The World Bank report primarily presents an economic argument on why preventing disasters makes sense. It also admits perspectives from a few other disciplines: ‘psychology - to understand how people may misperceive risks; political science - to understand voting patterns; and nutrition science - to understand how stunting in children after a disaster impairs cognitive abilities and productivity as adults much later’.
At a tactical level, each of these arguments no doubt make the case for prioritizing investments in disaster prevention activities over the short- and medium-term. In fact, the disaster reduction community has been spending a fair amount of time in recent years, detailing the ‘benefits’ of disaster prevention and how such actions are vital to ‘protecting development gains’.
But the conversation gets a lot more interesting if another kind of question can be asked: why must we stop short of framing these tactical arguments within a more human and moral perspective? Of saving lives and protecting communities from predictable, recurrent disruptions. Is that not an end in itself?
Isn’t the higher goal of all development efforts to create sustainable and fulfilled communities? If yes, then why must we only emphasize utilitarian, economic or political imperatives for investing in disaster prevention measures? Have we altogether ignored the human and moral imperatives to act?
I don’t routinely hear economic justifications for poverty reduction or health care programs. The need to prevent extreme poverty and famine or provide access to basic healthcare are treated as universal givens. Countries may achieve different levels of fulfilling these needs, but the need itself is not questioned. This global moral consensus on poverty and healthcare – if we can call it that - compels us to act on vulnerable human conditions that need urgent solutions. Why have we treated disaster prevention so differently?
It’s obvious that societies cannot assume responsibility for ‘total risk reduction’ just as there will perhaps never be poverty ‘eradication’ in the absolute sense of the term. There will always be the risk of outlier events such as Japan experienced in March 2011 – events that cannot be entirely prepared for.
But, can we at least take responsibility for preventing predictable, recurrent, known disasters that routinely affect our communities, without having to find economic motivations and political justifications?
In the near future, I wonder if we will have the courage to articulate a global moral consensus on death and damage from known, predictable disasters in the 21st century as unacceptable - in the same way that extreme poverty, famine, or death from preventable diseases are considered unacceptable today.