Draft. May 30, 2007 The Search for Principles of Disaster Management

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DRAFT. May 30, 2007

The Search for Principles of

Disaster Management
David Etkin, Graduate Program Director, Disaster and Emergency Management, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Applied Studies, York University, etkin@yorku.ca
Ian Davis, Visiting Professor in Disaster Management, Cranfield,

Coventry, Oxford Brookes and Kyoto Universities, i.davis@n-oxford.demon.co  

This is a working paper in draft form. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by the authors.

1. Why are principles needed for disaster management?         
The Oxford dictionary defines a principle as a “fundamental truth as (a) basis of reasoning”. Principles guide people’s decisions and actions, policies and procedures developed by organizations, and laws and doctrines of political entities”. The Collins English Language Dictionary further defines a principle as ‘A general rule that you try to obey in the way that you try to achieve something. Principled actions or behaviour, based on clear guidance concerning the way to act.” These definitions place emphasis on the implicit authority contained in a principle as a ’fundamental truth’ or ‘general rule’. Their purpose concerns practical action, thus principles exist to ‘guide actions’, ‘achieve something’, or define the ‘way to act’.
The statement “We hold these truths to be self evident…” (U.S. Constitution – Thomas Jefferson) is one of principles. If there is not a clear understanding and statement of principles, then there cannot be a consistent, cohesive and embracing disaster management strategy, or effective communication between different organizations. A further incentive to develop guiding principles to provide direction to decision making in both disaster management and disaster risk management1 has come from external pressures being exerted by donor governments and International Financial Institutions (IFIs). In return for their support to developing countries needing grants and loans following disasters, they are increasingly demanding improved accountability to beneficiaries of assistance and overall transparency of operations –especially in financial management. For these demands to be satisfied shared ethical principles are needed to support policies and practice. ADB (2005)
Within the field of emergency and disaster management there are a plethora of principles (CRHNet 2005) described in various books (e.g. Alexander, 2002) and organizational websites (e.g. Eight Principles of Disaster Management: http://www.onphilanthropy.com/bestpract/bp2002-08-16.html). These principles purport to provide a guiding and enduring basis for how the practice of disaster management is pursued. Yet, a perusal of the various sets of principles reveals little convergence. Why is this so and what are the implications of this diversity?
The authors suggest that the divergence emerges because of three basic reasons. (1) The first relates to differences in fundamental values and organizational mandates. For example, an NGO such as the Red Cross or CARE with a strong focus on disaster assistance at the community level will not share all of the same values or purposes as the World Bank, which tends to work at international and national levels, though disaster management is important to both. Their cultures are quite different, one rooted in humanitarian assistance and the other in a highly politicized economic environment where development has traditionally been viewed through the perspective of neo-classical economics. Other differences may relate to discipline. A meteorological agency may focus on technology and advance warning, while a development agency might focus on community sustainability.
(2) But also, divergence exists because different people or organizations address disaster management from different operational perspectives. An academic might be philosophical, a government agency strategic and a relief-based operation tactical. As such their principles, which should reflect their personal or organizational purpose, would look quite different though they might not be in conflict with each other. For example, the first of the eight principles from the philanthropy website noted above is “Do no harm”, while the first principle from Auf der Heide (1989) is “Because of the limited resources available, disaster preparedness proposals need to take cost-effectiveness into consideration.” These two principles bear little relationship to each other, though it is quite possible that proponents of both would not object to the assertion of the other. (3) Finally, people or organizations may work in different parts of the disaster management spectrum (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). Each of these “pillars” has its own requirements that would result in varying concerns and strategies.
Beyond the more idealistic aspects of organizational mandates lies the often unstated tendency of organizations to ensure their own survival and growth, even at the expense of optimally assisting disaster victims. Numerous examples of this self-interest can be detected. For example, after the 2004 Asian Tsunami, national and international agencies poured into the affected countries and embarked on energetic funding campaigns, often in competition with other agencies even though it was rapidly became apparent to everyone in the relief system that there was a plethora of agencies present –well beyond local needs. It was also apparent that far more money had been collected than could possibly be managed given limited local capacities or available funding channels. In addition, there was a marked lack of cooperation between many of the hundreds of NGOs while working to assist the disaster victims. From this chaotic situation successive evaluations have highlighted the urgent need for some consensus to be reached from agreed-to guiding principles. This would enable agencies to ‘sing from the same song sheet’ Without such cooperation one can expect more scenarios like the Sri Lanka NGO circus of uncoordinated actions of hundreds of international ands national NGO’s, where each pursues their own individual goals. The risk is of this pattern being repeated in all future mega-disasters that attract the attention of vast numbers of agencies. Competition for projects by agencies also applied to competition to secure media attention. Clinton, (2006); Scheper (2006); Telford and Cosgrave (2007)
Further examples relate to the political turf wars during and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the US that hindered effective response, Few, if any, organizations are monolithic enterprises – competing agendas and internal priorities inevitably exist even in disaster situations.2

