In the international governance of disaster which has emerged since the early twentieth century, governments have been reluctant to invest in disaster preparedness. In this article, Dr Lukas Schemper discusses the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the historical and continuing problem of lack of action in preparing for national and global disasters.
“Why We Fail to Prepare for Disasters”
Several weeks into the present pandemic, the head of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction Organization (UNDRR), Mami Mizutori, wrote an open letter to the Financial Times in response to one of the journal’s columns. In his column, “Why we Fail to Prepare for Disasters,” journalist Tim Harford discussed the tendency of humans to remain unprepared in the face of overwhelming evidence that preparations are urgently needed. Indeed, previous deadly influenza epidemics and continued warnings from international monitoring organisations – the most recent being in October 2019 through the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board of the World Health Organization and the World Bank – went unheeded. Harford concluded that the problem was not the unpredictability of disasters, but that even when we are made aware of the risks, we fail to act appropriately. Rather than disagreeing with Harford, Ms Mizutori echoed his criticism: governments keep ignoring the greatest risks of our time and need to invest now to prevent future disasters.
Among the hundreds of op-eds and articles that have been written amidst the pandemic, why did the head of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction Organization single out Harford’s column? The reason is that Harford’s analysis hit the nail on the head as to what has obstructed not only the work of the UNDRR, but the international governance of disaster more generally since its beginnings in the early 20th century: the difficulty to generate the political will within governments to invest in disaster preparedness and to act before it is too late. Researchers classify the COVID-19 pandemic as a biological disaster, but it serves as a clear example of the historical and continuing problem of lack of action in all disaster preparedness.
The Long History of Governmental Foot-Dragging in Emergency Preparedness
International attempts to encourage states to develop effective, science-based disaster prevention and relief policies are now century-old. During and after the First World War, countries had to cope with a number of disasters. Children were suffering from malnutrition and lack of clothing and shelter. Diseases such as the Spanish flu, tuberculosis, typhus and cholera were spreading. While many initiatives were launched to deal with these different humanitarian situations, the president of the Italian Red Cross boldly proposed the creation of a multinational organization to deal with all types of disaster: governments would contribute to an international disaster fund, which would form the basis of a mutual insurance consortium with offices in every state. This organization would provide the resources necessary for an army of humanitarian organizations to carry out immediate disaster relief. The organization’s work would be guided by scientific studies and sanctioned by a new Geneva Convention for peacetime, making it mandatory for governments to provide aid to disaster victims.
The negative reactions to this plan sound all too familiar in the context of the current pandemic. The United States claimed to be sufficiently prepared to deal with disaster on its own and preferred to use humanitarian aid as a tool for diplomatic purposes through the American Red Cross. Britain had been comparatively unaffected by historical disasters and maintained that they would gain too little benefit to justify paying into such a fund. Virtually all governments objected to a mandatory disaster management system that would oblige them to set aside money to prepare for a speculative disaster that might never happen to them. No one wants to pay for a disaster beforehand. The proposal was nevertheless put into practice with the creation of the International Relief Union in 1927; but, in order to appease the states’ fears, the plan for an international insurance fund and the obligation of states to assist disaster victims were abandoned. Chronically underfunded and legally toothless, the organization was never given the opportunity to effectively manage disaster on a global scale and fell into oblivion.
After 1945, the preference for a bilateral rather than multilateral approach to disaster management intensified. Because this was a convenient foreign policy tool, all major powers blocked any attempt by the UN to get involved in disaster relief. Specialised UN agencies such as UNESCO did perform important technical work in the field of disaster reduction such as helping to create a tsunami warning system in the Pacific in the 1960s. The WHO prided itself on limiting the spread of several diseases and leading the efforts to eradicate smallpox in 1980. However, there was no universal, international approach to dealing with disaster risk. In the wake of a number of severe disasters in the Global South in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several affected countries demanded a larger involvement of the UN in the fight against disasters. Reactions echoed the usual skepticism. Countries such as the United States and France claimed that a permanent, multilateral fund to deal with disaster would set “a dangerous precedent”, less efficient and more bureaucratic than dealing with disasters bilaterally. Eventually, however, western states recognised that relying solely on bilateral aid also had its disadvantages in terms of high cost and inefficiency. As a consequence, the United Nations Disaster Relief Office (UNDRO) was created in 1971 to coordinate global disaster relief. Its approach, however, was relegated to coordinating relief following a disaster, as their plan to develop a long-term strategy of disaster prevention had to be abandoned because of lack of funds and no clear mandate.
