Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Dull Disasters?How planning ahead will make a difference$

Daniel J. Clarke and Stefan Dercon

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785576

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785576.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy).date: 22 May 2019

Bring in the Professionals

Bring in the Professionals

(p.29) 3 Bring in the Professionals
Dull Disasters?

Daniel J. Clarke

Stefan Dercon

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Good planning is based on an iterative dialogue among scientists, bureaucrats, implementers, and financiers about what or who is to be protected, how, and how much it will cost. A good plan will include a clear political statement before a disaster about these aspects of the plan. Useful political statements focus on target outcomes and leave the details on the ‘how’ to be worked out by the implementing agencies and financiers. Benefactors who want to maximize the development impact of their support should think through different natural disaster scenarios, assess what support they would provide in each scenario, and own up to this contingent liability when in discussions with other partners. Behavioural biases against good planning are strongest for the kinds of disasters that did not occur in the recent past—that is, for nearly all future disasters.

Keywords:   preparedness, resilient recovery, planning, catastrophe risk modelling, disaster risk management, politics of disaster relief, commitment problem, Odyssean pact

Homer, the great Greek poet, wrote several millennia ago about Odysseus and his adventures. One of the most famous passages of the Odyssey illustrates the virtue of a sensible plan and the need to commit beforehand when difficult times are ahead. In this passage, his hero’s sea travels take him and his ship’s crew close to the Sirenusian islands, the home of the Sirens, whose songs were so irresistibly seductive that seamen felt compelled to steer their ships towards the Sirens and the islands’ rocks, and so met their doom. As his ship approached the islands, Odysseus instructed his crew (who had their ears plugged with beeswax) to tie him to the mast so he could hear the Sirens’ song but resist its call. He also ordered his crew to ignore his pleas to be released. That turned out to be a good decision. When Odysseus heard the Sirens’ song, he lost his mind and tried to break free, which would have meant his death. By sticking with his original plan, he survived.

Politicians see things a bit differently; they prefer discretion over rules—they hardly want to be tied to the mast. Political leadership is about making decisions, or about being perceived to be making decisions. The prevalent national and international funding model for a disaster response gives politicians plenty of opportunities: leaders can turn into benefactors, filling noisily presented begging bowls and spending the revenue at their discretion.

And, as was shown in Chapter 2, the evidence suggests that it pays politically to adopt this behaviour in both rich and poor countries. It is hard to believe, then, that politicians would want to give up this (p.30) discretion. And yet in this book we are asking them to do just that to some extent because we want responses to disasters to be faster, more effective, and better coordinated, with less waste of lives and money. We argue that there are funding models that will make this possible, with pre-committed finance, not appeals. And for this, we want them to learn from Odysseus and be willing to commit to a plan, well before troubled times, and stick to it in their actions.

Why a plan? Because making better financing of disaster recovery possible requires knowing what has to be financed. So a sensible plan is needed: one that spells out what the risks are and who owns the risks, and clarifies the responsibility of local governments, the national government, international organizations, as well as families and firms themselves both during a crisis and during the recovery phase. It must be clearly stated who needs to do what to reduce the risks beforehand and how that will be enforced. Such a plan must appear reasonable and something that can actually be implemented. It must be general enough to be useful in a broad range of circumstances and yet specific enough to be credible. One condition for credibility is that the plan be underwritten—a realistic financing plan must be in place beforehand. And the financing of plans is only possible if there is a commitment to implementing the plan. It has to be a good plan, but just like in the Odyssey it needs a means of committing leaders to it.

The Politics of Credible Pre-Disaster Plans

Going down this route is not easy for politicians. Why be bound by plans and give up discretion? Why give up being a benefactor, not least because research has shown that the one who offers relief and support after disasters enjoys greater political clout? Even if much of the preparation is carried out beforehand, a disaster could unravel every carefully designed plan. In the highly charged political environment following a disaster, a plan is typically not sacrosanct—plenty of Sirens are making themselves heard. The plan then becomes just one (p.31) of many inputs into a long, drawn-out negotiation among national and local governments, donors, business, and citizens over who will pay for what, when, and how.

