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Resilience, semantic satiation, conflation, and Maslow’s hierarchy: I can only take so much!

Joshua Anthony24 August 2022

Author: Dr Chris Needham-Bennett


I am getting worried with hearing ‘resilience’ used incautiously. The word (a general noun) which, once a welcome umbrella term to describe the results of the contributory disciplines of business continuity, disaster recovery, crisis management, emergency response, etc., has become a hackneyed media mantra. The England middle order cricket team batsmen, the Lioness’s England football team are ‘resilient’, a company or local council has ‘built in resiliency’ (whatever that is). The Ukrainians are resilient. My local community needs to achieve resilience. I need to achieve personal resilience for my mental well-being; I am not sure to what?

This blog makes two fundamental points, the first is a conflation of resilience with mental well-being, stress management and associated issues, the second is the overuse of the term and a consequent diminution of its genuine meaning.

Alexander (2013)[1] (noting several other authorities), cautioned that resilience might not have the ‘power’ to be a paradigm, yet almost a decade later—whilst it arguably is far from a paradigm—there is little doubt of a fascination with the phrase and burgeoning academic research[2] (some of which is attributable to climate change research). Moser et al. (2019)[3] note in their abstract that, ‘Resilience has experienced exponential growth in scholarship and practice over the past several decades.…it is an increasingly contested concept.’

The question to my mind is why is there such a fascination with the word? First let us discount hitherto traditional uses of the word which could include its proper application to botany, pharmacology, risk in some instances, material sciences, and metallurgy.

My increasing suspicion is that it is to do with a burgeoning societal self-obsession and narcissism combined with a notion of zero risk. Society appears to have latched onto a phrase which has been hijacked by a quasi-utopian vision which is manifested as follows.

The conflation with ‘well-being’

At the macro level, the OECD measures resilient cities using the criteria outlined below[4]. Some of these seem an expression of good economic common sense. Others such as ‘% of citizens near open space’ seem a little tentative and debatable as to their links to resilience.

 

Four areas that drive resilience. Source: OECD Regional Development[4].

Perhaps as importantly, their definition as to what is resilience is, is tinged with slightly trendy overtones of a ‘brave new world’.

‘Resilient cities are cities that have the ability to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social & institutional). Resilient cities promote sustainable development, well-being and inclusive growth.’

Sadly, the definition does not really define precisely what the city will be resilient to, rather it is left in vague terms of ‘shock’. It does not mention some of the more critical resilience issues lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy (1943 version; cited by McLeod 2022)[5] such as power, housing, water, sewage, defence, health, and food, without which the ability to live ‘500 metres from services or near an open space or well-being and inclusive growth’ might appear somewhat academic.

At the opposite end of the resilience spectrum, at the individual level, a simple google search of ‘personal resilience course’, offers a spectacular array of over 82 million results. A brief survey of the top five of them indicates that their duration is one day or in some cases half a day. The general view is that personal resilience is a skill or attribute that can be acquired in about 8 hours (the extreme min/max range for the duration of such courses appears to be 90 minutes to a 12-week period).

Robertson et al. (2015) expressed some reservations as to the evidence of the efficacy of such courses. Naturally since 2015 more evidence might be apparent but truly longitudinal studies of the ongoing effect of course completed a decade ago are yet to be available. Their practitioner notes state that,

‘Despite conceptual and theoretical support for resilience training, the empirical evidence is tentative, with the exception of a large effect for mental health and subjective well-being outcomes.’[6]

One BBC report cites Dr Michael Pluess from Queen Mary University of London who is testing for the resilience gene, in which case if discovered it would potentially invalidate the courses cited above.

There is a real danger that resilience, which is a fundamentally practical issue at both the macro and micro level is suborned by the burgeoning but evidentially limited literature on resilience’s relationship to well-being, inclusivity, and mental health. Such links also veneer the unpalatable hard choices that real resilience demands. Put as simply as possible we all might live near open spaces and be very inclusive, but if London’s water supply remains dependent solely on abstraction from the rivers Thames and Lee[7] then it does not matter how ‘positive’ you might feel about the City in about 20 years you will not have enough to drink (perhaps counterintuitively based on a multi-year average, London has only 100mm more rainfall than Jerusalem)[8].

Semantic Satiation

But is there any evidence that the overuse of a word diminishes somehow its value. Broadly speaking yes there is, and it is technically called ‘semantic satiation’. Smith and Klein (1990) noted that ‘Prolonged repetition of a word results in the subjective experience of loss of meaning, or semantic satiation’[9]. At risk of oversimplifying their diligent study, it works something like this; on a relatively infrequent basis I inform my partner that I love her. It seems to cheer her up. If I informed her of my love on a daily basis she would be delighted for a while, then she would suspect that I am having an affair, then she would get bored with it and then perhaps later even angry. The phrase would become increasingly less meaningful and impactful.

At a more serious level it does seem to me to do some harm. In reality a lot of ‘building resilience’ is really risk mitigation or some type or diversification in the case of supply chains. If for instance, we take Markovic’s 1952 diversification theory[10] (disputed by later critics) it does supposedly make an investment portfolio more resilient to market volatility, but the critical issue or activity is diversification which is a ‘thing’ in its own right with a word all of its own to describe it. Now one can make the argument that the end result is a more resilient portfolio, but one should not be tempted to change resilience to an activity which requires it to be a verb. Diversify is the verb or ‘doing word’; resilience is the result. Similarly, if we claim that all activities are resilience measures it somehow diminishes the utility or worth of risk assessments, risk mitigation, plans and responses all of which combine to achieve resilience.

Conclusion

It might be easy to dismiss these concerns as semantic academic posturing yet the power of words, their definitions, associations, and nuances are what will shape the future of resilience. I would wish resilience to remain practical, efficacious, and most importantly simple. Let us leave resilience as an ambition or end state that is achieved through an array of distinct professional activities. Let us also ensure that the fundamental hard and often costly problems associated with resilience are not whitewashed with an ephemera of pleasantries normally found at the higher altitudes of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There may well be benefits to stress or coping management courses but let us call them just that, not personal resilience.


