Build Back Better: A short reflection on the Priority 4 of the Sendai Framework
This paper was written for the Master course in Building and Urban Design in Development of the DPU at the University College of London. Despite the simplicity of some of the reflections contained here, we decided to publish them in order to keep trace of our learning process, which is, and will always be, an unfinished work open to critiques and further ruminations.
‘Build Back Better’ is an umbrella term for post-disaster recovery policies, officially adopted for the first time by the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. In general terms, the explicit introduction of this concept embraces a broader and historical UN commitment to reimagine the glitching fringe between ‘emergency management’ and ‘development’ in post-disaster recovery phases. At the same time, the calls back to the recovery phase itself as a ‘window’ for sustainable development opportunities cannot be fully considered as Sendai’s theoretical innovations. This short paper intends to argue and single out the roles and responsabilities of local governments in recovering ‘after’ a disaster in relation to the Sendai Framework and to its Priority 4.
Sendai Framework, Build Back Better, disaster, recovery, sustainable development, local government
Disasters always occur within ignored or simply neglected frictions emerging from environmental, technological or biological hazards on one side, meeting underlying risks and human exposed vulnerabilities on the other. On the wake of continued and more recent traditions we could single out and mention, among many, three core theoretical perspectives on disasters to check the pulse of their contemporary understanding. First, that disasters often gloss over local scales by developing cumulative and incremental impacts across globalized geographies over time; second, that disasters always prove to be human-hatched in societies; and third, that both extraordinary and small scale frequent disruptive events should be systematically included in the ‘disasters family’. Introducing the first point, the Sendai Framework recalls us to the importance of developing cut crossing strategies between nations and regions at ‘all levels’, being oriented towards ‘sustainable development’ pathways and by preserving coherence across diverse global agendas and goals. Rhyming lines between ‘disaster’ and ‘development’, in this regard, came actually on stage in UN debates on disasters from the very beginning: “sustainable economic growth and sustainable development cannot be achieved in many countries without adequate measures to reduce disaster losses” (United Nations, 1994, pag. 6) within an holistic vision that has always considered emergency and development as linked theoretical dimensions. Despite a general absence ‘recovery’ terms in the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World indeed, clear and uninterrupted kinships between ‘reconstruction’ and ‘development’ have been set here as well: “in the effort towards effective disaster management, the full continuum from relief through rehabilitation, reconstruction and development to prevention must be the concept guiding actions” (United Nations, 1994, pag. 9). Equally, rather than being firstly introduced in 2015, the importance of recovery phase as hotbed for sustainable alternatives in development emerges as inherited principles from previous discussions. In particular the first rumblings forecasting the introduction of the ‘Build Back Better’ adage can be found back, namely, in the 2005 Hyogo Framework: “the phases of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction following a disaster are windows of opportunity for the rebuilding of livelihoods and for the planning and reconstruction of physical and socio-economic structures, in a way that will build community resilience and reduce vulnerability to future disaster risks” (United Nations, 2005, pag. 5). To sum up, not only sustainable development has always been considered in defining disasters; equally, post-disaster recovery phases started to be defined as opportunities far before the Sendai Framework and the use of the Build Back Better formula. By no means, however, this paper suggests the idea that no innovations about ‘recovery’ have been introduced by the Sendai Framework in 2015 at all. On the contrary, this document significantly articulated existing principles and defined more structured relations between guidelines, priorities and stakeholders. At the same time, however, the innovative sheer scale of the Sendai Framework outlook on post-disaster management cannot be reduced neither to a stressed reflection on recovery, nor to its discovered centrality among the priorities for action (in the Hyogo Framework was just mentioned within the general considerations). Conversely, a more fair reading of this document should take into account the underlying enacted tensions between inherited standpoints and new concepts, namely the aforementioned regarding the common-grounded “rejection of the hazard paradigm […] diverting the attention from the fundamentally social nature of disasters” (Johnson, 2020) and the introduction of extensive disasters and disaster risks concepts in the official literature. On the wake of these reflections, the second part of this short contribute will be dedicated to a brief introduction of these newcomers concepts and will be oriented towards an analysis on how they appear as generically assumed in the Sendai Framework. Proceeding inwards the Sendai Framework, the third part aims to list the roles and responsabilities of local governments in recovering ‘after’ a disaster, trying to articulate in which ways these could have been reshaped in relation to a renewed perception of disasters in recent times. Finally, I will examine with more attention the general assumption embedded in the Priority 4 of the Framework (Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction) by acknowledging that, despite the aforementioned continuum between recovery and development, significant differences pass between ‘recovering’ and ‘building back better’.