There were plans in place when Hurricane Katrina reached New Orleans in 2005, but when the time came to implement them, the plans proved to be lacking shared commitments.1 In the case of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, there was preparedness planning, but once the earthquake struck, logistical arrangements to get supplies in proved hard, while political disagreements slowed down responses.2 Coordination was a challenge, and it reportedly took many months to reach a local political agreement on how to start allocating reconstruction funding.3 If everybody knows a plan will be totally rewritten, then planning becomes a box-ticking bureaucratic exercise to ensure that there is something on paper in case anybody asks, even if everybody knows it carries no weight. What is required are plans that national and local politicians will commit to beforehand without risk of reneging afterwards.

The problem does not lie solely with national politicians. International humanitarian responses are based on need and need alone, an excellent moral principle, but one that tends to lead to responses based on plans prepared after a crisis has begun in which post-disaster needs are examined. Too often, much time is wasted by needs assessments and the slow negotiations among humanitarian and development organizations and with government over what the post-disaster need really is and what can be done. All the while the need is increasing, with people waiting, hungry, and homeless, and watching their jobs disappear. These types of plan prepared after disasters are not discussed here. Rather, we focus on planning for possible crises that will allow responses to become more predictable and to be financed beforehand.

In considering the type of planning described here, benefactors—governments, politicians, and humanitarian organizations—might give some thought to the costs of not planning. The absence of a plan and a serious commitment to act on it means there is little (p.32) incentive to prepare for a disaster, resulting in a limited ability to respond quickly and not much urgency to invest beforehand in recovery and preparedness. And with limited planning, the immediate humanitarian response will lack coordination and effectiveness. Nurses, doctors, local officials, soldiers, and volunteers will devote all their energy to helping, but commitment alone cannot overcome operational failures. The costs of late responses are hard to quantify, but studies have suggested that half the caseload could have been avoided—equivalent to thousands of lives saved—if the Ebola response had arrived one month earlier.4 And an early response to an Ethiopian drought would cost only a third of a full-fledged later response with the same impact.5 Failures in response and recovery will ultimately also have a political cost.

So one needs to be able to offer an informed deal to those responsible across the world—locally, nationally, and internationally—to pre-commit to certain actions and responsibilities. One could think of it as an Odyssean pact, an agreement that binds all parties into the future to act in particular ways and avoids any discretion, despite its lure, to drop a plan when a disaster strikes. Benefactors should embrace ways to make big, showy pre-disaster promises and then tie themselves to the mast to ensure they deliver on what they have promised and stay far enough away from begging bowls and any over-involvement in post-disaster largesse. Benefactors could aim for pre-disaster political spoils and then post-disaster newspaper headlines that applaud a recovery planning system that works, a government and international community that have delivered on their promises—not headlines that announce new, ad-hoc post-disaster initiatives that do not add up.

But, like Odysseus, it is up to benefactors to choose whether they want to be tied up. This is an important political choice—not just a technical issue. To be willing to be tied up and move from begging-bowl financing to credible pre-disaster planning, benefactors will need to benefit politically from this move. And for it to be politically attractive, the recovery plan in question must be well prepared, feasible, and credible.

(p.33) So how can benefactors extract pre-disaster spoils from credible pre-disaster plans? For one thing, they might recognize that many benefactors across the world, from governments to donors, are moving away from begging bowls. But how are they managing to sell this to their constituents, and why are some not managing to? The details vary, of course, from context to context, but what seems clear is that politically sellable solutions require a lot of collaborative preparatory work behind the scenes by men and women with at least four types of professional background.

The Scientists

Over the last few decades, scientists have made much progress in studying all kinds of hazards, such as extreme weather events and volcanic or seismic activity. Earthquakes are still largely not forecast, but volcanic eruptions can be forecast weeks in advance. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons are increasingly being predicted some days or even a week ahead, offering valuable time to prepare. Slow-onset disasters such as droughts offer longer lead times because their impacts are felt months after the onset when harvests have to be collected or wells dry up. Monitoring of ocean temperatures, especially when the Pacific becomes exceptionally warm resulting in the disruptive force of the El Niño weather phenomenon, has allowed even earlier forecasts of possible droughts or floods. Early warning is in general something that will allow better responses to such events, even though early warning does not necessarily lead to early action.

