Disaster Resilience: Why We’re Not Reaching the Most Vulnerable

Denika Blacklock Karim

Cyclone Pam tore through the Pacific in March 2015, the second largest cyclone to make land fall in recorded history. The cyclone affected four countries, lefts dozens of thousands homeless, destroyed infrastructure including hospitals and schools and resulted in severe flooding in some areas. And yet only 10 people died, which is a dramatic reduction in the loss of human life if we compare to Cyclone Haiyan which devastated parts of the Philippines in December 2013 in which more than 6,000 people died. This is an impressive indicator of how much early warning and disaster preparedness components of disaster risk management have improved over the course of the past 10 years. Nonetheless, lives and communities were destroyed in Pam’s wake and we must ask ourselves why we, in the development community, have not seen a comparable increase the risk reduction aspects of disaster risk management – in the ability of communities to increase their resilience to disasters, and to mitigate the impacts of disasters such as cyclones, flooding and landslides?

Understanding Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience

In 2005, following the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 240,000 people in 14 countries, the international development community united in Hyogo, Japan to develop to Hyogo Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction – a 10 year strategy to systematically introduce a culture of risk reduction in development planning processes at the international, national and local government levels. Despite promises by donor countries to channel USD 100 billion in funding for developing countries to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions by 2020[1], the impacts of such financing are not being seen; indeed more and more developing countries, particularly small island developing states, are experiencing the devastating consequences of inaction. A majority of financing for ‘disaster management’ (an umbrella term covering preparedness, disaster response and disaster risk reduction) tends to be channeled to middle income countries, and most of that channeled to disaster response and recovery – not risk reduction (international financing for DRR has totaled less that 0.4% of all international aid[2] most of which tends to go to national level policy and strategy development, rather than to activity implementation at the local level).

This aside, somewhere the point of DRR is getting lost. DRR is not just about commitments to mainstream the concept into planning, and it’s not just about commitments to financing. It is about who is planning for DRR, and how it is being planned. It is also about how DRR is being financed and who decides how the financial resources are being used. And it is about actually undertaking DRR on the ground – how activities are implemented and monitored at the community level.

DRR needs to be about communities – what they need based on their experiences and traditional adaptation knowledge and practice. They need the support of their local governments to finance DRR (and climate change adaptation – CCA) activities. Local governments in turn need support to help communities better understand the risks and vulnerabilities to climate change and natural hazards that they face, to facilitate planning processes and disburse the necessary financial resources to make sure the priority activities identified by the communities based on the above can be realized. This tri-party approach – communities, local government and the knowledge that both parties bring to the table – is DRR. It is DRR (and CCA) in practice, not just a framework or a policy or a law. Effective DRR is community driven and local government lead. It is an approach that ensures the most vulnerable are reached and, importantly, the most vulnerable are included.

However, the international architecture for DRR and CCA predisposes both processes to be internationally driven and lead. It starts with the Hyogo Framework (and its successor, the Sendai Framework, approved in March 2015) and then works its way down to national government policy making, legal drafting, regulatory drafting, planning and budgeting… and then to the local government… and finally to the communities. At which point space for community knowledge and aspirations is minimal. What are the ramifications of this?

Cyclone Pam, DRR and CCA and Reality in the Pacific

Cyclone Pam – a category 5 storm – tore through the Pacific and impacted four countries to varying degrees: Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. They are all archipelago countries vulnerable to storms such as Pam, and the side effects that it wrought: flooding, landslides, destruction of infrastructure and agricultural land, housing and clean water sources.

The thing is, communities in the Pacific are used to cyclones – perhaps not as strong as Pam – and have a spirit of resilience which can only be capitalized on. The focus on preparedness under the international disaster management framework also made an impact – early warning systems, evacuation shelters; all were ready and resulted in very few lives lost. Conversely, very few efforts have been made to reduce disaster risk and mitigate their impacts at the community level. Indeed, reducing disaster risk and increasing resilience may well have served communities who were directly impacted by Cyclone Pam but waited days, even weeks, to receive aid due to the remoteness of Pacific islands, and the damage to transport and communications infrastructure. The practice of DRR (and CCA) in the Pacific is a very different story, however.

