During my six years at ChildFund Australia, the program approach that we developed early in my tenure meant that reducing vulnerability became one of our biggest priorities. This was new territory for us, with lots of learning and testing: what did reducing child vulnerability mean for ChildFund Australia? What kinds of vulnerability would we address? And where?
In this article I will focus on one aspect of vulnerability that we worked on: “disaster risk reduction” (DRR). And, in particular, I want to highlight our participation in the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place in March, 2015, in Sendai, Japan.
I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 34 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
Last time I described how our Granddaughter V and I had climbed North Twin Mountain on 2 September 2017. Since it was V’s first real mountain climb, we had agreed that we would decide about continuing to South Twin when we got to the top of North Twin.
We had arrived at the outlook near the top of North Twin at about 1:30pm and had lunch, getting to the top just after 2pm. V was enthusiastic about continuing, and she was certainly keeping up with me on the climb – no problems at all – so we decided to continue on towards the top of South Twin (4902ft, 1494m) – the 8th-highest 4000-footer, and my 41st on this round. It would be V’s second 4000-footer that day!
We took the North Twin Spur, leaving North Twin a bit after 2pm. We dropped down into a saddle between North and South Twin, and walked through pleasant forest for 1.3miles:
Here the top of South Twin is visible in the near distance, with a few people at the summit:
We arrived at the top of South Twin at 2:45pm, and spent some time there taking pictures. It was clear, and spectacular, not that many people. Probably the very best views of the White Mountains I’ve ever seen – towards the northeast and the Presidentials; to the south and Mt Bond and West Bond (Bondcliff was obscured by West Bond from this viewpoint) and Waterville Valley; over towards the west and Franconia Ridge and Garfield:
Here we turned around, leaving South Twin at around 3:15pm, heading back towards the trail-head. In this section, V developed a painful cramp in her knee, briefly, which she was able to shake off. So we kept going…
We arrived back at the top of North Twin about an hour after leaving South Twin:
And then we began the long walk back down North Twin trail, dropping down fairly steeply at first, then more gradually as we arrived at Little River. I filmed V crossing the river at about 6pm:
I had estimated that we’d be back at the trail-head, where the car was parked, by 6:30pm. It turned out to be 6:51pm by the time we got there – a long, 8-hour hike, around 11 miles total, but a spectacular day.
South Twin was number 41 for me, and V’s second 4000-footer in one day! She did a great job on her first 4000-footers.
Now I had only seven more to go.
Very early in my time at ChildFund Australia, we developed a program approach founded upon a comprehensive “theory of change.” I’ve written about that earlier in this series.
The development of that program approach was done through a great process of reflection and collaboration. In the end, our experience, learning, and reflection led us to understand that people are poor because:
- they are deprived of assets (human, capital, natural, and social);
- they are excluded from their societies, and are invisible (voice and agency);
- of power differentials in their families, communities, societies, and across nations.
And we understood that (4) children and youth are particularly vulnerable to risks in their environment, which can result in dramatic increases in poverty; they therefore require protection from physical and psycho-social threats, and sexual abuse, natural and human-caused emergencies, slow-onset disasters, civil conflict, etc.
Because we understood that these are the four causes of child poverty, we set ourselves the collective challenge of improving children’s futures by:
- building human, capital, natural and social assets around the child, including the caregiver;
- building the voice and agency, and
- power of poor people and poor children, while
- working to ensure that children and youth are protected from risks in their environments.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the third domain of our work, building the power of poor people and poor children. That was a very new area of work for us.
Risk reduction was also new, though we had some experience with child protection.
We had designed outcome indicators which we would use, through our Development Effectiveness Framework, to measure the impact of all our work, and giving a sense of our priorities. There was one outcome indicator that corresponded to risk reduction:
Indicator 11: % of communities with a disaster preparedness plan based on a survey of risks, including those related to adaptation to anticipated climate change, relevant to local conditions, known to the community, and consistent with national standards.
I liked this outcome indicator. It would enable us to reflect the results of our DRR work in a broad sense. It showed connectivity with efforts related to climate-change, and linked nicely with the work of others at country level. Along with other areas of child protection, disaster risk reduction would become a priority for us.
Here’s an illustration of why this made sense: this graph shows the dramatic increase in the number of people affected by natural disasters from 1900 through to 2011.
