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date: 24 April 2019

Lessons on Risk Governance From the UNISDR Experience

Summary and Keywords

In the context of this article, risk governance addresses the ways and means—or institutional framework—to lead and manage the issue of risk related to natural phenomena, events, or hazards, also referred to popularly, although incorrectly, as “natural disasters.” At the present time, risk related to natural phenomena includes a major focus on the issue of climate change with which it is intimately connected, climate change being a major source of risk.

To lead involves mainly defining policies and proposing legislation, hence proposing goals, conducting, promoting, orienting, providing a vision—namely, reducing the loss of lives and livelihoods as part of sustainable development—also, raising awareness and educating on the topic and addressing the ethical perspective that motivates and facilitates engagement by citizens.

To manage involves, among other things, proposing organizational and technical arrangements, as well as regulations allowing the implementation of policies and legislation. Also, it involves monitoring and supervising such implementation to draw further lessons to periodically enhance the policies, legislation, regulations, and organizational and technical arrangements.

UNISDR was established in 2000 to promote and facilitate risk reduction, becoming in a few years one of the main promoters of risk governance in the world and the main global advocate from within the United Nations system. It was an honor to serve as the first director of the UNISDR (2001–2011).

A first lesson to be drawn from this experience was the need to identify, understand, and address the obstacles not allowing the implementation of what seems to be obvious to the scientific community but of difficult implementation by governments, private sector, and civil society; and alternatively, the reasons for shortcomings and weaknesses in risk governance.

A second lesson identified was that risk related to natural phenomena also provides lessons for governance related to other types of risk in society—environmental, financial, health, security, etc., each a separate and specialized topic, sharing, however, common risk governance approaches.

A third lesson was the relevance of understanding leadership and management as essential components in governance. Drawing lessons on one’s own experience is always risky as it involves some subjectivity in the analysis. In the article, the aim has, nonetheless, been at the utmost objectivity on the essential learnings in having conducted the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction—UNISDR—from 2001 to around 2009 when leading and managing was shared with another manager, as I prepared for retirement in 2011.

Additional lessons are identified, including those related to risk governance as it is academically conceived, hence, what risk governance includes and how it has been implemented by different international, regional, national, and local authorities. Secondly, I identify those lessons related to the experience of leading and managing an organization focused on disaster risk at the international level and in the context of the United Nations system.

Keywords: risk governance, UNISDR, risk management, risk reduction, sustainable development, climate change


The aim of this article is to discuss governance mechanisms addressing risk related to natural hazards, also known as disaster risk reduction (DRR). The article is not based on exhaustive research but rather on observation and analysis of my personal experience leading the UNISDR, a program of the United Nations focusing on disaster risk reduction.

UNISDR was established in 2000 to promote and facilitate risk reduction, becoming in a few years one of the main promoters of risk governance in the world and the main global advocate from within the UN system. It was an honor for me to be selected to be the first director of the UNISDR.1

The early years of UNISDR were dedicated to raising awareness on the relevance of the topic, still largely unknown in many quarters, public and private, including within the United Nations. Despite advanced research by some academic experts and a few valuable experiences in some countries, all of which were brought together and highlighted during the IDNDR, the world was still witnessing too many catastrophic events and recurrent disasters that were causing devastation and becoming huge obstacles to sustainable development.

By 2005, the topic had been recognized more widely and a larger number of organizations, public, private, and nongovernmental had become fully involved in addressing the challenges of risk reduction and management. The combination of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, and the high-profile Kobe conference that followed immediately after, January 18–22, 2005, which adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action (United Nations, 2005) contributed greatly to opening the eyes of many governments, civil society organizations, and the public at large.

The article will not list the events (conferences, publications, programs, etc.), that were developed during those years as it would require too much space. Detailed information on the history of UNISDR on those years can be found at various relevant web sources.2 Box 1 provides a brief, bird’s eye overview of the UNISDR and the conferences that provide international policy guidance on disaster risk reduction.

In-depth research, including much in this present volume on risk governance, is welcome. However, research still requires further development.

Political, administrative, or organizational sciences themselves, had not until recently, been a prominent part of natural hazard science. Natural or geosciences took the earlier lead in providing an understanding of hazards and disasters. For example, the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR, 1990–1999, led by the United Nations was predominantly inspired by natural and applied science concerns (Lavell, 2012). Social sciences, in general, were for a long time mainly interested in studying the impacts and other consequences of disasters and only recently, from the 1970s, have focused on understanding the role of social vulnerability in the causation of disasters. Social vulnerability has been understood as including human, institutional, economic, and physical factors as the main causes at the origin of disasters related to natural hazards.3 Furthermore, within social sciences, the understanding of policy, legal, and organizational processes, essential components of governance, have been even slower in appearing in the scientific consideration of hazards.

Global Risk Challenges

Three major global processes combine themselves, creating a historically unique set of risks related to natural phenomena or events. Such a combination contributes to potentially adding intensity and frequency to the impact of these phenomena, converting them into greater or more extreme hazards:

  1. (a) Urban migration and concentration, in which most of the world population, already living in urban areas, is expected to increase even more rapidly in the coming years, hence concentrating risk in even larger volume, with populations less prepared or knowledgeable than they were previously in rural areas or other countries from which they migrated.