In Kiribati and Tuvalu, the authority for DRR and CCA rests with the central government. DRR is implemented by the President’s Office in Kiribati, and the Prime Minister’s Office in Tuvalu, while CCA is implemented by the respective Ministries of Environment in both countries. The Offices of the President and Prime Minister, respectively, have DRR committees which include local government, but they have a very nominal role. Consequently, financing for DRR and CCA is sourced mainly through international donors and is channeled through the central government, without input from local governments. Most financing goes towards meeting commitments made by the respective countries under various international conventions on climate change. A flagship project on DRR and CCA is the Kiribati Adaptation Project[3], financed by Australia, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF), the Japan Policy and Human Resources Development Fund, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, and the Government of Kiribati aims to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of sea level rise on vulnerable communities. Nonetheless, these are top-down processes and projects lacking regulated participation and leadership by local government and communities. This means final decisions on DRR and CCA activities are taken at the central level, which local government and communities have little to no influence over how financial resources are allocated for these activities – and no access to those resources themselves.

In Solomon Islands, authority for DRR and CCA reside with the provincial governments – each province is required to have a Provincial Disaster Council (PDC). However, due to unfunded mandates, PDCs are very poorly funded and many do not even operate unless a disaster occurs, meaning that in reality they limit themselves, by necessity, to response rather than prevention and risk reduction. UNDP is financing Risk Resilient Disaster and Planning Officers in three pilot provinces with the intention of the provincial governments taking over the funding of those positions in two years’ time. Funding for DRR and CCA is concentrated at the national level, through the National Disaster Management Office. Donors put money into the National Disaster Fund which can be used by the NDMO as well as NGOs. However, there are three issues at play. The first issue is that funding for DRR and CCA remains at the national level, and a significant portion is implemented outside of the government budget through NGOs and donors who fund larger projects directly. Only UNDP works through local (provincial) government level[4]. The second issue is that government processes are slow, particularly at the local level where government capacity is weak, while NGOs and other donors work outside the government and thus do not coordinate with government. This impacts on how resilience is built in communities – if at all. Which leads to the third issue – competing understanding of ‘resilience’ – understanding resilience as a reliance on community structures, knowledge and practice; and understanding resilience as a responsibility of the government. Common understanding of what ‘resilience’ means in the Solomon Island context is necessary. Promoting differing approaches is detrimental to any activities that are undertaken, and undermines the ability of government to have a coherent strategy. For example, historically ‘resilience’ in the Solomon Islands has meant family networks and support. Promotion of concepts by outside actors such as NGOs and donors which focus on a reliance on government is counter to what has worked historically and undermines one of the most effective ways of building resilience to current and future climate risks and vulnerabilities. Local governments need to determine how to integrate local knowledge and practice into the DRR and CCA planning processes.

In Vanuatu, which received the most devastating impacts of Cyclone Pam, authority for DRR and CCA is not explicitly assigned to either central or local government level. Most central government ministries have programmes on CCA and DRR, and all activities are coordinated (in theory) through a Project Management Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. Most DRR and CAA activities (central and local levels) are funded through donor project funds[5]. The government encourages donors to channel funds through the government, however if donors prefer to provided funding through an NGO, then the donor and NGO must coordinate with the Project Management Unit in the Prime Minister’s office. The focus on coordination is important – it reduces overlap and ensures that as many communities can be reached as possible. While there have been a large number of complaints by the Government of Vanuatu related to a lack of coordination of the recovery from Cyclone Pam[6], it does present an opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities between central and local governments on DRR and CCA. The impacts of the cyclone have presented communities and local governments an opportunity to make their case for more leadership by local governments and direct financing to local government to ensure that the unique needs of the diverse communities in Vanuatu can be accommodated in DRR and CCA implementation as part of long-term recovery processes.

Making DRR Local – Local focus, Local financing

At the recent World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, there was a lot of talk about important things such as questions about the sort of economic policies, fiscal tools and insurance mechanisms that countries need to spur resilience; how local governments can access to funds to build their resilience; and how to make sure that women, smallholders and small-business owners have access to micro-insurance and insurance[7].

Yet despite repeated calls to put local government at the centre of DRR[8], it was not a central focus of the eventual Sendai Framework agreed at the end of the conference. Rather the document focused on a substantial reduction by 2030 in global disaster mortality, the number of affected people worldwide, direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product, and disaster damage to critical infrastructure through resilience development, a substantial increase in the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020, improvement of international cooperation with developing countries by supporting their national action plans, and increase in availability and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments[9].