This scientific progress feeds the pre-disaster planning process in a more fundamental way as well. Increasingly, scientists are able to offer more insight into what kinds of disaster could occur and with what likelihood. For example, an earthquake or extreme tropical cyclone may not have been seen in a century, but if it poses a very real catastrophic threat then the likelihood and potential impact need to be understood. Where the spread of exposed buildings or population (p.34) increases the potential economic destruction that could be wreaked by an unfortunately placed disaster, this need is even stronger. Hazards are increasing because of climate change, and pandemics may be more of a threat in particular populations in densely populated areas.

Working across a vast array of disciplines, scientists have begun to develop risk models that offer a detailed understanding of how much damage or loss of life would be inflicted by various natural disasters and pandemics. This progress in modelling extreme events and their consequences has stemmed from thought experiments, careful observation, study of history, and advanced statistical analysis of data on the natural environment as well as economic, demographic, and social data. The resulting probabilistic models of natural-disaster events and pandemics and their consequences can help everyone understand what sorts of event could lead to disasters and need to be included in recovery plans.

Scientists have a further important role to play by laying out the odds of various events and scenarios and encouraging all to think carefully about them. For example, models could have predicted that an earthquake on the scale of the one that struck Nepal in 2015 or a pandemic that spirals out of control such as the Ebola virus that invaded West Africa in 2014 would have a reasonable probability of leading to large loss of life and economic damage. In playing that role, scientists can help to overcome decision-making behaviour more akin to that of gamblers, which is the curse of sensible disaster preparedness across all organizations. A gambler (and, let us be honest, many of us) often thinks luck in a game of chance will turn in his or her favour simply because there has been a particular series of bad outcomes—that is, in a coin-toss surely heads will come after a series of tails. However, this is a poor understanding of probability: the odds of getting heads in the next coin toss is not changed because it was preceded by a series of tails. The gambler’s fallacy is a cognitive bias in which one tends to increase the perceived odds of events experienced more recently rather than form an unbiased assessment of all the risks.6 Just as in most organizations, firms, or families, in governments (p.35) the focus is often on the response to the previous disaster. The result is then perfect plans for recent past disasters and very poor plans for all the possible disasters that have a reasonable likelihood of happening.

Without scientists, one might expect a lot of plans across the world on how to deal with Ebola in West Africa and earthquakes in Nepal, whereas other infectious diseases or earthquakes may have very different patterns and impacts. This is a real and very visible risk at present: without scientists there will be an imbalance in what countries plan for.

That said, scientific knowledge alone is not enough. Communication of scientific findings at all levels of society is critical. If people do not understand the disaster risks to which they are exposed, being protected is not valued, and spending money on credible pre-disaster planning is not a vote-winner. Scientists need to help political leaders communicate clearly the risks faced and why investments should be made in reducing risks and responding better. Fixing this through visible, awareness-raising investments may support moves away from the begging bowl. This is easiest where local disasters are frequent and the threat of a natural disaster is part of the national psyche, as is the case for all of the countries we feature in this book.

The Bureaucrats

The central task of the women and men who work in national governments and international organizations tasked with disaster management is to undertake the preparation needed for a disaster response: to prepare policy that politicians may want to take forward, prepare a response plan, and prepare for recovery after a disaster. Drafting endless documents that lay all this out comes naturally to these officials—we know, we are two of them. But for the recovery plan proposed here, more is needed from bureaucrats: they need to be politically astute. Planning for a disaster is a political choice—not merely a technical exercise. Without something for their political masters to sell, there are no upfront political gains from credible (p.36) planning, and so plans will not be pre-financed, let alone implemented. A technically sensible plan without political support or a budget is just a piece of paper.

Pulling Together the Parties

The main political decision to be made by all organizations with a stake in disasters is who will own what risk—that is, who will respond, how will they respond, and who will be responsible for paying what when a disaster occurs. National governments may claim they bear all the risks in their country; international organizations may claim they will respond on the basis of need and need alone. It is up to the officials in national governments and international organizations to turn these aspirations into affordable, implementable plans, with political backing. They can then help benefactors navigate the explicit political decisions to be made beforehand.

