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Human trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation: the ‘loss and damage’ from climate change a fund will not compensate

By Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, on 13 December 2023

Jointly posted with the Conversation

photograph: a child's doll lies on the floor amongst brick and pebbles.
A child’s doll discarded during a storm. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Violence against women and children, including sexual abuse and exploitation, remains a taboo subject in the policy debates attended by international delegates at COP28, the latest round of the UN climate negotiations in Dubai. However, the connections between climate change and gender-based violence, including human trafficking, are real and already blight lives worldwide.

Countries at COP28 have agreed to set up a loss and damage fund which would pay poor nations for the irreparable harm caused by the deteriorating climate. How can we compensate non-economic loss and damage – the impacts of climate change that cannot be easily measured in monetary terms?

To answer this question, we must understand how these impacts already affect people in the world’s most vulnerable regions. By interviewing people in Bangladesh, Fiji and Vanuatu, we found that climate change is a trigger that can worsen, intensify or prolong the perpetration of violence and coercive control.

Entrapment in Bangladesh

Aerial photograph of the Bhola slum in Dhaka. Buildings with corrugated metal roofs in the foreground, surrounded by highrise flats in background.
Bhola slum in Dhaka. Most residents migrated from Bangladesh’s disaster-prone southern coast. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Among the girls and young women I spoke to in Bangladesh, child marriage was a common coping mechanism for the lost income and insecure food supplies associated with unpredictable weather.

Storms, punishing heat and unreliable rain made migration from the countryside to cities inevitable. Many migrant women and girls turned to work in the garment industry. In the factories and nearby dwellings, violence and poor mental health are especially common for female migrant workers.

Hunger has pushed numerous households to marry off their daughters and sisters. Belkis, a woman I interviewed, described how her family struggled with poverty and health issues during her childhood after they migrated from the southern coast of Bangladesh to the capital Dhaka, escaping cyclones and land erosion:

I got married when I was 12 years old. A few years later I gave birth to my first son. I faced a lot of problems giving birth to him … A woman from work was a doctor so she took me to Dhaka Medical Hospital. There they did some tests and noticed that my kidneys were failing.

Her sons may also need to leave school and start working. If she has a daughter, she may be forced to marry as a child. Harsh living and working conditions scar the health and wellbeing of entire families – but hit women and children hardest.

Child sexual exploitation and trafficking in Fiji

young boy pouring water over himself with a bucket.
Informal sanitation can be a safety risk. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson

Unrest swept Fiji in 2021 after a ten-year-old girl on Vanua Levu, one of the islands in the north east, was raped by her uncle in a cyclone shelter. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.

The incident was not an isolated event. Women we spoke to in Nadi, a city on Fiji’s main island, describe rapes in shelters and report children being trafficked for sexual purposes after the floods.

Overcrowded shelters create unsafe conditions. Many of the toilets have windows but no doors, let alone locks. Disaster evaluation reports also indicate that many emergency responders in Fiji lack necessary training to identify signs of abuse (sexual or otherwise) and so are unable to prevent further violence.

Lusi*, a Red Cross health coordinator, said:

Women are more vulnerable to violence in the wake of cyclones. In tents and makeshift shelters, there’s a lack of privacy and proper lighting, which makes it harder to stay safe.

Nasele*, a 22-year old woman that we interviewed in Nadi, explained:

In the dark [women] have to go out and this places [them] in unsafe conditions. In evacuation centres, women and children get exposed to sexual dangers – children’s rights are ignored. In this country, disaster management [offers no] quick recovery for women and children.

Nacanieli*, a Save the Children officer working in Nadi observed trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence:

The woman moved her family to Nadi to live with her new [Australian] husband. One year later, she returned to our office and told the SCF staff [that]…her new husband had moved the family to Australia and upon their arrival they were held captive in his house. She told me about the sexual exploitation of her oldest daughter (she was 14 years old at the time). …The woman was too scared to go to the police and lived in fear while in Australia. She and her children eventually fled the country with the help of a neighbour. The oldest daughter is now involved in prostitution in Nadi … We saw the scars of what looked like needle marks and cigarette burns on the woman and all four of her children.

In recent years, tourist hotspots such as Nadi in Fiji have seen a peak in child sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation, primarily by perpetrators from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Europe.

Loss and healing in Vanuatu

photo of woman painting designs and letters and numbers onto another's arms with a tube of red paint.
Vanuatu’s woman-led recovery networks are a model for post-disaster mutual aid. Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson.

Women in Vanuatu found recovery and healing in their social networks, which stuck together and aided their recovery from cyclones and drought. The women ensured there was support for the most in need, such as widows and people living with disabilities.

Women and children may be more vulnerable, but they should not be seen as passive victims. In Vanuatu, ideals that are typically considered to be feminine traits – such as inclusiveness and caring for the weak – were strengths that supported the entire population’s recovery from natural hazards.

Research such as ours gathers local experiences of non-economic loss and damage. Despite this, few climate change studies apply similar people-centred approaches.

This is a problem because loss and damage is never entirely environmental. As well as the destruction of land, crops or livestock, loss and damage must come to include child marriage, sexual violence, coercive and controlling behaviour, human trafficking and exploitation.

By widening our understanding of what loss and damage means, we can support more people more thoroughly. We must all learn from the women in Vanuatu by caring for those in need and healing collectively from the trauma of climate-related violence.

