Natural disasters know no borders – neither do solidarity and mutual support in times of need
Editorial By Gaston Moonen
Solidarity in the face of a clear and present danger
A picture can say more than a thousand words. This is true of many situations and particularly of emergency situations caused by disasters. A natural disaster enters your mind with the image of a child rescued from the rubble, with houses and nature devastated by wildfires or tornadoes, with people swimming away from their house since they don’t have any other option. But also, in the case of man-made disasters, the image of women and children escaping from the violence of war, or refugees clinging on to a life jacket. These images subdue us, stay with us and create a connection to fellow humans at risk.
When people are facing a clear and present danger, political differences and animosities fade away and are replaced by an urge to help and offer solidarity. In my first job, working on human rights issues in the UN, I soon heard the saying ‘human rights start after breakfast’, although some would argue that human rights begin with breakfast. The idea behind this is that some of their basic needs must be fulfilled before people can start worrying, on an equal footing and in dignity, about other issues, such as human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of this expression, since health concerns are primary concerns compared with many other human needs. With health taken for granted by many of us, the pandemic has shown that when a disaster strikes, and on such a global scale, priorities change quickly towards maintaining the physical well-being of your loved ones and yourself. At almost no matter what cost... even at the cost of certain rights considered sacred before.
While COVID-19 might spring to mind as the most obvious disaster spilling over from last year, 2021 is by no means an easy year when it comes to natural disasters. According to the International Disaster Database, the year 2020 had a higher number of disasters than the average of the last 20 years – apparently, with Atlantic hurricanes so numerous that there were not enough letters in the alphabet to name them all. But what’s new? Reports from the early 1990s identified a fivefold and record increase in disasters between 1960 and 1980 and in 1987 the UN designated the 1990s as the ‘International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction,’ calling for concerted international action. And not for the last time! The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has labelled 2021 as a record year when it comes to natural disasters. Increasingly, politicians are catching up scientists when it comes to recognising the link between these disasters and climate change, as also seen during the recent COP26 in Glasgow. The good news is that at least in 2020 these disasters led to substantially fewer human casualties than in many previous years. A matter of better disaster preparedness...?
When a disaster strikes, the first concern is to react quickly and properly. Proper crisis management can prove to be crucial in this first emergency phase, requiring pre-set structures for help, coordination and decisive action. In particular, it requires leadership to trigger that action: digesting various data, handling procedures and being inventive about possible solutions, the latter being particularly challenging since every disaster is unique, with its own characteristics. But leadership requires more than only decisiveness, particularly in transboundary crises. It requires empathy and a capacity to adapt, as research on crisis processes by Marij Swinkels shows (see page 7).
The bigger the disaster, the greater the coordination needs seem to be. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that creating such awareness takes time and some gap plugging (see page 35) and it can actually cost human lives when coordination is slow or only allowed reluctantly. Hence the importance of proper ex ante coordination mechanisms in humanitarian aid in disasters, as both the UN Acting Assistant Secretary-General in this area, Ramesh Rajasingham, and the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, emphasise regarding their roles in global and EU crisis management (see pages 11 and 18). Noteworthy here is also that their humanitarian aid efforts are based on values showing the unconditional solidarity that sets disaster aid provision apart: both the UN and the EU are principled donors, meaning working exclusively on the basis of needs, without any regard to political or other situations. Also in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at the start, we saw that disagreements were set aside when facing a clear and present danger to health.
Not surprisingly, these values are also essential to the actions of major non-governmental aid organisations. Most visible perhaps are the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, whose quick and impartial presence when disaster strikes is impressive. But also to a ‘single country NGO’ such as Friendship, whose founder Runa Khan identifies adherence to values such as integrity, dignity, justice, quality and hope as preconditions for starting any of the multiple actions her NGO carries out in Bangladesh (see page 39). Such values also include transparency and accountability, not only because of donor requirements, but also since accountability mechanisms are also very important to the people affected by disaster (see page 48).
