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Sticking points on the way to a new disaster reduction pact

Source: Overseas Development Institute - Thu, 15 May 2014 09:02 GMT
Author: Tom Mitchell
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Firefighters search for victims on a boat at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, April 16, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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Regional consultations on the content and form of a new international agreement to tackle the risk of ‘natural’ disasters start in earnest this week.

Governments, businesses, researchers and community groups are meeting in Abuja, Nigeria to agree a declaration from the Africa Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. This will be forwarded to the first formal inter-governmental preparatory conference in July 2014. If all goes smoothly, a new agreement to replace the existing Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) should be signed by governments at the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR), scheduled for March 2015 in Sendai, Japan.  

The bureau charged with producing draft agreements involves 11 governments – two from each global region with Japan acting as an ex-officio member given its role in organising the WCDR.  It is co-chaired by Thailand and Finland, supported by the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as the secretariat. The process of developing a new agreement has already involved a large number of national consultations, a regional meeting in Central Asia and inputs from a series of ‘advisory groups’ organised along stakeholder lines.

You would imagine that finding international consensus around the idea of reducing disaster risk would be relatively easy, especially when countries are facing growing losses. As an early indication, completed consultations have largely agreed on common thrusts of a new agreement, including, (i) recognising the role of the private sector in both creating and reducing disaster risk, (ii) calling for attention to the root causes of disasters, like unsafe building practices, poverty, insufficient early warning systems and poor land use planning, and (iii) placing more emphasis on building capacity at the local government and community level to manage risks.

These areas are reflected in the 2013 Chair’s Summary of the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, a major biannual meeting held in Geneva. More recently, in December 2013, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for Disaster Reduction, Margareta Wahlstrom, released a short note giving her thoughts on ‘elements’ of a new agreement. While drawing on consultation, this note takes the next step in covering potential U.N. reporting modalities, the form of progress monitoring frameworks, and the way different groups could contribute to a new agreement.

WHAT IS RESILIENCE?

But Wahlstrom’s paper has not been without controversy for three reasons. First, it has been couched as a personal input and includes components that have not been reflected in consultation outputs.

Second, it contains a proposed organising rationale for the new agreement that treats ‘resilience’ as only related to actions around disaster events themselves, as opposed to also covering the aspects of disaster prevention and disaster risk reduction (DRR). This formulation goes against the grain of more recent ‘resilience’ thinking.

It also contains very limited or no reference to a range of aspects highlighted in the chair’s Summary of the Global Platform, many of which are highly valued by different constituencies. Nevertheless, bureau members are expecting an updated ‘elements’ paper in the coming days. A version will be submitted for consideration by governments at the July meeting.

CHANGING NATURE OF DRR

Given the apparent high degree of consensus, what might be the potential sticking points on the road to Sendai?

  • First, there is much debate on whether the 5 pillars of the original HFA should remain as the organising framework for the new agreement, or whether a new formulation is required as outlined in the ‘elements’ paper. I suggest a change is vital as the current pillars are not intuitive, have created siloes and are out-of-step with the idea of disaster risk reduction as a core component of sustainable development.
  • Second, there is strong appreciation that effective action on reducing disaster risk will require the issue to be a feature of other, more high-profile international frameworks to be agreed in 2015 (on climate change and sustainable development goals).  There is little clarity on how the successor to the HFA will link to these frameworks, particularly as the WCDR comes earlier in the year than key meeting on other agreements. There is a high degree of nervousness about the ties between HFA and the climate change agreement being too close, for fear that the toxic politics may bleed across.
  • Third, there has been limited discussion about a finance mechanism to support commitments to a new agreement. While it is unlikely that a new mechanism focused on disaster risk reduction will emerge, work to assess existing flows from climate finance, aid, business investments, philanthropists and domestic public resources is extremely nascent. The big concern is that some governments will use the negotiating process to open a new front in the ‘loss and damage’ debate of the climate negotiations. This would see developing country governments reiterate their interest in receiving ‘compensation’ for impacts caused by hazards made more severe or extreme by the historical emissions driving climate change.
  • Fourth, the resilience debate teaches us that natural disaster risk cannot be dealt with in isolation from other risks – such as those associated with conflict, climate change, food prices or technology risks. Nonetheless, there is no clear mandate for the successor to the HFA to cover all these aspects, and any attempts to roam into peacebuilding or conflict prevention will likely be blocked. This has the potential to limit the coherence of a new agreement, and will frustrate civil society groups that have been calling for the U.N. system in particular to be more holistic in its treatment of risks.
  • Fifth, there is broad agreement that the HFA lacked a strong accountability package, and its progress monitor is overly focused on processes rather than outcomes. The self-reporting under the HFA meant governments often reported progress to the international community with no means of verification. Unsurprisingly, almost all governments have reported steady progress across all of the five pillars. Consultations on a new agreement have called for strengthened accountability and better monitoring of progress. What this means in practice is unclear, and governments are already raising concerns about a prescriptive set of targets and indicators applied at national level.
  • Finally, UNISDR remains the most likely co-ordinating body for a new agreement, but it does have structural weaknesses. For example, its position within the U.N. system blocks it from participating in key U.N. system co-ordination processes. It continues to have strong associations with humanitarian actors and receives soft financial support from mainly humanitarian budgets. None of this is in keeping with the growing profile of disaster risk issues or the zeitgeist of disaster resilience being primarily a development issue. For the new agreement to succeed, UNISDR must be strengthened and resourced as a co-ordinating hub, but member states will have different views about how that should happen.

ODI and alliance members of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network are jointly contributing to an active programme of meetings, research and advisory services on the new international disaster risk agreement. Our next major publication, due in the coming weeks, is a guide to negotiating the new agreement for governments and stakeholders.

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