In fact, there are plenty of these kinds of decision. For example, in dealing with the economic damage after an earthquake or flood, should the national government protect all public infrastructure or only infrastructure owned by the national government? Will the national government contribute at all to the cost of protecting infrastructure owned by subnational governments? What happens when a subnational government will not pay its share—will the national government still pay its share? Will the national government contribute towards the cost of protecting low-income housing or agricultural production from disasters? Will homeowners or farmers have to pay for their share of protection to benefit from the government’s contribution to protection? Who will be enrolled in a social safety net? Will there be targeting by community or by type of family? What can the ministry of finance actually afford? Will there be a focus on particular geographical areas or sectors of the economy? Of course, technical and financial analysis should inform these trade-offs, but ultimately they are political decisions.

Decisions also have to be made about the response to a public-health emergency in a poor country. Will the national government (p.37) take charge and deal with the problem via the government-controlled health sector, or will it bring in private and charitable providers? Will government provide these other providers with resources? What will be the role of local governments versus the national government, and how will this role be financed? What will be the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Under what circumstances and conditions will the government call in the help of specialized international aid agencies? Will it hire more staff, and under what conditions? Will it compensate for economic losses from public-health measures? What is the role of the health ministry, the local communities ministry, and the ministry of finance, or indeed the presidency?

This decision making becomes even more challenging when more than one party is involved in financing or implementing a disaster response, because nobody likes to be coordinated. Given the economies of scale in financing and logistics, it is far, far better to have one well-coordinated plan than a large number of fragmented plans. Yes, there are substantial political and bureaucratic incentives to not work together—but, as discussed in Chapter 2, there is also strong evidence from evaluation of responses that not working together is costly for those exposed to disasters. A good plan should benefit from economies of scale in finance and logistics, and achieving this begins with the political and bureaucratic leadership. There has to be one joint political choice that all stakeholders are willing to buy into.

Having negotiations before a disaster over who will pay for what and who will do what is unlikely to be any easier than having the same negotiations after a disaster. However, postponement of hard choices only leads to strategic bargaining and costly delays after a disaster strikes. Before a disaster happens, there is a serious collective-action problem: many of the parties have little incentive to come to agreements in good time. Overcoming this collective-action problem is crucial to avoiding the serious coordination failures after the onset of a disaster. Therefore, astute officials are needed to steer all to negotiate and agree on good plans.

(p.38) A good starting point for pre-disaster negotiation between parties is usually to think through who would be likely to do what in the event of a disaster—or who did what for a recent disaster. It may also be helpful to interview key informants to find out what each benefactor and each political constituency believe other benefactors would or should do in the aftermath of different kinds of disaster. For example, one might ask farmers, agribusiness leaders, other citizens, and civil servants in national and subnational agriculture and the finance ministry what they think government would do in the event of a catastrophic drought. One might also bring together nurses, doctors, community leaders, police officers, the military, ordinary citizens, NGO leaders, and different ministries to understand who they think would and should respond in a public-health emergency and how. In countries that plan well, the answers should be broadly consistent—citizens and subnational governments should know what they will be entitled to and benefactors should know what they are contributing to, but all too often these conversations do not take place or only with empty commitments and few consequences. It is, nevertheless, a crucial part of the process: without a clear factual understanding of who will do what and when, no sensible planning can take place. In countries that expect or have a history of outside support when disasters loom, it is critical to bring those outsiders into this pre-disaster negotiation.

Drawing Up the Plan

Skill in crafting a political statement is conducive to good planning. Many political statements about disaster risks undermine sensible planning. They focus on the inputs—that is, the people and resources one can mobilize, such as the contingency fund, officials, army, or some civil defence force; the vehicles and trucks available; the command and control structures needed to deploy them; the health services that can be on standby; and the supplies that can be requisitioned. This is a very natural way to plan, but by itself it tends not to work very well. Announcing what inputs they have at their disposal (p.39) does not help bureaucrats know when to deploy them, how to target them, how to utilize them for disasters of different severities, or what to do for really big disasters when additional inputs are needed.

It is far better to start from outcomes, not inputs. This is the essence of being fully upfront about the ownership of the risks. Being clear about who and what needs to be protected—lives, health, livelihoods, assets, and infrastructure—gives financiers and implementers the space to arrange the logistics and structure the financing to achieve the outcomes.

