From Wed Nov 24 17:01:05 2004
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: The future is now
Date: Wed, 17 Nov 2004 15:29:09 +0100 (CET)

Survival strategies against catastrophe and disaster: The future is now

By Agnès Callamard and Randolf Kent, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2004

International humanitarian organisations are in urgent need of reform. They have to improve their capacity to advance strategic thought and planning, even if in so doing they risk having to challenge directly those who at present fund their work.

“THE greatest long-term threat”, suggests the political scientist Anatol Lieven, “is one that our media hardly ever discuss, since it is too long-term and insufficiently fashionable: the growing shortage of water, due to a combination of over-population, inefficient use and conservation, and the effect of global warming on the Himalayan glaciers. If present trends continue, it is virtually certain that in 50 years' time, much of Pakistan will be as dry as the Sahara—but a Sahara with a population of hundreds of millions of human beings. The same will be true of northern India” (1).

The melting of Himalayan glaciers, probably irreversibly, is due to climate changes that directly result from human activities over the past century. Only during this brief period in the 10,000-year history of modern human beings have they actually become a major factor in determining the course of nature. They have become “planetary engineers”, says Professor Albert Harrison of the University of California: “We have already transformed our own planet. We have changed Earth's landscape through enormous pit mines and through agriculture; we have rerouted waterways through systems of dams, locks and canals; and we have released tons of hydrocarbons and other chemicals into the atmosphere, creating global warming and cutting holes into the ozone layer” (2).

Human beings are now nature's greatest hazard. Disasters and emergencies are not peripheral events but reflections of the ways that we live our normal lives, structure our societies and allocate our resources. Trends in “natural disasters” underscore this. Deforestation and destruction of wetlands, migration from unproductive rural areas to cities that cannot afford to provide support infrastructures or livelihoods, and relative governmental indifference to global warming all relate to the fact that losses from natural disasters during the 1990s were three times those in the 1980s and 15 times those of the 1950s.

Existing data dispels the myth that the economic and social consequences of such disasters are limited to the areas where they struck. This was the central issue at a conference - Crowding the Rim—at Stanford University, California, in 2001. Geologists and disaster mitigation and relief experts assessed the possible effects of disasters, including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, on the Pacific Rim, from Lima through to Los Angeles, Seattle, Anchorage, Tokyo and Taipei (3).

As one noted, “The linkages that we have built to connect the US west coast and Asia are all vulnerable to echo disruptions, and much larger and devastating earthquakes are in prospect for Seattle and San Francisco” (4). The 1999 earthquake in Taiwan was costly there in life and property, and also disrupted economies as distant as that of San Jose, California, where electronic industries were halted because of a lack of essential components usually supplied by Taiwanese companies. The earthquake revealed a disturbing, if not totally unforeseen, dimension of globalisation: the economic vulnerability—in large-scale lay-offs—of Californian workers to an event thousands of miles away.

Returning to Lieven's concern about the immediate consequences of the melting Himalayas, hundreds of millions of South Asians will be deprived of water and livelihood at the same time as a combination of global warming, inadequate conservation and overpopulation cause effects elsewhere. We need to anticipate the migratory impact that hundreds of millions of desperate people searching for survival will have on the urban areas of South Asia and the security and stability of states in the region. We need to consider how such potential insecurity and instability (in the form of globally transmitted diseases, disruptive migration patterns, regional conflicts) might expose our large-scale human vulnerability worldwide. Disasters and emergencies are not the monopoly of the developing world. The current global level of insecurity resulting from 9/11, the “war on terror” and intervention in Iraq all dramatically remind us that we can no longer hold on to the idea of peripheral and geographically-contained humanitarian crises. We are all unwilling participants in a global pandemic brought upon us by human actions, whether guided by ruthless self-interest, messianic zeal or perceived economic survival.

Not all such trends are inevitable, but we need to change how we view disasters and emergencies, their causes, locations and effects. The future is now. Professor Martin Rees of Cambridge University says categorically that by “ 2020 an instance of bio-error or bio-terror will have killed a million people” (5). Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon suggests that humanity has already created the conditions for major global catastrophes. He foresees “the synchronous failure of global, social, economic and biophysical systems arising from diverse yet interacting stresses” (6).

Yet the structures responsible for anticipating ways to mitigate, prevent or prepare to respond to large-scale human vulnerability seem incapable of doing so. The organisations deemed “humanitarian”—governmental, non-governmental or inter-governmental—are stuck with perceptions and processes that have more to do with institutional survival and familiar routines.

Still, we have to recognise the problems of any organisation in attempting to anticipate the future. Professor Rees notes that in 1937 the United States National Academy of Sciences organised a study to predict breakthroughs: “Its report makes salutary reading for technological forecasters today. It came up with some wise assessments about agriculture, about synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber. But what is more remarkable is the things it missed. No nuclear energy, no antibiotics . . . no jet aircraft, no rocketry nor any use of space, no computers; certainly no transistors. The committee overlooked the technologies that actually dominated the second half of the 20th century. Still less could they predict the social and political transformations that occurred during that time” (7).

The issue for humanitarian organisations is less that of forecasting, more the capacity to monitor, analyse and adapt to a global environment marked by rapid change and complexity. The institutions required to address effectively rapid technological and political changes and anticipate potential humanitarian crises are those that are able to cope with rapid change and complexity.

They are adaptive organisations with the capacity to monitor compelling trends and the willingness to invest time and energy in understanding their consequences. Their structures are designed to integrate a relatively wide range of expertise and they most likely have accommodated the different languages of the scientist, the political strategist, the policy planner, the ethicist, and the decision-maker. They have the courage to unpack power, confront their weaknesses in accountability and work in partnership.

