Leadership Lessons from International Disaster Management

We are living in an unprecedented time of urban growth. By 2050, it is projected that 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, compared with just 10 per cent in 1913. This means the impact of natural disasters and man-made stresses will only escalate, creating significant challenges for aid organisations.

There is a clear business case for building more resilient cities and making urban markets less vulnerable. Professor David Sanderson, Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture at UNSW, shares his insights for leaders, drawing on more than 25 years’ experience in urban disaster resilience and humanitarian aid.

“The need to address the challenges faced by people caught up in poverty, conflict and disaster has never been greater,” he explains. “We need to lift our game, because currently we have the biggest forced migration crisis since World War II, with over 60 million people displaced. That’s something like one in every 120 people.”

Add to this the impact of climate change and cities growing at a rate of one million people a week, and it’s a “heady cocktail” that calls for a new approach: one that focusses on building long-term resilience rather than providing short-term relief.

Three sources of resilience

Resilience can be defined as the capacity of individuals, communities, organisations or businesses to survive, adapt and grow, despite the impact of external stresses or shocks.

David explains that in the world of NGOs, resilience can come from three sources.

“First, there’s engineering – the structures for shelter and movement, rebuilding bridges, homes and hospitals. There’s also the resilience of our ecology, ensuring it is strong enough to recover from disturbances. And then there’s the resilience of people – the psychology of how we survive, our robustness.”

He says it has become clear after recent events that the current aid processes are not fit for purpose.

“They have been designed to manage rural events, rather than the scale of urban disasters. But there’s also a silo mentality – we need to bring these three strands together, rather than having one group focusing on shelter and another on water.”

Aid as a long-term investment

Another challenge for aid organisations is the risk of short-term mentality.

“Billions of dollars can be wasted on short-term responses,” David explains. “But when aid works very well, it’s an investment.”

For example, investing in local people and markets can lead to much faster local economic recovery. “Compare the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines in 2013. Typically, we would ship recovery goods from developed countries – as we did in Haiti – but this effectively destroys the local markets,” he says. “Much of those goods could have been sourced from neighbouring Dominican Republic.”

Instead, in the Philippines local builders received aid funding to construct new homes. “They are often more robust and long-term than shelters, at a fraction of the cost.”

Market Mentality at work

“The biggest innovation in social programs today is the use of money,” says David. “Sending cash, rather than goods, is building local economies and creating jobs. In the future, we will have to justify not sending cash.”

The UN World Food Program, for example, now provides cash and vouchers rather than food to tackle hunger in marketplaces where food is available. This cuts the cost of transporting and storing food and benefits local markets. eVouchers can be sent by text and redeemed at an ATM.

“The idea is simple. Rather than sending goods they don’t need, we can provide cash immediately and they can use it as they wish. The transaction costs are minimal. Kenya is leading the way in using this technology.”

David emphasises that the best solutions are both simple and low-cost. “Metrics are often forgotten in a rush to help, but to reach the largest number of people we need to factor in the economics. That’s why the rapid distribution of tarps is still an effective response to a disaster.”

Building business resilience

Of course, the issue of resilience is not confined to the work of NGOs. Leaders of any type of organisation will be affected by the vulnerability of our cities. Resilient cities can recover faster, so markets can get back to business as usual. “It’s a virtuous circle – markets will benefit when people are less vulnerable, but we need to be better prepared for the scale of urban disasters,” cautions David.

Business leaders can also learn from past experience in the aid sector.

“Due to our obsession with designing and delivering new products, we often forget to focus on the processes — what lies beneath the surface,” he explains. It is one thing to develop a new solution – another entirely to scale the solution to meet a major challenge in a cost-effective manner.

“It’s also essential to get your assessments right. Listen to what people really want and need, don’t make assumptions.”

And finally, don’t underestimate the power of your social capital. Co-ordinating and collaborating within a network can often yield a much faster and more effective response in both disaster relief and the business environment. “When you are in trouble, it’s your neighbours who will pull you out.”

There is also a word of warning about corporate responsibility.

“I choose to believe that humans are intrinsically good. But it is corruption that causes most disasters,” says David.

He points to the Szechuan earthquake in 2008, where around 70,000 people were killed, and many new hospitals and schools collapsed due to a lack of planning controls. “Tragically, there are endless examples, the evidence is there. The garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh is another.” The building owners ignored the warning signs, and almost 1,200 people died.

“According to Ambraseys and Bilahm’s 2011 research, 83 per cent of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries where there are problems with corruption.”

To tackle the big issues – the vulnerability of those living in poverty, irrelevant city masterplans and poor quality infrastructure – business, government and social organisations will need to work together.

David refers to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s recent address during the BBC’s World on the Move day, where she said “if your neighbour’s house is on fire, you are not safe if you lock your doors.”

“It’s about all of us,” he concludes. “Businesses can take the lead here, not just through philanthropy but by investing in smart urban cities where we can all thrive.”

Professor David Sanderson is inaugural Judith Neilson chair in architecture at UNSW. The chair aims to lead research and education to support disadvantaged communities displaced by natural disasters, geo-political conflicts, socio-economic exclusion and environmental factors.