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

Email Chris at: chris@needhams1834.com


References

[1] Alexander, D. E.: Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 13, 2707–2716, https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013, 2013.

[2] https://ensia.com/articles/what-is-resilience/

[3] Moser, S., Meerow, S., Arnott, J. et al. The turbulent world of resilience: interpretations and themes for transdisciplinary dialogue. Climatic Change 153, 21–40 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2358-0

[4] https://www.oecd.org/cfe/regionaldevelopment/resilient-cities.htm

[5] McLeod, S. A. (2022, April 04). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

[6] Robertson, I.T., Cooper, C.L., Sarkar, M. and Curran, T. (2015), Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. J Occup Organ Psychol, 88: 533-562. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12120

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20150325074128/http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/water-strategy-oct11.pdf

[8] https://www.sdjewishworld.com/2011/11/20/rain-in-jerusalem-almost-as-much-as-london/

[9] Smith, Lee, Klein, Raymond Evidence for semantic satiation: Repeating a category slows subsequent semantic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 16(5), Sep 1990, 852-861

[10]  Portfolio Selection, Harry Markowitz – The Journal of Finance, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Mar., 1952), pp. 77-91

 

 

Humanitarian shelter and home-based work

Victoria Maynard7 July 2022

The future of humanitarian response is urban.  More specifically, the future of humanitarian response is in informal settlements in urban areas in the Global South.  In these contexts 20-50% of households run small home-based enterprises from within or around their home.  It is also estimated that home-based enterprises generate 50-75% of household incomes.  Home-based enterprises can take many forms.  They can be as simple as a table or chair—from which to cook, sew or provide haircuts; or the use of a room or window to make or sell goods and services. They include kiosks and extensions, to the use of a whole floor of a home for a shop, café, or workshop.

Despite the prevalence and importance of home-based enterprises to households living in informal settlements, they remain largely overlooked within the humanitarian shelter and settlements sector. The latest edition of the Sphere Handbook (2018) states that shelters must be “located to provide access to livelihoods opportunities” which should be “close to the shelter”. Similarly, Shelter Projects Essentials (2021) includes a diagram which states that shelter should be “near my work”.  However, for many families their home is itself the place where they earn a living—so shelter recovery plays a critical role in their ability to restart their livelihoods.

In addition, if we ignore home-based enterprises then we are ignoring women. Most home-based enterprises are run by women and at least 50% more women work in households with home-based enterprises than those without.  We are also missing a massive opportunity to help women restart their livelihoods. In 2005 Sheppard and Hill argued that home-based enterprises are “the single most important income source for the populations most affected by disaster”.  While the contribution of shelter to home-based enterprises is “the most important way that shelter can support economic development in post-disaster societies”.

5 years after the Indian Earthquake Ocean and Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, a woman uses the porch of her reconstructed home as a shop. Source: Maynard et al 2014.

Recognising the importance of this topic, in 2021 Beth Simons, Elizabeth Wagemann, and I published a chapter on ‘Supporting the Recovery of Home-Based Enterprises’ in the Roadmap for Research for Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Assistance.  In April 2021 we hosted a breakout group at UK Shelter Forum 27, during which participants shared lots of examples from practice. These included: using porches as small shops or places of work; using the space around shelters for growing crops for sale; using the space inside the shelter for making crafts; and using the roof for food storage. One participant commented that “every single woman” in a project in Burkina Faso was engaged in home-based enterprise and “most of the requests for housing improvements are linked to those activities”.

We have since completed a scoping study to examine the relationship between housing and home-based work (HBW) in development contexts.  The study considered (1) The effects of housing on HBW and (2) The effects of HBW on housing. 1837 potentially relevant studies were identified in academic and grey literature and 12 studies from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) were then selected for further study.  Each of the LAC studies were read and coded, using a combination of inductive and conductive approaches. Results were then presented in terms of: effects identified at household or settlement scale; and those identified in multiple studies with consistent findings, multiple studies with inconsistent findings, and single studies.

Our results reaffirmed the “symbiotic relationship” between housing and HBW—with livelihood and household activities taking place at different times of the day in the same space.  We also found that households are more likely to engage in HBW if they:

  • Live in advantageous locations within the city, neighbourhood, or building;
  • Are subject to favourable regulation (or lack of regulation);
  • Do not feel at risk from natural hazards or security threats;
  • Live in larger houses on larger plots, with adequate appliances and services;
  • Have greater tenure security.

We suggest that these can be called the characteristics of ‘supportive housing and settlements’.  In settlements where these characteristics are present more households are likely to engage in HBW. Households which engage in HBW develop more sustainable and resilient livelihoods—as a result of increased financial assets and greater diversity of income sources. Income from HBW is often invested in housing improvements such as purchasing appliances, installing services, or improving the quality or quantity of space in or around the home. Improvements like these in turn generate more supportive housing conditions, enabling the household to sustain, expand or diversify their HBW.

Figure: The symbiotic relationship between housing, settlements and HBW. Source: Authors

While these results are based on literature from development contexts, they are relevant to humanitarian shelter and settlement programming. For example, is the type and prevalence of HBW included in vulnerability and capacity assessments?  Do humanitarian shelter programmes allow enough space within and around shelters to allow households to engage in HBW? Do they enable households to take on HBW to finance shelter self-recovery or build their long-term resilience? Do they consider the positive contribution of HBW to meeting the day-to-day needs of their communities?  Or do restrictive policies, regulations, and lack of tenure security limit the ability of households to engage in HBW?

Our next steps are to: gather empirical evidence from humanitarian contexts in LAC; compare the results of the LAC scoping study with the documents we found from other continents; and undertake a broader literature review to investigate the relationship between HBW and shelter recovery and/or resilience in humanitarian contexts. Join us at the Shelter Meeting in Geneva (or online) on Friday 8th July for an update on our ongoing research in LAC or join our mailing list for future updates.


Victoria Maynard is a PhD Student in the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (UCL CEGE).

Inclusion, Intersectionality, and the Humanitarian Shelter Sector

Mhari Gordon4 July 2022

Mhari Gordon is an IRDR PhD Student.