We cannot reach the most vulnerable of the DRR and CCA architecture continues to be molded around a global framework, where the communities are at the end of the knowledge and decision making chain, rather than at the beginning. It promotes a financing culture of funding national strategies and plans rather than direct financing to local governments to implement DRR and CCA activities based on local knowledge and need, with visible impacts months rather than years in the making. Top down planning and decision making leaves little space for the integration of local knowledge and practice based on historical practices in risk management and adaptation to change.

There are always fears that direct financing to local governments will result in a mismanagement of funds due to a lack in capacity to plan, budget, implement and monitor activities. Channeling funds to communities outside of government is an option, but it is local government that will be there in the long term, and will continue to lack capacity to plan, budget, implement and monitor DRR and CCA activities unless given the explicit opportunity to do so using their own systems, with technical assistance and rigorous accountability and transparency mechanisms tied to funding.

We need to see change take place as soon as possible – visible change to increase community resilience within months, not years, which is what will happen if DRR and CCA continue to be globally-lead, top-down processes. More action needs to be taken to lobby and advocate for direct financing to local governments for community-based CCA and DRR activities, which will not only increase community resilience, but also increase local government capacity so that reliance on outside support can be lessened in the long term. The Sendai Framework falls short in this respect, but opportunities are still available at the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015, and through the dedicated trust funds for DRR and climate change (such as the Green Climate Fund).

[1] ‘Vanuatu won’t be the last poor country devastated by climate change inaction,’ Mark Goldring, Friday 20 March 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/mar/20/sendai-climate-change-inaction-poor-countries-vanuatu-cyclone-pam?mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRokvavIeu%2FhmjTEU5z14u4tUaC%2FgIkz2EFye%2BLIHETpodcMTcVkMb%2FYDBceEJhqyQJxPr3DJNUN0ddxRhbkDQ%3D%3D

[2] ‘Can reducing disaster risk create a ‘triple dividend’?’ Thomas Tanner, Tuesday 17 March 2015



[3] http://sids-l.iisd.org/news/world-bank-gef-fund-kiribatis-adaptation-programme/


[4] Email with Melanie Phillips, Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Provincial Government and Institutional Strengthening, Solomon Islands Government, 7 April 2015

[5] Email with Karibaiti Taoboa, Programme Manager, Commonwealth Local Government Forum Pacific Programme, 8 April 2015

[6]Vanuatu slams lack of aid coordination, says food running out,’ Glenda Kwek, http://news.yahoo.com/vanuatu-slams-lack-aid-coordination-says-food-running-004819612.html?mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRokvarAd%2B%2FhmjTEU5z14u4tUaC%2FgIkz2EFye%2BLIHETpodcMTcVkN7%2FYDBceEJhqyQJxPr3DJNUN0ddxRhbkDQ%3D%3D, 19 March 2015.

Cyclone Pam: Vanuatu slams aid agencies,’ Shane Cowlishaw and Siobhan Downes,

http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/south-pacific/67440364/vanuatu-slams-aid-agencies, 19 March 2015.

Vanuatu island frustrated at disaster surveys,’ http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/269328/vanuatu-island-frustrated-at-disaster-surveys, 23 March 2015.

Aid co-ordination difficult says Vanuatu government,’ http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/269062/aid-co-ordination-difficult-says-vanuatu-government, 20 March 2015.

[7]At Sendai, meaningful steps toward mainstreaming disaster risk reduction,’ Manola De Vos, https://www.devex.com/news/at-sendai-meaningful-steps-toward-mainstreaming-disaster-risk-reduction-85729, 17 March 2015.

[8] Sendai Conference to Move From Managing Disasters to Risk Prevention,’ Jamshed Baruah and Katsuhiro Asagiri, http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/sendai-conference-to-move-from-managing-disasters-to-risk-prevention/, 20 March 2015.

[9]Post-Sendai: Toward a more ‘solid’ and ‘people-centered’ DRR framework,’ Lean Alfred Santos, https://www.devex.com/news/post-sendai-toward-a-more-solid-and-people-centered-drr-framework-85747,

19 March 2015.


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