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IRIN interview with UNDP's Kenneth Westgate

[Africa] Kenneth Westgate, Regional Disaster Reduction Adviser for Africa in the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.
Kenneth Westgate, the UNDP regional disaster reduction adviser. (OCHA)

The Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) released on Monday a global report on disaster risk management, titled "Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development". The report, which focuses on how development configures disaster risk - both positively and negatively - was released in public forums in Geneva, Quito and Washington D.C. It is due to be released on Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya. IRIN interviewed Kenneth Westgate, UNDP's Regional Disaster Reduction Adviser for Africa, on the aim of the report, its findings and recommendations. Below are excerpts of the interview:

QUESTION: Could you briefly outline what the disaster risk reduction report is all about?

ANSWER: I suppose that the easiest way of outlining what the report is all about is to describe it as a means to define the relationship between disaster occurrence and disaster risk and development. Central to the report are the related propositions that failures in the application of development have led to a heightening of risk for millions of people, particularly in the developing countries, while the application of development itself can lead to the creation of risk, if risk reduction is not an integrated part of that development process.

And the report goes on to justify these propositions through the use of the Disaster Risk Index (DRI) which compares physical exposure to hazards, vulnerability and risk between countries, demonstrating a clear link between human development and death rates following disasters triggered by natural hazards.

Q: What does UNDP hope to achieve through the publication of this report?

A: Through our increasing knowledge and understanding of the relationship between disaster risk and development, I think UNDP is suggesting that there is a real opportunity now to address disaster risk in a positive way to support poverty reduction, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and all those other major development initiatives that lay open to destruction by disaster events.

In a way, UNDP is stating its resolve to get this issue on the development agenda and to encourage others to do the same. Even though disaster events make for good media, continuing to respond to their aftermath does nothing for the vulnerable state of people that led to these disasters occurring in the first place. What UNDP hopes to achieve through this report is no news at all - ultimately disaster risk reduction should mean that at the very least disaster risks are reduced to manageable proportions. Lofty goals maybe, but unless these risks are tackled in an integrated and comprehensive way then all hope of really effective development, including achievement of the MDGs, disappears.

Q: The report contains the first Disaster Risk Index (DRI). Could you tell us more about this index?

A: The index provides the physical exposure levels and relative vulnerability for more than 200 countries and territories for four natural hazards - earthquake, tropical cyclones, floods and drought.

The figures were determined by comparing the number of people exposed in relation to population and then mapping it in a geographical information system. By evaluating the number of people killed annually from 1980 to 2000 with the number of exposed people, UNDP has been able to compare countries' vulnerabilities to different natural hazards. In Iran, for example, an average of 1,074 people were killed each year in earthquakes between 1980 and 2000, for every one million people exposed. Compare this with the 0.97 people killed each year per one million people in the USA.

The index compared countries' risk levels with 26 social, economic and ecological indicators in order to identify development processes that were contributing to high vulnerability. Tropical cyclone risk, for example, is strongly identified with countries of large, predominantly rural populations and with a low ranking on the Human Development Index. Countries with low GDP per capita, low densities of population (in flood prone areas) and high numbers of exposed people are most at risk from floods.

Q: How is the Disaster Risk Index beneficial to developing countries that have poor or non-existent data collection mechanisms regarding disaster risk?

A: The first thing to say about the index is that it is work in progress. We are aware that the data is incomplete (particularly in the case of drought) and using deaths per million as the major measure of relative vulnerability is not the whole picture. So the report is also a plea for investment in data collection and management so that the picture becomes clearer and the disaster risk issues plainer, and that includes countries where currently the data collection mechanisms are poor.

Secondly, the index will assist in identifying those countries that face the greatest risks and provide a baseline for identifying the key issues and assessing the problems and solutions. Of course, the index is not a panacea but rather a window on risk and the context in which it accumulates.

Q: Give an example of a disaster-prone African country, countries or any regional groupings that have attempted to incorporate disaster risk management in their national development policies.

A: The integration of disaster risk management and reduction into national, sub-regional and regional development policies and programmes is, globally, a relatively new phenomenon. Africa is probably the continent where the least has occurred thus far although there are encouraging signs. Among the sub-regional organisations, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has an agreed disaster risk management programme in support of its member states although getting the programme off the ground is proving to be difficult. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also has recognised the importance of giving disaster risk management backing to its members. Even regionally, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) secretariat is currently at work defining a disaster risk management strategy for Africa.

Nationally, a number of countries have defined disaster risk management as a distinct component of the UN Development Assistance Framework, among them Ghana, Rwanda and Djibouti. South Africa is concerned to integrate its disaster management programme into the development process at municipal level and below. So a lot is happening and many agencies and organisations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental, are providing stimulus. With the production of this report, UNDP has made disaster risk reduction a central focus and as the UN system's principal development agency the onus is on UNDP to demonstrate the efficacy of good, development-based disaster risk management.

The advocacy and awareness-raising of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) is crucial support to this, while other UN agencies such as UN HABITAT and UNEP are also involved in what is rapidly becoming a multi-agency concern. Both UNDP and ISDR have appointed regional advisers for Africa who can animate the process through UNDP country offices and their co-operation with national governments.

Q: Finally, what in your own opinion, is the strongest recommendation of the report?

It may sound like cheating, but all of the recommendations are important because they are all inter-related. But if I had to choose one, then it would be the one covering governance for risk management: "Appropriate governance for disaster risk management is a fundamental requirement if risk considerations are to be factored into development planning, and if existing risks are to be successfully mitigated."

And this does not mean just having a national disaster management organisation and a piece of legislation that indicates who is supposed to be doing what. What effective or appropriate governance for disaster risk management really means is promoting the involvement of all levels of society in tackling the problems associated with disaster risk accumulation in an inclusive and participatory way based on a thorough assessment and understanding of what those risks are, how they accumulate and how they can be effectively dealt with.

As the report states, "the key challenge in building governance structures for human development and risk reduction is to play off efficiency with equity. Decisions often have to be made quickly but rapid decision-making can factor in participatory approaches if planned appropriately.

Enhancing the influence of local actors, through their participation in the local governance of risk, offers great potential for increasing the sensitivity and responsiveness of development planning to disaster risk." This local-level involvement is ultimately the most important element because disaster risks happen to localities, to communities and to the members of those communities and through all the technical assessment that has to be vital to developing the disaster risk index, at the end of it all are the people and the families who daily face disaster and whose lives and livelihoods are constantly compounded by the seemingly endless process of risk accumulation.

AFRICA: Prepare for disaster and save lives - UNDP report

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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