Counting the uncountable

A report that I have had a lot of involvement in has been released today. The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, a grouping of Insurance Australia Group, Westpac, Optus, Investa, and Munich Re commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to look into the economic costs of the social impacts of disasters. No mean feat.  For the first time I feel like we have started to count the economic costs of the social impacts of disasters. This is important because understanding the economic costs of the social impacts, we can get a truer cost of disasters (given that mostly what is focussed on at the moment is the replacement of houses, bridges, and buildings).

Through the consultants,  we found that the social impact costs were at least 50% higher than the tangible costs that are currently counted (eg insurance, firefighting costs, infrastructure costs etc) . This figure took into account mental health and other health costs, as well as domestic violence. What we weren’t able to ascertain was what is the cost of disruption and dislocation of communities, the costs of poorer education outcomes, reduced employment opportunities, reduce business opportunities, and  the cost of relationship breakdown. This data is not collected post disaster, and therefore is hard to study. IF we did collect this data and analysed it, I suspect we could double the costs again.

With this we will be able to do two things; argue for longer term psycho-social recovery programs, and create a more compelling argument for preparedness by increasing the value at risk (and hopefully counter the argument, well I’m insured, i don’t need to do anything else). As try as we might, feelgood stories don’t wash with hard bitten Treasury Officials, in whose job description the first line is Just say no. They want data, they want to see the cost. And while my colleague Kate Brady, once quoting Einstein, said, not everything worth counting can be counted, and not everything that can be counted is worth counting, I feel we need to take on the language of the oppressor. Match them at their own game

Early days yet, but this is an important piece of work, which hopefully will provide a bit of a foundation to look more deeply into some of the issues. Of course none of this means anything to the person in their flooded home, staring at years of potential misery and opportunity lost. But if it helps us in the backroom, argue for smarter programs, then its an important step.

6 thoughts on “Counting the uncountable

  1. I’ve been waiting for the report with bated breath John and will be blogging about it later today…

    It’s great work and will go a long way to assisting VCOSS’ advocacy work in this area



    Bridget Tehan

    Senior Policy Analyst Emergency Management
    Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS)
    Level 8, 128 Exhibition Street, Melbourne VIC 3000
    03 9235 1024
    0405 246 551

    [Description: cid:image001.png@01D133F6.2F70FB80]


    1. thanks Bridget, I am glad it is finished and out there and we can now start to have the real conversations about this topic!


  2. Thanks John, another very important and insightful sharing.
    My first reaction: thank god someone/some collaboration, in a deliberate, structured and measured way, is seriously starting to look at these costs!
    In my opinion, at both individual and societal levels these unaccounted costs have enormous, dare I suggest intergenerational, consequences of deficit.

    I’m driven to share an opinion and comment on your closing paragraph and in particular the line …
    “…Of course none of this means anything to the person in their flooded home, staring at years of potential misery and opportunity lost…”
    Maybe it might mean nothing in the immediacy of a disaster, but, I can tell you from experience as a Black Saturday bushfire bereaved person whose life has been turned inside out and upside down by the enduring and continuously evolving consequences of those bushfires (even 7 years on) that in fact this work means everything. I suspect it may mean a hell of a lot more to disaster involved people than one may think. Why? Because to feel or know that such costs are not understood is plain depressing, magnifies invisibility and saps glimmers of hope, but to feel and to know they are on the radar creates a source of hope, connection and acknowledgment that may help people climb through disaster impact at all layers.

    To me knowing that this work is being done is far from meaningless. It means hope that these particular types of costs, consequences and burdens I and my family (immediate and extended), and the thousands of other affected people experience, may experience are finally allowed to see the light of day. Only then can they be integrated into our reactions and understandings and into both preparedness and recovery initiatives.

    It’s already way past time that such costs should have been considered and counted and ideally minimized. It has to happen and help us all if it doesn’t happen sooner rather than later because the additional costs at every level are nothing but a sure fired road to decline and incapacity, not just for the individuals but for society as a whole and those costs are huge.

    Rhonda Abotomey
    Self-declared Ambassador for Common – common sense, common decency, compassion, communication and community.


    1. Hi Rhonda, thank you for the, as always, insightful and personal comments. I appreciate the way you can share your own experiences with aim of improving the lot of future generations.


  3. Hi John,

    I can’t wait to read this a bit more thoroughly but it’s good to see that there is some focus on the cost of disasters on children. The report highlights the need for more research and more measuring of the impacts on kids and I hope that we see more academic work in this area.



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