A good plan, then, will be defined in a clear, public, joint declaration by all the relevant stakeholders who might contribute to post-disaster financing or implementation. The declaration will state who or what will be protected, against what, what (if any) conditions there will be for protection, how the protection will be implemented, and who will pay for what. Only after these aspects of the plan have been defined should the administrative, logistics, and financial specialists be brought in to fill in the technical details of the plan to achieve the stated outcomes.

Making it unambiguously clear who is responsible for what means clarifying what risks the national or local government will take on, and what risk have to be shared with households and firms. For example, a government has to state unequivocally whether it will cover all farmers if harvests fail, or just particular ones, and whether it expects others to insure themselves or cover their losses directly. A donor or multilateral agency may state outright that it will cover a particular share of the costs of scaling up a safety net; it may also declare that it will step in logistically if a national government obviously cannot handle a disaster. A global health organization may commit to deploy immediately if a particular infectious disease appears, or it may commit to enter to support the national government if after a specified number of days that disease is still spreading.

A good joint plan could start by declaring that the national and subnational governments will pay equal shares of the cost of reconstruction of subnational infrastructure damaged by a natural disaster, that reconstruction will ‘build back better’ to pre-agreed disaster-resilient (p.40) building standards,7 and that infrastructure will have to be registered to be eligible for the protection. Or a plan could declare that government and donors will use targeted cash transfers to jointly protect all households registered as living in a given area against drought-induced food insecurity (which the Hunger Safety Net Programme does in Kenya).

The Implementers

All this talk of science and planning may well drive those who work on the ground during crises to distraction. Heroic work is undertaken by all kinds of frontline workers during disasters: nurses, doctors, and community health workers; soldiers and civil defence workers; local officials and community leaders; staff from national and international NGOs; field staff of governments, donors, and international aid agencies; and vast armies of volunteers. Without their support and confidence, no plan can be implemented following a disaster.

As frontline workers, they are in the middle of the action when the suffering is at its worst, doing good where they can, driven by superhuman energy, adrenaline, and moral commitment. They are crucial because they work with the people affected and listen to them. They are also the relayers of the bad news—of late response, poor coordination, and under-resourcing. The bureaucrats had better invite them in early on, as without their hard work but also their buy-in the best-written plan is just empty words.

The knowledge and experience of the implementers are central to understanding what can be done sensibly and in what order in the aftermath of a disaster. What relief will be needed in the weeks following the crisis? How will the reconstruction of lifeline infrastructure such as key bridges and hospitals work over the following months? And how should any subsequent reconstruction be sequenced? Any small or big plan should be tested by these implementers, including in practical exercises. How would it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How can it be improved?

(p.41) During the drafting stages of plans, frontline workers will probably argue for adaptability and flexibility when circumstances change: a good plan will be clear on how it will evolve and change if required. They may also recommend decentralization so that decision making about support is carried out near the people in need. But evaluations and experience have also shown that simply leaving it to those on the ground to act as they see fit during crises does not necessarily lead to the best outcomes. Fragmentation and lack of coordination bedevil responses, as was discussed in Chapter 2. It is crucial, then, to settle beforehand on sensible plans and coordination mechanisms.

Finally, implementers can contribute significantly to improving response planning. There continues to be remarkably little evidence on the cost-effectiveness of the various response models in humanitarian support. During a drought or flood that has deprived people of their livelihoods, should one support families or target particular individuals? Should one focus on income support or targeted nutrition? One problem is that there are very few high-quality evaluations of humanitarian interventions in which hard data are collected early on in order to learn lessons for other crises.8 Implementers can assist those trying to improve this situation, despite the difficulties of carrying out quality impact evaluations during the extreme circumstances of a disaster response.9

The Financiers

Finally, the financiers need to be invited to join the three other groups in the room. The men and women of finance are needed to work out how much different contingency plans would cost and to lock in agreements, so that the political agreement to a plan is tied to a credible commitment to finance the plan.