The 28th UK Shelter Forum (UKSF) in May 2022 included thought-provoking talks by practitioners and academics on whether the humanitarian shelter sector is ready to respond to the effects of climate change. The ‘Climate Charter’ emphasises the need to “support those who are the most at risk, taking into account the influence that individual characteristics… have on people’s capacities and vulnerabilities.” The importance of inclusive approaches is widely recognised by humanitarian organisations, but how should they put this commitment into practice? At the UKSF Phil Duloy from FCDO chaired a breakout group exploring opportunities for the shelter sector to be more inclusive and intersectional in its approach to the climate crisis. The panel included Hayley Capp from CARE International UK, Kevin Blanchard from DRR Dynamics and Maria Kett from UCL Population Health Sciences.

Photo of Panel including, from left to right, Phil Duloy, Hayley Capp, Kevin Blanchard and Maria Kett. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Unequal Realities

It has become well-established that individuals are affected by crises and disasters to different extents and that, simply put, the marginalised and minority populations are ‘hit the hardest’. There are numerous examples of double injustices whereby certain individuals are marginalised and experience higher levels of poverty due to social, gender, sexuality, or cultural norms and are therefore more susceptible to the effects of climate change. Capp shared specific examples in the case of women and girls. Women tend to have limited access to and control of resources such as mobile phones, cash transfers, and insurance mechanisms. These resources are important during crises as they foster disaster resilience and recovery. Additionally, women and girls can be faced with lose-lose situations. For example, on one hand, there may be barriers to mobility for leaving their home and on the other, they may face gender-based violence risks in shelters if there are inadequate divisions or security considerations. These limitations are reflected in disaster statistics, such as the 2014 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia whereby females accounted for two-thirds of the deaths. So, this leads to bigger questions such as how does the shelter sector deal with the underlying reasons and situations which have created such vulnerabilities within its humanitarian response?

Intersectionality and Labels

The use of the ‘intersectionality’ concept, which can recognize personal identities and characteristics, is offered as a framework to understand how different groups experience vulnerability, exposure, and resilience. However, this is not an easy task. Kett observed that even when the intersectionality framework is used within humanitarianism, there is still the presence of ‘silo-ing’ and that the sector does not “necessarily have the tools yet to really operationalise this on the ground.”. The categorisations of gender, sexuality, age, disability, etc., disenable an individual from being truly reflected. It can lose nuances such as a woman who is queer, elderly, and has hearing difficulties. Moreover, it does not necessarily measure vulnerabilities comparatively. For example, a man with a disability can be less marginalised than a woman without in some social contexts. The context of where the humanitarian assistance is being delivered is crucial to understand.

There needs to be careful consideration of how these individual characteristics are being termed, framed, and assessed; that the labelling does not further emphasise the marginalisation or difference from what is considered ‘mainstream’ or ‘acceptable’ within certain norms. Kate Crawford, a panellist from the preceding Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference, noted that labelling can place the vulnerability onto the individual, instead of recognising that it is the societal system that has created vulnerabilities for them. Additionally, there is a danger that labels may create further risks for individuals; for example, if the national state does not recognise an ethnicity. This leads to several ethical questions. How willing are people to be (self-) enumerated? What if an individual has a ‘characteristic’ they are able or want to hide, but it is a determinant of being more vulnerable?

Next Steps

These discussions raise questions about how to put into practice the first commitment of the Climate Charter on supporting those most at risk whilst accounting for individual characteristics and situations, as well as the third commitment on inclusive participation of people in humanitarian programmes. From the opinions shared by the panellists, there are currently few success stories of vulnerable people or minority groups being meaningfully included in wider humanitarian responses, expect where the specific aim of the project had a particular focus on inclusion. However, there remains only limited inclusion mainstreaming in humanitarian projects. Moreover, inclusion frameworks are largely missing in disaster policies. Blanchard identified that there are presently six countries that actively include LGBTQIA+ people in disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies. Additionally, the concept of inclusion is largely missing from the UNDRR Sendai Framework thus leaving a desert in disaster policies. So, what does this mean in terms of the humanitarian response to present and future disasters? How can we better represent inclusion frameworks within wider policies and, most importantly, ensure their application on the ground?

The panellists shared that there is still an opportunity for using the intersectionality framework when well applied, as it can collect representative data of the diversity in our communities. Moreover, intersectionality can also identify tools and knowledge that communities need to respond to vulnerabilities and foster resilience. This would help to design appropriate humanitarian shelter responses for people in need. However, the intersectionality framework may face barriers. Some characteristics, such as ethnicity or sexual orientation, can be protected in one country and legal cause for persecution in another. Therefore, not all data sets represent the most marginalised or at-risk people. Social protection schemes, also known as public safety net programmes, have previously been used in humanitarian responses in the form of increased cash transfers or disability allowances to support more vulnerable individuals during disasters. However, if certain individuals are excluded from beneficiary lists (data sets), there is the danger that they are further marginalised during the humanitarian and disaster response. This example highlights how certain data presentations can lead to pitfalls of not reaching individuals most in need during disasters. Furthermore, it demonstrates the difficult task at hand for humanitarian assistance to reach those most at risk, whilst working with and respecting the sovereignty of the host nation. Therefore, it is paramount that attention is paid to how the data is collected and stored – especially for hyper-marginalised groups – as well as how data is analysed and used.

The key suggestion made by the panellists was to work with existing support groups that are either in the country or the region. Networks such as women’s rights groups, disabled people’s organisations, or LGBTQIA+ groups already contain a wealth of knowledge and strong social networks that can identify those most in need whilst doing it in a safe manner. The caveat is that these groups are typically underfunded and work with limited resources. However, this avenue presents an opportunity for the shelter sector to work with and support local-level actors whilst driving a more inclusive humanitarian response to ensure that no one gets left behind.


More details on the 28th UK Shelter Forum (including videos of several sessions) can be found here: https://www.shelterforum.info/uk-shelter-forum-28-climate-change/

Ahead of the IRDR 2022 Annual Conference: A Recap from Last Year

Joshua Anthony14 June 2022

The IRDR Annual Conference 2022 is nearly upon us, in which experts will tackle the issue of how global climate change is acting as a threat multiplier, accelerating and intensifying hazard risks, and how we can navigate the future following on from the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) meeting in Glasgow this year.