BEFORE AND AFTER DISASTERS
Disasters have been perceived for centuries as the results of external forces that were beyond any human control and understanding. In the minds of many then, these disruptive events were associated with abrupting and unexpected interruptions of ‘normality’ caused by impersonal - at least non-human - forces, which clearly marked ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in life. In general terms we could say that disasters were actually easier to recognize than they were to define (Barkun, 1974, pag. 51), since the attention on them was mainly focused on the events themselves rather than on the causes, which were considered to be generically indipendent from the human agency. This basically means that the main framework within which a human ‘response’ to hazards was possible had to be inscribed into ‘emergency spaces’. In these spaces, rather than being possible structured reflections about the future, only the disrupted centres of the present were clearly recognisable. Development perspectives, and sustainable development perspectives above all, were missing of course. But, how these perspectives have changed over time? The first shift regards perception. In this regard we could say that defining disasters as “perceived disruption of the customary relative satisfactions of individual and social needs for physical survival, social ordering and meaning” (Johnson, 2020) has always been actual. Equally, we must suppose that people in past times had clear awareness on the fact that the disruptive outcomes of hazards were closely related to the presence of underlying risks embedded in societies and that were significantly increased by exposed vulnerabilities. In any case, this dialectic has been restructured over time by producing a shift in the standpoints under which the relation between ‘human’ and ‘nature’ was conceived. Far from being depicted as targets of natural disasters, humans started to be seen as representative beings. To say it better we could borrow the wordings of Arthur Schopenhauer according to which: “The world is my representation : – this holds true for every living, cognitive being, although only a human being can bring it to abstract, reflective consciousness: and if he actually does so he has become philosophically sound. It immediately becomes clear and certain to him that he is not acquainted with either the sun or the earth, but rather only with an eye that sees a sun, with a hand that feels an earth, and that the surrounding world exists only as representation, that is, exclusively in relation to something else, the representing being that he himself is.” (Norman et al., 2010, pag. 23). According to this perspective it becomes all the more clear that ‘disasters’ do not exhaust their meaning in nature. On the contrary they might be seen as ‘human representations’. We could say that this discourse is trivial of course, at least until we acknowledge that the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction is the first official UN document that operated a clear and systemic distinction between ‘disaster reduction’ and ‘disaster risks reduction’ by introducing a “strong emphasis on disaster risk management as opposed to disaster management, […] the reduction of disaster risk as an expected outcome, a goal focused on preventing new risk, reducing existing risk and strengthening resilience” (United Nations, 2015, pag. 5).
In this regard the introduction of the word ‘risk’ has to be considered more than a difference in terms. Despite a general and common-ground assumed relation between societies and disasters in previous documents such as the Hyogo Framework and the Yokohama Strategy for a Safer World, this shift appears as a methodology in the Sendai one. Here we comes to the second point: hazards regard nature, risks regard us.
On this wake, rather than being focused only on social vulnerabilities, modern debates, and the Sendai Framework with them, embed the general assumption that disasters are as much ‘socially perceived’ as well ‘socially produced’, as underlined for decades by many scholars: “a disaster is at some basic level a social construction, it’s essence to be found in the organisation of communities rather than an environmental phenomenon with disruptive o destructive effects for a society” (Quarantelli et al., 1998). Notwithstanding this is not a recent finding, since the centrality of human agency in producing disasters have been outlined since the 1970s by authors such as Quarantelli, Fritz and Dynes, to name a few.
Why then the Sendai Framework is innovative? In my opinion because it introduces a expanded discourse on recovery spaces as development opportunities, which can only be glimpsed elsewhere. By doing so it acknowledges as well that the theoretical boundaries of disasters have to be reshaped. In other words, since finally disasters are seen as ‘development failures’, the human response to them cannot be framed anymore within ‘befores’ and afters’, rather as a continued commitment to produce sustainable alternatives for the functioning of our societies. This reflection, finds a new centrality in this document with the introduction of the Build Back Better call into the priorities for action. For the first time indeed, a document conjugated the traditional and common grounded reference to ‘sustainable development’ into an unpacked discourse on ‘recovery as opportunity’ in the Priority 4.
A clearer link between disaster and development, by the way, is not the only innovation that helps us to reshape the aforementioned boundaries of disasters. In this regards the Sendai Framework equally dismantles the idea according to which disasters are extraordinary events by acknowledging in the preamble that “recurring small-scale disasters and slow-onset disasters particularly affect communities, households and small and medium-sized enterprises, constituting a high percentage of all losses.” (United Nations, 2015, pag. 10).
On this wake,it must be said that in many countries disasters are by no means extraordinary events: they belong instead to a very quotidian landscape that undermines communities with (or without) capabilities to properly access sustainable, structured and systemic alternatives in development. Here the second point comes out.
Alongside with a increased recognition of the social nature of disasters and the introduction of priorities about recovery, the Sendai Framework largely refers to disaster as both “small-scale and large-scale, frequent and infrequent, sudden and slow-onset disasters caused by natural or man-made hazards, as well as related environmental, technological and biological hazards and risks” (United Nations, 2015, pag. 11).
What does it mean? How do these considerations recalibrate our positionality on disasters? How these two different assumptions informs us around the links between ‘emergency’ and ‘development’?