Trade-offs are always necessary when deciding who to protect and against what, and understanding the financial consequences of different plans for different potential disasters, the contingent liability, is critical. Actuaries and other financial types can use market-implied (p.42) pricing techniques, now ubiquitous within insurance companies, to determine how much it will cost on average to finance a given contingent liability and therefore to implement a particular plan. These cost figures can support a virtuous circle between defining and refining the policy objectives, updating the plan, and estimating the cost of implementing the plan.

But putting a cost on potential political choices is not the only area in which financiers add value. Their real usefulness comes in making sure that promises are credible and will be kept. Political constituencies will need to know who will be protected once a disaster strikes and how, and for this to happen plans need to be locked down beforehand. It turns out that this takes quite a bit of subtle work behind the scenes.

According to contract theory in economics, merely having a contract is not enough unless its enforcement is beyond doubt: it has to be credible and designed so that no one can benefit by opting out of the agreement later and doing their own thing. Behavioural scientists point out that even if commitments are genuine and sensible, commitment devices (such as the mast to which Odysseus was tied) are required to ensure that commitments are actually kept, to avoid procrastination, and to make action as intended credible. The financiers should be on hand to tie Odysseus to the mast and to ensure that the other sailors do not respond to his call to be released when the Sirens call.

In practice, these solutions typically centre on financial contracts and budgetary mechanisms that are arranged before a disaster strikes to lock in the plan.10 Done well, financial planning for disasters is not just about making sure that the money is available when it is needed; it is also the glue that holds all the pieces of the plan together and makes it credible (see Chapter 5). It ensures that funds are available quickly when—and only when—they are required by the plan, and it binds the various partners to pre-agreed objectives, decision processes, and implementation modalities to make the plan strong enough to withstand the whirlwind of highly charged post-disaster politics.

(p.43) Avoiding Hot Air and Getting Results

Credible pre-disaster planning requires a lot of joint technical work from a variety of professionals. Without the scientists generating knowledge and the science communicators communicating it, nobody knows or cares about what disasters need to be planned for. Without the subtle manoeuvring of bureaucrats and officials to broker the different scenarios about who will have to bear what risk, coordinated declarations will not be politically attractive and plans will not be sustainably funded. Without the implementers and their critical voices, but also their commitment to certain actions and not others, contingency plans will not be sensible or logistically feasible. And without financiers able to apply know-how from insurance, declarations will just be hot air and serious planning will begin only after a disaster. This typically means coordination between government ministries and the full range of international development partners and multilateral institutions.

Tossing out the begging bowl and moving to credible pre-disaster planning requires all four types of professional working together, appreciating their place in the process, and delivering on their core responsibility. And it requires benefactors who are open to the idea of moving away from the old ways of doing things (see Chapter 4).

Given all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the best disaster response systems are in countries where some of the professionals have an easy time. For example, Mexico issues about thirty disaster declarations every year, and empty promises from politicians about disaster responses are quite quickly shown for what they are. Voters have a pretty good understanding of disaster risk. International donors are not involved, and so the main issue is the coordination between the federal and state governments, and this has been tackled head on by the federal government, which became tired of being presented with thirty begging bowls a year by state governments. Research indicates that having reliable, timely access to post-disaster funding channelled through Mexico’s FONDEN between 2004 and 2013 led to (p.44) an increase in local economic activity between 2 and 4 per cent over the first year after a disaster—a big benefit.11

Embracing Pre-Disaster Planning

As soon as governments and their partners change their mindset, place themselves beyond the reach of the begging bowls, and opt for pre-disaster plans, planning starts making sense. Once the matching financial plans are on the table, it becomes really interesting. It is the time for some real political leadership, nationally and internationally, because the crucial endgame is nigh.

Plans cease to be beautiful fiction, based on an assumption of unlimited budgets and imaginary implementation capacity, and instead the process of planning forces governments and the international community to think through important political trade-offs before a disaster strikes. What or who can the ministry of finance actually afford to protect? If the implementation capability will be constrained (a city cannot be rebuilt in a day), how should the response be sequenced after a disaster? Should a government invest now in standby reconstruction capacity for rebuilding public structures, or register vulnerable people and their bank accounts so that cash transfers can be made quickly should a disaster strike? Should a government protect against only the really extreme disasters that are catastrophic at the national level, or also against the smaller, more localized disasters that can still devastate communities? Who should really be paying for their own protection, or at least contributing towards it? How much is the international community really able to contribute and for what? How will money flow to where the plan demands it—will it be routed through government or NGOs? What pre-disaster promises of protection are politically sellable (both in the country and to contributors to the humanitarian system) and affordable? Making these trade-offs is not easy, but the current system implicitly makes them, albeit hidden behind a lot of post-disaster razzle-dazzle, coordination failures, and delays.

