Maladaptive behaviour and disaster risk management

by Randolph Kent

Rapid change and complexity will be the hallmarks of the 21st century. In many respects these will be driven by scientific and technological change, that will profoundly affect the global economy and environment, as well as demographic trends and political and security structures in most parts of the world. An unintended consequence may be an exponential rise in human exposure to disasters and emergencies. Such humanitarian crises may in no small part be due to planners’ inability to anticipate potential hazards and appreciate their signifi cance, and to decision-makers’ inability to reconcile competing demands for resources.

Many of the psychological and institutional constraints that currently hamper or inhibit sensitive and effective planning and decision-making may well have more serious consequences for an ever growing proportion of the globe in the future. Psychological dynamics at individual and group levels may continue to distort information fl ows, infl uencing in turn responses to potential risks and hazards. Institutional behaviour may all too often prompt responses to potential or actual humanitarian crises that refl ect standard operating procedures, institutional interests and linear thinking. Inter-organisational behaviour patterns may similarly refl ect the interests, perspectives and survival instincts of the organisation rather than more rational and less self-serving objectives. And decision-makers will most likely feel compelled to deal with the contending interests that they must reconcile in ways that refl ect short-term compromises rather than a longer-term vision.

In that sense, one inevitably must wonder whether there exists within policy planning and decision-making communities suffi cient capacity to adapt proactively to rapid change and complexity. One may also query the extent to which planners and decision-makers can be expected to anticipate and address the broad range of potential outcomes that might arise out of any single set of trends, plan or decision. In other words, borrowing the example so often used in explanations about “dynamical-systems theory”, to what extent can one be expected to anticipate and deal with the consequences of the turbulence initially caused by a seemingly small event eventually intertwining with larger ones1?

The 1999 earthquake in Taiwan underscores the point. It was not only costly in terms of life and property on the spot, but also disrupted economies as distant as California, where electronic industries ground to a halt for lack of essential components normally supplied by Taiwan fi rms. The quake also highlighted the need for a more holistic and integrated approach to the prospective dangers arising out of random and haphazard growth along the Pacifi c rim. Planners nevertheless seem to ignore the potentially catastrophic consequences of allowing large concentrations of people, economic activities and complex infrastructures to squeeze into such areas. Little attempt seems to have been made to “retrofi t” societies, distributing populations, industries and infrastructures in ways that would diffuse the impact of over-concentration.

A 1999 earthquake in Taiwan underscores the point. In this instance, the disaster was not only costly in terms of life and property in Taiwan, but it also disrupted economies as distant as that of San Jose, California, where electronic industries ground to a halt due to a lack of essential components normally supplied by Taiwanese companies. In the immediate term, the earthquake revealed an interesting [if not totally unforeseen] dimension of globalisation: the economic vulnerability of Californian workers – in the form of large-scale layoffs – to an event thousands of miles away. However, from a longer term perspective it served as a poignant warning of the need for a more holistic and integrated approach to dealing with the prospective dangers arising out of random and haphazard growth along the Pacifi c rim.

This was the central issue at a 2001 conference – entitled “Crowding the Rim” – at Stanford University, California. Geologists and disaster mitigation and relief experts assessed the possible effects of various natural disasters, including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, on the Pacifi c Rim – also known as “the ring of fi re”, extending from Lima through Los Angeles, Seattle, Anchorage, Tokyo and Taipei.

This region contains an extraordinary array of transportation, communication and economic nodes…These nodes, rapidly growing along with the human population of the Rim, lie on a map that features high seismic and volcanic activity, along with coastal mountains that are vulnerable to landslides and the heavy precipitation that causes them2.

As one eminent analyst noted, “The linkages that we have built to connect the US west coast and Asia are all vulnerable to ‘echo’ disruptions of this kind, and much larger and devastating earthquakes are in prospect for Seattle and San Francisco”3. Despite this increasingly apparent threat, however, planners seem to ignore the potentially catastrophic consequences of allowing large concentrations of people, economic activities and complex infrastructures to squeeze into such areas. Little attempt seems to have been made up to that point to “retrofi t” societies in order to distribute populations, industries and infrastructures in ways that would diffuse the impact of overconcentration.

The adaptive organisation will always be concerned with one fundamental question: to what extent could it adjust to the alternative environments that contending scenarios pose for the organisation? Unfortunately most organisations – even many of those that go through scenario development exercises – rarely try and answer that question. One reason is that little value is placed on speculation as a core organisational activity.

