Over the past 20–25 years, many governments have progressively decentralised a range of their responsibilities from national to local levels. This has had both positive and negative consequences for risk reduction. On the positive side, sharing responsibilities between central, intermediate and local levels of government helps to mainstream DRR across government structures, as well as giving local levels a greater sense of ownership. Decentralisation can also change how communities and local NGOs interact with state institutions. Being closer to the communities involved, staff in local organisations of all kinds are more likely to understand or even share their needs, and they are more accountable. Local government institutions may be less politicised than those of central government, and it may be easier to develop partnerships between the public and NGO sectors to strengthen local capacities. There is no standard mechanism for DRR partnerships between local government and civil society organisations. It takes time and effort to build up levels of trust and cooperation to the point where they can significantly improve capacity to manage disasters and emergencies. Communities seeking to engage local government as a partner or supporter of DRR often need training in how to lobby officials and work in partnership. Joint planning or VCA exercises can provide an entry point to longer-term collaboration.
Decentralisation can lead to DRR becoming isolated from mainstream government decision-making. Good collaboration between sectors and across different levels of administrative and operational responsibilities is therefore essential. Central governments may simply abdicate their responsibilities, leaving local government and NGOs to take on the task of managing DRR, even though they often lack the capacities, technical skills and finances to do so. Communities do not necessarily lower their expectations of local government to reflect this shift. They may continue to expect it to undertake structural mitigation measures, such as building dykes and embankments, just as they expected the national government to do. Local administrations’ room for action may be restricted by parallel or competing governance structures (e.g. traditional leaderships, parastatal agencies) or by higher-level planning decisions and regulations.
Another fundamental, but less visible, weakness of decentralisation is that it puts responsibility for implementation on those who can only address local-level causes of vulnerability. Local government does not have the jurisdiction or political power to address the deeper political, social and economic forces that put people at risk. Under local government direction, disaster reduction can become fragmented into a series of small-scale initiatives, focusing on individual hazard events and artificially separated from the surrounding vulnerability context. The scale of a disaster may overwhelm local resources and capacities.
Official policy in Mexico is to integrate DRR at all levels of government. The country’s disaster management structure is highly decentralised, on paper. In practice, however, local municipalities have very limited capacity, especially in poorer and rural areas. They often have to seek funds from state and federal governments, on a case-by-case basis, and there is heavy reliance on external resources during and after emergencies. Municipal civil protection teams have very few staff and there is little continuity (many civil protection directors, who tend to be political appointees, are replaced after elections).
There is little public pressure on the government to reduce disaster risk. Community organisations focus on more pressing day-to-day needs, such as access to improved services (healthcare, education, drinking water), employment and crime. Effective local-level DRR may rely on intervention by other external actors. For example, in Yucatan after 2003, UNDP supported a major community resilience programme, based on training local ‘promoters’, that reached more than 260 localities. Although popular with communities and civil society organisations, the intervention was viewed with suspicion by many municipalities. Nevertheless, the involvement of UNDP and other local NGOs did help some communities to build more effective relationships with local government to strengthen DRR.
E. Wilkinson, Building a ‘Culture of Prevention’: Challenges to Institutionalising Disaster Risk Reduction in Local Development in Mexico (London: UCL Hazard Centre, 2009), http://www.ucl.ac.uk/hazardcentre/resources/working_papers/working_papers_folder/wp21.