How do we tell the story of disaster risk reduction?
By Carl Mercer

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

carlmercerCapturing the work of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is difficult in the best of times. As in other development fields, jargon has clouded the DRR narrative. Terms like “risk governance,” “resilient recovery” and, my favorite, “comprehensive community based disaster risk management,” have made it a struggle to impress upon non-UN types what exactly it is that we do.

This isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of what UNDP does is behind the scenes, governance-type work. So many times, after a disaster somewhere, a friend has asked me, “You must be really busy?” Explaining the nuances of pre-disaster DRR can be challenging.

Nuance just isn’t an easy sell, and that’s the hard truth of our work. Relief agencies can throw bags of food from helicopters and take pictures of it, but what can we do? Snap a picture of the new district disaster management plan?

But while the type of work we do makes communications harder, it doesn’t make it impossible. Our task is to look further down the service line and show how that district plan is helping people on the ground.

All of this was very much on my mind as I travelled around south India filming videos for the World Conference on DRR. Visiting the cyclone-prone states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, I was constantly trying to figure out how we could showcase the work that’s been done in an easily accessible and understandable way.

I realized that my job was to be a sort of translator; to show how, behind the jargon, there are people and communities who benefit from our work.

A few examples from Odisha: 

  1. After the 1999 super cyclone, UNDP carried out infrastructure enhancement projects.

Translation: UNDP trained hundreds of people in better, safer and more economical construction. Amongst the trained was Karunakar Patra, who now employs 15 people in a firm that builds resilient brick-and-mortar housing, and who has built hundreds of homes and schools. Karunakar’s work has helped people like Sushma Kandi, a disabled woman who received a new, stronger home for her and her daughter.

  1. In Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital, UNDP undertook institutional capacity building for the Odisha State Management Agency (OSDMA).

Translation: UNDP supported OSMDA as it trained and equipped rapid response teams; these teams are critical to saving lives during a disaster, and have impressive skills (which they demonstrated to me), such as the ability to scale buildings or dive into lakes to rescue distressed people.

  1. In Baliupar village, UNDP helped strengthen community level preparedness and awareness capacity building.

Translation: In Baliupar, a local women’s group has taken it upon themselves to hold mock drills to expedite emergency evacuation. While we were there, an entire dramatized disaster was acted out, complete with community medical volunteers supporting the elderly and injured. While UNDP didn’t set up the group, we did support (and continue to support) the local NGO who did.

By 2013, after tireless work by the government and partners, Odisha is considered highly disaster prepared. The numbers prove it: While 10,000 people died in 1999, only 44 died during a similar cyclone in 2013. Can UNDP claim responsibility for this? Absolutely not. But our efforts, along with those of our partners, supported the government as they led a long-term, comprehensive campaign that transformed disaster risk reduction in the state.

On the surface, our work in DRR may not seem as dynamic or immediately lifesaving as those of our relief partners. But dig beneath the surface and you will see the tangible impact of our work—you will find real people who benefit from the systems we help set up and strengthen. UNDP may not build 10,000 houses, but we build 10 and train people to then go on and do it themselves.

Next month, the World Conference will see the release of a new global framework for disaster risk reduction. This framework, as well as UNDP’s commitment to it, will be heavy on risk governance—as it should be. Our job now is to learn how to effectively and creatively communicate this, and to show how risk governance helps our partners design the blueprints for real risk reduction.

Carl Mercer is a Communications Specialist with the UNDevelopment Programme’s Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Team.  His Twitter handle is @carlvmercer.