All too many humanitarian organisations, be they multilateral, bilateral or non-governmental, regard speculation as “a bit academic.” The idea that core organisational time could be devoted to refl ecting on the “maybes” and “the-what-ifs” is anathema to most in the humanitarian sector, who all too often pride themselves on their practical and pragmatic approach to the world around them.

This is not to suggest that strategy-making and policy formulation – in so far as they, too, involve speculation – are not regarded as of institutional value. Yet, if one looks at most humanitarian organisations, there is a bifurcation in which policy, programmes and projects run along parallel lines, rarely intersecting … except at conferences and seminars. The bifurcation narrows though as policy becomes more tactical and less strategic in conception. In other words, the more policy steps outside the bounds of convention, the less it actually is seen as relating to the needs, and, hence, behaviour of the organisation.

Effective speculation forces the organisation to look outside its own narrow con- fi nes. It actively seeks to search for new ways of thinking about old problems, and to anticipate new issues with which the organisation should become engaged. The problem for most organisations is that speculation can be very disruptive, challenging organisational self-images and standard operating procedures. Yet to be an organisation that is sensitive to the dynamics of complexity and rapid change, speculation is vital.

Raising awareness through scenario development and speculation is useful to ensure that the organisation has opportunities to think not only beyond the immediate but also beyond the all too conventional present. The challenge in using either or both is how far they feed back into organisational adaptation. Two tests are worth considering. The fi rst is how closely the organisation’s present strategies and policies are aligned with its programmes and projects. The second is the extent to which there are a series of institutional adjustments that the organ isation might be willing to make. Both tests have certain basic maxims to follow.

A simple way to determine the fi t between policy and programmes is to evaluate a sample number of programmes and related projects to assess how they refl ect broader organisational strategic and policy values. Another way is to ascertain the frequency with which those responsible for an organisation’s strategy and policies meet with those responsible for programme and policy formulation; and the extent to which these interactions are refl ected in the organisation’s activities on the ground and vice versa.

Based upon preliminary fi ndings with international non-governmental organisations, there seems to be considerable disconnection at all three levels. In part this suggests that the value of speculation and conceptual innovation is frequently discarded as one continues to implement routine and “organisationally comfortable” programmes and projects.

There is an extensive array of adjustments that the organisation can make to close the gap between innovative and conceptually challenging strategies, and programmes and projects. Among other things they are designed to make the organisation more adaptive to its present and changing operating environment. A few examples encapsulate at least the spirit though by no means the full range of approaches that should be considered: -develop cross-systems organisations, or “exploration competencies,” enabling the organisation to harvest ideas and expertise from a wide array of sources – in and outside the organisation. Adaptive organisations will need to develop open information and communication linkages with new types of partners, institutionally as well as geographically;

- reduce the impact of unanticipated strategic options to ensure that those responsible for strategic planning and policy formulation are communicating regularly so that “the future” fi ts into a pattern of events that will not come as a surprise to decision-makers;

- eliminate functions that create unnecessary closure. A starting point is to assess the various types and levels of pressure that determine why and when decisions are taken. Too little time in the humanitarian world is devoted to communicating with vulnerable communities and understanding indigenous distribution systems and coping mechanisms. This failure largely refl ects a concession to administrative and other organisational pressures that have little to do with the organisation’s purported aims;

- communicate the centrality of speculation. Management must ensure that everyone knows that the organisation values long-range strategic analysis and planning, considering it a part of its ethos. Management will fi nd ways to foster that ethos, such as promoting knowledge networks and communities of practice.

Enhancing the adaptive capacities of organisations responsible for disaster risk management is by no means the only answer to mitigate the causes and consequences of disaster hazards. But it is a crucial one. Unless participants make a concerted effort to promote greater organisational adaptivity, all the WCDR’s well meaning intentions will succumb to the maladaptive behaviour of conventional organisations.

Randolph Kent is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute at Kings College, London.

1. This so-called “butterfl y effect” is well explained in Gleick, J., Chaos: the amazing science of the unpredictable, Vintage Books, London, 1998, p.23 ff 2. Kennedy, D., “Science Terrorism and Natural Disasters”, Science, vol. 295, No. 5554, 18 January 2002, p.405 3. ibid, p.405

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