As we move forward it’s important to maintain the lessons of the past. Lest we forget them; here, we take a look back at the final item from last year’s annual conference, which saw the launch of the UCL Warning Research Centre among expert discussion of Why Warnings Matter.

The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips, who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme. Any mistakes or misrepresentation of the participants’ words are the author’s own.


Part 4

Panel Discussion: Warnings for Organizations

Presenters

Catia Guimares, InterContinental Hotels Group

Emily Hough, Crisis Response Journal

Andy Marshall, AstraZeneca

Jeremy Reynolds, London Fire Brigade

Moderator: Dr Gianluca Pescaroli, UCL


What are warnings for you? Based on your experience, are they linked with sustainability?

Andy Marshall

Warnings are split into three levels: strategic, enterprise, and individual. For this question, one can look at the strategic level. COVID-19 showed us that there exists some break in the communication link between those providing warnings and those on the receiving end, which should be the focus of upcoming research. Bad things will happen, and warnings for them will come quickly, so it is important that communication and action are both effective.

Catia Guimares

Realistically thinking, companies need to prioritize their attention, and it can be difficult to determine what a warning is and when it requires attention. However, the indicators of risk are usually visible to those involved, and it is not often that an emerging issue is brought to the table. There is the question of sustainability and viability, or long-term viability of a company, with climate change impacts for example. A warning is essentially a heads up, but warnings are often disregarded as unimportant. Therefore, it is important to know as much as possible about the risks involved and what can be done about them.

Emily Hough

Warnings are indicators of an issue, which if one acts early enough can lead to a crisis being averted or mitigated. They start small, usually as instinctual signs that everything is not quite right, which is why people are at the center of warnings. Any community or organisation’s risk comes down to people and how aware they are of risks. It is unfortunate that good warnings, ones that lead to averting a crisis, are not given the attention they deserve, and people should talk more about the positives. Things like misinformation, trust issues, and the human psyche of clinging to the safe and familiar or wanting to make the world fit their expectations can all play a part in warnings being ignored. Sustainability is enmeshed within this and resilience. People want to thrive and live-in security and peace, and organisations want to continue working as they have been. Everything is interconnected, warnings, people, sustainability, etc.

Jeremy Reynolds

Warnings are formally driven by risk, and we see that by organisations being responsible for specific risks. However, warnings are complicated, and everyone has responsibility in protecting the public, with individual organisations sharing information and helping with communication. It is important that we make sure the public are aware of risks, what their options are and what responders are doing in terms of formal work around EWS and paying attention to informal indicators. Processes are only as good as the people using them, so there is a large human element with responders, as well as public judgement, paying attention and responding by everyone involved. Sustainability is certainly linked to resilience, and they may even be interchangeable in this field. A big challenge now is how to integrate longer-term warnings and response vs. resilience is where a lot of work is being focused now.

Do global warnings exist? What are their limitations and strengths?

Andy

COVID-19 and the WHO are classic global warnings. The issues here were around the flow of information and the efficacy of response to these warnings. Gathering information and being better at collating that on a global level requires more attention. Even at a low level, community-based incidents can overwhelm information systems, meaning this is quite a significant undertaking on a global scale, and turning that information into intelligence as quickly as possible takes a lot of intervention. Responders and crisis managers receiving such information should ask themselves “So what?”, as in what does this mean and what do I need to do about it? Furthermore, experience has a great impact on how individuals and organisations respond to a warning.

Catia

Not sure if global warnings do exist. There are warnings for different parts of the world and global events, but there does not seem to ever be a single warning that goes out to the entire world at the same time for the same level of impact. Even the pandemic snowballed then moved. It was not entirely global to begin with and the exact impact for each region could not be predicted. There is so much information involved in these types of events that intelligence is very important for making decisions based on what is happening at the time. It is human nature to ignore anything that is too complex, and we tend to focus on what is in front of us and of immediate concern. This pandemic was not the big one that had been predicted, so are we better or worse off now that we have this experience? As everything is interconnected, the big risks involve multiple crises, like the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Emily

Going back to the definition of warnings, there are lots of signs of impending doom, certainly in the case of COVID-19there were lots of warnings. But maybe we have too many warnings which results in warning fatigue, or them not being listened to or listened to in the right way. Over time, people become comfortable with the situation, even when a warning has been issued. It may initially cause people, responders as well as individuals in the public, to prepare but when nothing happens their alertness decreases, and they become complacent. Each person has their own unique risk fingerprint, made up from their experiences, perception, culture, and understanding which help them to process warnings and filter them into their own intelligence. But trust is difficult to secure when it comes to warnings. Both people and organisations often do not want to be given a warning about something that has not yet happened, so one problem is convincing people that there will be issues and that warnings can help them to become more aware of the risk.

Jeremy

Yes, global warnings do exist but with limited efficacy. Things like climate change or financial disruption to the system and Covid can have massive impacts and need global responses; however, individuals can be overwhelmed by information so they often look to more local/national leaders for guidance on how much attention they should give to these risks. There is a need to assess what the scale of the risk is, its potential impact and how to prioritise it, and perspective as well as context are important to keep in mind. For warnings and alerts, there is a spectrum of recency, or prioritising immediate response instead of big issues and longer term thinking and there is a need to deal with information, and misinformation, to bring out the truth while creating reassurance for the public. And it is difficult to marry immediate action for longer term warnings, like those around climate change for instance.

Are organisations effectively integrating warnings into operational practices?

Andy

No. There is a lot of work for organisations to do with warnings, including learning to get the right information to the right people at the right time with the right understanding. There needs to be more conversation around what they should do with warnings and why they should be a priority among everything else that could impact them. Furthermore, research should be done around organisational behaviour and why individuals do or do not share information that could be perceived as bad news either to their immediate boss or to management above and around them. It seems warnings often get distorted because the message is overly managed. Furthermore, the private sector has a role to play in response to significant risk and their role in collective response to warnings should be recognised.