No organization working to create better futures for children, or even human beings, can afford to ignore the fact that vulnerability is increasing very quickly, and dramatically.
And it was becoming very apparent that the Australian government was quite keen on both responding to disaster response and tackling climate change. AusAID had already set up a pre-approval mechanism for emergency-response work, through which a designated group of NGOs could respond very quickly to emergencies; ChildFund Australia wasn’t in the group.
But it all meant that, if we developed capacity, and a strong record of working in DRR and emergency response, there might be opportunities for collaboration with the Australian government, including the possibility of funding …
Our ChildFund Alliance partners in the US, ChildFund International, had been doing some good emergency response work back when I was doing my “Bright-Futures”-related consulting work, around 2003, but their leadership that came onboard later had (mistakenly, in my view) wound up that effort soon after.
(For me the decision to exit emergency-response work was a mistake for several reasons. Firstly, they were already doing good work in that space, which was helping children in very difficult situations. It was an area with great potential for fundraising, because of the urgency involved as well as the priority being put on this work by donors, particularly government bi-lateral donors. And because raising funds in this space was less costly than other revenue sources, overheads could be used to support program development in other areas. Finally, as general child-poverty levels dropped, and our climate changed, child poverty began to be much more related to vulnerability, as we in Australia had determined in the design of our program approach.
ChildFund International – the US Member of the ChildFund Alliance, would later get back into the emergency-response business, and we would begin to structure a formal collaboration with them, and with our Canadian partners, in the humanitarian space. But we all lost time – for example, perhaps if ChildFund International had stayed engaged in emergency response, we in Australia might have qualified for AusAID’s pre-approval pool …)
And, likewise, there was little DRR-related work going on across the Alliance, and certainly we at ChildFund Australia had no significant track record in that area. So if we were to build up our expertise, we needed to start by bringing it in from outside.
Happily, at around that time Nigel Spence (the ChildFund Australia CEO) and I were in a meeting in Canberra, talking about these issues. A very senior AusAID leader told us that if we sent her an ambitious plan to help communities in southeast Asia prepare for disasters, at scale, it would be funded. Especially if it involved a consortium.
So I went back to Sydney and got to work. In short order I recruited two other preeminent Australian INGOs (Plan International Australia, and Save the Children Australia) and wrote up an extremely-ambitious proposal: we would reduce climate- and disaster-related risks in 1000 communities in five countries across Asia, reaching approximately 362,500 children and adults directly, and over 1.5m people indirectly. Among the expected outcomes of the project, we would also seek to empower children and youth:
- Children and youth will be recognised within communities as effective agents of positive change;
- Children and youth will have increased knowledge and understanding, and thus capacity, to anticipate, plan and react appropriately to short-term risks and longer-term threats and trends.
These aims are very consistent with our presentation at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that took place in Japan in March, 2015. More on that conference below!
The response from AusAID was quite positive. But:
Mistake #1: I didn’t get anything in writing!
However, given that we had gotten such a strong green light from Canberra, Nigel and I agreed that we’d go ahead and recruit a DRR expert to help us finalize the proposal and begin to prepare for the work.
We had a good response to our recruitment outreach and, in the end, I was lucky to recruit Sanwar Ali from Oxfam Australia to be our first “Senior Advisor for ER and DRR.” Sanwar had long experience in emergency response across Asia and parts of Africa, and was also deeply experienced with DRR. At the same time, I felt the Sydney International Program Team could benefit from Sanwar’s background – he would round out the team on several dimensions...
Soon after Sanwar joined, AusAID let us know that their “green light” was actually just encouragement to include DRR work in our normal project portfolio, so there would be no ambitious funding for scaling-up across Asia!
That was very frustrating.
No matter. Our program approach had committed us to working to help protect children from disasters, and Sanwar would be key to that program development effort. It was just unfortunate that the funding for his position evaporated!
Soon Sanwar led the development of policies for Emergency Response and Disaster Risk Reduction, which we would incorporate into the ChildFund Australia Program Handbook.
The ER Policy was an expanded update to previous policy, but the DRR policy was new. Like all our program policies, this one was rather brief. Its introduction and policy statement were succinct:
The frequency with which disasters are occurring is increasing dramatically, in part because of human-induced climate change. This trend represents a threat to children, youth, and caregivers, and has the potential to undermine progress made in improving wellbeing and reducing poverty.