Not only are the organisations and people involved in disaster action impressive, but also the amounts of funding. This depends of course on what you define as emergency and disaster relief. Does it include disaster prevention and preparedness efforts? How do you label EU expenditure related to the COVID-19 pandemic and where does disaster aid stop and reconstruction aid commence? This last question is also relevant in view of the enormous EU efforts undertaken to mitigate the economic and fiscal consequences of the ongoing pandemic, with long- term impact for Europe (see page 140). But whatever definition you apply, the EU-funded amounts involved are substantial and are being used by the Member States and regions affected, be it by the wildfires in Greece or by an unprecedented flood in the Liège region (see pages 26 and 30).
However good the intentions for accountability in disaster aid may be, they do not form a natural symbiosis for several reasons. The very nature of emergency action - where speed is essential - creates additional risks of cutting corners when it comes to financial management. Furthermore, disasters may involve many actors, both from the aid-providing and the aid-receiving side, which often makes tracking aid flows difficult. While the urgent needs are clearly visible, the risks of fraud and corruption are just around the corner, particularly in disaster-affected areas with weak governmental structures. On top of this, it is also an area where reporting on results is essential to preserve trust: the trust of those providing the aid - be it by people directly or their governments on behalf of them - and those receiving the aid, since clear results are essential for hope, trust in future progress and ownership of the solutions the results are meant to be part of.
Enough reasons for Professor Arjen Boin to learn lessons from crises and undertake crisis audits (see page 53). Enough reasons, as ECA Member Leo Brincat and several other contributors argue (see pages 58 and 82), for public auditors to proceed with care, yet with stamina to assess compliance and performance aspects (see page 70). For the ECA, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a substantial shift in its audit planning soon after the pandemic started, with audits and reviews published or planned relating to the health and economic measures taken and envisaged or the institutional resilience displayed (see pages 65, 75 and 79). Other audit institutions in the EU have done the same, in reaction to the current pandemic, or in reaction to or anticipation of earlier disaster situations (see pages 88 and 136), sometimes leading to new solutions for assessing and reporting to add value in an expedient way (see page 107). Enough reason also for the European Parliament to insist on proper and timely reporting on the various EU funding instruments created, as MEP Corina Crețu does for example regarding the EU Solidarity Fund (see page 126).
Public auditors themselves identified quite some time ago – following the tsunami in 2004 – that it would be useful if peers provided guidance on how to audit different elements of the disaster management cycle. This translated into international guidance adopted by the global platform of public external auditors, INTOSAI. This guidance has been used, for example by the SAI of Indonesia (see page 117), and updated (see page 111). While prevention and preparedness had already been identified as important elements in this cycle, the pandemic and even more the effects of climate change - sometimes labelled climate crisis – have more than ever underlined their importance. For several public audit institutions this shows the need for more and deeper assessments of publicly funded actions for disaster prevention and preparedness. Arno Visser, President of the Netherlands Court of Audit, pleads for increased attention by auditors to‘accidents waiting to happen’(see page 91). Michel Huissoud, who heads the Swiss Federal Audit Office, even goes a step further in relation to measures taken regarding the pandemic, addressing a data gap which, if left untouched by his institution, would create serious compliance problems at a later stage (page 99).
Disaster prevention and preparedness are also key elements in many other contributions to this Journal. EU Commissioner Lenarčič observes limits to how prepared one can be if preventive measures, particularly regarding climate change, are not taken. He identifies the paradox that the urgency and visibility of disaster aid measures come at the cost of long-term measures meant to decrease the cost of disaster aid. Kevin Cardiff, former ECA Member and crisis manager, gives a practitioner’s view on how audit can do more to contribute to crisis readiness, how auditors are in a unique position to assess interactions between crisis management systems - or the lack of them – and the need for real coordination (see page 100). His call regarding risk assessments is echoed in other articles, including by IDI experts pleading for enhanced risk assessment work by SAIs (see page 122).
We have produced this Journal to share information on solidarity in times of crisis and on how public auditors are contributing to alleviating future crises. We also produced this Journal to bow to all those giving aid without any interest but the benefit of the receivers: human kindness in its pure form, aid that provides hope of a change for the better, hope in the face of clear and present danger, as for the child portrayed on our cover picture (a 2021 World Press prize winning picture), waiting to be saved before the wildfires come too close. These are pictures connecting the world to stories that matter. I hope this edition of the Journal will connect you to a theme that can hit anyone of us. Let’s hope the disaster aid provisions then work as intended.