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Disaster management and development: two sides of the same coin?

Today, we talk with Rumana Kabir, IMC’s Senior Consultant for disaster management and climate change adaptation, with over 16 years’ experience in international development.

Wednesday 07 December 2016, Rumana Kabir, Lorenza Geronimo

Hello, Rumana, and thanks for being with us today. Why don’t you start by telling us why you chose to work in international development?

Hello, Lorenza. Thank you. I am an architect by training. However, while studying at university in Bangladesh, I could not really see how my background could fit in the development sector.

University courses focused on developing client-focused building design skills. Moreover, the development sector in Bangladesh is often seen as a way to make a living out of people’s suffering, as much of the time, international aid doesn’t reach the people in need.

My interest in development became clearer to me at a later stage of my degree when I started travelling to remote, disasters-prone regions of Bangladesh to observe and document ‘building-for-safety’ measures. This led me to the UK for further studies at Oxford Brookes University’s Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP).

I still go back to CENDEP to lecture on post-disaster response, recovery and reconstruction and how the disaster management sector operates on the ground.

Alongside your lecturing activity, you work at IMC, where you are involved in some disaster risk management and climate change adaptation projects.

Yes, I am currently leading a project to develop a Local Disaster Recovery Framework Guide for the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. We are developing case studies to capture lessons and challenges of successful recovery programmes in Colombia, Serbia, Indonesia, India and Senegal. This will then feed into a larger set of guidelines that aim to help local governments and institutions to develop recovery frameworks for future disasters, mainly natural disasters.

I am also a disaster risk management and gender and social inclusion consultant for an investment programme aimed at strengthening resilience to natural hazards in Ethiopia. Moreover, I am involved in the evaluation of the USAID Office for Disaster Assistance’s disaster risk reduction programming in Nepal.

As I have worked on the ground in many countries with governments and humanitarian institutions during disaster response, recovery and reconstructions phases, it is a great opportunity for me to now work on the broader international development arena. This allows me to use my on-the-ground skills within longer-term projects.

What exactly is disaster management, and how does it fit within IMC’s long-term international development operations?

Disaster management helps people, government, security forces, professionals and civil society deal with natural disasters or manmade crises such as war and migration, and prepare for any such events. When a country is unable to cope on its own, the international community steps in to help. That is called short-term international humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.

However, this also triggers a larger amount of funds flowing into reconstruction and long-term recovery programmes. Take, for example, the schools that IMC is building and retrofitting in Pakistan according to earthquake-resilient standards as part of the UKAid-funded School Construction and Rehabilitation Programme.

Another example is the Islamic Development Bank-funded Fael Khair programme that we are managing in the southern coastal belt of Bangladesh, often hit by monsoons that come up from the Bay of Bengal. Fael Khair will result in the construction of 174 buildings that serve as schools during normal times and as shelters when cyclones strike.

These are development projects intended to have a longer-term impact on people’s wellbeing and help communities cope during emergencies and in the immediate aftermath.

Rumana training the Pakistan Army on housing reconstruction after the 2005 earthquake.
Rumana training the Pakistan Army on housing reconstruction after the 2005 earthquake. Credit: Rumana Kabir.

So disaster management and international development are two sides of the same coin?

Yes, exactly. I see disaster management as a big area, which does not only include humanitarian assistance. It also refers to the whole reconstruction and recovery process that goes on until the affected country is back on its feet and able to handle future disasters on its own. The humanitarian sector is a part of disaster management, and we call the rest of the business the development sector.

However, today these two sectors work in silos as separate entities, with different types of people and different mindsets. This reflects in the different funding streams within donors agencies. Humanitarian funding targets short-term relief projects (three to six months, or a maximum of two years), while development funding is earmarked for longer-term programmes, running for five to ten years or more.

What are the other major challenges of the development sector?

Well, international funds are stretched. The world is constantly flooded by news of disasters, wars and violence. There is simply not enough money to support all the people in need in a sustainable way.

As soon as the international community’s attention is captured by a major crisis and funds start flowing in a specific country or area, another crisis in another region of the world hits, and again the attention and funds are diverted.

The result is that countries are abandoned by donors long before they can get back on their feet. Another problem is understaffing. Many international professionals prefer working in humanitarian assistance programmes since they can gain valuable experience and go back home after a relatively short time.

So it is important to transfer the skills and resources to the people and institutions in the country for them to take ownership of large-scale development projects.

Do you have any advice for who might want to explore a future in international development? What does it take to work in this sector?

We need to be willing to work in difficult environments, constantly under pressure as well as being able to make decisions fast in a consultative manner. Sometimes in a post-crisis situation, we have to make hard choices but must be careful of the consequences of our decisions.

We also have to understand the overall context and how we fit as development professionals into the bigger picture. Are we really contributing to the country’s long-term recovery or are we creating more aid dependency?

If we want to make a difference to people’s lives, we should accept hardship and uncertainties as positive challenges and have the stamina to persevere. This way, we can learn a lot, and build a fulfilling career.

 

Cover photo: As a disaster risk management specialist for UNDP, Rumana worked with local and national governments to conduct post-disaster needs assessment after the 2011 Thailand flood. Credit: Yang Fan, UNDP.

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