Its a great big world

In Australia, I feel our relationship with the international community on disaster management is very tenuous. Apart from a number of mutual aid agreements on urban search and rescue and forest fire fighting, we had tended not to look at the international community for what practice we can learn. We’re a little bit arrogant, presuming that all our practice is the best. I know that when I have mentioned the work that we do as an organisation in the pacific or in Asia, I’ve had varying comments along the lines of yes but that’s different, that’s work in the “developing” world, and it would never work here. But community engagement is community engagement, and it’s the principles of simplicity that I think are transferrable, which we seem to lose in the rush to make things complicated.

Our National Strategy for Disaster Resilience makes no reference to the Hyogo Framework for Action, although in defence of the Federal Government, they are now talking about it, and if you want to know what Australia is doing in disaster management, check out our last report to the UNISDR on progress towards Hyogo. More transparency there than on reporting on the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be asked by Dudley McArdle to speak at one of the Monash University Disaster Resilience initiative forums. Fortunate I say, although with current workloads, there were times when I was cursing saying yes, because it allowed me to do a bit of research into the various frameworks that have provided guidance to how we do our work in the sector.

I have a personal connection to the UN . My Aunt worked for the United Nations (UNCTAD. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). So I thought I was pretty cool having a relative who worked for the UN. Somehow the kids in 70s suburban Australia didn’t think the same. Anyway, the UN, for all it’s flaws and foibles, as a concept, is an institution that I have a lot of respect for.

What struck me in the reading that I did, is the strong contribution and influence of the Japanese. Each of the three world conferences on Disaster Risk Reduction (Yokahama, Hyogo, and the upcoming Sendai) are all in Japan. Even the International Recovery Platform launch meeting I went to was based in Kobe. Each of these three cities/prefectures have suffered dramatic earthquakes/tsunamis (Yokahama in 1926, Hyogo in 1996, and Sendai in 2011).

The genesis of these frameworks and declarations emerged out of a number of number of UN General Assembly resolutions to provide disaster relief support to a number to nations after particularly severe disasters. As a result, in the early 70s, the United Nations Disaster Relief Office was created, then a position of UN Disaster Relief Coordinator. The focus of these activities was mainly on relief. However over the course of the decade, and into the 80s, link between development and disasters was eventually recognised, that disasters were a product of development challenges and vice versa, disaster events hindered developmental progress.

The UN declared the 1990s the International Decade for Disaster Reduction, and convened the First World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yokahama. In 1987 “The GA recognised the importance of reducing the impact of natural disasters for all people, and in particular for developing countries;. It decided to designate the 1990s as a decade in which the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations, will pay special attention to fostering international co-operation in the field of natural disaster reduction.

I recall when I first started working in Emergency Management, there was a lot of activity at AEMI around the decade, each International Day of Disaster Reduction, the institute would run a workshop on different themes.

Post the decade, it was recognised that there needed to be an ongoing commitment to disaster risk reduction, and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was born. The Hyogo Framework for action sought to put the Strategy into Action. The Second World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction took place in the Hyogo Prefecture in 2005.

The conference took stock of progress in disaster risk reduction accomplished since the Yokohama Conference of 1994 and to make plans for the next ten years.

Of course not everyone was happy, according to John Hannigan in his book on the politics of disaster, there was disappointment that there were concrete targets set, or binding commitments, and the language of the document was seen as largely rhetoric by some.

Now we are at the end of the HFA, and the United Nations is working towards a second Hyogo Framework for action, at the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction at Sendai, in Japan, next March. The key priorities for the Hyogo Framework for action are

  • Understanding disaster risk
  • Strengthening governance for managing risk
  • Preparedness for response, recovery and reconstruction
  • Investing in social, economic, and environmental resilience

What I see in each of these documents is a deepening of our understanding of disasters, and trying to tackle the recognition of this complexity, the shift away from single hazard focus, the role of gender, the role of livelihoods, the emergence of resilience as a guiding concept amongst other things.

What does this all mean? While they are high level documents, they do provide guidance. I think the beauty of them is that it means we aren’t alone. It often feels that way, for many people, particularly those new to disaster management, that they are on their own, because there isn’t this well formed, matured sector around them. These international frameworks give a signal that someone else is also thinking about this stuff, and like astronomers gazing out beyond the solar system for signs of life, someone else might be looking at the same set of challenges as you, and there are ways of going looking for that information and help.

2 thoughts on “Its a great big world

  1. Hi John,

    I’m just doing some catch up reading. The information you’ve outlined here is so relevant to Australia, thanks for writing this one. I agree with you regarding some of the international frameworks, we don’t have to re invent the wheel all the time but we don’t usually take a look at what’s happening globally. It’s interesting to note that there have been contributions from Australia feeding into the post 2015 HFA but it’s not something that we talk about much in the EM sector.



  2. Hi John,

    Really happy to read this and know that “someone else is thinking about this stuff”.

    A few years ago I presented at one of the Monash University Disaster Resilience initiative forums and shared the progress Aus. Red Cross was making towards the application of the Sphere standards in the Aus domestic context. While the Sphere Project is a widely accepted set of international standards, it was news to many in the crowd and was greeted with a similar scepticism of ‘that is for the developing world’. Wonderful to hear that Aus Red Cross is about to release the second version of ‘Preferred Practices for Emergency Sheltering in Australia’ which draws heavily on the Sphere Project.

    Click to access Red_Cross_Preferred_Sheltering_Practices_Paper.pdf

    Maybe the insular approach taken in Aus EM represents the size of our resource pool and the tyranny of distance. Recently, while becoming acquainted with the Icelandic domestic emergency management system it became clear from a range of briefings that those involved had spent considerable years in disaster management contexts outside of the country (not the same in Australia) and were not shy to take (and acknowledge) best practices from other contexts. No more obvious was this than during the requested exchange approaches with our delegation from Armenia & Georgia. Two “developing” countries with a lot to share about instigating behaviour change for household preparedness.

    While the lack of DRR specific considerations in the next MDGs may not reflect it well. There is a lot to learn from the innovation around integrated community resilience initiatives. Building on the decades of successful risk reduction the shift is moving away from the silo’d approach of addressing disaster risks to acknowledging the full complexities of dynamic systems. Not sure if this is being discussed in Aus EM.

    Cutting my teeth in the Aus. EM scene and now in the international DM scene there is hardly a month that goes by that I don’t draw on experiences, materials, concepts etc from Aus. Or see the potential eg long-term recovery & Incident Command Systems
    At the same time, I come across many good practices in different locations that may be considered ‘under developed’ that Aus. EM would benefit from. Looking forward to more discussion on how to bridge the gap.

    Love your writing. Keep it up!



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