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Why is Britain ending support to UNISDR?

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 7 Mar 2011 16:48 GMT
Author: Tom Mitchell, ODI
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Tom Mitchell is head of the climate change, environment and forests programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) announced the findings of its Multilateral Aid Review (MAR) last week. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) finished rock-bottom of the table of 43 agencies – a result deemed “so poor” that all core funding is being withdrawn.

While many in the disasters community would agree UNISDR has considerable shortcomings and has suffered from mission creep, its aim to guide and co-ordinate the efforts of a wide range of partners to achieve substantive reduction in disaster losses remains vital.

DFID’s review recognises UNISDR’s unique role, saying it is “closely aligned to the government’s priority objectives, particularly on climate change”. However, DFID criticises the organisation for “not allocating aid in line with a strategy” (unfair as it does not allocate aid), and focusing too much at national level rather than on international co-ordination (probably fair).

DFID says failings in a 2005 evaluation still remained by 2010 and that UNISDR cannot clearly point to its influence on disaster risk reduction (DRR) outcomes on the ground (unfair as it is a co-ordinating body).

In the context of describing UNISDR’s role as unique and well-aligned with government priorities, the decision to stop funding rather than placing it on “special measures” warrants investigation. Possible reasons for DFID’s decisions are as follows:

1. UNISDR is just so expensive that the UK tax payer cannot afford to support it. Wrong. Funding to UNISDR was just £900,000 per year from 2006-2009 and less in 2010 (7 percent of UNISDR’s budget). Removing the support equates to one hundredth of the savings sought by Liverpool City Council.

2. DRR is not a priority for DFID, so funding UNISDR makes no sense. Wrong – or at least I hope it is wrong. DFID has a DRR policy, albeit old, invests in DRR projects and wants to be an active participant in the UNISDR-organised Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in May this year. It has just seen a large amount of UK aid to Pakistan washed away in the floods and wants to increase money to Pakistan. Disaster losses were the highest ever for many developing countries in 2010, and December’s Cancun Agreement highlights DRR as a central pillar of adaptation to climate change, something DFID has recognised in its forward planning for programming adaptation finance. Also, DFID’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) is widely tipped to recommend a significant refocusing of effort towards DRR and resilience-building, but it is difficult to see how this can happen effectively without engaging UNISDR, something politically tricky now DFID is withdrawing finance.

3. DFID has a better agency ready to step into UNISDR’s shoes. Very unlikely. While a handful of other U.N. agencies have been annoyed that UNISDR has got too big for its boots, none has the mandate or political space to replace it. DFID actually acknowledges this implicitly in the review. It does, however, indicate its support for the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) – the international finance mechanism for disaster risk reduction – but the GFDRR has a different mandate, is not particularly inclusive of civil society and affected communities, and is outside the U.N. system.

4. DFID is just following the trend of other donors in ending their funding for UNISDR in 2011. Wrong. Many of UNISDR’s top donors have already agreed their support for 2011, and DFID’s stance is the most public display of dissatisfaction. Other donors may choose to follow DFID’s decision, though this is unlikely. While the 2010 evaluation of UNISDR highlighted problems, the reforms recommended in the mid-term review of the Hyogo Framework for Action, due to be announced next week, will buy the organisation more time and support. Politically, DFID’s decision will make it more difficult for Britain to leverage influence on DRR, and creates a problem for the work of UK NGOs and researchers, many of whom lead key international DRR processes. These UK ambassadors will now find themselves under pressure to explain the actions of their government.

5. A co-ordinating agency is just not sexy enough in an era of ‘results’ and a few had to get the chop. Very likely. ‘We co-ordinate lots of other U.N. agencies’ will never sound as sexy to the government coalition as ‘vaccinated 213 million children’ or ‘distributed 160 million mosquito nets’. Andrew Mitchell had to show his colleagues he was as ruthless as them when it came to tough decisions, particularly when under pressure to justify ring-fencing aid to his party and the British public. DFID likely judged that stopping support for UNISDR would create less political fallout than ending money to higher-profile agencies.

6. UNISDR did not fill out the form well and will never come out strongly in a bottom-up, value-for-money assessment. Very likely. The MAR assessment methodology included country visits, surveys, questionnaires and external evaluations. I would argue that the MAR was comparing apples and oranges – very different types of agencies – where a bottom-up evaluation of ‘value for money’ will never favour an international inter-agency coordination mechanism. The ‘detailed’ evaluation of UNISDR provided by the MAR highlights considerable shortcomings in the methodology for organisations of this kind. To what extent were other agencies asked about UNISDR’s co-ordination abilities, its strategic positioning, and its importance for the development project given the increasing prevalence of disasters?

7. There are poor links between the review processes and DFID has demonstrated a lack of foresight. Very likely. The MAR says: “where several organisations are subject to review through other processes ... [the humanitarian organisations are covered by the HERR] ... decisions have not yet been taken [about funding]”. Simply, DFID should have put off making a decision about UNISDR until the HERR is out. With the HERR recommending strengthening of risk reduction systems, somebody should have pointed out the short-sightedness. DFID has some great people working on DRR but they are dispersed, few in number, tend not to be specialists and lack voice in senior decision-making processes. It is high time for this to change.

It is difficult as an outsider to pin the decision to drop UNISDR on any single reason, and it is likely to be a combination of the above. Nonetheless, it does not seem right or logical to me, and I hope the HERR will stimulate a rethink. Unfortunately the political damage has already been done, and I look forward to UNISDR’s response.



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