Catia

Hindsight is 2020. When something happens, companies tend to learn from that pain point. Many companies have restructured due to the pandemic to become more flexible for future proofing, but people also play a huge part in this and the culture of companies needs to change in general. Many look at short and long term issues separately, wanting to know what needs to be handled now and told when future ones require immediate attention. Big issues like climate change and cyber issues cannot be ignored and companies need to start dealing with them now before they become even bigger. Integrating warnings as a way of ‘bouncing back’ is problematic because it implies they have learned nothing, and this experience and warnings should instead be integrated into daily work and culture as a way of improving resilience.

Emily

The topic of not wanting to deliver bad news is an important one, especially since one department’s warning or threat could be an opportunity for another. But you need to recognise them first, identify indicators with seriousness in order to look at both sides of the coin. Some organisations do and some do not. The blackouts in Texas were an example of many obvious warnings about the need to winterise energy production and distribution being ignored. It is about pragmatism and leadership and creating systems in which it is second nature for everyone to look out for the little things that are not quite right, report them and feel confident that those reports will be taken seriously.

Jeremy

Being more willing to report bad news can lead to assessments of what the potential and scale of the risk are and where it sits in terms of priorities. Organisations and societies are complex, so when emergencies and crises happen we should look into if it was due to a failure of warnings or responsiveness to them but while bearing in mind the human aspect of it all. We should identify how we can make sure to respond early enough to contain an issue, or even turn the warning into opportunities to come into a new normal. Public and private sectors should be responding collectively and openly communicating since everyone has a part to play in response to warnings, making it a whole of society approach.

How do we build societal trust in warning systems and how can we be sure that we also reach small and medium enterprises or the humanitarian sector?

Jeremy

Keeping a single point of truth and being clear about what we do not know are important. Responders in the public and private sectors need to work together and ensure that they are not contradicting each other. More work can be done in this arena but locally, regionally, and in central governments, having dialogue with businesses is important because they are part of the community.

Emily

SMEs and microbusinesses tend to be overlooked in response to crises and government planning. However, they also tend to be extremely resilient because they are operating at peak stress all the time and thus require adaptability. They often have to think about the “What if?” question at the center of operations to go along with Andy’s “So what?” question. One size does not fit all for businesses so more creative engagement is needed to make sure everyone’s involved in warnings.

Catia

It is all a learning experience. Instead of putting all responsibility on the public sector, we could lean toward private sector businesses of all sizes sharing resources and working together to make the industry more resilient. One example is how the tourism industry pulled together during the pandemic. People have a lot to share and learn from each other so it would be helpful to focus on that.


Andy Marshall brings around 20 years experience of work in business continuity and wider crisis management and resilience activity in all different forms, military, public and private sector resilience, including five years in business continuity and crisis management with Rolls Royce prior to joining AstraZeneca’s team.

Catia Guimares is the director for global resilience for IHG hotels and resorts and has been with IHG for 10 years. Catia is responsible for crisis management, business continuity, ERM, and strategic resilience, including long term risk management or future proofing future issues from an enterprise perspective.

Emily Hough is the founder and editor of Crisis Response Journal, a publication that looks at all aspects of the disaster and crisis cycle from a multidisciplinary perspective with the goal of bringing forward perspectives that would not traditionally be considered disaster related so that disciplines can learn from one another. There are many areas around disaster and warning mentioned in this conference that need to be explored more. For CRJ, the goal is to stand back and get an overall impression of the whole picture and try to extrapolate possible connections between events, risks, major crises and thereby hope to predict trends and future hazards, through the expertise of an advisory panel.

Jeremy Reynolds works for the London Resilience Group, which is hosted by the London Fire Brigade, which has the role of supporting the work of London Resilience Partnership in preparing and responding to emergencies. That partnership is made up of around 200 organisations and includes category 1 and 2 responders. Jeremy is one of the deputy heads in that team and is responsible for work relating to risk, including being chair to the risk advisory group. Jeremy is also a part-time PhD student at UCL working on organisational resilience and adaptation.


Don’t forget, last time we presented Dr Oliver Morgan and Dr Gail Carson in conversation with Andrew Revkin, discussing global public health in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the full conference on youtube here!

Conference URL:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/ucl-irdr-11th-annual-conference-why-warnings-matter-and-ucl-warning-research-centre

Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay

Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley


Please email us for any further information at IRDR-comms@ucl.ac.uk

Or check out our website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/

Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), University College London (UCL)

Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom (UK)

Economic Sanctions Against War: An Effective Deterrent?

Swati Sharma27 April 2022

 

Protests in London against the invasion of Ukraine. Obtained under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The ongoing Russian-Ukraine war has triggered a string of economic sanctions against Russia, apparently intended to bring an end to the conflict. Let us understand the background and ramifications of sanctions.

Sanctions, in general, are a set of penal actions taken against an entity or entities, that could be adopted by courts, nations, or international bodies. Chapter VII of the UN Charter, through Article 41, also provides for non-military enforcement measures.

Ideally, preventing conflicts and enhancing international peace and security are considered a few of the prime objectives of sanctions. However, sanctions have also often been seen as political tools for settling diplomatic scores or achieving other desirable results, making their efficiency as a non-violent, diplomatic conflict resolution tool questionable.

In contrast, economic, humanitarian, and commercial sanctions typically worked better than any combination—Iran, 1979; Iraq, 1990; Haiti, 1991; and Yugoslavia, 1992, to name a few.

There are also instances aplenty when sanctions failed to accomplish their goal. In 2014, UN, EU, and US sanctions were imposed on Russia when it invaded Crimea, but still a war erupted in Ukraine. Despite UN sanctions, the Taliban strengthened and seized control of Afghanistan. Additionally, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba have all defied sanctions. Moreover, sanctions can risk spurring conflict, as in Rwanda, 1990, and Nicaragua, 1970.

In today’s age of globalisation, sanctions have become a double-edged sword. To impose effective sanctions, one must necessarily: (a) diagnose the causes of conflicts accurately; (b) design sanctions such that they decisively alter the balance of power, and (c) ensure political will among those imposing sanctions to sustain them. For, with the lapse of time, their—those sanctioning—will can be eroded, or new diplomatic factors may emerge. Therefore, it is time to reconsider the efficacy of sanctions as such and explore whether sanctions need to be supplemented by other measures to resolve conflict and reduce the risk of war.