At the same time, however, thanks to efforts of local communities, national governments, the international community, and INGOs such as ChildFund, the human impact of these
disasters has been reduced over time.
Reducing risks for children, youth, and caregivers is central to ChildFund’s program approach, because communities which are resilient to risks are best positioned to provide security and ensure continued wellbeing of vulnerable children.
This policy provides an organisational framework for action related to disaster risk reduction.
ChildFund Australia will work to ensure that disaster risk reduction (DRR) plans, known as Community Action Plans – CAPs) are in place in all communities where we work. These CAPs will be developed in a participatory manner, consistent with the Hyogo Framework for Action, and according to relevant guidelines in each country.
DRR efforts will be mainstreamed in our development, humanitarian and advocacy activities whenever appropriate.
The rest of the policy document outlined “Key Actions” required by ChildFund Australia staff at various levels and locations, and outlined how work in this area was connected to our organizational Outcome Indicators.
Sanwar and I worked together on two ChildFund Alliance-wide projects. I had proposed that the operational Members of the Alliance (which, initially, meant Australia, Canada, and the US, with Japan and Korea observing) work together in Emergency Response and DRR, partly because we would be able to show global reach that way. So we planned to develop a set of common policies and procedures through which we would respond to humanitarian disasters jointly.
I want to describe the other project that Sanwar and I worked on in a bit more detail: I led the ChildFund Alliance delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that took place in Japan in March, 2015; a delegation from ChildFund had a big presence at that conference. And, the week before the UN Conference, I visited areas of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan that had been affected by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear explosion that had devastated that area exactly four years before. My visit was part of JCC2015 (Japan CSO Coalition for 2015 WCDRR) conference, which concluded the day after the field visit with an important program of sessions.
I will bring in some content from blogs I published here in 2015, just after my trip to Japan…
The visit to Fukushima was unforgettable. The impact of the horrific events of four years ago was still very apparent, as was the strong and continuing resilience of the local people, even those who (at that point) remained in “temporary” camps.
A good summary of the events of the events of 2011, along with some lessons we should learn, is contained in the publication “Ten Lessons from Fukushima.” In brief, a massive (magnitude 9) earthquake, at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, caused extensive damage across northern Japan, and triggered an enormous tsunami. This tsunami struck coastal zones of northern Japan an hour after the earthquake, destroying vast areas and killing many. The Fukushima “Dai-Ichi” (number one) nuclear plant, located on the coast, was severely damaged by the tsunami. The next day at 3:36pm, core meltdown and a massive explosion destroyed reactor unit 1. Other reactors subsequently failed.
It has been estimated that the equivalent of 168 Hiroshima nuclear bomb’s worth of radiation was released when Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor unit 1 exploded.
Evacuation orders were slow to come, partly due to the loss of communications facilities, but also due to startling management and leadership errors. Eventually, after suffering serious exposure to radiation, some 300,000 people were evacuated from areas inside a 30km radius around the reactor complex.
This map shows the 30km evacuation zone, and the radiation plume.
We would visit areas well within the red area during our trip.
Radiation drifted with the wind, falling onto land and people and animals, leaving extremely high levels of iodine, cesium, and other radioactive elements. Radioactivity fell across inhabited, farmed, and forested areas according to the wind direction at the time, and radioactive water was released into the sea – even four years later, when I visited, something like 600 tons of radioactive water were being released into the ocean each and every day. “Safe” levels of radiation were repeatedly raised.
Investigations found that the nuclear disaster was preventable; appropriate safety mechanisms – existing at the time – were not incorporated into the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors when they were built.
Another good document covering the disaster and its aftermath was created by the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy.
I had not realised that vast areas of Fukushima Prefecture were still closed due to extremely high radiation levels, and that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor complex was dangerously unstable, and events could have spun out of control again at any time. Wreckage littered a vast area, and radiation in many of the places we visited was startlingly higher than what is considered to be safe, if “safe” levels even exist. Radiation contamination seriously impeded recovery efforts, as workers could not stay in the area for very long. (I was struck by the contrast with Hurricane Katrina where, even with the bungled response, cleanup was far more advanced four years after the storm than what we saw in Fukushima… The difference? The radiation.)
We visited Iitate village, a place where some of the highest levels of radiation were found just after the meltdown – it’s right near the center of the darkest plume in the map above. We visited Namie town, where we met with local officials who are doing their best to deal with the situation, spending their days in highly-contaminated areas. We visited tsunami-affected areas of Namie, where we could see vast areas of wreckage, damaged housing, vehicles crushed by the power of the waves.
