Approaches to address mega-issues
So, what approaches are needed, and what other approaches could be taken to deal with possible repercussions for emergencies and disasters?
There are a number of different proposed approaches that may provide us with some guidance:
1) Whole-of-society problems
The effectiveness of intervention into disasters and many emergencies would benefit from being interpreted as whole-of-society problems. The potential advantage is that they may then be considered to be ‘whole-of-government’ problems.
This would then mean that the events would be seen as problems of national, regional and local governments, as well as community problems, rather than isolated emergencies and disasters.
This approach would have clear implications for ownership of emergency and disaster problems and, therefore, responsibility and accountability for doing something about them would require more than just the traditional response or relief approach.
2) Seeing the bigger picture
Secondly, it would follow, that initial framing of emergency and disaster problems is vital.
Like framing a shot that you want to take with your mobile phone, you want to make sure that everything that is important is in the picture that you take.
If you want to seriously address these events, rather than merely ameliorating them, then identification and inclusion of underlying issues into the bigger picture, rather than only the immediate causes of the problems, as usually suggested, is important.
This can involve framing emergencies and disasters as policy and institutional problems, as well as being events. This reframing is required in order to identify the crucial effect of community vulnerability and, conversely, the critical role that community resilience can play in relation to the potential impacts of emergencies and disasters.
3) Acknowledgement of residual risk and uncertainty
Thirdly, in order to deal with possible repercussions of mega-issues for emergencies and disasters, it is important to acknowledge residual risk that cannot be economically eliminated and that remains after practicable risk mitigation measures have been applied. Unexpected events and unexpected human behaviour, including occurrences of both during complex emergencies, can reveal an unexpected lack of human understanding. All of these can pose unexpected risks and sources of vulnerability.
Practitioners who work in the field of emergency and disaster management may presume that the risk of all eventualities can be calculated and that many of these events are, in some large measure, knowable. There may be a presumption either that ‘we know everything’ about what risks may be realised or, failing that, since we are experienced experts, what we don’t know isn’t important and isn’t worth knowing. But what about the unknown unknowns - ie. not knowing what we don’t know? If we can’t even anticipate a risk, how can we even begin to assess its likelihood or potential severity?
4) Vulnerability to emergencies and disasters as a part of everyday life
Fourthly, many of the important aspects of vulnerability to emergencies and disasters are found in the organisation of daily life. This can include custom-and-practice in organisations as well as other institutionalised sources of vulnerability that are insufficiently recognised by the established priorities and culture of major corporations and government.
For example, an accepted practice can be seen in the use of roads where traffic progresses in opposite directions on one side or another. This can of course be complicated by whether or not everyone on the road, including visitors, knows whether to stay on the left or the right side. This involves high levels of risk and if someone were to have the idea of implementing this method of transport today, it would be unlikely to ever be implemented.
The wrong approach
Stringent performance management accompanied by the acquisition of additional resources is not the answer.
It is sometimes considered that any possible shortfalls or inadequacies in intervening into emergencies and disasters can be remedied through enhanced procurement of resources or through better personnel management. Of course, appropriate resourcing of competent professionals is important. However, no matter how well-resourced emergency responders may be, and no matter how thoroughly competencies and performance may be measured and managed, the unexpected will still occur and this will pose unprecedented challenges and consequences to both responders and the public. (Handmer 2013)
Do you agree with the above proposed approaches to dealing with emergencies and disasters at a fundamental level?
What guiding principles would you suggest are needed to tackle mega issues in a way that would have a positive impact on emergencies and disasters?
Handmer, J. and Dovers, S. (2013) Handbook of Disaster Policies and Institutions: Improving Emergency Management and Climate Change Adaptation. (2nd ed.) Routledge.
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