Reducing disaster risk requires more than just pledges

Charlene Watson and Jan Kellett
17 March 2015

Sri Lanka floods 2011 Photo: Michael Mathiyalakan/Oxfam

In Sendai, the disaster risk reduction (DRR) community is the first to take centre-stage in 2015 – a year of summits that will shape finance for development for at least the next decade and a half. The post-2015 framework is a crucial opportunity to send a strong signal to this community that it is time to shift from a narrow focus on risk to long-term development progress.

UNDP head Helen Clark recently tweeted:

She is right, of course (UNDP also have a neat little video). Disasters disproportionately affect the poorest and most marginalised communities. They exacerbate vulnerabilities and social inequalities, destroy livelihoods and harm well-being. Placing what can be a massive financial burden on the state, disasters undermine both development and economic growth.

So, the question is, if sustainable development must be disaster-resilient, what does this mean for financing DRR?

1. We must stop making huge financial investments that create and lock in risk, while seeking to reduce risk with narrow DRR projects

It is critical that, for example, the estimated $6 trillion a year that will be invested in infrastructure – vital for competitive economies everywhere – is disaster-resilient. Be it public or private, concessional or non-concessional finance, national or international, it must all be disaster-resilient to seriously reduce the growing costs of disasters both in lives lost and financial loss.

2. We must focus on investment before disasters strike and on long-term, sustainable approaches to DRR

Short-term, project-based finance has been the norm, with the bulk of funding going to disaster response and to an extent preparedness, rather than the resilience of people and property. While focused projects will continue to serve an important role – particularly in the poorest countries – dedicated assistance must support overall risk management and work to integrate ‘risk’ throughout development spending.

3. We need to change the perception that DRR spending is only worthwhile if disaster strikes

integrating disaster risk reduction into development spending is not about asking for more money per se, it’s about smarter investment to deliver broader benefits. There is increasing evidence that DRR boosts innovation and economic activity, regardless of disaster events. The narrative therefore needs to shift towards the additional benefits of risk-informed investment, rather than solely focusing on preventing losses.

The UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in Sendai this week was never going to be a pledging event. However, outcome text must deliver a strong message that all financial flows should be disaster-resilient. Practically speaking, this means ensuring that all investments are risk-informed. This is the message that needs to be taken forward in this year’s discussions on Financing for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals, the new global climate deal, and through to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

The final message to negotiators at Sendai is this: sustainable development means risk-informed development. Risk-informed development means a whole new approach. And this demands a change not only in policy but also in financing.

Charlene Watson is a Research Associate at ODI and Jan Kellett is Disaster and Climate Partnerships Advisor at UNDP.

Charlene Watson and Jan Kellett