Richard Bailey is Chief of the External Relations Section for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). His previous role was in the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), where he led the Innovative Finance team. Before this, Richard was the Financing for Development Advisor in the UN Development Operations Coordination Office (UN DOCO), where he worked on the establishment of the Joint SDG Fund. Richard has also served the UN in Malawi as Head of the Resident Coordinator’s Office and with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Burkina Faso. Prior to working with the UN, he led various NGOs, both in Africa and Eastern Europe.
The views and interpretations in this section do not necessarily represent the view of the United Nations.
In 1736, Benjamin Franklin proclaimed that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If that statement was true in 1736, it is even more so today in our world of compounding and cascading risks. Despite all the evidence that prevention works, however, we still seem incapable of properly financing it. Why not?
I currently serve as the Chief of the External Relations Section for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), so it could be argued
that the solution is for my team and I to work a bit harder in mobilising the necessary funds. Nonetheless, I believe there are more fundamental problems. Despite its great work, UNDRR is funded at approximately US$ 50 million per year, a tiny amount compared to the UN’s humanitarian budget of over US$ 21 billion. Of course, there are many other parts of the UN doing excellent work on prevention outside the UNDRR’s budget, so this doesn’t paint a full picture. Nonetheless, a more general look at funding flows for disaster risk reduction (DRR) suggests that the volume of funding to prevention remains extremely low. According to UNDRR, only 0.5% (amounting to US$ 5.5 billion) of official development assistance funding allocated to disasters between 2010 and 2019 went to DRR.1 Why such a low figure, and can anything be done?
When thinking about difficult problems there are worse places to start than Plato. In considering what constituted a just individual, Plato started big, looking first at a just city state before applying the same logic to the individual. In order to explain why we don’t properly fund prevention at a national or global level, I propose to inverse this logic by looking first at the individual. A good many years ago, before I began working in international development, I was a personal trainer. My value addition, in those days, was essentially making people do what they wanted but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do – get fit. The hardest part of exercise is often getting out of the house in the first place. You’re glad after you’ve done it, and perhaps even glad when you’re doing it, but somehow getting going is really tough.
Prevention is not dissimilar. It’s a good thing to do and everyone agrees it’s important. We’re glad when we’ve done it, but, despite our best intentions, we just cannot find the resources to do it properly. The consequences of a life spent failing to exercise can be serious: obesity, stress, heart disease, etc. The consequences of failing to enact prevention at the global, national and local level, no less so. Hazards becoming disasters.
So, what can be done? Are there any lessons from my personal training days that can be applied to financing prevention? I think so, as demonstrated below.
Start with good information
Before starting with a new client, I would want to know who I was dealing with. What hasn’t worked before? What challenges are they dealing with? What are the bottlenecks? It’s the same with financing prevention. In order to ensure we are focusing on and investing in the highest risk areas, we need to build from a good base of data. Fortunately, UNDRR and its partners are doing some great work in this area, including establishing the Risk Information Exchange (RiX). Targeting multiple countries, RiX is designed to be a multi-purpose, one-stop national risk information clearinghouse that aggregates open-source risk datasets and information. RiX already exists in 9 countries, and we are planning on rolling out to a total of 51 countries by 2024. Given there is already a lot of data out there that is not always easily accessible to end-users, RiX does not have an exclusive focus on creating new data. We hope that RiX will provide decision-makers with easy access to the information they need, when they need it, allowing them to make good decisions on prevention.
Freedom to choose is freedom to lose
For my second lesson I must again borrow from ancient wisdom, this time from Odysseus, who faced a challenge: how to get home through the straights of Messina with the beautiful song of the Sirens tempting him to steer off course. To achieve his best outcome – getting home safely – he had his crew tie him to his ship’s mast while the rest of the men blocked their ears with wax. It worked and our hero made it back to Ithaca. Likewise, while my personal training clients wanted to get fit, they were always distracted with other priorities. Thus, they committed in advance to a series of sessions and, whether they felt like it or not, on any particular evening they trained or they paid.
Despite knowing that prevention makes sense from a financial and moral point of view – every US$ 1 invested in risk reduction and prevention can save up to US$ 15 in post-disaster recovery – when faced with immediate humanitarian needs, funding for prevention gets squeezed out. To properly fund prevention, therefore, we need to metaphorically tie ourselves to a mast and sign up for a course of ten training sessions.2 Donors and UN agencies could do this by committing a certain amount of their funding, either as a volume or percentage, towards prevention.
Only by making this pre-commitment explicit and transparent will we be able to hold ourselves to account. This isn’t a new idea and has been successfully implemented before. For example, Mexican law mandated that DRR receive a minimum 0.4% of the country’s annual federal budget. Meanwhile, the UN has tried something not dissimilar with the 1% coordination levy applied to its agencies. Given this, might the UN consider committing, ex-ante, to put a certain percentage of funding towards prevention within its own agencies? Could donors likewise require that a certain percentage of contributions be allocated to prevention? Perhaps this could be part of a further refined Funding Compact? If we can get this right, it could save billions, if not trillions, of dollars, as well as countless lives.
Celebrate when nothing happens
Getting fit isn’t necessarily super exciting – it’s about sticking to a programme of action over the long term. The truth is that one training session won’t really make a difference, but commitment over a longer timescale will. Prevention can also be a bit dull – it’s not the photo op in a war zone or the heroic delivery of supplies against all odds. What it is, however, is urban planning done well; the patient articulation and implementation of a set of building codes; consistent work applied over many years. We need a shift of mindset in order to get better at funding and be able to celebrate the mundane: the anonymous bureaucrat working away, whose ultimate success is that nothing ever happens; the bridge that didn’t collapse in a storm; the Tsunami early- warning system that worked; the insurance scheme that kicked in so farmers didn’t have to sell their livestock.
In short, we need to get better at recognising, funding and celebrating these non-events.
Avoid the creation of new risk
Losing weight is one thing. Not easy, but somehow do-able. What’s really tricky is keeping the weight off – maintaining a new way of doing things over the long term and building in good habits. The development process is the same. There are huge amounts of infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, yet to be built. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that US$ 6.9 trillion a year is required in infrastructure investments up to 2030 to meet climate and development objectives. How this is done is critical. We need to build in resilience.3 New structures can either build in risk through poor design and execution, or reduce it, particularly through incorporating Nature-based Solutions. To help this work, UNDRR is in the process of developing Principles of Resilient Infrastructure, which Member States and the private sector can then apply to their infrastructure investments. The aim is to become net positive on resilience, reducing risks as developments take place.
So, to conclude, if the UN is ever to progress from the couch and transform its middle-aged spread into a finely chiselled six-pack, there are four big things to consider: get the data right; lock ourselves into positive commitments; celebrate when nothing happens; and avoid the creation of new risks. UNDRR stands ready to support such efforts.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR),‘International Cooperation in Disaster Risk Reduction:Target F’, 2021, www.undrr.org/publication/ international-cooperation-disaster-risk-reduction-target-f.