It took an initiative by scientists in the mid 1980s to launch a global program on coping with disaster risks by declaring the 1990s the UN Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. While disasters linked to technological progress of the 1980s shook public confidence in the capacity of technology to reduce the risks of the time, it was the objective of these scientists to base governmental disaster prevention plans around the world on the best scientific evidence. At the end of the Decade, its Secretariat was transformed into today’s UNDRR, which oversees the implementation of strategies for disaster risk reduction such as the Sendai framework 2015-2030. It supports countries in the deployment and monitoring of scientifically based plans to reduce risk. The framework has been criticised, however, for lacking concrete, binding, and realistically achievable targets.
Continuities and Changes in the Context of COVID-19
Historical comparisons with regard to cooperation in international disaster preparedness in a health crisis like the current COVID pandemic have to be made carefully. The international mechanisms for responding to a disaster of global magnitude are much better developed than they were in the inter-war period. Scientific knowledge about disaster management has vastly improved, and there are now mechanisms in place to globally coordinate economic and humanitarian aid -provided governments continue to fund them and support them in their work. Statistics show that mortality from disasters has significantly decreased over the past century. Despite these substantial improvements, the challenges of international disaster governance have become more complex. The number of people affected by disasters has increased over the last century and disasters have become more costly. Rampant, unplanned urbanization and the creation of highly vulnerable global infrastructures partially explain this phenomenon. Those parts of the populations, which are on the margins due to poverty and other factors of vulnerability, are over-proportionally affected. This is also reflected in the daily grim statistics of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, a 2014 report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs showed that prevention and preparedness funding comprised less than 0.5% of all international aid over the previous twenty years.
Another continuing problem that COVID-19 makes visible is the tendency of some governments to dismiss international cooperation in favor of a national response to disaster, which is judged to be more efficient. We are seeing these policy changes once again with the recent decision of the US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the WHO. Intergovernmental organizations are accused of principally benefitting certain countries – China, in this case. Again, we are witnessing the effects of a kind of bilateral disaster diplomacy in which the sending of medical equipment to states stricken by COVID-19 is used to boost the donor country’s humanitarian image. The absence of global, multilateral mechanisms and protocols to address the challenges posed by the virus is shown by ad-hoc travel restrictions and decisions based on unproven claims and not science.
As evidenced by the continuing locust invasions in several countries, as well as the impending long-term economic recession caused by the virus, the pandemic will likely influence and be influenced by other disasters. A universal, pluralistic, and precautionary approach is essential for a strong and effective response. Both Mizutori and Harford appear not to have lost hope that the present disaster will provoke governments to invest in such approaches. As the above account demonstrates, governments have on occasion made concerted efforts to strengthen international cooperation and preparedness as a consequence of a disaster. However, history does not tell us whether such actions, if they are taken as a result of the current pandemic, will be adequate and how long they will remain sufficient.
Dr Lukas Schemper is a historian with a particular interest in international forms of governance, humanitarianism, and responses to disaster. He received his MA from Sciences Po Paris (2011) and his PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (2017). He is currently a postdoctoral researcher funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society of the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich. https://www.carsoncenter.uni-muenchen.de/staff_fellows/visiting_fellows/lukas_schemper/index.html
 Mami Mizutori, ‘Letter: Investing in Prevention Pays off and Saves Lives’, Financial Times, 22 April 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/7041fd26-8324-11ea-b555-37a289098206.
 Tim Harford, ‘Why We Fail to Prepare for Disasters’, Financial Times, 18 April 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/74e5f04a-7df1-11ea-82f6-150830b3b99a.
 Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, A World at Risk. Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2019), https://apps.who.int/gpmb/annual_report.html.
 OCHA, Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow: Managing the Risk of Humanitarian Crises, United Nations (Geneva: OCHA, 2014), https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/OCHA%20SLTT%20Web%20Final%20Single.PDF.