All disasters are local
By Andy McElroy

Monday, 2 February 2015

All disasters, even the bigger ones, are ultimately local in their impact. Ipso Facto reinforcing and building local capacity to ‘bounce forward’ from such ‘hits’ is the biggest opportunity – and challenge – for the hundreds of policymakers who will meet at Sendai in March.

This ‘thing’ called capacity building is perhaps the most nebulous, widely (ab)used term I have come across in my 15 years involved in (initially) disaster management and more (latterly) disaster risk management. (It is only when I started working in disaster risk management that I understood the huge difference there is between an approach that reacts after a disaster to deal with the effects – ie disaster management – to an approach that acts before so that such a disaster is prevented or at least reduced and/or mitigated ie disaster risk management).

For many people – and in many donor reports – training equals capacity building. In isolated cases, yes, but in the vast majority of instances, experience says not. So if ‘training events’ – a phrase that has wrongly become interchangeable with ‘capacity building’ ­– rarely build capacity per se what can?

For me, the most important – admittedly of many – factors is local leadership that is supported by partnerships that add more than they take. Those of us involved in attempting to support this ‘capacity building’ have to be honest – and humble – enough to admit that we (rightly) have very limited influence on such local leadership and its quality and sustainability.

It is in the area of partnership that we have our biggest opportunity to be useful. At UNISDR’s Global Education and Training Institute (GETI) based in Incheon, Republic of Korea, my colleagues and I use our trainings to seed ideas, share practical tools, enhance competence and confidence, build partnership, and reinforce networks. We judge the effectiveness of our work by what follows after a training rather than only focusing on what happens during our forums.

So for 2014, it is not sufficient to simply record that GETI held 20 trainings for 800 DRR policymakers and practitioners from 36 countries. We need also to be able to say that, for instance, as a result of our engagement:

It is not easy and mistakes are made … but crucially it can be (and is being) done. And it is immensely rewarding when positive things do happen.

In Sendai, thousands of people and hundreds of meetings will produce one post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, with, in my view, a single key message: building more capacity to prevent, reduce and mitigate the local effects of disaster is our biggest job in hand.

Andy McElroy is a member of the team at UNISDR’s Global Education and Training Institute in Incheon, Republic of Korea. Previously a newspaper journalist, he has also worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.