Swati Sharma is a veteran of the Indian Army, and after successful completion of her tenure, joined the Rajasthan Home Guards Services. While she served as the Commandant, she got selected as a Chevening Scholar 2021-22. Presently, she is currently pursuing her Master’s in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR, UCL. 

Contact

swati.sharma.21@ucl.ac.uk | Twitter: @captswatis

www.linkedin.com/in/capt-swati-sharma-retd-6b69b0132


The Kedarnath Tragedy: Breakdown or Breakthrough?

Joshua Anthony1 April 2022

Author: Savin Bansal


The cataclysmic ‘Kedarnath tragedy’ of June 2013, triggered by overwhelming flash-floods and landslides in Uttarakhand, the Greater Himalayan State of India, instigated losses worth US$ 1billion, mortality at a gory high of 5000 and led to an equal number still being reported as missing. The destruction of critical infrastructure left several lakhs of pilgrims and tourists stranded for several weeks together.

The region has been long fraught with frequent, severe and uncertain onslaught of geophysical and hydrometeorological hazards, is seismically dynamic, afflicted with climatic extremes and is witness to the growing human-environment interactions. Though the moderate magnitude events probably have become a reality in the region, the 2013 hydrometeorological extreme remains unique in terms of the historic trends and exceedance probability.

The monsoon in June 2013 arrived almost two weeks earlier than expected. The torrential cloudbursts and massive Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) resulted in a sudden swelling of the Mandakini, Alakananda, Bhagirathi and Kali river basins. Being a renowned pilgrimage and eco-tourism circuit in India, the region saw the disaster coinciding with the peak congregation, affecting more than 900,000 lives and precipitating grave infrastructure failure in just over three days. The towns of Kedarnath, Rambara and Gaurikund dotted along the Mandakini valley bore the maximum brunt.

The aftermath rendered the key public assets and critical infrastructure dysfunctional, and the exigent business processes compromised. The ravaged quintessential schools-hospitals, buckled highways and bridges, wrecked civic service delivery systems, snapped telecommunication networks, and incapacitated fire and emergency operation services only amplified the atrocious impacts. This not only compromised the relief-rescue operations but severely subdued the coping capacity of the community.

Chinks in the Armour

Many victims had misled themselves to cascading floods and landslips, several children and elderly to trauma and injuries, with others succumbing to lost will and hope. The disquieting spectacle of vanished settlements, frenzied victims and bewildered response put up a horrendous spectacle to behold. In retrospect, the delayed response and resource sub-optimization are attributed to the iniquitously deficient Risk Management framework detailed as:

Imperception of the significance the resilience holds for critical infrastructural systems:

The colossal impact was strikingly disproportionate to the infrastructure resilience levels, adaptation and coping capacities of the communities. Ironically, it took a catastrophe of such a stupendous magnitude to realise the growing reliance of society upon interconnected functional nodes and closely coupled systems. The setbacks on such systems empowered vulnerabilities to generate escalation points that spawned devastating cascades further to propagate through socio-economic systems.

Information asymmetry and risk communication deficit:

The small-scale pre-disaster (preparedness phase) knowledge sharing and generalized oblivion about risk perception and assessment among the emergency response agencies, media, volunteers, and local inhabitants denied the potential victims an opportunity to take informed decisions to protect themselves.

Inconsiderate of known-knowns:

Lack of preparedness, scenario planning, functional disaster management and resilience plans, decentralized resource inventories and inept Emergency Operation Centres accentuated the vulnerability and limited the Hazard risk-vulnerability-analysis (HRVA) capability. The underdeveloped forecasting and early warning systems subdued the evacuation mechanisms and alert protocols further.

Benighted and at odds with the idea of inter-agency coordination and collaboration:

The existence of multiple information flowlines and command structures only rendered the response entities confounded and aid agencies disoriented. It proliferated the unverifiable inputs and compromised priority sequencing. The squandering of initial golden hours of search-rescue owed itself substantially to this fallacy.

Joint Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment

The multi-sectoral damage and needs assessment carried out by the Government in collaboration with the multilateral development institutions (the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) laid the framework for stimulating major policy shift to proactive risk management besides sustainable recovery and reconstruction.

Massive investment mix in the form of IDA (International Development Assistance) and federal assistance were deployed for Risk Reduction Investments in (i) multi-hazard resilient assets such as strategic roads and bridges, public schools, and hospitals, (ii) augmenting emergency response capacities through provisioning of modern search-rescue equipment and training, (iii) bolstering hydro-meteorological network and Early Warning Systems (EWS), (iv) establishment of a risk assessment-modelling framework and a geospatial decision support system, (v) and institutionalising the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) to operate and function in conformance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-30). 

Lessons Learned

Eventually, taking the event in its stride, the State has literally risen from the ashes by drawing on the lessons learned in its wake. The pace of recovery and policy instruments deployed have been exemplary. The Risk Management framework developed is espoused as a best-practice model and now serves as a blueprint for other state entities and the neighbouring Himalayan nations.

Being at the core of economy, critical infrastructure was duly recognised as the central factor in enabling labour productivity, redistributive justice and serving our most basic needs to assuring a decent quality of life. Any disruptions therein are a drag on economies that disconcert communities through denting households’ consumption, well-being, and the productivity.

Hence, the formal mechanisms to appraise the cost-benefit ratio of ex-ante policy measures do exist now insomuch as critical asset resilience is concerned. This assumes substance in the context of minimizing the recurrent disruptive shocks on infrastructure and livelihoods, and averting the prohibitively high ex-post reconstruction cost. A pre-emptive investment in more resilient infrastructure is clearly a cost-effective and robust choice, the net result of which is a $4 in benefit for each dollar invested in resilience.

Furthermore, the policy commitments for increased resource allocation towards disaster-climate risk mitigation, reinforced multi-hazard Early Warning Systems, fully equipped District Emergency Operation centres and risk informed development planning are a reality of the day.

In addition, Incident Response System (IRS), a structured framework that enhances interoperability and behaviour coordination under multi-layered team settings is integrated well into the Emergency Response model of the State. It has proved to be critical in stimulating calibrated response to critical events all this while by bringing the disparate units together to share resources, authority and knowledge.