These issues of agency self interest becoming dominant concerns highlight the continual need for guiding principles that asserts the priority or primary mission of humanitarian agencies to be based exclusively on the ‘needs of the affected community’ rather than any other internal consideration. This was the precise motivation of the ‘Good Humanitarian Donorship’ Initiative. (Good Humanitarian Donorship, 2003) and the Red Cross when they first promoted the ‘International Code of Conduct’ in 1995. By February 2007 an astonishing total of 404 national and international agencies have signed the code, meaning that they will seek to abide by its conditions or principles. Two of the ‘codes’ give a flavour of the overall focus:

Code of Conduct No. 1.

The Humanitarian imperative comes first.
The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries….”

Code of Conduct No. 2.

Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.
Wherever possible, we will base the provision of relief aid upon a thorough assessment of the needs of the disaster victims and the local capacities already in place to meet those needs. Within the entirety of our programmes, we will reflect considerations of proportionality. Human suffering must be alleviated whenever it is found; life is as precious in one part of a country as another. Thus, our provision of aid will reflect the degree of suffering it seeks to alleviate. In implementing this approach, we recognize the crucial role played by women in disaster-prone communities and will ensure that this role is supported, not diminished, by our aid programmes. The implementation of such a universal, impartial and independent policy, can only be effective if we and our partners have access to the necessary resources to provide for such equitable relief, and have equal access to all disaster victims.”

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS) (1995) ‘Code of Conduct’ IFRCS: Geneva
However, given high levels of agency staff turnover in International NGO’s, it is possible that initiatives such as the Good Humanitarian Donorship or the Code of Conduct may be totally unknown to new staff. In 2007 Ian Davis, then a consultant to one of the largest Global NGO’s (who are developing an International Strategy to guide their global humanitarian programmes), in varied discussions within a document on ethical concerns noted that there was a total absence of any reference to the Code of Conduct despite the fact that this agency was one of the early signatories, agreeing to abide by the requirements of the code. Subsequent enquiries indicated that this was because key staff were totally unaware of the existence of the code and their own agencies agreement to abide by its contents.
Drabek (2005) presents another reason why the field of disaster management does not have a well defined set of principles, and that is because there is no general theory that underlies it. He argues that there are aspects of theories such as those coming from social constructionism, sustainable development and vulnerability theory that are and can be used as a foundation of an emergency management theory, but that it is still very much in a stage of development. Along a similar vein, Alexander (1999) notes that “Models and interpretations of disaster abound, but the phenomenon is so multi-faceted that a general theory of universal explanatory power is unlikely ever to be formulated”.
The authors propose that the field of disaster/disaster risk management would benefit greatly from a dialogue on the topic of principles for the purpose of creating a greater degree of convergence. There would appear to be three reasons why a body of agreed principles are needed:
First, they allow organizations to create more coherent sets of policies of procedures.

These would assist institutions with different values and mandates to better understand and talk to each other. But beyond such discourse, if clearly defined principles are accepted and agreed upon between different organizations then it is possible for genuine cooperation and coordination to occur on the basis of consensus.

Second, principles can provide an agreed upon and ethical base for action.

It is essential to emphasise the ethical dimension in all aspects of disaster risk management since the lives of people and the viability of communities are at stake. Principles can assist in enabling decision makers to distinguish between relative ethical issues and universal ethical issues (see below for a discussion on the distinction). Ethical principles form the bedrock or platform to assist decision makers as they seek, (or are reluctantly pushed) into becoming more accountable to beneficiaries of their support, as well as becoming transparent in handling their operations and managing their finances.

Third, principles are needed to guide the various elements in disaster planning and implementation

They can assist in the development of policy, strategy, planning, tactics and actions on the ground as well as post disaster learning and adapting. It is essential to undertake disaster planning in all countries, and without guiding principles disaster/disaster risk management can be little more than a directionless formality. There are an abundance of principles to guide disaster managers and each of these ‘relative, or locally applicable principles’ can be tailored to suit an organisation and its role. It is important to recognise that while some principles may be consciously followed, others may be subconsciously recognised and applied. As well, some principles are explicit while others implicitly underpin operations.

