‘Anticipation and resilience’? Assessing the Government’s response to the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review

16 June 2011
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I read the UK Government’s Response to Lord Ashdown’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) with great interest. I was most anxious to see if the Government would agree with Lord Ashdown’s call to place anticipation and resilience-building at the heart of DFID’s humanitarian policy and wider development programming. So I was delighted to see that the first two sections of the Response are on Anticipation and Resilience and include policy commitments to:

         ‘improve the use of science in both predicting and preparing for disasters’

         ‘ensure scientific data on disaster risk is used to inform and prioritise country and regional level work on resilience’

         ‘make building resilience a core part of DFID’s approach ...’

         ‘integrate resilience and disaster risk reduction into our work on climate change’ and

         ‘improve coherence between development and humanitarian responses in fragile and conflict-affected situations’.

Clearly this is impressive, ambitious and somewhat groundbreaking considering the source is a donor’s humanitarian department.

However, from a resilience perspective the Response gets more puzzling as it goes on. Lord Ashdown was clear in saying that the humanitarian case load is going to increase significantly because of greater exposure and vulnerability and climate-related increases in extreme weather events. He warned that the humanitarian system could not withstand the stress of many more disasters and recommended a fundamental shift towards resilience-building, risk reduction and improved early warning to relieve the pressure. He conceded that some short-term expansion and efficiency gains in the humanitarian system would be necessary, but was explicit in saying that the balance of effort should be on ex-ante disaster-reduction measures that ultimately stem the rise in humanitarian spending and human suffering. 

The sections of the Response that follow – on leadership, innovation, accountability and humanitarian space – scarcely refer to Ashdown’s core thesis and at least implicitly call for a bigger, better, more costly humanitarian community. While this may indeed be necessary in the short term, the aspiration has to be to reduce the need for humanitarian action in DFID’s Bilateral Aid Review countries in the medium term and succeed in cutting disaster losses and humanitarian spending through enhanced resilience.

By the time we reach the section on ‘transformational change in DFID’, the anticipation and resilience argument seems a dim and distant memory and we end up hearing exclusively about commitments to channel more money, more quickly to trusted organisations when disasters strike. While there are clearly pointers to a brave new world within the Response, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by the hints of protectionist zeal among the humanitarian cadre.

I found a few other things puzzling too:

1.       There is no mention of the World Bank-managed Pilot Programme on Climate Resilience, of which DFID was a major shaper and to which the UK is the largest contributor. It has a major component on building resilience to disasters and in terms of country-directed finance for strengthening resilience, it is just about the biggest show in town.

2.       The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), which received the chop after coming bottom of the pile in the Multilateral Aid Review (MAR), is conspicuous by its absence. While from a political perspective this isn’t surprising (see my blog on the decision to cut UNISDR funding) it is astounding that the Government’s Response makes no mention of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005-2015 – the global agreement to reduce the impact of disasters, stewarded by UNISDR. The HFA is even subtitled Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. Isn’t this the very aspiration at the core of the HERR? It could be argued that UNISDR has done more to advance the disaster resilience agenda than any other multilateral agency. I look forward to a public announcement of DFID’s decision to backtrack on their MAR mistake, placing UNISDR in special measures rather than on the scrap heap.

3.       There is no definition of ‘resilience’ included anywhere, though the Response does admit this is a new agenda for DFID and that they are on a learning curve.

Overall the Government’s Response is a ringing endorsement of the HERR’s recommendations and I am looking forward to the journey to 2015 – the date set by the Government for resilience to be embedded in all DFID country programmes (pg. 9 of the Response). The real trick will be to find a way to incentivise risk-reducing investments at national level rather than shoring up the humanitarian safety net that brings comfort to governments that don’t have a comprehensive resilience-building plan in place. Maybe one of the first tasks for the newly girded civil servants working to implement the policy commitments should be to explore a payment-for-risk-reduction-performance plan in the spirit of the cash-on-delivery model for ensuring results. This might just help to halt the rise of devastated lives and livelihoods so prevalent in the last twelve months.