And we drove to within 4km of the Fukushima Dai-Itchi plant. We finished the day by visiting a group of evacuees from Namie town, at that point still in “temporary” housing in Kohri town. Their courage and resilience was powerful and inspiring.
Radiation levels on our bus were high. This reading, taken during our lunch break, is 0.82 micro Sieverts per hour, which is considered “safe” for short-term visits only.
Throughout the area, thousands of one-ton bags of soil, wood, debris, etc., were piling up. Topsoil, down 20cm, from farms was being removed; areas 20m around houses were similarly being cleaned. I was told that these bags, nearly a million of them now, would be taken to gigantic incinerators for processing. Nineteen hugely-expensive incinerators were being built, each with a short lifetime of just two years. Meanwhile, the residual ash was being stored, “temporarily”, at the Fukushima plant.
Radiation “hotspots” remained, however.
The catastrophe took place four years before our visit. The situation when we were there is described in the “Fukushima Lessons” publication noted above, and in a recent article in The Economist. There were still over 120,000 “nuclear refugees” who could not return to their communities, their homes, the areas we visited. They probably never will, despite financial incentives being offered, because levels of contamination were still so high.
We met with a group of displaced people, from Namie town, now living in Kohri town in “temporary” housing far from their homes, to which they will never return. They lived virtually on top of each other, able to hear the softest sounds from their neighbours (such as snoring!) – quite a change from Namie, where their ancestral homes and farms were.
We were lucky to be presented with a narrative, using a hand-made storyboard, of their experience in the days after the tragedy. It was a powerful and moving description of their suffering; and in the telling of the story, of their resilience and spirit.
Discussing Fukushima was sensitive in Japan. I found it interesting, the next week at the WCDRR Conference in Sendai, that the many references to the Fukushima disaster refer to it as the “Great East Japan Earthquake” or “Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami” disaster. No reference to the horrific and ongoing events at the nuclear power plant, which were somehow not relevant, or too sensitive to mention.
Some final reflections:
- Several times during the day in Fukushima, we heard local people use a striking visual metaphor: “nuclear power is like a house without a toilet.” Until there is a safe and permanent place for nuclear waste, we should not be using this source of power;
- In our increasingly-unstable world, the use of a technology with such potential for devastation and tragedy – Fukushima, Chernobyl – seems foolish. The precautionary principle should be followed;
- Let’s try to remember that the impact of these mega-disasters still persists. Four years after the disaster, there were 120,000 people still displaced, even in Japan, such a rich country. And cleanup and stabilization in Chernobyl, even more than 30 years later, is still far from finished.
Ultimately, I took a sense of inspiration from the stories of the people affected, of those who responded and who are responding still, and those who are living lives of advocacy to ensure that the injustices that took place in Fukushima are corrected, and not repeated.
Reflecting on what we saw, those (government, TEPCO, etc.) who were saying that the area had recovered, or was on the road to recovery, were either not seeing what we saw, or not telling the truth.
I want to share links to two articles from The Guardian, describing the situation in 2017, two years after my visit to Fukushima: this article describes how radiation levels inside the collapsed reactor had risen to “extraordinary” levels, unexpectedly; and this article provides a lengthy update of what are described as “faltering” cleanup efforts. They make for depressing reading.
On a more positive note, and with the importance of DRR clearly in my mind after the visit to Fukushima, I led the ChildFund delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai.
I want to share content from a summary article I published in DevEx soon after the conference ended:
After several sleepless nights of negotiations, representatives from 187 governments agreed the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. As one of more than 6,500 participants in the Sendai conference, I can attest to the exhausted sense of relief that many of us felt when the framework was finally announced.
The framework that emerged contains seven global targets — nonbinding and with funding left unspecified — focused on reducing disaster risk and loss of lives and livelihoods from disasters.
Sendai was a monumental effort, involving government representatives, senior-most leaders of the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies, staff from hundreds of civil society organizations and private sector businesses, and the media, with venues scattered across the city. The urgent need for international action to reduce disaster risks was thrown into stark relief when Cyclone Pam — one of the most intense storms ever to occur in the Pacific — tore across Vanuatu just as the conference began.
