Analysing the African Union’s Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy – Fellows’ seminar by Roland Balgah

24 May 2021

In 2002 the African Union commenced the development of a continent-wide disaster risk reduction strategy. This marked a paradigm shift in policy making, in a continent often assumed to be a testing ground for externally formulated policies. What factors triggered this policy-making process? And, which institutions, institutional arrangements, processes and events were critical for its success? Roland Balgah’s work applies historical and content analysis, and an adjusted institutional analysis and development framework, to provide some answers to these questions and to tease out the lessons for successful policy making on the continent.

STIAS Fellow Roland Balgah during his seminar on 20 May 2021

STIAS fellow Balgah of the College of Technology, University of Bamenda, Cameroon, is currently editing a co-authored book on: ‘Disaster Management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Policies, Institutions and Processes’. The book will analyse how a number of sub-Saharan Africa countries (Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa) formulate and implement disaster policies in line with the strategy and suggest how disaster risk reduction can be improved on the continent.

Balgah is writing a chapter in the book on ‘Institutions and Process Analyses of the African Union’s Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy’. Presenting his preliminary results from this ongoing work, Balgah said:  “The strategy formulation process was participatory, focus driven, systematic and well thought out. The outcome was an Africa-led and owned strategy reflecting African realities, that was rigid but flexible, globally aligned, met international expectations, and made the link between disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. But the document did not include long-term outcomes or monitoring and evaluation. There were no indicators, no real quantifiable measures and timeframes. With no clear indicators, it’s difficult to measure its success.”

Balgah’s interest in disaster management came from his observation of the 1986 Lake Nyos disaster – a toxic gas explosion which killed 1746 – in his home country of Cameroon.

He pointed out that between 2000 and 2019 there were 7350 natural disaster events globally of which 1190 occurred in Africa. These affected 4 billion people worldwide, led to the loss of 1.2 billion lives and an estimated US $2.97 trillion in economic losses. These figures represent huge increases, compared to the previous decade (1990-1999), with economic losses of 45.1 percent representing the highest comparative losses.

“Floods and droughts comprised nearly 90% of all events in Africa and 96% of deaths occurred in Africa.”

Africa was third on the list but often first in terms of impact. Developing countries where state and market institutions for dealing with natural disasters are weak or non-existent; and/or have limited resources for such activities suffer the most in such situations.

“Poor communities often fall deeper into poverty as extreme events block the routes out of poverty. But there is no one-size-fits all model – no two shocks are the same and each has a different impact.  This speed-breaks global efforts towards disaster management.”

“The prediction is that Africa will face more disasters in future. We need to understand what happens in practice when hazards occur in countries where the state or markets are failing,” said Balgah. “In such situations the informal response becomes more important as communities try to fill the gaps and victims appropriate whatever is at their disposal.”

He traced the developed of the AU strategy which was first proposed in 1987 backed by a United Nation’s resolutions declaring the 1990s as the International Decade for Disaster Risk Reduction, but concrete strategies were only developed from 2002 with the strategy finally published in 2005.

Initial inertia

“I believe the initial inertia was related to unhappiness at the level of achievement of international policy initiatives in Africa – in particular structural adjustment programmes. The failure of SAPs probably made the continent hesitant for a new external policy, and encouraged the push for an Africa-driven policy. There was also consciousness of the need to do it well – so that the continent was not just criticising but making its own successful policies.”

“There was also disassociation between disaster risk reduction and sustainable development – these were probably only first linked at the 1994 Yokahama Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction.”

Balgah traced a series of global meetings starting with the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg – the first time it was held on the African continent – and the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction. “One event led to another, pushing the momentum to develop the strategy.”

“It became clear that there was a need to have policies for the continent. In particular, to secure funding and prevent international isolation.”

A baseline study was done in 2004 – “better late than never,” he added.

The key institutions involved included the AU, NEPAD, the African Working Group, regional economics committees, the African Development Bank and funders, and external partners like the UN and World Health Organization.

“There were no strict rules governing the process,” said Balgah. “It was stressed that it should be Africa driven but with sovereign states at the centre and the understanding that implementation would be at a national and regional level. The strategy had to reflect Africa’s needs to guarantee long-term success.”

“It’s not clear whether the lack of indicators and monitoring and evaluation was deliberate or due to limited knowledge. I think the failure of the SAPs led the international actors to accept the policy. There are many policies like this with slightly ‘fuzzy’ outcomes.”

Speaking generally of the challenges of implementing the policy in Africa, Balgah pointed to massive differences within and between countries, underlying political motivations, and the need to combine informal and formal responses for stronger, collaborative action. He also emphasised that the effects of disaster are also not just at national and community but also at individual levels, and there is a vital need to understand the psychosocial impact.

In discussion he acknowledged the need to unpack the impact of recent developments including the African Peer Review Mechanism, special technical committees, and the AU Development Agency – which have the potential to impose increased rigour on the continent.

“Some hazards you cannot avoid. There are increased efforts to prepare but in Africa it’s generally difficult due to frequent state and market failures. If there are no working institutions it becomes very difficult. In Cameroon, for example, the department of civil-protection in charge of disaster management has units spread across multiple ministries. In a disaster all the concerned ministries become involved –– often leading to co-ordination problems. There is a tendency to respond based on state interests and political motivation. The response to the same disaster may be different in different regions.”

“COVID-19 highlights all of this again strongly and makes the interactions even more complicated.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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