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Joe Lowry is senior communications/media officer and spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration. Lowry will moderate a panel on the ‘Role of Social Media in Development’ at the Aid & International Development Forum Asia-Pacific in Bangkok next week. The event brings together practitioners and policy leaders from governments, the UN, NGOs and private organisations to highlight the challenges faced by the aid and development sector and to share innovative ideas. This is the first time the forum has been held in Asia.
Trying to predict crises is an impossible but vital pastime. Crises are crises because they are unexpected and overwhelming. But with that in mind, there is a lot that aid organisations, governments and – most crucially of all – communities can do to minimise their impact.
Several things are certain. There will be more and bigger climate-related disasters. Even without climate change, the massive shift in population from countryside to city, together with environmental degradation, means more people are on the raggedy edge, one slip away from disaster. Informal dwellings are disasters waiting to happen – floods, fire and disease can quickly push a hard-working family back to square one or worse.
Furthermore, we rarely know the population of slums, nor do we have any idea who is really living there. Simply keeping track of births, deaths and movements gives authorities the tools to plan for healthier communities and to protect them from disaster.
But as we see time and time again, the poor don’t matter – they hold no political capital, they cannot afford consumer goods or medicines, they don’t add value to the bottom line. They will, however, borrow money to crowd onto rickety boats to travel into the unknown or they will be exploited for their cheap labour, sent into sexual slavery or forced to sell an organ to pay for a child’s education.
There will be pandemics. Who knows what Ebola-like viruses may lurk in Asia’s forests and jungles, waiting for loggers to cut a path to them? Viruses may mutate, changing their vectors, becoming airborne. Cities may sink into the swamps on which they are built, or grind to a halt thanks to the garbage they produce.
There will be conflict over resources, over living space, over water. People will be displaced and will throng towards cities, putting greater pressure on creaking infrastructure. And people will live longer, meaning harder work for the next generation that supports them and more money from health budgets spent on fighting the diseases that naturally occur as bodies age.
But there is hope and it sits in the pockets of almost every Asian person. Recent statistics from the International Telecommunications Union show that there will soon be more phones than people in Asia. We now have the power to tell everyone, everywhere, in their own language and in clear detail how to protect themselves from disease, when a flood will hit, what crops to plant and when, what medicines to give the sick, where opportunities shine and dangers lurk.
Change is coming, and we – aid agencies, governments and communities – must adapt. Aid and the interconnected world can help people shape their own destinies. One last thing is certain: the people who we have called our beneficiaries for so long must be seen as our partners – more, in fact, than our equals. They must take charge. They must drive aid operations.
I’ll finish with Anne Hathaway’s smouldering whisper into Christian Bale’s ear from the recent Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises:
Selina Kyle: There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
Bruce Wayne: You sound like you're looking forward to it.
Selina Kyle: I'm adaptable.