Losses and damages to wellbeing and dignity can never be wholly measured and compensated within a market.

*Aliases were used to protect people’s identity.


Dr Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson is Associate Professor at IRDR. Her research is broad and interdisciplinary with a particular focus on policy, intersectionality, and violence, as well as their overlaps with migration, refugees and trapped populations, trafficking or health and mental wellbeing.


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Disaster risk reduction must include people with disabilities

By Abigail Ewan, on 11 December 2023

photograph of two people sitting on the porch of a damaged house. Pieces of rubble and materials in the garden in the foreground.
Persons with sight impairment sits outside his house with his family member in Sindhupalchok. Their house was damaged by the 2015 Ghorka earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

The 3rd of December 2023 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and this year the theme was to “Unite in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for, with and by persons with disabilities”. Twenty- five of these targets relate to disaster risk reduction and people with disabilities are estimated to make up 16% of the global population with 80% of these people living in low- and middle-income countries. This places the inclusion and reduction of risk for people with disabilities as a critically important component to achieving the SDGs. People with disabilities are amongst the most at risk from the impacts of extreme events, including those associated with climate change and may face additional challenges in being recognised and included in community responses, by emergency organisations and gaining access to available aid. Extreme events can also increase and exacerbate existing disabilities which can result from physical impairment, the psychological impacts of disaster exposure and the inability to access services. Responses that fail to consider and include people with disabilities therefore fail to meet the global mandates to ‘leave no one behind’.

Extreme events can expose the pre-existing inequalities, disagreements and tensions in the way societies, communities, and individuals manage their lives, cope with and respond to adversity. This reveals the coping strategies and behaviours of vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities. This can reveal the gaps in policy and response and highlight the dominance of certain knowledge regimes that shape responses and promote either inclusion or exclusion. The responses for people with disabilities during the context of crisis tend to be fragmented and largely approached by specialised disability organisations. The reality is most disaster practitioners are unlikely to have engaged with disability while specialists in disability are unlikely to have engaged with response and recovery.  This can leave social biases and false assumptions of disability unchallenged and in some cases reproduced through intervention which can result in unintentional exclusion or marginalisation, while the voices and knowledge of people with disabilities remains largely in the shadows.

The vulnerabilities and challenges of people with disabilities in the context of extreme events have been discussed for the preceding two decades but a more recent shift in thinking advocates for the role that people with disabilities can play as active contributors and leaders in risk and resilience work.  Despite this, people with disabilities are still highly underrepresented and are little engaged in the planning and design of resilience and policy work. The 2023 UNDRR report on disability inclusion in disasters found that there has been limited progress in disability inclusion in the last ten years, with no significant differences across all the 132 countries included in the report. It is not uncommon to hear anecdotal observations and statements such as ‘this population doesn’t know what it needs’ or ‘it costs too much to include them’. This has left both research and initiatives for people with disabilities tending to be approached as a specialised field, with disability organisations often left filling in the gaps in support left by mainstream disaster organisations and response. The consideration and engagement of people with disabilities and their local advocacy organisations in preparedness activities remains even more limited.

Though generally considered as separate specialist fields the historical roots and objectives of ‘disaster studies’ and ‘disability studies’ are perhaps more cohesive than one might initially imagine. Disaster risk reduction lenses explicitly identify social understandings, behaviours, constraining social conditions and capacities as determinants of exposure, risk and loss. This is comparable to that of critical disability studies which aims to improve the theory and actualisation of inclusion and equality for people with disabilities. These approaches seek to recognise inequality, constraining social conditions and capacities and they both reflect a wider political turn in exposing oppression and discrimination. Fundamentally, they are sociological problems which can be understood by their socially produced nature and require interdisciplinary solutions. There is a pressing need for new methods and approaches that provide locally led solutions as increasing the policy provisions and guidelines that advocate for inclusion seem to have done little to swing the status quo. As Priestly and Hemmingway professed almost two decades ago ‘Just as disability is not the inevitable consequence of physical or cognitive impairment, disaster is not the inevitable consequence of natural hazard’.


Abigail Ewen is a PhD Candidate from the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction exploring identity and disability in times of crisis in Nepal. 


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Cop28: we need more accountability in adaptation

By Susannah Fisher, on 8 December 2023

photo of cop28 conference panel from audience perspective
Dr Susannah Fisher is in Dubai following the COP28 adaptation negotiations and sends us her account.

After early progress on the loss and damage fund and announcements on energy and health from COP 28 in Dubai, attention in the corridors in week 2 is turning to adapting to the impacts of climate change. One of the major topics of negotiation is the global goal on adaptation. Members of the Accountable Adaptation team at IRDR are following these discussions to understand the politics behind measuring adaptation.

What is the global goal on adaptation?

The global goal on adaptation was established in the Paris Agreement in 2015 and seeks to create a global political commitment to action on adaptation on par with mitigation. The goal seeks to “enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change in the context of the temperature goal of the Agreement”. Progress has been slow since 2015, but work started in earnest after the Glasgow COP in 2021.

Since Glasgow negotiators and observers have been meeting every few months in a series of workshops to push the idea forward and consider what it means to create a global goal for adaptation. These workshops have covered issues such as transformational adaptation, indigenous knowledge and links with other global frameworks but only in recent months have steps forward been made on a concrete framework for the goal.

