The Future of Risk Reduction – Reflecting on the Sendai Mid-term Review

October 13, 2023

As we mark International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, it is a good moment to look back and reflect once more on the key findings and recommendations that have transpired in the Sendai Mid-Term Review (MTR) Political Declaration. It was adopted five months ago by the UN General Assembly to contemplate and give direction on the future of disaster risk reduction. 

So: What do we need to do differently? How concrete and practical are the MTR recommendations? Do they offer new solutions? How realistic is it that we can course correct?

These questions have been on my mind during a recent visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I led an interactive learning experience on the integration of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation into the sustainable development process for a group of government representatives at national, sub-national and sectoral levels.  

UNDP Madagascar

Many of us still remember the immense effort of member states and the international community alike in the run up to the high-level MTR meeting, reviewing progress and identifying gaps to inform the MTR Political Declaration. UNDP took a keen interest in the Sendai MTR. We supported several governments with their national MTR review processes, including Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Viet Nam. And I coordinated a UNDP-wide consultation to seek the views of our staff on the state of affairs and how to overcome once and for all the holdups in achieving transformational change and the resilience of nations and communities.

The overall MTR findings were clear: whilst good progress has been achieved across many of the Sendai Targets, there is concern that countries are not yet where they need to be. Firstly, development planning, budgeting and implementation are often still risk-blind. Secondly, as the world faces growing uncertainty, risk levels are rising, and as a result humanitarian needs are on an upward spiral. And thirdly, the manifestations of systemic risk – such as the war in Ukraine or the COVID pandemic – in the form of escalating disaster impacts and losses across sectors and geographies, are seriously threatening our ability to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

War rubble in Chernikhiv

UNDP Ukraine\ Oleksandr Ratushniak

Although the MTR Political Declaration provides a useful guide on where we need to focus our efforts from now onwards, it is somewhat surprising that a great many of the listed gaps, challenges and proposed actions are already well known to us and documented, even dating back to the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 implementation period.

The question arises, whether the emphasis of the Political Declaration on renewing the commitment for implementing many already-known priorities during the remainder of the Sendai Framework will yield a fundamentally different result. Or, speaking in the words of Albert Einstein “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. 

Therefore, as long as we are treating the current risk reduction gaps and challenges with more of the same old cure, can we expect to instill change? 

Of course, one could say that we first need to have the fundamental capacities in place to address conventional (or single hazard) risks before moving on to address the more complex, multi-dimensional and systemic risks. 

However, do we have that luxury of time in view of the speed with which risk levels are rising? And aren’t we diverting people’s attention away from those new and innovative recommendations that have a much better potential to transform the current risk management systems and overcome the fundamental barriers to reducing risk? 

A much leaner Political Declaration that focuses on new solutions may potentially have been more impactful and serve high-level policy makers better in carving out the way forward.

UNDP Senegal

The Political Declaration also still features a strong emphasis for the future of the Sendai Framework on disaster risk, disaster risk governance, DRR strategies, national DRR Platforms and so forth. It seems a missed opportunity that the Political Declaration does not make a more compelling case for overcoming the existing risk management siloes that exist across the disaster, climate, environment, health and conflict spheres, and for moving forward with a more integrated resilience building approach that is able to address multi-dimensional risks under the umbrella of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), rather than preserving a dedicated disaster risk reduction approach.
So, what then are the essential solutions we can distill from the Political Declaration that are needed for unblocking barriers to achieve the objectives of the Sendai Framework in today’s world? 

First, risk reduction can no longer operate in a silo and must become an integral element of the sustainable development agenda. Risk reduction is not a sector, but a development outcome that relies on multi-sectoral interventions and strong risk governance arrangements that foster strategic foresight, adaptive planning and the inclusion of the most vulnerable. This requires strengthening existing risk governance arrangements as the foundation for moving towards a national and local architecture that can manage conventional and systemic risk. This requires a transformation from the notion that a single entity assumes responsibility. Instead, vertically and horizontally integrated risk governance arrangements are needed with multiple authorities taking the responsibility for preventing and reducing risk under the umbrella of the SDGs. 

Second, and following the above train of thought, the question arises whether a separate global policy stream that continues to cement the existing DRR sector is still desirable. The same question is relevant at country level as regards the need of DRR Strategies. If risk management becomes part and parcel of national and subnational development strategies, are separate planning frameworks for DRR, climate adaptation etc. as we know them today still fit for purpose?

UNDP Pakistan

Third, we must put a stop to trading-off one risk management practice against the other (i.e. DRR, climate adaptation, conflict prevention, health risk management etc.) if we want to successfully risk-inform development decision-making. We need more integration, more coherence and more joined-up efforts with a stronger focus on reducing risk exposure and vulnerability and strengthening the capacity at state and local levels to manage risks throughout the development process. Effective territorial governance and area-based approaches for the integration of efforts coming from different administrative levels, sectors and risk management practices will be an essential ingredient, including nature-based solutions or ecosystems services in rural and urban planning.

Fourth in view of the unsustainable levels of risk that transcend national and generational boundaries, risk reduction efforts from now on need to address the risks to our planet. We need a greater focus on prospective risk reduction and prevention to avoid future environmental or societal collapse which becomes likely as our planetary boundaries are breached. Since both risk reduction and risk creation are political processes that require the negotiation between different socio-economic interests, a deep appreciation of the political economy is a must to be able to understand the trade-offs between resilient and less resilient development pathways.

Last, but not least, we need to build on and expand new partnerships that help unblock international and domestic (government and private sector) financing for risk reduction efforts in support of prevention and resilience building. This is and will become even more pressing in the face of the ever-growing humanitarian need we are witnessing every day. 

I hope the above five points will serve as a useful distillate and point of reflection as we celebrate the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction and help embrace the forward looking and new elements of the Sendai MTR Political Declaration that foster risk reduction that is truly future relevant.