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Chapter 4.3 Partnerships, governance and stakeholders


Photo: Russell Watkins/DFID

Disasters should be seen as a governance issue and DRR as an area of public policy. Broadly speaking, governance is the way in which societies manage their affairs in the economic, political and social spheres. It comprises values, policies, institutions and mechanisms for implementation, and it involves interactions between the state, civil society and the private sector. In the case of DRR, effective governance should include making DRR a policy priority, allocating sufficient resources to it, ensuring effective implementation and facilitating participation by all relevant stakeholders (see Case Study 4.5: Governance and disaster preparedness).+United Nations Development Programme, Provention Consortium, UN-HABITAT, United Nations Volunteers, Governance: Institutional and Policy Frameworks for Risk Reduction (Thematic Discussion Paper, Cluster 1, World Conference on Disaster Reduction, 18–22 January 2005, Kobe, Japan),, pp. 3–4. 

It is generally agreed that national governments should be the main actors in risk reduction. They have a duty to ensure the safety of their citizens; only governments are likely to have the resources and capacity to undertake large-scale multi-disciplinary initiatives, and a mandate to direct or coordinate the work of others. Governments also create the policy and legislative frameworks within which risk reduction can be accomplished. In practice, however, governments may lack capacity and resources, especially in poorer countries, but attitude and management are often the root problems: failure to recognise the importance of hazards and vulnerability to national development, coupled with short-term planning and inadequate organisation.

Box 4.2 Government roles in DRR

Governments play a number of roles in DRR:

  • As providers of DRR goods and services (e.g. maintaining early warning systems, emergency response services, evacuation shelters, hospitals).
  • As risk avoiders (e.g. ensuring investments in public infrastructure and facilities, such as roads or schools, are protected against environmental hazards).
  • As regulators of private sector activity (e.g. creating and enforcing building codes and land use regulation).
  • As promoters of collective action and private sector activity (e.g. public education about preparedness and business continuity).
  • As coordinators of multi-stakeholder activities and DRR partnerships.
E. Wilkinson, Transforming Disaster Risk Management: A Political Economy Approach (London: ODI, 2012),

Governments are not monolithic. They are divided by function, hierarchy and politics, all of which can work against sustained risk management. In most countries, a large number of government agencies have a legitimate role in disaster management, including civil protection organisations, scientific research institutions, environmental protection agencies and finance ministries. Simply coordinating these may be a major task. In many disaster management systems, integration between higher and lower levels is weak.

Case Study 4.5 Governance and disaster preparedness

Cuba is often cited as an example of a country with effective DRR planning and operations. It has a well-organised civil defence structure that reaches down to the grass roots, an effective early warning system backed up by good scientific knowledge, well-equipped rescue teams, emergency stockpiles and other resources. These are supported by strong political commitment to DRR at all levels of government, risk-aware planning and land use management policies and regulations, widespread public trust in the government’s ability and willingness to act, extensive disaster education and training programmes, considerable experience of mass mobilisation and a strong sense of solidarity and social cohesion. The state is also committed to reducing the social and economic inequalities that contribute to vulnerability, and invests heavily in public services such as education, health and infrastructure.

The system’s effectiveness is particularly evident in the case of hurricanes. Six major hurricanes hit Cuba between 1996 and 2002, but only 16 people died. Hurricane Michelle in November 2001 damaged or destroyed 25,000 homes, but only five deaths were reported. Some 700,000 people (out of a population of 11m) were evacuated. In Havana, electricity was turned off to avoid deaths or injuries from electrocution, and the water supply was turned off in case of contamination. Havana’s 2m inhabitants stockpiled water and food, and citizens helped to tie loose roofing down and to clear debris that might have been dangerous if picked up by strong winds. The success of these arrangements was due to an effective warning and communication system, memory of previous disasters (encouraged by the authorities), the ability to mobilise people at neighbourhood level and the general population’s trust in official warnings and advice.

It has been questioned whether the Cuban model can be replicated elsewhere. Cuba is a single-party political system in which the government plans and directs the economy, controls the market and the media and is the sole provider of social services. It has also been argued that the country’s disaster management system is less effective when it comes to long-term mitigation and post-disaster recovery. Nevertheless, the system contains many key features of good DRR practice that can be adopted or adapted for use elsewhere.

M. Thompson and I. Gaviria, Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba (Boston, MA: Oxfam America, 2004),; B. Wisner, Lessons from Cuba? Hurricane Michelle, November, 2001, 2001,; IFRC, World Disasters Report 2002 (Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2002), pp. 41–43; B. E. Aguirre, ‘Cuba’s Disaster Management Model: Should It Be Emulated?’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 2005,

Although there has been considerable improvement worldwide in government capacities, institutional systems and legislative provisions for DRR in recent years, progress has been uneven. National changes have often not made a significant difference at lower levels of government, where there is likely to be a significant need for awareness-raising, training and capacity-building.

Government policies can sometimes be a major contributor to people’s vulnerability to hazards. Disaster management efforts by one branch of government, such as civil defence, may be undermined by the general thrust of economic, social or environmental policies. For example, the value of establishing tropical cyclone early-warning systems and building cyclone shelters is seriously weakened if coasts are being stripped of natural defences such as mangrove forests in order to build commercial shrimp farms encouraged by export-driven economic programmes. Disaster management can also become subject to political pressures. Casualty and damage figures are often used by political parties for their own purposes: opposition parties may try to blame governments for disasters, or make them look inept or uncaring in their management of crises. In the same way, governments may wish to downplay the impact of disasters to avoid blame, or exaggerate the human and economic casualties in the hope of attracting international aid.

Disasters often reveal weaknesses in the current policy and practice of disaster management, and can stimulate change and innovation (see also Chapter 17: Risk reduction after disaster).+J. Birkmann et al., ‘Extreme Events and Disasters: A Window of Opportunity for Change?’, Natural Hazards, 55, 2010. There is certainly evidence for this, although the nature and extent of such change is unpredictable, changes may be unplanned as well as deliberate and the lessons drawn from one disaster experience are not necessarily relevant to other crises. Case Study 4.6 (Reorganising disaster governance after disaster) is an example of how a major disaster led to significant legislative and administrative changes.

Case Study 4.6 Reorganising disaster governance after disaster

The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 killed more than 165,000 people in Indonesia and affected more than 700,000. Reviewing the experience, the Indonesian government decided on major reforms of its national disaster management arrangements. A new disaster management law that came into force in 2007 recognised the need for a comprehensive DRR approach throughout the country, integrated into development planning and with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including NGOs and communities. In 2008 a new national disaster management agency was established to coordinate activities in all aspects of disaster management, reporting directly to the president. Authority and responsibility for DRR measures was decentralised to an extent from central to local (provincial, district and village) authorities, with a decree requiring the establishment of local disaster management agencies in all provinces by 2009. Subsequently, DRR and climate change adaptation were integrated into national development policies and plans, and into legislation on land use, urban planning and coastal management. New national DRR and disaster management plans and guidelines were issued. International organisations were encouraged to support these processes.

Establishing this radically new organisational structure and implementing the new DRR agenda proved challenging, mainly because of limitations in technical, material and human capacities, as well as resource constraints. Nevertheless, these innovations mark a fundamental change in the way DRR is perceived and implemented in Indonesia.

C. Gaulin, Disaster Risk Management in Indonesia: From Theory to Practice (Paris: Action Contre le Faim, 2013); R. Djalante et al., ‘Building Resilience to Natural Hazards in Indonesia: Progress and Challenges in Implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action’, Natural Hazards, 62 (3), 2012.