Why do we need a goal?

Progress on adaptation action has been very slow and largely incremental. This means governments, communities and the private sector have been making small changes and tweaks to existing activities, policies and programmes to adapt. For example growing a new crop, building an irrigation system or putting sandbags around a house close to water. As the impacts of climate change are becoming clearer, in many cases we know this will not be enough. We will need to make more systemic, more transformative choices to adapt and live well with the scale of the climate impacts anticipated.

Adaptation has not received the same political attention as mitigation, and if we are to make progress on these challenges, this needs to change. There also hasn’t been enough money invested in adaptation and the international community has not fulfilled its promise to deliver $40-50 billion a year for adaptation. The latest UNEP Adaptation Gap report shows that only $21 billion was delivered in 2021, and the needs for adaptation are 10-18 times higher than the amount of public finance available.

Why is it so hard?

There are many challenges to measuring adaptation – outcomes and priorities depend on local contexts and it touches all sectors. Data is limited. In many cases we don’t really know what effective adaptation looks like. This could be different in a 1.5 degree world, 2 or the 3 we are heading for without more ambitious action. To design a global framework has therefore been full of political and technical challenges.

What has happened in the negotiations in Dubai?

Negotiations have been going on all week on the global goal on adaptation but little progress has been made. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin one observer called them “dire: and negotiators fear what will happen if the goal “crashes and burns”.

In the negotiating room, governments have been debating what role finance should play in the text on the global goal, what thematic areas should be included, what indicators are relevant, and if work should continue beyond this COP. There has been no agreement so far.

Does any of this really matter?

The global goal matters as it will set the level of ambition and the framing for what adaptation success looks like. It is a key tool for accountability allowing the COP to check if the international community is on track with planning, implementation, and finance to address the impacts of climate change, and to change course if it is not.

As part of our research at IRDR, we are analysing how governments and others understand the role of measurement and how adaptation measurement shapes action. These conversations on the global goal can often get lost in finding the best way to measure this complexity, but metrics embody a set of values and an understanding of success. Measurement can be used to raise ambition, build inclusion, and frame what solutions look like. It is inherently a social and political process.

As the doors to Expo City open today, we wait to see how the goal will move forward.


Dr Susannah Fisher is UKRI Future Leaders Principal Research Fellow. She works across research, policy and practice on adapting to climate change with an interest in ensuring climate finance supports effective and equitable adaptation, and that adaptation is at the scale and ambition we need for the escalating impacts of climate change.

Wagamama: have we thought enough about the impacts of gendered norms in disasters?

By Punam K Yadav and Miwako Kitamura, on 30 November 2023

A damaged house on the side of a road
Tohoku after March 11 by Shinsuke JJ Ikegame is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Recognition of the different impacts of gendered norms is not new. We know that people are impacted differently in disasters and that attention needs to be paid to these differences while planning for preparedness, evacuation, response, and recovery. We also know that, like sexual and gender minorities, women are not a homogeneous group. However, have we paid enough attention to the impacts of culture-specific, often unspoken and implicit, gendered norms, which get exacerbated during crises? Often learnt through everyday practise, they are not only invisible to the outsiders but also to the insiders, taken for granted and seen as normal or obvious. The effects of such norms are often felt and experienced more by women and gender minorities than men. In this blog, we are going to talk about such unspoken norms in Japan and their impacts on people’s lives.

Wagamama

Here we would like to introduce a term, Wagamama. Interestingly many of us who live in the UK already know this term well, however, with a completely different understanding. ‘Wagamama’ is the name of a restaurant chain in the UK, which it says was inspired by fast-paced Japanese ramen bars. Many of us may have been there and enjoyed their delicious food. This restaurant portrays a positive meaning of this term of being self-indulgent, self-centred, picky, fussy, and so on. However, do we know the cultural meaning and interpretation of this term? How is it used and what does it really mean in Japanese culture?

Wagamama is a Japanese word, which means being selfish, demanding, or thinking about yourself and your own needs instead of others. This term is used to describe a certain behaviour of a person in a certain context. In some culture, it may be seen as a positive thing as the Wagamama restaurant portrays it to be. However, in Japan it is often used as a negative term. This term has a temporal element (which could have a long-term impact on people’s lives), as it is not a fixed characteristic of a person; however, it is used to describe a certain behaviour of a person.

Harmony

The opposite of this term is harmony. Harmony is key in Japanese culture and the meaning is quite vague leaving a lot of room for interpretation. Harmony generally means thinking about others and putting their needs before your own, which includes thinking not only about your family but the wider community too—and this becomes even more prevalent in the context of crisis. Although in theory this may look like a very good thing, having to live up to this expectation can create severe consequences for some. Non-compliance to maintaining ‘harmony’ means you are a Wagamama. This applies to all, including women, men, children, elderly, people with disability, and gender minority. However, for some people the consequences of non-compliance are severe. We will use some stories (based on real incidents) to illustrate this concept. However, we will use pseudonyms (and non-Japanese names) to avoid any indirect harm or unintended consequences.