An important part of the essence of any useful principle is in its simplicity, but disasters are always complex events that relate to varied hazards affecting multiple stakeholders, many levels of decision making and diverse sectors managed by a host of line ministries and departments. Thus principles inevitably simplify (or over-simplify) subtle nuances and varied situations or demands. Nevertheless, despite this inherent complexity, it remains essential in guiding officials who need to act in a decisive and positive manner, to ‘boil down’ complex variables into simple, direct and easily comprehensible principles to assist the process.

2. The ethical basis for principles        
Disaster management fundamentally deals with a response to human misery and losses of people’s livelihoods and assets, while disaster risk management is concerned with mitigating or preventing such losses; both processes tend to be rather anthropocentric. People and societies engage in such humanitarian actions because they believe it is the ‘right thing to do’, and therefore this field is closely tied to ethics and morality. Ethics is not about what is; rather, it is about what should be. Ethical theories use principles tied to the norms of society in order to assess and justify actions and behaviors. In this sense they are prescriptive and normative (describing what ought to be) as opposed to descriptive, which describes what is (though one hopes the two are closely linked!).
The basis for a set of disaster management principles could lie within the context of a social contract between government and its citizens, or upon moral theory (Zack, 2006). A social contract is based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to make life better for its citizens, and for that purpose they consent to be governed. The primary questions that need to be addressed from this perspective, according to Zack, are “What do governments owe citizens in situations in which government is temporarily dysfunctional?”, and “What responsibilities does it have in terms of preparing for disasters?” Varying answers are possible, depending upon such factors as whether property is publicly or privately owned, what degree of risk citizens should accept for living and developing in hazardous areas, and the degree to which a government accepts benevolence as an operating principle. A social contract would be based upon a theory of social justice (see for example, “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawles), which would be based upon either distributive justice or retributive justice. The former is based upon a fair distribution of goods, rewards or benefits. This is particularly important to the issue of disaster compensation and recovery. The latter is based upon punishing wrong doings and emphasizes fair process, fair trials and proportional sentencing. This approach has a very long history in society3; an example would be suing a contractor who built a house improperly with the result that it was damaged in a disaster.
There are two main types of moral theories. The first, called ethical relativism, states that morality varies between people and societies according to their cultural norms. The second, called universalist or objectivist moral theories states that there are objective, fundamental principles that are invariant throughout time and space. Both types of theories have both strengths and weaknesses. For example, cultural relativism suggests (taken to an extreme) that one should accept the murderous excesses of ethnic cleansing, simply because another cultural group accepts it as its cultural norm. Most people, and certainly the authors, find this repugnant. Alternately, disregarding values of other cultures, even paternalistically, can lead to unintended and negative consequences (e.g. Jigyasu, 2005).
An example of a ‘relative’ ethical principle in disaster management could be as follows:

Before decisions and actions are taken that will either increase or decrease the risks facing a given community, responsible government officials need to actively consult people who are ‘at-risk’, or their representatives and be prepared to take account of such local opinion.’

Within western democracies, it is likely that there would be general agreement on the above principle, with the possible exception of people holding political views from the extreme right. Furthermore, most people would probably assume that this principle is universally applicable rather than being merely relative. However, we have placed this principle in the relative category since there are many societies, such as China (or possibly Cuba) where the ‘right’ to being listened to or consulted on matters of public policy is not part of the current political ideology or operational process.
A further example concerns the evacuation of communities when faced with an impending threat or actual hazard impact. For example, in many western democratic cultures disaster evacuation is voluntary and consequently often ineffective, in contrast to other more controlled societies such as Cuba, where evacuation planning is not optional and therefore highly effective.
A more common example of the clash of differing principles relates to the collision between progressive development thinking and entrenched traditional attitudes. One of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) concerns the aim of securing gender equality by the year 2015. Doubtless this is a noble intention, but what possible chance does such an aspiration have of being realized, given deeply held male dominated cultural and religious norms present within some cultures?owever

This issue inevitably provokes a social controversy, since the entire process of developing and applying principles grows out of values and attitudes, which are inevitably in conflict with other sets of values. But - in a pluralist world most would agree that the quest for principles must never become simply a sermon from a pulpit but should rather be based, at least in part, upon a pragmatic understanding and acceptance of differing value systems. This suggests a recognition of the important difference between where societies ‘are’ (descriptive ethics), and where we might wish them ‘to be’ (normative ethics).

An example of a ‘universal’ ethical principle in disaster risk management (though clearly there have been many governments that have violated this notion) might be as follows:

People have a basic right to safety and it is a fundamental obligation of all governments to ensure that their citizens are protected to a reasonable degree from known risks, and that citizens are informed and warned of any risks known to governmental officials that threaten public safety.”