Conclusion

Overall, every time such low probability tail events fleet past us, they never fail to encourage adopting a paradigm shift in the ways we perceive, respond and live through the hazards. Parting ways with the reactive emergency response regime shall require mainstreaming the Disaster-Risk Reduction into development plans, policy and investments. The bottom line is that the victims endangered by life threatening exigencies don’t deserve such gratuitous procrastination and inefficiencies.


Savin Bansal is an Indian civil servant (Indian Administrative Service) and presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR, University College London. Serving the Government of Uttarakhand, India, as an administrator and public policy practitioner, he has an extensive experience in Disaster-Climate risk management domain as a decision-maker and leading multilateral development projects.

Contribute to the discussion: savin.bansal.21@ucl.ac.uk

Disclaimer: The views and perceptions expressed are in personal capacity and can’t in anyway be construed as that of the Government of Uttarakhand, Government of India or the University College London.


 

The Disaster of War

David Alexander17 March 2022

Bombs bursting on the Fortress of St. Malo, France, 1944. Photo from Lee Miller.

By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.


David Alexander is Professor in UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He is a citizen of Britain and Italy.

UCL IRDR 11th Annual Conference: Why Warnings Matter, and the UCL Warning Research Centre Launch, Part One

Joshua Anthony3 November 2021

Following a challenging year of managing natural hazards, including COVID-19, this one-day online event provided thought-provoking talks, interactive discussions and online networking opportunities on why warnings matter. In addition, the UCL Warning Research Centre as part of the Department of Science and Technology Studies was launched. The event explored the role, design, use, and evaluation of warnings for different hazards from different stakeholder perspectives to examine how effective people-centered warning systems can be developed and help to be prepared for both the expected and unexpected. The event was hosted by the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and the Warning Research Centre.

On the 23rd of June, the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction welcomed researchers, students, practitioners, policymakers, the media and the general public to a day of thought-provoking discussions on why warnings matter, and how we can do better at warnings both prior and during crises for all hazard types. Our in-house and guest experts presented a global perspective on the latest research and analysis through talks, interactive discussions and in conversation. We explored multi-dimensional aspects of warnings, considering their physical, social, economic, environmental, institutional, political, cultural and gendered dimensions, and the challenges involved in making warnings successful to mitigate against losses.

This blog is part one of a series presenting the key findings from the conference proceedings. The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme.


Part One.

Panel Discussion 1: Warning Systems ‒ Exceptional versus expected events


 

The presenters for this session were Dr. Mickey Glantz, University of Colorado, Dr. Daniel Straub, Technical University of Munich, and Rebekah Yore, UCL. The session was moderated by Dr. Joanna Faure Walker, UCL.

Summaries of each presenters’ arguments are as follows:

Mickey Glantz

Not everyone considers a warning a warning. There are 5 key factors to warning hesitancy: complacency, convenience, confidence, low levels of trust, calculation of individual engagement. We don’t research the risks, collective responsibility is lacking as people focus on themselves. Emotional responses are common, not rational. There are also two types of people in hazard scenarios: risk averse people and risk takers.

Early warning systems are a chain. To make them more effective the lead time needs more attention. We need to create more lead time in order to get the warning to people earlier and through the system quicker.

Forecast hesitancy also plays a key role in effective early warning systems. We discount previous disasters we don’t learn from them, therefore we reinstate old vulnerabilities.

Readiness is also missing, society doesn’t have resources for long term preparedness.

Daniel Straub

Calculating the effectiveness of warning systems. If people think it’s a false alarm they won’t comply. This then creates a child who cries wolf scenario for future hazard warnings. We must find the right balance between detection rate and false alarm rate.

It is challenging and near impossible to quantify effectiveness but can still help the study of warning systems.

Rebekah Yore

It is important to identify the vulnerable population when deploying early warning systems. Failure in one element of the warning system can cause failure for the entire system.

Her research focuses on 3 case studies, all islands that are used to hazards: Japan 2011- Tsunami, Philippines 2013- typhoon and Dominica 2017- Hurricane. In all case studies not one warning system reached everyone, therefore these places need multiple types of warning. Some of the issues with the current warning systems were that interestingly modern smartphone warnings did not reach people. There was also mixed messaging from different agencies and government sources leading to room for interpretation from locals. Furthermore, issues such as poverty were not taken into account.

Finally, it must be noted that Individual and group risk perceptions are always changing and are dynamic.

This discussion was then followed by an address to questions from the audience, which are summarised thus:

How do we deal with both false alarms but also misinformation particularly in the context of social media or governments giving misinformation? How can we include groups who are not familiar with local warning systems like tourists or newcomers?

Mickey Glantz

Tourists have never seen a false alarm so unlikely to be affected in the same way in a real event by locals who have faced false alarms. Use of drills is helpful because one of the issues that comes up in the social sciences is that we all recognise that warnings need to be built into our everyday lives. We need to practice them as a way of living rather than just facing them when a hazard approaches. What has become practice then takes over and people are able to respond really quite calmly and really quite cohesively as Mickey thinks drills are a really good mechanism for embedding some key practices that help to familiarise through everyday life with some lifesaving rules.

What can we do to protect assets and livelihoods in the context of warnings?

Rebekah Yore

It is something that requires more research. Preparation mechanisms such as micro insurance for example are very important. So it may be that a mechanism that allows people to put things out and places structures in place before it occurs can help to protect some of those assets and livelihoods. Whether this means the ability to be able to pack things up and leave a location, or ability to be able to move, or an ability to be able to put certain protective measures in place. Maybe not save everything but save something or save enough.

Mickey Glantz

We don’t understand probabilities. We don’t understand nature. Many people don’t really understand the risks in their area. These perceptions become reality, if our perceptions are wrong the actions we take based on them have real consequences. So we tend to look at disasters as in many cases one and done.  But that’s not reality.

In one sentence what change do you think needs to occur to help with warning for exceptional events in an environment that does have expected events?