Examples

Mike is a transgender man who was looking for a job. He went to the job centre to ask for help. He said as a transgender man he was facing difficulty in finding a job, so he needed help. Instead of helping him, the person at the job centre told him that it was selfish of him to expect that people should understand his gender identity—that he was thinking about himself and not others. Here one would think he hasn’t asked for anything, so why would anyone call him selfish? In a Japanese context, even disclosing your gender identity is seen as ‘Wagamama’—being selfish and not caring about other people. This becomes even more evident in the context of disaster as they are not meant to ask for any special treatment based on their gender identify, including any medical help.

People who worked in the evacuation centres during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake said it was very difficult to find out what women needed and what challenges they were facing as they would not speak for fear that if they asked for something—even for gender specific needs—people would call them Wagamama. Likewise, if food supplies were not adequate, then they will stay hungry and not announce that they have not eaten anything. Likewise, due to the gender division of roles and expectations, women were supposed to cook and feed everyone in the evacuation centres. Regardless of how tired they were or unwell they felt, they still had to carry on. They feared that if they said anything or asked for help, people will call them Wagamama.

These cultural expectations are also the same for men due to the gender division of labour, although women and gender minorities are disproportionately impacted by the Wagamama culture. Men are expected to be strong and brave. For instance, after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, men struggled to express their feelings and vulnerability to their families and relatives. As a coping mechanism, some men went to sex workers to unburden their physiological distress.  Likewise, even elderly women were feared seeking help as they did not want to be called Wagamama in the times of crisis as there were bigger needs and community harmony was more important than their own needs, so they suffered but did not ask for help.

Despite all that has been done to recognise gendered social norms and their impacts on people, there is still a lot of work to be done in DRR. It is important to understand both spoken and unspoken social and cultural norms and their impacts on people’s everyday lives for inclusive DRR. In this short blog, we discussed some of the examples of Wagamama and its impacts on people’s everyday lives. We are currently working on a full paper where we analyse more cases to illustrate this concept, so watch this space.


Dr Punam Yadav is Associate Professor of Humanitarian Studies and Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Disaster at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. Click here to learn more about her work.

Dr Miwako Kitamura is an Assistant Professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science (IRIDeS) at Tohoku University, Japan. She is one of the founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting special minorities and people with disabilities in disaster.

Redundant Charities: Escaping the Cycle of Dependence

By Estella Carpi, on 24 November 2023

Generic books on a desk
Photo by Abee5 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In a world where humanitarian work is now a career aspiration and not just an ad hoc grassroots mission, Weh Yeoh believes foreign charities working in contexts of disaster and vulnerability should make themselves redundant. Redundant Charities. Escaping the Cycle of Dependence, takes us through Yeoh’s professional journey in Cambodia as a founder of OIC, the Organization to Improve Communication and Swallowing Therapy Services.

Redundant Charities is an easy-to-read book adopting a first-person style, which charity practitioners, researchers and beneficiaries can fully relate to. The book is composed of eight chapters all offering ethical as well as practical considerations on charity work in disadvantaged geographies.

On the one hand, Yeoh does not talk indistinguishably about practitioners: the ones who occupy the lowest grades of the charity hierarchy remain the locals. On the other, the book only refers to a general category of charities, while the insights of the book go well beyond the charity sector, also speaking more broadly to the whole humanitarian and development world.

Moral self-licensing

One of the main take-away messages is the importance of not indulging in “moral self-licensing” (p. 22). According to Yeoh, it is a frequent practice for charity founders to propose activities that can boost their own egos rather than basing such activities on what is really needed from a local perspective. Without explicitly engaging with the related debates in international academia, Yeoh gets deep into discussions that relate to what scholars have discussed in terms of “moral economy”: he challenges the glorification of the practitioner’s sacrifice, the extraction of their egos from work itself (see p. 25) and the narcissism of feeling essential (p. 104). All traits that quite commonly define the approach of international charity professionals to the areas in which they operate: an unbearable lightness of expats, which anthropologist Redfield theorized as the shallow engagement of NGO practitioners with local societies while receiving economic benefits and accruing professional authority.

Along these lines, the author argues that this problematic focus on the self rather than on actual needs is often translated into “voluntourism” (p. 23), where western volunteers are willing to pay great sums in order to gain “field experience” and then claim such experiences as “expertise” once back in their countries. Such claims happen either in the form of professional assets on their CVs, or as moral claims to have done something good, regardless of charities’ impact and the volunteers’ knowledge about the societies in which they have gained such experiences. This section of the book offers important self-reflections from the author, reminding me of well-known Monsignor Ivan Illich’s To hell with good intentions speech, which was delivered in light of foreign volunteers going to Mexico in the 1960s to engage in acts of assistance and care.

Localization

Another fundamental take-away message is how unneeded it is to learn local languages and cultures before intervening in a needy area when undertaking a career in the charity sector. This especially happens when the charity founder (or, more broadly, the practitioner) is a vector of white, male-dominated forms of hegemonic humanitarianism, and therefore likely to emerge as a professional authority. In the past, I named this attitude of neglecting local cultures and language “epistemic failure”, which is rampant in the western approaches to the so-called Global South. In-depth knowledge of local languages and cultures would instead make us better placed to understand actual needs on the ground and, importantly, avoid a minimalist logic of believing that “something is better than nothing”, as Yeoh critically contends (p. 47).