And organisations, even well-prepared, future-oriented, technically savvy ones, cannot assume the responsibility to respond to current and future crisis unilaterally: those affected directly or indirectly must be genuinely involved in shaping the response if the response is to be legitimate and effective (8). Above all, adaptive organisations are externally oriented, more focused upon understanding the environment in which they operate, than self-referential and self-absorbed non-adaptive organisations.

The “humanitarian community” of today does not meet these requirements. It is inherently reactive, more often than not unable to develop strategies to anticipate, let alone respond, to looming crises. Only at the beginning of the past decade did humanitarian organisations begin to anticipate the human consequences of state collapse: the idea of “complex emergencies” was a belated recognition. Yet a range of large-scale crises was clearly inevitable, given states' inability or unwillingness to provide protection and welfare for their citizens. Decline of livelihoods, uncontrolled violence and the collapse of infrastructures presaged mass displacement, starvation and uncontrolled disease. The warning signs had been visible since the 1970s (East Pakistan) and were increasingly evident in the 1980s (Sudan), but it was only when multiple crises (former Yugoslavia, the Horn of Africa) could no longer be explained away using the conventional language of agencies that a new perspective emerged.

These organisations also continue to perpetuate the divide between “natural” and “man-made emergencies”, despite their obvious interactive dynamics. Even now most organisations responsible for disasters and emergencies do not focus on the links between natural disasters (droughts and decline in livelihoods) and their potential political impact upon the stability of affected societies. That natural disasters and political emergencies are intertwined is an idea that eludes the response mechanisms and often the perceptual frames of reference of most humanitarian organisations.

Another telling example has to do with the relationship between crisis-threatened communities and humanitarian organisations. Some in the humanitarian sector have over the past 10 years addressed questions of their accountability and unequal relationships with crisis-affected populations (9). At the centre of this is the realisation that relief workers do exercise power over the lives of such individuals and communities and that humanitarian power can be abused or mismanaged. Some agencies insist that the humanitarian ethos should take its moral cue from those who suffer and survive crises rather than be defined only through and by the well-intentioned intervener (10). The search for accountability mechanisms is one of the most important ethical developments. Yet these developments have failed to permeate mainstream humanitarian thinking and practices. The security and political challenges arising from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have sidelined the search for greater accountability.

Failure to anticipate the sources of humanitarian crises, to be strategic in efforts to mitigate as well as to respond to disasters and emergencies can be explained in several ways. First there is the organisational culture of much of the humanitarian community; the community's underlying ethos, like that of firemen, is to respond to the most acute immediate challenge. Then there is the competitive aid environment in which NGOs and United Nations agencies operate. Four recent independent studies have concluded that increased funds for humanitarian assistance have led to an unseemly rush for donor resources, often at the expense of the needs of both the disaster victims and of the organisations' integrity (11).

Humanitarian organisations are often guided by the interests of their donors, who put national interests first when allocating funds (12). There are no institutional rewards for those organisations that think strategically about future vulnerabilities. This encourages agencies to perpetuate the belief that disasters and emergencies are aberrant phenomena that cannot be anticipated. Organisations, and those that fund them, are reluctant to invest energy, let alone funds, in activities thought speculative and theoretical. The perceived inability to forecast provides everyone with an organisational excuse not to try to think more strategically.

Organisations supposed to be on the front line of emergency prevention and response are averse to taking risks. If they did, they might have to embark on advocacy (warning against the sources of growing vulnerability) and prescription (bold measures to offset disaster and emergency agents). Both risk pitting them against funders who ensure their organisational survival. According to Jean-François Rischard, World Bank vice-president for Europe, there are at least 20 global issues that must be resolved quickly if the world is to survive, from global warming to global regulation of biotechnology. But there is no pilot in the cockpit. Our present methods of dealing with global problems are inadequate (13); consider the persistent attempts of the governments of the US, and other countries, to ignore the threat of climate change and derail global treaties to reduce the rate of change (14).


(1) Anatol Lieven, “Preserver and Destroyer,” London Review of Books, 23 January 2003.

(2) Albert Harrison, Spacefaring: the Human Dimension, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Donald Kennedy, “Science Terrorism and Natural Disasters”, Science,18 January 2002

(5) Martin Rees, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the 21st Century, William Heinemann, London, 2003.

(6) Lecture note by T Homer-Dixon, “The Real Danger of the 21st Century”, part of a series on security sponsored by the US Congress bipartisan study group, 1 December 2003.

(7) Martin Rees, op cit.

(8) See arguments by Amy Bartholomew and Jennifer Breakspear against Ignatieff's position on the war in Iraq: “Human Rights as Swords of Empire”, in Socialist Register 2004, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds, Merlin Press, 2003.

(9) See the work of Sphere, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership ( and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action.

(10) See Hugo Slim, “Doing the Right Thing” in Studies on Emergencies and Disaster Relief, no 6, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 1997.

(11) Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance Flows 2003, May 2003; Larry Minear and Ian Smillie, The Quality of Money: donor behaviour in humanitarian financing, Humanitarianism and War Project, Feinstein Famine Centre, Tufts University, April 2003; James Darcy, “Measuring humanitarian need: A critical review of needs assessment practice”, Overseas Development Institute, Humanitarian Policy Group, Feb 2003.

(12) Minear and Smillie, op cit.

(13) Jean-François Rischard, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, Basic Books, New York, 2002.

(14) So far 124 states, not including the US, have ratified, acceded to or accepted the Kyoto protocol on climate change.