Daniel Straub

Understanding things through quantification is also to make use of all the data that we can now collect. The social sciences have a better understanding and also have models of factors that make a difference, and it would be useful for social science to do more with quantification in their research.

Rebekah Yore

Addressing structural inequality and addressing why people are disadvantaged and why other people aren’t. I think let’s just put our money where our mouth is; preparation is key.

Mickey Glantz

We have to put more emphasis on readiness and preparedness. People can get ready more easily than they can get prepared because they don’t have the resources. So, warnings are very important to them, I feel we have to push readiness as tactical responses to warnings and threats, as well as long term preparedness which seems to fall to governments and larger organisations. Readiness is for me and preparedness is for the community to deal with.

Next up in this blog series will be notes on “Warnings and the launch of the Warning Research Centre”, keynote speech from Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction in the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori.


Watch the full conference on youtube here!

Conference URL:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/ucl-irdr-11th-annual-conference-why-warnings-matter-and-ucl-warning-research-centre

Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay

Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley


Please email us for any further information at IRDR-comms@ucl.ac.uk

Or check out our website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/

Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), University College London (UCL)

Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom (UK)

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?

Could Arctic disasters create diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi12 June 2019

Post written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda, PhD researcher at UCL IRDR

Fancy lodgings with outdoor Jacuzzis, brand-name clothing outlets, a Thai massage centre, restaurants offering haute cuisine, a supermarket that displays all manner of fresh food and electronics items—one would have thought that I landed in a First World urban setting. But the Norwegian-governed settlement of Longyearbyen on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago is anything but that.

Longyearbyen’s main street with fancy restaurants and hotels during Svalbard’s dark winter season – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

Rather, it is a small settlement north of the Arctic Circle, the size of a thumbprint viewed from on high – plunked down in the midst of a valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and a vast road-less expanse of rock, snow, and glacial ice that is prone to avalanches, landslides, flooding and extreme weather conditions. The archipelago is roamed by polar bears, geographically isolated from the Norwegian mainland that governs it (it is halfway between Norway and the North Pole), and reliant on good weather conditions to access it. Thus, Svalbard is especially vulnerable to disasters, from which response mechanisms, no matter how well planned, may not always deliver.

The landscape of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009

 

A photo of Longyearbyen taken on a winter climb to a mountain top nearby in -47 °C – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

As far as disasters go, there is a gamut of factors besides its remote location and its dicey weather that impinge on Svalbard’s ability to respond. A lack of communication between its settlements is problematic. Its possible overreliance on national response structures which must both be able to react with adequate resources within narrow time frames, as well as have the political will to do so, further compounds the precarious situation. In addition, the present restricted ability of Svalbard’s small hospital to treat more than minor-level injuries, necessitates an over-reliance on aeromedical evacuation to the mainland.  Thus, the capacity for major trauma scenarios is missing.

Given both the existing gaps as well as clear developing and future challenges, it is critical that we take stock of Svalbard’s emergency preparedness and response capacity and develop robust policies that are adapted to the local realities on the island. This means that not only search-and-rescue capacities are needed, which it seems Svalbard has well understood (albeit these are and can only be imperfect); but that improved governance on a much wider scale is urgently required. It must be remembered that disaster efforts do not always happen formally. Both when formal disaster efforts fail, but also when they do not, informality is often a key element of disaster preparedness and response.  In Svalbard’s particular case, this means cooperation and coordination between the two main players on the island—formally, Norway and Russia, and informally, Norwegians and Russians—for efforts both to prevent disasters, as well as to address them when they happen.

These are the questions I pondered together with a team of nine researchers from London, Moscow and around Norway who assembled in Longyearbyen to launch our new project. Generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council, we initiated a 2-year investigation into disaster diplomacy’s potential to foster cooperation (or not) between Svalbard’s Norwegian and Russian stakeholders in their formal and informal responses to disasters. To this end, the project will be looking at three hypothetical disaster scenarios: an oil spill emergency, a crisis involving radiation release from a ship, and a disease outbreak in (Russian) Barentsburg—the second of the only two permanently inhabited settlements on Svalbard.

View of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

The importance of this project is startingly clear. Moving on from its early days as a coal-mining settlement, Svalbard is now home (albeit a transient one) to a growing population of scientists and tourists. Moreover, this group of islands is currently being re-imagined and re-developed into an Arctic Ocean emergency management hub.  This new hub will act like a magnet, drawing yet more scientists, tourists and job-seekers to an island of roughly 2600 inhabitants, requiring quickly built new infrastructure to support these activities. Coupled with the effects of the already changing environment, Svalbard’s vulnerable settlements, not to mention, the whole region and its ecosystems, are further at risk.

Additionally, some fear that it may also spark a new round of disputes and conflicts between Norway and Russia, (and looking out on the broader horizon, between other nations that have stakes in the Arctic region). Transnational cooperation will be more crucial than ever in tackling the already compromised possible disaster responses. Thus, from a different perspective, this emerging reality might, at least in theory, pave the way for greater diplomatic and practical collaboration on disaster issues and may, by extension, improve many aspects of relations between these two countries that share vested interests in Svalbard.

It is clear from research on disaster diplomacy in other global settings that this second idealistic and much more hopeful perspective is not supported by actual results. Disaster diplomacy has not yet been shown to lead to better relations between countries. But can these findings be applied to Svalbard, and to the Arctic in general, an area which is held to be ‘off the charts’ in so many spheres? As researchers, we hear the often-recited mantra that Arctic players have already come up with uniquely successful and often unprecedented cooperation schemes. Thus, could the Arctic prove to be an exception in the universe of unsuccessful disaster diplomacy case studies? And might the various factors that were present in the particular Arctic situation be extrapolated and applied in disaster conditions elsewhere in the world?

“Welcome” – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

I ask myself these questions, as I gaze out past the high-end stores and entertainment centres, to the beautiful but forbidding mountain range just behind them, looking off into the polar-night sky. Svalbard is fragile, vulnerable to disaster, and may well become even more exposed to danger.  But might it not also hold the seeds to plant future opportunities for cooperation and improvement in international relations? Or, will the research results elsewhere in the world be confirmed? Our team hopes that our research will be able to begin to answer some of these questions.