In a nutshell, to radically reform the charity sector, Yeoh implies that foreign practitioners should make bigger efforts to learn local languages and cultures, and thus advocate for an internal change within the system itself. In fact, to reform the charity power-based structure, the “localization of aid”, which undergirds the 2023 UN Sustainable Development Goals, should be a principle shared by foreign as well as local practitioners.

Yeoh also reflects upon the idea of local ownership, which stands as one of the key values underpinning his personal work in Cambodia with his own charity OIC as well as the work of several other colleagues he mentions in the book. His thoughts invite us to value local knowledge and views as they are paramount to conduct charity work ethically and accurately. The book triggers fundamental questions: Should “local ownership”, therefore, be the end of the story? How do we ensure local ownership when external capacity and resources are still thought of as the very first step for any sort of subsequent ownership to take place? Can something like “ownership” come next, after capacity-building processes are managed from the outside?

Becoming redundant

Importantly, according to the author, an effective exit strategy cannot but lie in challenging the power structure and rendering us unneeded and redundant on the ground. In the current scenario, where charities tend to roll out long-term programmes due to protracted crises and/or diversified chronic needs, organizational continuity emerges as a priority and is forgetful about the need-based approach it formally keeps fostering.

The author clearly states that he avoids sharing experiences of failure, because there would be too many. Instead, to my mind, a public failure discourse, highly unlikely in the charity sector due to the threats to funding, would enable concrete steps towards ethical and eventually redundant charities.

Yet a thought about the very concept of redundancy, which necessarily involves shifting temporal dimensions: to make yourself redundant, you need to be able to remain and work in a setting for a long period of time. While charities – either humanitarian or development oriented (or both) – all adopt a different approach to time, their professional staff are known to move frequently from one country to another, from one human need to another. Such frequently short timeframes make Yeoh’s five-year experience of leading OIC in Cambodia quite exceptional. Indeed, the politics of professional recruitment in many international charities are often grounded in an accumulation of different geographic experiences, which, thus, rewards such a frantic personal mobility. This very structural flaw in the recruitment system should change before we can ever encourage practitioners – and founders, to begin with – to make themselves redundant.

On the practical side, Yeoh’s recommendations are sound and clear: live up to the key mission you have studied hard for; make yourself redundant by leaving sooner rather than later; and, consequently, make donors unneeded – and this, when charity is not centred entirely around economic investments, should be good news to them. This book proposes redundancy as an ethical value as well as an effectiveness proof in the charity sector. In this way, it can challenge the abstract and abused anti-donor talk, which is widespread in the charity sector as it is used to motivate and justify beneficiaries’ discontents. Much can still be done at a practitioner level, and Redundant Charities powerfully remind us of how.


Estella Carpi is an Assistant Professor of Humanitarian Studies in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. With a background in social anthropology and sociology, her work mostly revolves around humanitarianism, identity politics, and forced displacement in Lebanon and Türkiye.

Do we need more ‘pre-emptive retrospection’?

By Chris Needham-Bennett, on 12 October 2023

If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless?

Risk and its popular acceptance are determined by whomsoever one might define as ‘society’. The intensely complex relationship of risk and society has been debated in detail by the likes of Ulrich Beck, and shaped by Anthony Giddens. The sociological perspectives and arguments available are lengthy and intricate but are basically about how a society responds to risk.

Titan

A recent tragic example was the Titan submersible in its final decent to the Titanic. A great deal of commentary has revolved around the ‘I told you so.’ retrospective, the lack of regulation, ‘certification’ and the alleged irresponsibility of the designer who also died in his own craft. The risks were, at least when measured in media column inches, unacceptable. Yet the development of flight, which we now almost take for granted and accept as being ‘safe,’ demanded a far higher death toll of its pioneers. Lilienthal, now regarded by many as the father of flight, (he invented the concept of the first modern wing) died of injuries suffered in a stall from 50 feet. The ‘Comet’, the first commercial pressurised jet passenger aircraft lost three aircraft in twelve months from catastrophic in-flight break ups. There appears to be a ‘balance sheet of fatalities’ required to achieve progress, and the terms used by society, ‘reckless’ or ‘pioneering’ are generally a product of the time in which the events occurred, and the relatively recent loss of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft was not generally viewed with the same phlegmatic, post war acceptance of the Comet losses.

Making Progress

Based on the assumption that progress in any discipline, despite ethics committees, will involve some risk to someone at some time, the critical question is what degree of risk and consequent loss is acceptable to maintain progress in such a discipline. Remember that we are in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (not its Eradication). Most disciplines have developed their own particular measures in line with their industry’s ethical milieu. The more familiar are medical trials and processes of drug licencing which are rigorous, expensive and time consuming for all the right reasons. Additionally, one can plainly see the evolution of such risk management measures from 1796 and Jenner’s retrospectively unethical but brilliant action of the vaccination of a single 8-year old.

Many other industries, food, cosmetics, and furniture all have some form of standards. The EU even has rules for makers of hot air balloons who rejoice in a publication Easy access rules for balloonswhich is a mere 345 pages long. But, where we are confronted by a plexiglass and carbon fibre submarine, metaphorically made in an inventor’s shed, the position is less clear. There is no real licencing authority for voluntary and informed consent pleasure trips into the Abyss; and if we are seeking to define the acceptable level of risk proportionate to progress in any field then it is equally apparent that it lies neither with the increasing imposition of banal risk/Health & Safety regulatory bureaucracy, nor a laissez faire arrogance as to genuine risks.

