference was the need to develop these types of partnerships focussing on DRR and resilience planning. Some truly innovative technologies were showcased, such as a super-strong cardboard that was used to make temporary classrooms after Japan's Great Eastern Earthquake in 2011.

This shows the potential of a private sector committed to DRR to innovate and create demand for solutions that can help build resilient communities. The UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) reinforces this and sees the private sector awash with skills and expertise. For the most part I agree, the private sector has an important role in DRR management. However, the UNISDR and the private sector need to ensure that DRR strategies are not the reserve of Corporate Responsibility (CR) functions.

Don't get me wrong, there is a role for CR people from the private sector to engage here. The need to invest in DRR has to be a strategic imperative though; it needs to be driven by an understanding of financial and non-financial risks and it needs to be driven by a desire to improve business continuity planning. It also needs to be driven by an understanding that resilient and stable communities are more profitable and provide opportunities for growth.

July's Finance for Development needs to build on the Sendai Declaration and ensure that investment is channelled to help achieve the Declaration's objectives. Partnerships are an important constituent of this, not just to secure finance, but to ensure innovation. Progressive companies, with well-established CR programmes, will invest in DRR and community resilience where appropriate. To see the level of innovation needed to meet the objectives of the Sendai Declaration though, as well as the aspirations of the SDGs, investment in DRR strategies need be aligned with core business objectives. To ensure this focus and investment, the private sector needs to know that Governments will finance DRR in infrastructure and other expenditure. Without this, the level of innovation needed will not be achieved.

Civil society, as you would expect, has a huge role to play as well. It often has greater capacity at a local level and understands the needs of the community better than the private sector. It also has a role in developing skills and capacity for first responders. Our humanitarian system could not function without a vibrant civil society. I felt, however, that while there were excellent events involving businesses and government and similarly good ones involving civil society and government donors, the Sendai conference failed to create an environment for sufficient tripartite engagement between business, government and civil society.

The 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was a starting off point for what Mary Robinson has called, "the Bretton Woods moment for our generation". The meeting recognised the requisite to integrate DRR within the global climate change and humanitarian frameworks that are being developed over the next few years. DRR also cannot be forgotten about when it comes to Finance for Development, the adoption of the SDGs and in Paris in December for COP 21. In all these discussions, cross-sector partnerships have to be central, be it in developing inclusive financial services, such as micro insurance, in designing flood resistant infrastructure or in harnessing local capacity for the creation of resilient communities.

I started by recalling the urgency of the challenge exemplified by the impact Cyclone Pam had on the island state of Vanuatu. This community of islands now faces an immediate threat from the spread of infectious diseases with food prices rising as a result of crop damage. Reconstruction will take years, but through the Sendai Declaration, Finance for Development, the SDGs and the Paris COP, we can work in partnership to ensure that places like Vanuatu can deal with the shock of disaster and transition into sustainable development.

The Sendai Declaration may not be what people hoped for. It was, however, an agreement made by UN member states which, despite cynicism, means something. I believe the Sendai Declaration created a foundation and a meaningful if incomplete agreement is more of a foundation than a rejected solution.