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20. The Role of National Governments and the “International Community”

“It is less expensive in the long run to invest in mitigation activities than in emergency operations” (WFP, 1998: 11).

Although hard data and figures are hard to come by, five years after this assertion was made, it remains unfortunately as relevant as it was then. Not much appears to have changed concerning the funding priorities of national governments and the donor community, with “ex-post rationalities” often being used to justify incoherent, ad hoc responses. Yet, a good number of the actions required to deal with disaster risks (as outlined in the preceding Section) can be found in the realm of public goods. While most if not all idiosyncratic risks may be handled better by the specialised service providers of the private sector - where they exist and are interested - the state can be more effective in covering covariant risks. A primary role for the public sector in DRM is thus justified even on the public choice and information theoretic grounds of the new institutional economics. According to the champions of the latter, the government actually has a dual role in this respect: to provide its own instruments, and to ensure the supply and effectiveness of instruments from other sources (World Bank, 2001).

In line with Charveriat (2000), Pantoja (2002) finds that “at the national level, international assistance - regularly given without many conditions - often provides perverse incentives for governments and communities to adopt reactive disaster risk management policies and strategies. And as a result, mitigation and preparedness are not given sufficient priority. Governments and donors supporting microfinance have not encouraged disaster risk management, as they have also tended to be reactive” (p31). Donors should on their part contemplate assisting governments of disaster-affected regions in mobilising the necessary financial and in-kind resources to be able to pay compensation to the next of kin of deceased household members and to those whose houses were lost or damaged.

Hurricane Michelle ripped through Cuba in November 2001, the most powerful storm since 1944. But, in contrast to the 20,000 victims of hurricane Mitch in Honduras, just five people died in Cuba. Successful civil defence and Red Cross planning ensured that 700,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters in time. Search-and-rescue and emergency health-care plans swung into action. In Havana, electricity and water supplies were turned off to avoid deaths from electrocution and sewage contamination. Cuba’s population was advised in advance to store water and clear debris from streets that might cause damage. Later, the UN reported that the government’s “high degree of disaster preparedness... was decisive in the prevention of major loss of life”. Cuba’s success in saving lives gives us a model of effective government-driven disaster preparedness. Geographer Ben Wisner suggests the secret of this success is that “one cannot ‘fix’ disaster risk with technology alone. It is also a matter of enacting and enforcing laws, building and maintaining institutions that are accountable, and producing an environment of mutual respect and trust between government and the population” (IFRC 2003).

The declaration of a disaster is usually the responsibility of government and serves as prerequisite for the participation of NGOs in disaster response and relief efforts. A dilemma sometimes occurs when the government refuses to declare a disaster because of political considerations (Guzman and Dixit 2002). During a disaster, the rush to provide relief adds to the challenge of coordination as actors with various levels of experience and sets of objectives enter the affected areas (Pantoja 2002). At the same time, the scope, opportunities and potential for malfeasance, embezzlement and corruption is greatly increased, and central government may consider elaborating and enforcing a Code of Conduct[13] for all stakeholders, national or international, government or civil society (including the voluntary sector), intervening in post-disaster rehabilitation.

[13] See, e.g., the “Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response” developed by the IFRC.

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