By paying sufficient attention to the tensions between these concepts, it becomes clear what is the general innovation of the Sendai Framework: that the ‘problem’ of disasters cannot be found in the emergency they produce only, rather within our concept of ‘normality’. Indeed, if on one hand disasters literally shape the quotidian landscapes of life of many countries and cities, on the other the assumption that disaster are ‘development failures’ informs us on the fact that both infrequent and extraordinary disasters never burst into ‘positive normalities’ rather they bloom within a ‘normality’ which is already a problem under many aspects. In this sense then, the Sendai Framework depicts a broader disaster landscape that potentially include every geography and society. This reflection, it goes without saying, not only expands the theoretical boundaries of disasters but equally reshapes the role and responsabilities of national, regional and local governments in providing solutions for preparedness and recovery.
THE ROLE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENTS IN RECOVERING AFTER A DISASTER
As I tried to figure out in the previous sections, the only way to properly frame the roles and responsabilities of local government in recovering is to consider disasters both as socially produced and the fact that they refer, in the Sendai Framework, to a broader scene in which extraordinary events are not the only ones on stage.
Starting from this assumption we can split, in a way, the twofold dimension of ‘recovery’, that is both a ‘restoring process’ and an ‘opportunity’. Following then the current definition of the term ‘recovery’ provided by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, we acknowledge then that ‘recovery’ consists in the “the restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society” (UNDRR, 2015).
It is telling that no ‘afters’ appear in this definition at all. Then it is clear: the role of local governments in recovery has to be understood in the terms of a process that operates across the continuum between preparedness and reconstruction. It does not come out ‘after’ a disaster in facts.
In this sense local governments have the commitment to promote preparedness at different scales. At first by fostering education about disasters risk knowledge at all levels. This means that both professional training programmes, recovery and evacuation excercises and formal or informal education campaigns have to be fostered within the collaboration of local institutions on one side (schools, universities, businesses etc..) and affected communities of citizens. This should occur under the supervision of regional and national authorities.
Secondly, disaster response has to be prepared over time. In this sense local governments have the responsibility to enstablish area based support systems, to ensure access to safe shelters, to storage food and non food supplies. Thirdly, disaster preparedness have to be embedded as a process within institutions themselves by strenghtening funding mechanisms for post disaster recovery, cooperative frameworks with national and regional stakeholders and by ensuring the presence of planning offices that are capable to continue the operations of planning during the emergency. As we have seen then, most of recovery responses have to be performed through time.
On the other hand, in the Sendai Framework, ‘recovery’ can be glimpsed as the opportunity to produce sustainable alternatives for our societies since the UN definition continues by saying that this process of recovery we mentioned has to be framed by “aligning with the principles of sustainable development and ‘build back better’, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk” (UNDRR, 2015). Passing by the definition proposed by Jacques Ranciere about the greek term ‘blaberon’ we can finally introduce a short reflection on the Priority 4 of the Sendai Framework. According to Ranciere: “Blaberon, in fact, has two accepted meanings: in one sense it is the lot of unpleasantness that falls to an individual for whatever reason, whether it be through a natural catastrophe or human action, and in the other, it is the negative consequence that an individual suffers as a result of their action or, more often, the action of another” (Ranciere, 1999, pag.3).
Recalling the discourse I made on the social nature of disaster then, I could say that disasters themselves are the negative consequences of injust practices that are constantly perpetrated by men towards other men in society.
To properly formulate solutions to this injustice, naturally, we cannot focus only on the recovery of disrupted physical and social spaces. On the contrary, we need to work within a horizon that foster mutual construction and sustainable development, striving for equality. We cannot, in the end, limit our response to disasters in the act of ‘restoring livelihoods’, rather in a collective commitment to development.
In this sense, the most important framework is provided by the promotion of participatory processes. With particular reference to them, local governments have the greatest responsibility since they appear to be the first institutional level in which recovery and development topics can be discussed with citizens.
By concluding I would like to outline a critique as well, acknowledging what Berge, Kartez, Wenger et al. noticed on the regard that the ‘windows of opportunity’ provided by disasters remain “one of the least studied aspects of these destructive events” (Cretney, 2017, pag. 1). Despite the introduction of a systemic reflection and link between ‘emergency’ and ‘development’ in the Sendai Framework, the Build Back Better discourse proves two things. The first one is that it cannot be still considered as an indipendent reflection, since in the priority 4 comes together with an considerable amount of preparedness topics and points. We can observe, for example, that even in the 2017 consultive edition on “Build Back Better” (UNISDR, 2017) only the forth task systematically unpack the ‘opportunity’ topic. I am not saying here neither that ‘building back better’ has to be considered as an indipendent reflection, nor that it comes out without specific guidelines. Instead, some of them are present. In the priority 4, namely the reference to the need of relocation policies for urban infrastructures and to sustainable land use management measures have to be intended as clear guidelines for future. What I am saying, on the contrary, is that the Sendai Framework has the merit for the introduction of this particular perspective on development, but at the same time it has not managed yet to complete what it has started. In this regard, namely, the build back better guidelines seem to me to be very neutral and scarcely political. I completely agree so that on the fact that “there is still a hesitancy to politicise disasters more generally” (Olson, 2008).
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