Reasonableness

How do we strike the right note on the spectrum between impotent over-precaution and wilful recklessness? First, as (Professor) James Reason humanely advocated, we need to guard against hindsight bias:

Before judging too harshly the human failings that concatenate to cause a disaster, we need to make a clear distinction between the way the precursors appear now, given the knowledge of the unhappy outcome, and the way they seemed at the time.

James Reason in Human Error, 1990. Cambridge University Press.

But as Reason implied some degree of judgement is required and the question remains what level of judgement should be applied. In English civil law cases the test of ‘reasonableness’ is long established as a principle of judgement. It was exemplified by the term, the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. This was updated by Lord Steyn’s analogy of the “commuter on the underground”. The principle in this test is that what is deemed ‘reasonable’ in a legal context in a civil case, would be that which the normal person on public transport felt was reasonable. In other words, “What would a reasonable person of ordinary prudence have done in the defendant’s situation?”

However, the problem of reasonableness is that it seems remarkably easy to convince oneself as to one’s own reasonableness, how indeed could it be otherwise? Naturally, the test of reasonableness is almost always applied retrospectively and, as Reason notes above, the person taking the risk at the time of the event might have had little cause to appreciate the risk. Like Lilienthal, if you are the first person to successfully fly a glider there is no reason, a priori, to understand the aerodynamics of a stall. Therefore, one is left with a further question of how one might fail to appreciate a risk but nonetheless demonstrate sufficient reasonableness to still convince the reasonable commuter of your prudence, especially a commuter who has, by the time of the inquiry or trial, read all of the initial news reports.

Pre-emptive retrospection

At this point we introduce the new notion of ‘pre-emptive retrospection’ (PER). Mentally one goes forward in time from now to a point say two years in the future and one asks the question as follows. If something went wrong and in two years’ time the investigative documentary, ‘Panorama’ or the like, made a programme about the sequence of events, hosted by the most antagonistic of interviewers, would my organisation and/or me, look prudent or reckless? This notion introduces an introspection of the activity that goes beyond the test of reasonableness (of which it is easy to convince oneself). This technique, forces an emphasis on foresight as to how one’s action could be perceived in the future with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it is not merely the question, ‘does it seem reasonable to me/us right now?’ It can also be applied from a variety of perspectives, consumer opinion, victim perception, stakeholder interest, shareholder confidence, and the media influenced reasonable person; this goes beyond one’s contemplation of one’s own potential reasonableness.

Pre-emptive retrospection is not a legal test like reasonableness, nor does it inhibit risk taking, rather it simply demands a pause for objective thought as to how ones current actions could be perceived in the future.


Dr Chris Needham-Bennett is Managing Director at Needhams1834 Ltd and Visiting Professor at University College London.


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4 Ways to Improve Early Warning Systems

By Pauliina Vesaluoma, on 28 September 2023

This month, the UCL Warning Research Centre held its first-ever 3-day conference ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All’. In the face of extreme geophysical and meteorological hazards, and the complex interactions of multiple forms of risk, early warning systems (EWS) are crucial for boosting preparedness and emergency response to mitigate disasters rooted in everyday social conditions. Here are four key takeaways from the conference.

Panel discussion at the WRC conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Integration

EWS extend beyond the technical mechanisms for alerting people about emergencies, such as sirens and instant notifications. Early warnings need to form part of an integrated process that strengthens multi-hazard education, risk perception, risk communication, and preparedness measures. This can help shift disaster management from being reactive to increasingly proactive.

Inclusivity

For EWS to be effective, they must be inclusive, incorporating local stakeholder knowledge. This type of approach recognises specific vulnerabilities and capacities for disaster risk reduction among communities. Solutions must be context-sensitive, resources need to align with needs, and projects need to be structured around participatory processes to determine what works, where, and for whom.

Timing

Timeframes are key, whether we are in a moment of disaster or in ‘peace time’. Norms can become entrenched in times of intensified uncertainty; however, disasters can also provide a transformative moment to reassess existing structures and emergency protocols. Equally, we should harness the time in between crises to strengthen preparedness frameworks and collaborative networks for future resilience.

Creativity

Creativity is a powerful tool for rethinking existing solutions or imagining new ones. Cartoons, graphic recording, cardboard theatre, acrobatics, and interactive workshops were among the creative approaches used in the conference sessions, encouraging exploration of interconnected themes, such as climate change and mental health.


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Pauliina Vesaluoma recently completed the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR (2022/23). Natural hazard preparedness, volcanic risk reduction, and future resilience are among some of her main interests. Pauliina is currently undertaking a Business Resilience internship at Holcim.

Connect with her on Linkedin.


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What is needed for national resilience?

By Robert Hall, on 14 September 2023

Whether a community struggling to keep its members buoyant, a business trying to stay solvent or a nation fighting to protect its citizens, adversity and crises impact us all. The resilient can pick themselves up, dust off, and not only bounce back but also bounce forward. Yet, this ability is not an obvious and natural one that is easy to acquire and retain. Rather, it needs careful nurturing and maturing. It is a mindset that can be honed and deployed to help manage shocks or stresses and those in-between challenges. There is no one model of resilience but there are pointers and lessons that can help apply resilience in its many variations to overcome adversity whenever it strikes.

