We need a contingency budget for disasters and emergencies

A collapsed six-storey building in Tassia, Embakasi East. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Every day, disasters happen around the world. A disaster is an event whose timing is unexpected and whose consequences are seriously destructive. They can happen suddenly, such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or can span over years, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us. Disasters can be natural or man-made.

They impact us at multiple levels – personally, as communities, nationally, and may even have regional or global implications. Given the devastating consequences of disasters, why is it that we continue to be unprepared when they hit? Perhaps there is need to re-emphasise some issues which are taken for granted and yet are critical to mitigate the consequences of disasters.

Firstly, lessons are hard to learn. Once a disaster has passed or is no longer considered a disaster, it tends to be forgotten. Droughts are a prime example of this. Once over, governments, especially in Africa, forget about them and very little is learnt in the process.

In most cases, the recommendations of reports following a drought are hardly implemented. Governments may make empty promises to address the shortfalls identified, but nothing is done until the next drought disaster occurs.

Secondly, in many African countries, disaster funding is considered a luxury and thus not a government priority. When disaster occurs, be it natural or man-made, governments are paralysed if they do not receive quick external humanitarian assistance.

Given the current donor fatigue, the victims of disasters are often left to fend for themselves. We need to have a national contingency budget earmarked for disasters or emergencies. Disaster planning should be integrated into the national development process and adequate funds allocated from the national budget.

Thirdly, unfortunately many developing countries do not have proper institutions to handle disasters. Where they do exist, disaster units are normally small and allocated only a few staff. In one African country I served under, when the deputy prime minister convened an emergency meeting for a serious drought, he was surprised to discover that the country’s disaster mitigation unit comprised only two people and one secretary, sandwiched within the Ministry of Agriculture.

He was informed by the head of the unit that they were marginalised and had achieved very little in terms of disaster surveillance, mitigation, and management. To his credit, the deputy minister immediately recommended the unit be upgraded and properly staffed with an adequate budget allocation. Disaster management, moreover, is a specialised area which requires serious expertise.

Our institutions would be strengthened by having multi-disciplinary qualified staff with proper equipment, technologies and policies in place. The national disaster preparedness policies of Israel are instructive. Israel’s disaster policies ensure swift, coordinated responses and encourage cooperation and capacity building of personnel and contingency planning across all potentially affected sectors.

Fourthly, lack of drafted and implemented disaster mitigation standards pose another challenge. For example, without established building regulations in the construction and civil engineering sectors, contractors in developing countries often take shortcuts, resulting in the collapse of buildings killing many innocent people.

In contrast, engineers in the state of California, which is located within the Pacific earthquake ring, have developed various building methods to make earthquake-resistant buildings. The enforcement of these construction standards, which have been written into policy, greatly reduces the potential for disaster.

Fifthly, corruption is often rife during a disaster, particularly when the magnitude of the event is large and delivery of assistance is required swiftly. The delivery of substantial amounts of financial and other aid can be dangerously enticing to unscrupulous politicians and officials.

Moreover, as disasters call for not only speedy delivery, but also hasty needs assessments, poor targeting with over or under supply of humanitarian aid can happen. This too creates opportunities for exploitation.

Examples of corruption during disasters occur all over the world. In 2015, for instance, the mayor of New Orleans was found guilty of corruption involved with disaster relief following hurricane Katrina. The cases involved charity scams, identity fraud, contract, and procurement fraud. This was the same with Haiti during the earthquake and South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ways and means must be found to minimise corruption in disaster management.

Disasters will always occur, but through proactive planning and recognition of the importance of allocating contingency funds and human resources for when they do happen, their devastating consequences will be lessened.

-Dr Kakonge, is a former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UN Office and WTO in Geneva (Switzerland). [email protected]