Dunfee (2000) suggests several other principles that might be considered universal (or hypernorms):

  • To respect the equal dignity of all human beings, recognizing a basic right to life and subsistence.

  • The condemnation of coarse public sector corruption

  • The obligation to respect human autonomy.”

There are different kinds of objectivist moral theories (Boss, 2005), including utilitarianism/ consequentialism (maximizing some utility, such as happiness, by considering outcomes of actions – though the issue of what happiness is becomes a thorny one), ones that emphasize duties and rights (deontology), and ones that focus on being virtuous in character and intent. Different moral theories can result in very different disaster/disaster risk management strategies. Consider disaster financial assistance as an example. If one based this strategy on a utilitarian ethic emphasizing recovery to a pre-disaster state, then a program based upon this would reallocate societies resources to all victims, as needed. However, one based upon the libertarian perspective on individual rights might take a very different approach and rely upon voluntary donations to charity to assist disaster victims. This divergence is very much evident in the climate change debate, where some group (environmentalists and climatologists, for example) argue for mandatory reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while others (often funded by the petroleum industry) argues for voluntary reductions (Etkin, 2007). Virtue ethics, duty ethics and consequentialism /utilitarianism are all important to disaster management. Some people will always perform virtuous acts, particularly in responding to disasters; many people have duties to others, such as parents to children or first responders to victims; and the consequences of actions need to be considered, such as being efficient and efficacious in the allocation of resources. Virtue ethics emphasizes right being over right action and is more about the overarching quality of goodness than a list of specific traits (such as courage, honesty etc). Aristotle and Confucius are examples of philosophers who believed in virtue ethics.

Examples of duties are: (W.D. Ross’s Seven Prima Facie Duties):

  • Beneficence – the duty to do good and promote happiness

  • Nonmaleficence – the duty to do no harm and to prevent harm

  • Fidelity – duties arising from past commitments and promises

  • Reparation – duties that stem from past harms

  • Gratitude – duties based upon past favors and unearned services

  • Self improvement – the duty to improve our knowledge and virtue

  • Justice – the duty to give each person equal consideration

  • Retributive justice – punishment for wrongdoing

  • Distributive justice – fair distribution of benefits and burdens

Each type of moral theory has its strengths and weaknesses. Virtue ethics is criticized as being incomplete and not providing enough guidance for making real life decisions. It does, however, give morality a personal face. Deontology places importance of duty and justice, and right actions, but fails to incorporate sentiment and care issues4. Utilitarianism challenges us to critically analyze traditional moral values and to consider outcomes, which can be critical. But, by considering only consequences it ignores important issues such as integrity and responsibility, and goals other than an ‘arbitrarily’ chosen utility such as pleasure. Some philosophers argue that choices must be made between the different moral theories, but to the authors it seems reasonable that all three are relevant to disaster management and that a blended approach should be used.

Historically, moral theory focused primarily upon duties. For example, feudal society was based upon reciprocity - sets of mutual obligations where duties were paramount – the vassal to the lord and the lord to his vassal. The notion of ‘noblesse oblige’ is also based in duty, in that with power and privilege come responsibility (to those less fortunate). Modern western society emphasizes rights to a much greater extent (for example, the constitution of the United States declares that people have inalienable rights). The notion that rights and duties need to be linked is a strong one, in that rights are derived from duties (Boss, 2005). The alternative comes from natural rights theory (such as expressed by John Locke), which says that having rights does not imply duties to others.5
It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine different types of moral theories in detail and how they apply to disaster management (the reader is referred to Zack, 2006 or Dunfee, 2000 for more on this issue) – suffice it to say that a set of principles of disaster and disaster risk management must, of necessity, incorporate such notions or lack the roadmap needed to avoid going astray. Having a clear vision of ethical principles that underlie a disaster management strategy will also enhance communication and coordination between different organizations. An example of this is information sharing. It is common for organizations to consider data that they have gathered confidential – yet not sharing information can make disaster recovery much more difficult, tedious and less effective. The tradeoff here is a process that may benefit an institution as opposed to one that may benefit disaster victims. Once the values of an organization have been clearly articulated, information sharing (the authors hope, reflecting a helping ethic that focuses on the importance of victims as compared to institutions) would be greatly enhanced. Other tradeoffs can be much less clear and far more tortuous. For example, Wall (1998) in his book “Famine Crimes” discusses how the practice of humanitarianism in Africa, though often practiced with the most noble of intentions, nevertheless hindered the formation of the necessary social contract needed to truly create a society resilient to this type of disaster.

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