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FEATURE: If we know it works, why not do it?

This article first appeared on AlertNet

At some point in our lives most of us have taken the time to consider how we prepare for an emergency, whether we are aware of it or not.

Take fire as an example. Most people in the UK know the emergency telephone number is 999. And despite not living there, even I know the emergency number in the U.S. is 911, thanks to films and television.

We know that smoke detectors are good to have in our homes, and that fire extinguishers or fire blankets are stocked in restaurants or in the work place to deal with potential emergencies. I’m sure you have at least one memory of standing en mass with colleagues in the cold street after a fire drill.

It is also not difficult to realise that knowing how to prevent an emergency – or knowing in advance what to do about one – is likely to save you money in the long term. A decent front door lock is a tiny fraction of the cost (both financially and emotionally) of having to replace or repair items, or otherwise recover from an invasive and upsetting burglary.

This example might seem clichéd, but it holds a crucial lesson for anyone involved with development. In complex or ongoing emergencies (droughts, floods, food shortages, urban violence, or political unrest) people often already know the types of actions that could save lives and money. That includes both people living in developing countries at risk from these crises, as well as the aid agencies there to support them.

In the UK, we take it for granted that we will be informed about an expected cold and snowy spell by our news channels, which warn us about the likelihood of ice on roads or flooding from snow-melt-swelled rivers, and so on.

Helping overseas, similarly, may simply mean creating the right early-warning systems to let people know what’s around the corner, or building well-equipped, skilled and trained emergency services. Or it might involve coordinating services and creating a national plan of action, to make sure different parts of the country work together to share resources and effectively protect those most in danger.


All these activities are forms of ‘emergency preparedness’. They seem like common sense if you live in a society where experience shows that investment in this kind of action has positive pay offs. The idea of providing funding for emergency preparedness generally is a pretty sensible one, regardless of whether it’s in the UK, Brazil, Sudan or wherever disasters occur.

For aid agencies working in less-well-developed countries, emergency preparedness is complex and difficult to organise in practice, but the work is essentially the same – to target people we know are likely to be affected by crises, and help them deal with the situation in a more effective, efficient and dignified manner.

Why then do we continue to fail to apportion sufficient amounts of money to help people living in places we know are subject to natural disasters, conflict, violence and all manner of complex crises, before the crises escalate?

My new paper highlights how, in 2009, funding to support people in developing countries to prevent and prepare for disasters amounted to a fraction (1.8 percent) of the overall humanitarian expenditure for the top 40 recipient countries.

To make matters worse, one year later, in 2010, the amount of money needed for emergency response was the highest on record:  $12.4 billion. This seems both at odds with what is needed, and a short-sighted use of development aid.

The call is being made, but not heard loudly enough: Aid agencies that support communities and governments to be better prepared for crises need the funds to do so. And as ‘resilience’ becomes the new focus embedded in agencies’ methods for approaching challenging crises, emergency preparedness needs to be a central component.

To return to the example we started with: Isn’t it better to support and encourage people to invest in prevention and preparedness (e.g. smoke alarms), than to let them watch their homes and hard-earned assets go up in flames?  I think most people would agree.


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