(p.45) Perhaps most importantly, credible pre-disaster financial planning can help to unblock chronic underinvestment in risk reduction. There are lots of reasons why municipal governments may underinvest in strengthening buildings, farmers may underinvest in new, more resilient crops or in drought- or flood-resistant seeds, and developers may build cities on earthquake fault lines. One reason may be that people believe—rightly or wrongly—that they will be bailed out when disaster strikes. Why should they then invest in risk reduction? Of course, one can blame the beneficiaries, but this is not a useful recipe for a solution. Solving this problem lies in reforming the role of the benefactor.

Benefactors can do more to promote sensible investments in risk reduction through a credible pre-disaster system of protection than through a discretionary begging-bowl system. For example, national governments can commit to contributing to the protection of municipal buildings, but only those that have undergone some minimum level of strengthening. Governments can subsidize the cost of insurance for farmers, but only for newer, more resilient crops or for farmers economizing on water use. Governments and donors can provide partial subsidies for homeowner earthquake insurance so that such insurance is affordable for all existing homes. For a new home built in a risky place, however, the cost of insurance will be commensurately greater. All of these approaches would encourage the beneficiary to invest in risk reduction.

Credible pre-disaster financing can also promote sensible investments by benefactors themselves in risk reduction. If a benefactor has ‘owned up’ to its contingent liability on its balance sheet, and if someone has a brilliant idea for how to invest now to reduce the cost of bearing that risk, the benefactor may be more willing to contribute some of its own money than if it was off balance sheet. For example, when national and subnational governments jointly agree on who is responsible for what reconstruction post-disaster, both are more inclined to invest in risk reduction. When governments and farmers agree to pay jointly for the cost of agricultural insurance, (p.46) both have in interest in investing in climate-smart, resilient agriculture to reduce the insurance premium. The World Bank offers middle-income countries a line of credit, the Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (Cat DDO), which can be drawn down by a national government within a day or two of a disaster resulting from a natural event. However, this programme is only available if a government makes specific policy reforms that enable or promote improved risk management in advance.

How to ensure that a plan is credible so that it will be implemented when a disaster hits is discussed in Chapters 4 and 5. But will politicians decide to trust the professionals and buy into the plan? Why should they? They know that being a benefactor and acting after a disaster strikes pays—the evidence tells them that approach is beneficial. So why trust a group of professionals and a plan? The best argument is that the evidence clearly indicates it is the best thing to do for people and countries when extreme events risk turning into disasters. Pre-disaster planning, when done carefully, would result in faster, more effective responses, and so can help avoid the kind of losses to people and economies documented in Chapter 2.

How convincing will all this be to politicians? Doing as we suggest will not lead to tangible outcomes because it is about economic losses avoided, about lives not lost or harmed. It is not about visibly rescuing people or about openly responding to petitions of support by local communities and authorities. Putting trust in pre-disaster planning may not lead to photo opportunities, to flag planting, or to patronage for the supporters of politicians, let alone electoral success—the evidence suggests it is unlikely to help with that. And, no doubt, there will be a class of politicians who will not want to budge if this is the price to be paid. Others will do it because the evidence tells them it is for the best for their country’s citizens. In the end, then, pre-disaster planning is a political choice that politicians need to make, even if it ties their hands and even if it does not lead to tangible results they can exploit. And that is why politicians will have to act as leaders, doing what is best for their country’s citizens and economy.

(p.47) Recapping…

  1. 1. Good planning is based on an iterative dialogue among scientists, bureaucrats, implementers, and financiers about what or who is to be protected, how, and how much it will cost. Bad planning happens when at least one of these parties is missing from the dialogue.

  2. 2. Planning is a political choice; it is not just a technical exercise. A good plan will include a clear political statement before a disaster about who or what is to be protected, against what, what the conditions for protection are, and who will pay for the protection.