Why does what happened in Sendai matter? Because hazards — both man-made and natural — are growing, as our climate changes and growing inequality contributes to a sense of injustice in many populations. Doing nothing to prepare for these increased risks is not a viable option for our future.
Also, Sendai matters because the conference was the first of four crucial U.N. gatherings this year. What happened in Sendai will influence the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, coming in Ethiopia in July; the post-2015 sustainable development goals that will be discussed at the global U.N. summit in September; and the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.
ChildFund’s delegation, part of the “Children in a Changing Climate” coalition, had several objectives in Sendai. In particular, we worked to make the case that children and young people should be seen as agents of change in any new DRR framework.
Children and young people are normally seen as helpless, passive victims of disasters. During and after emergencies, the mainstream media, even many organizations in our own international NGO sector, portray children and young people as needing protection and rescue. Of course, children and young people do need protection. When disasters strike they need rescue and care. But what such images fail to show is that children also have the capacity — and the right — to participate, not only in preparing for disasters but in the recovery process.
Since the last U.N. agreement on DRR, in 2005, we have learned that children and young people must be actively engaged so that they understand the risks of disasters in their communities and can play a role in reducing those risks. Children’s participation in matters that concern them is their right — enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child — and strengthens their resilience and self-esteem.
And, crucially, we know that young people’s participation in DRR activities leads to better preparation within families and in communities.
The example we used to make our case came from ChildFund in the Philippines. In 2011, with support from local government and the Australian government, ChildFund worked with several youth groups to help them prepare for disasters, and to help them help their communities prepare. We engaged young people in Iloilo and Zamboanga del Norte provinces to identify hazards, to develop local DRR and disaster risk management plans, to train children and young people in disaster risk management, and to raise awareness of DRR in eight communities.
Little did we know that, just 18 months after the project concluded, this effort would really pay off. Many of us remember vividly the images of Typhoon Haiyan barreling across the Philippines in November 2013, just north of where our project was carried out. As local and national government in the Philippines began to respond to the typhoon, with massive support from the international community, we could see that the efforts of children and young people we had worked with were proving to be important elements in managing the impact of the storm.
Advocacy of children and young people during the project had led to the local government investing more in preparedness and mitigation, which was crucial as the storm hit. Young people trained in the project trained other groups of parents and youths, building the capacity of people who were affected by, and responded to, Haiyan. Local government units mobilized disaster risk reduction committees, including youth members, who were involved in evacuation of families living in high-risk areas. Youth volunteers helped prepare emergency supplies and facilitated sessions for children in child-centered spaces that were set up after the typhoon passed.
This experience led ChildFund to strongly support elements of the Sendai Framework that recognize the importance of the meaningful participation of children and youth in DRR activities. We are happy to see the text calling for governments to engage with children and youth and to promote their leadership, and recognizing children and young people as agents of change who should be given the space and modalities to contribute to disaster risk reduction.
But two major weaknesses can be seen in the Sendai Framework: Its targets are not binding and are not quantified; and no global commitments to funding DRR actions were made. Many observers feel that governments were keen to establish (or not establish!) precedents at Sendai that would bind them (or not bind them!) in the high-stakes conferences to come. These weaknesses are serious, and greatly undercut the urgency of our task and likely effectiveness of our response.
Still, on balance, the Sendai Framework is good for children and youth, certainly better than failure to agree would have been. Let’s hope for even stronger action in Addis Ababa, New York and Paris, with binding targets and clear financial commitments.
Then our children, and grandchildren, will look back at Sendai as a milestone in building a better, fairer and safer world.
After the success of Sendai, Felipe Cala (then working with the ChildFund Alliance secretariat) and I took a couple of days to visit Kyoto, a marvelous place full of culture and beautiful scenery. And we enjoyed the modern “bullet” trains, that made our countries look so backward.
Here are links to earlier blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration;
- Mt Moriah (33) – Putting It All Together (Part 1): the ChildFund Australia International Program Team;
- Owls’ Head (34) – Putting It All Together (Part 2): ChildFund Australia’s Theory of Change;
- Bondcliff (35) – ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- West Bond (36) – “Case Studies” in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Bond (37) – Impact Assessment in ChildFund Australia’s Development Effectiveness System;
- Mt Waumbek (38) – “Building the Power of Poor People and Poor Children…”
- Mt Cabot (39) – ChildFund Australia’s Teams In Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam;
- North Twin (40) – Value for Money.