Building Resilient Futures is a new book that takes a fresh look at what resilience means. It examines resilience under six ‘capital’ traits – personal, emotional, organisational, urban, communal, and national. It offers insights on how to manage the consequences of upheaval and trauma in those domains. Each trait is introduced by a profile that puts the subject into context with practical and human experiences. As leadership and stewardship underpin all these capital traits, a discrete chapter is devoted to these important issues along with diversity, trust, education and training. Similarly, a separate chapter is allocated to standards, indicators and benchmarking as they cut across all aspects of resilience but are critical in assessing impact. Through a mix of theory, case-studies and anecdotes, the book reveals the nuances of resilience in a digestible and thought-provoking way. Early reviewers say the book is a valuable read!

For the purpose of this blog, which will not attempt to condense the text into a superficial summary, focus is given to that chapter which examines national resilience. This subject is very much in the news, elevated by the inspiring levels of national resistance and resilience exhibited by the Ukrainian nation in its contest with the Russians. The consequences of that war have seen millions migrating far and wide, food and fertilizer stocks severely reduced worldwide, energy prices spiking, and geopolitical tensions escalating well beyond Ukraine’s borders. The interconnectedness of dependency means that any major disruption can readily cascade into corners that were hitherto immune. Hence, we all need to know about national resilience.

One aspect that has emerged recently is how to engage large sections of a population to prepare for and deal with major, nation-wide crisis. The UK Government has released an Integrated Review (2021, refreshed in 2023) and a Resilience Framework (2022), both of which talk about a ‘whole-of-nation approach’ to resilience. This term implies drawing on the services of more than a few specialists and officials but turning to the public and private sectors on mass, the full resources of the voluntary and charity sectors, as well as the trade unions, NGOs, religious groups, schools and colleges, communities, etc. To be commensurate with the level of a national threat, wide-spread societal engagement should be measured in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. This scale was evident in Covid-19, when 750,000 people initially responded to a national call. It could well be required again either in another pandemic or as the ravages of climate change bite, or even with the spread of a European war.

The preparation of a population cannot wait until the event when it will be too late. Work on identifying and organising people who are qualified to help, training others who are willing, educating others on the sidelines, and co-ordinating resources that may be necessary, are worthwhile activities in ‘peacetime’. All this comes at a price but one that is less than the cost of a delayed recovery and heavy loss of life. It should be a government priority: the conclusions of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry may reinforce this message, as other official committees have already done so. Perhaps the formation by 2025 of a UK Resilience Academy, built out from the existing Emergency Planning College, will be an opportunity to bring a wide range of people together and work up resilience plans across all four nations of the UK.

So far, Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) are seen as the main delivery platforms for resilience across the UK at the ground level. In the government’s Resilience Framework, it is proposed that the 38 LRFs in England are strengthened through three ‘pillars’: leadership, accountability and integration. The creation of a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for each LRF, accountable to executive local democratic leaders, may help with wider local delivery and levelling up. Consideration will also be given to putting existing Resilience Standards onto a statutory footing for LRFs and all responder organisations.

We can certainly learn lessons from some of the Baltic and Nordic which are way ahead of the UK in preparing their populations to deal with disasters. Admittedly, these countries face the pressures of the Russian ‘bear’ to the east but having a generic plan for all eventualities is sound. In Sweden, for example, a government-appointed Commission (2017) recommended that a ‘Total Defence’ concept engaged all functions of society in the defence effort, both military and civilian. Accordingly, the parliament, the government, authorities, municipalities, private enterprises, voluntary defence organisations as well as individuals are all part of the Swedish concept. On 1 October 2022, a new structure for Swedish civil defence and crisis preparedness was announced with spending planned to increase to approximately €420 million by 2025. A publication titled ‘If crisis or war comes’ has been sent to every household and tells of practical measures to take in an emergency.

When such an idea has been proposed in the UK, it has not gained traction: it is seen by some as alarmist. Nonetheless, the government has introduced an Emergency Alerts service which was trialled for the first time this year. This may be expanded over time to include practical advice. The UK has certainly made some significant strides in national resilience planning in the past few years. But with the threat clouds darkening, we need to be much better prepared and time may not be on our side.


Robert Hall is the former Executive Director of Resilience First Ltd. He is currently writing a sequel to Building Resilient Futures looking at Natural Resilience: How the natural world can help us understand the key elements of resilience.


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Building Resilience with Decision Analysis

By Jeffrey Keisler, on 25 May 2023

I have the wonderful honour of being a MAPS Fellow at UCL. This came about through conversations with my friend and colleague (and now host), Prof. Gianluca Pescaroli. Although we bonded through discussions about used vinyl records, I will instead talk about our work.

My background is in decision analysis, a field that takes quantitative approaches involving probability, utility, and decision trees to identify the overall risks and benefits associated with actions under uncertainty. In the context of resilience, there is much uncertainty but most of the focus is on trying to improve systems.

Thinking of information as a separate dimension of protection–because information helps people make the decisions that lead to optimal recovery–can lead to lower cost ways to bring about greater resilience. But improving information itself is costly. It can be tricky to figure out which information-related efforts are worthwhile. There are different ways to bring information into a decision process.