  3. 3. Political statements by governments or development partners about how much money would be made available or how many people would be mobilized in the event of a disaster are not conducive to good planning. Useful political statements focus on target outcomes and leave the details on the ‘how’ to be worked out by the implementing agencies and financiers.

  4. 4. Benefactors who want to maximize the development impact of their support should think through different natural disaster scenarios, assess what support they would provide in each scenario, and own up to this contingent liability when in discussions with other partners. A benefactor with either no contingency plan or its own stand-alone contingency plan will fall short in its efforts to help people.

  5. 5. Behavioural biases against good planning are strongest for the kinds of disaster that did not occur in the recent past—that is, for nearly all future disasters. To combat these biases, there is a particular need to invest in science-based risk information and clear communication of this information to ensure that everyone knows for which contingencies they need protection.

A Snapshot of the Literature

Credibly establishing risk ownership requires overcoming the pre-disaster collective-action problem in order to avoid serious post-disaster (p.48) coordination failures. Clear risk ownership is a basic tenet of sound risk management (World Bank 2014b). It is recognized as a fundamental principle of enterprise risk management (Nocco and Stulz 2006; Lam 2014) and is widely acknowledged as important for sound disaster risk management (UNISDR 2011; World Bank 2014a), including pandemic risk management (WHO 2015). The need for cross-disciplinary teamwork for complex but effective resilience-building solutions is also well understood (World Bank 2013).

Hsiang and Narita (2012) analyse the deaths and damages arising from tropical cyclones worldwide for the period 1950–2008 and find that countries with more frequent tropical cyclones suffer lower losses from similar events, suggesting that adaptation and risk reduction are more successful in these countries. Ley-Borrás and Fox (2015) have compiled an overview of the generation and uses of disaster risk information for financial protection solutions.

In the literature on humanitarian relief networks, Stephenson (2005) presents an overview of the issues, challenges, and possible solutions related to post-disaster humanitarian assistance. In particular, Stephenson argues that effective coordination among aid agencies is hampered by competition for clients, disparate organizational structures, the need to attract media attention, and the costliness of coordination efforts. He suggests changing their organizational cultures to encourage operational coordination. Janssen et al. (2010) and Bharosa et al. (2010) find that relief workers are often more concerned with receiving information from others than giving information to others who may benefit, and that understanding each other’s work processes is crucial to improving coordination. In a similar spirit, Kapucu (2006) argues that in order to ensure effective communication at the time of a disaster, organizations should establish inter-agency communication before disasters strike.

There is a rich literature on emergency logistics, including pre-disaster operations such as evacuation, facility placement, and stock pre-positioning, and post-disaster operations such as relief distributions and casualty transportation. The collection of essays in (p.49) Christopher and Tatham (2014) stresses the importance of sharing information in order to put in place agile, synchronized supply networks. Van Wassenhove (2006) calls for stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors for managing post-disaster logistics. Caunhye et al. (2012) take a look at the literature on optimization models in emergency logistics, and Zeimpekis et al. (2013) provide an overview of recent research results and future trends in operational research for disaster relief. (p.50)


(1.) Congressional Research Service (2006); Department of Homeland Security (2006).

(4.) Kucharski et al. (2015).

(5.) Clarke and Hill (2013). Cabot Venton et al. (2012) suggest even higher figures for Ethiopia and double the cost of a late response in Kenya compared with an early response.

(6.) Tversky and Kahneman (1974) first suggested that this is a cognitive bias, resulting in deviations in rational decision making.

(7.) ‘Build back better’ is now recognized as good practice globally, having gained momentum following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and as one of the four priorities for action under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

(8.) For a review of health interventions during humanitarian interventions, see Blanchet et al. (2015). Of the 131 studies of sufficient quality that could be included, only 10 per cent took place in the settings of disasters caused by natural events.

(9.) For one recent review of the challenges of—but also opportunities for—better evaluations in humanitarian settings, see Puri et al. (2015).

(10.) Financial contracts are not always necessary. One informative counterexample is Japan, where the government signed a contingent service contract with a construction company for post-disaster reconstruction. Through this and similar contracts, key highways were rebuilt within two weeks of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

(11.) See de Janvry et al. (2015).