Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: An Ounce Of Crisis Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure

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So why do the international community and national governments under-fund crises prevention initiatives? (Especially given that there is no singular “cure” for various crises).

The rising scale of needs, a collective inability to resolve protracted crises, and the interplay of new factors such as climate change, are making it harder for Governments and aid workers to effectively respond to humanitarian challenges, the United Nations today reported, stressing that development aid must contribute to managing crisis risk.

The report, World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2013, authored by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlights major trends in the nature of humanitarian crises, the underlying causes and drivers, and the actors that participate in crises prevention, response and recovery.

“Climate change, population growth, rapid and unplanned urbanization, and food and water insecurity are leaving more and more people at risk of crisis,” write the report’s authors, listing some of the new factors facing the humanitarian community.

Among other trends, the report shows that today’s major humanitarian crises are protracted “with few signs of improvements over the long term.”

Of countries that had an inter-agency appeal in 2012, eight had an appeal in eight or more of the previous ten years, including in Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia.

When not protracted, the crises are often recurrent, occurring as a result of shocks – climate, conflict, price – to chronically vulnerable people.

On these factors, the report concludes that humanitarian assistance is still overwhelmingly focused on response and development aid often fails to target the most vulnerable.

“Less than five per cent of humanitarian funding and less than one per cent of development funding is spent on crisis preparedness and prevention,” according to figures provided.

Just as one human rights violation enables others, one humanitarian crisis often leads to future manifestations of the same or related crises. The intractable / recurrent nature of humanitarian crises highlights the need to focus on a preventative approach to building resilience to humanitarian crises. Programs which build resilience to humanitarian crises are essentially poverty reduction / sustainable human development programs (think I am oversimplifying? The United Nations Development Programme’s motto is “empowered lives, resilient nations”).

Least developed countries (LDCs) do not have access to private sector credit (at affordable rates), particularly in times of great need (like after a major crisis). Therefore, an essential component of crisis preparedness are counter-cyclical fiscal policies. Many LDCs rely on natural resource rents for financing government programs. Counter-cyclical natural resource funds, such as the Nigeria’s Sovereign Investment Authority (which draws on excess oil rents), can be powerful tools for crisis preparedness.

Responsible use of ODA / natural resource rents relies on “good governance“. Corrupt leaders can easily embezzle ODA / public savings, and send that money offshore where it can never be recoveredFinding the right balance between prevention / preparedness and crisis response is a difficult task even for the most well intended governments / organizations.

However, it is obvious that spending only 1 % of official development assistance (ODA) on preventative / preparedness measures is a short-sighted strategy (although using a broader definition of “preventative action”, as I have, may encompass a larger portion of ODA). Further exacerbating the problem, there is a large gap in ODA commitments from the worlds wealthiest nations. Dedicating a bigger slice of a bigger pie to crisis prevention / preparedness is needed to strike a responsible balance

There are obvious reasons why the vast majority of ODA goes towards crisis response. Failure to respond to a humanitarian crisis can create breeding grounds for disease, human rights violations, violence/terrorism, and/or lost generations of economic growth. In addition, it is generally easier to mobilize resources in response to a specific incidence (which is seen as unavoidable), than it is for under-development / extreme poverty (which people often unmistakably attribute to laziness). However, it should be the job of development organizations to direct funding to the avenues which will have the greatest impact.

The democratic governance based approach to sustainable human development helps overcome common development issues. By emphasizing political rights and accountable governance, donors and citizens can be confident money is going (or in the case of preparedness, staying) where it is “supposed” to go. Farsighted “good” governments, whose capacities are fully developed with adequate resources (a combination of public savings / ODA), can achieve the simultaneous goals of economic development and resilience to crisis. By emphasizing human rights and environmental sustainability, humanitarian crises are addressed preventatively.

There is no one “road-map” for Sustainable Human Development. Every country is unique and has to build its own path–what Dr. Jeffrey Sachs refers to as “differential diagnosis“.

However, there are some common steps all LDCs should take if they wish to be on the path to sustainable human development: 

1) Draft Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) that take into consideration the indispensable role of human rights and accountable governance; 

2) Legislate the human rights accountability from all relevant stakeholders (governments, civil society, NGOs, private sector, IGOs, etc.);

3) Mobilize a greater share of resources for sustainable human development programs to prevent / prepare for humanitarian crises.

Update: The UNDP-EU just released interactive maps detailing their joint projects over the last 10 years. One of these maps focuses on crisis prevention and recovery projects.

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