By taking a concept from decision analysis, value of information (VOI), we can take a more strategic approach. We can actually quantify the benefit of different possible efforts. Basically, we characterise the mix of potential consequences of making the best possible choice given a limited amount of information and compare this with what would happen if the same decisions were made with the benefit of more information. With this analysis, we can improve resilience by making investments to ensure that relevant information will be available after disruptions. These can be just as beneficial as investments in physical assets which can also minimise the damage of disruptions.

In managing resilience, we anticipate possible disruptions, and consider what can happen before, during, and after them. With a VOI approach, we also consider what information will be available for which decisions before, during, and after disruptions, and then can take steps to make that information available during those periods. Examples include purchasing information, building better information systems and communication systems, performing experiments, or potentially buying time for information to arrive by speeding decisions implementation and freezing damage during the time we’re waiting for information.

During my time at UCL I am meeting with a number of researchers in IRDR to apply this idea efficiently to problems in several important areas where we are studying resilience. These include healthcare, natural hazards, and technological or business crises. With these results, we can look toward building more sophisticated analyses or refining the planning process to flesh out the informational dimension. The researchers here have backgrounds in quantitative areas such as risk analysis and systems analysis as well as in the social sciences and in the physical sciences. There are many different types of data and phenomena to consider as we pull together these models. My hope is this will lay the groundwork for future valuable projects and continued collaboration.


MAPS Fellow Jeffrey Keisler is a Professor in the College of Management at University of Massachusetts Boston, where he specialises in Decision and Risk Analysis. He thanks the welcoming and wonderful group at IRDR for their making this visit such a special experience. 

Science Fiction and Disaster Risk Reduction

By Joshua Anthony, on 29 July 2021

Author: Nigel Furlong


I have been a fan of science fiction literature, TV shows and movies for as long as I can remember. I have worked in emergency management and planning for over 20 years and over the years I have found science fiction has been a useful tool in my critical thinking. It’s also supported my skill set. Who knew playing wargames and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight 2000 would enable me to deliver tabletop and seminar exercises later in my career!

Before I go into this blog, I do wish to caveat that some of the works, authors and screenwriters are products of their time and by today’s standards may at best be considered twee and at worst misogynistic and racist. I do not endorse any political and social statements. They are used as examples no more, no less.

In the early 1990’s I attended a church service marking Remembrance Day at a small church in Greasby, Wirral. This was at the time that the country of Yugoslavia was imploding into civil war and the local army regiment, The Cheshire Regiment were deploying with the United Nations to Bosnia. The vicar gave his sermon which was very much about the war in Yugoslavia, and he said as part of his sermon (I am paraphrasing): “history is a hilltop in which we can look back but also look at the present and future”. It struck me then that science fiction can do the same. Some authors extrapolate trends, others create societies and ecologies and then add plots and story twists etc. This phenomenoncan be seen in the works of the author Robert Heinlein. He is accredited amongst other authors in inspiring a generation to become scientists and engineers who went onto work on the US space programme and various spinoff industries such as computing. Heinlein’s short stories and juvenile novels were heavy on engineering and science solutions. Some of his early works in the early 1940’s were classified and only released years after the end of World War 2 as they discussed atomic physics and the development of nuclear facilities and weapons. He saw the use of irradiated materials such as powder being used as a weapon – the dirty bomb.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of discussion over the movie’s “Outbreak”, “Contagion” and “I am Legend”, but the works of John Christopher are potentially more interesting as “Empty World” seemed a bit too close for home at one point in the early days of the pandemic. Christopher wrote a number of disaster novels, “A Wrinkle in the Skin”, “The Death of Grass”. The TV show “Survivors” both the 1970s and reboot 2008 Series took viewers through a pandemic and its aftermath. I find it fascinating to consider analysing the various pandemic disease disaster and post-apocalyptic novels and how they attempted to mitigate and control the pandemic and compare against real world actions!

Isaac Asimov is credited with creating the 3 rules of robotics, yet his Foundation Series of novels are a superb discussion of business continuity. William Gibson’s 1980s cyberpunk novels such as “Neuromancer” gave us the language used today in cyber security and some of the concepts as well.

Jerry Pournelle is another author who blended science and engineering onto novels. However, his novels include “Oath to Fealty” which is a great read and although set in Los Angeles has parallels with the Shard building in London. His series of novels and short stories about Falkenberg’s Legion focused on colonial era type military operations in far off solar systems by a mercenary force of soldiers. They have become required reading in the US military as they placed the protagonists in situations similar to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan type situations and operations. The books were written in the 1980s and 90’s.

Science Fiction covers many disaster scenarios: asteroid impacts, space weather, environmental/ecological collapse, Global Warming, global war, nuclear war and aftermath, social collapse, post disaster survival, Terrorist use of Weapons of Mass Destruction/CBRN. A particular theme to acknowledge is the “Zombie Apocalypse”. So popular is this theme, the Centre for Disease Control in the US produced a “Zombie Preparedness” plan to engage new audiences with the concepts of “All Hazards emergency preparedness”. This has been emulated multiple times including by Bristol City Council who produced a contingency plan for handling zombie outbreaks in Bristol.

History may be a hilltop, but science fiction allows us to identify potential events and play out the outcomes to gain insight into what could be probable, plausible, possible or a wild card!


Nigel Furlong is a Business Resilience Manager and Senior Security Advisor with the UK Atomic Energy Authority