  2. (b) Climate change expected to enhance frequency and intensity of climate events affecting various world regions in a diverse manner with, for example, regions that have usually been humid, becoming drier or regions not yet affected by tropical cyclones gradually getting impacted by these phenomena more frequently.

    Additionally, urban density aggravated by climate variability and climate change create yet another challenge, that of creeping environmental changes that have also been called “socio-natural events and hazards” in which human intervention creates or accelerates natural processes such as landslides, floods, land subsidence, drought, and other phenomena.4

  3. (c) High levels of inequity in the distribution of wealth, globally and within many countries, probably the only process that can (and should) be reversed in a shorter period of time by international concerted policy efforts. Such inequity, in addition to being morally wrong, is a major contributor to international migrations, refugees, internal displacements and social unrest, and conflicts, thus enhancing risk in greater proportion as migrants arrive in new places facing new hazards.

The combination of these processes, with the understanding that urban density and climate change impacts cannot be easily reversed, should make managing and reducing risk related to natural hazards an utmost priority for governments and citizens around our globalized world. Such social and political priority must be understood as a common but differentiated responsibility.5

Although this priority has been recognized by all recent international policy guidelines in this field, from Yokohama to Hyogo to Sendai and others (see Appendix), it has only translated into specific governance mechanisms focusing on risk, in very few countries. Most governance systems still reflect instead, as a priority, the demands for managing disasters or emergencies and recovery efforts, leaving risk management as a secondary or less urgent task.

Moreover, international financing related with disasters during the last 20 years has supported the current status. “Many high-risk countries have received negligible levels of financing for DRR compared with emergency response, 17 of the top 20 recipients of response funding received less than 4% of their disaster-related aid as DRR” (Kellet & Caravani, 2013).

Risk reduction and management, therefore, need specific, focused, and forward-looking governance mechanisms, clearly separated from disaster or emergency management governance, with which they must be connected but as equals and not as one under the other. Many of the current systems have simply expanded or slightly changed the traditional and still prominent disaster management governance mechanism to include DRR. This has, however, not translated into effective risk governance mechanisms.

Risk governance arrangements include, mainly, elements of public policy, legislation, and public administration or organizational arrangements based on leadership and management capacities addressing the requirements of disaster risk. These governance mechanisms involve understanding and applying specialized and technical elements of disaster risk reduction such as awareness and education capacities, risk assessments, early warning systems, land use planning, building regulations, environmental management, insurance and other financial mechanisms, preparedness systems, pre-disaster recovery planning, and many others, which do not necessarily need to be located under the same organizational arrangement; for example, an effective early warning system for tropical cyclones can very well be placed in a hydro met service organization while being in close contact and under the guidance of a higher-level risk reduction or management mechanism. Preparedness systems could very well be part of emergency or disaster management arrangements while also being a close ally of the agency or office responsible for risk reduction or management.

Governance and Disaster Risk Reduction

Defining the topic has been a particularly difficult task for various reasons.

The understanding of what disaster risk entails has required, and to a great extent still requires, a paradigm shift. Traditionally in most cultures, disasters related to natural hazards have been perceived to be a consequence of such hazards mainly. The realization that disasters could be rather a consequence of wrong human behavior mainly appeared in the 18th century very slowly, evolving until obtaining full policy guidance only in recent decades (Hyogo, 2005; Sendai, 2015; Yokohama 1994).

The details of such history have been studied and analyzed by many authors (see recommended literature) so we do not need to dwell on them here.

The evolution from understanding disaster, not so much because of natural hazards but rather of human or social poor behavior, however, still does not explain fully why this field has been labeled DRR. In fact, this area of concern evolved from being called simply disaster management, to disaster reduction, and more recently disaster risk reduction with the tendency of focusing on risk management simply, dropping the term disaster, the purpose being to shift the focus on the disaster to rather focus on managing risk (when there is still time to avert or reduce the potential disaster).

In fact, one of the reasons for keeping the term disaster linked with risk is the need to maintain funding for it linked with the emergency management and humanitarian funding sources, which required the disaster link to justify their involvement. Stressing the relationship of risk management with sustainable development and thus depending on more scarce development funding was not convenient policy-wise. This remains a huge shortcoming (obstacle?) in international and sometimes even national policy settings.

The term reduction came in because of the understanding that disasters cannot be totally avoided but rather reduced by reducing social vulnerability. Given that the natural component (the hazard) is mostly unmanageable, a risk reduction policy must hence focus on reducing vulnerability. Of course, reducing vulnerability requires understanding the natural hazards; however, one thing is to understand the hazards with the perspective of addressing the social vulnerability related with them and another, very different, is studying and focusing on the hazards as the main element to address risk.

There is a well-settled understanding in academic and scientific institutions based on a large number of studies in the last 30 years that reducing risk requires, above all, policies addressing social vulnerability. This scientific consensus extends to issues such as land use planning, building regulations, education, risk assessments, and early warning systems. Nevertheless, we still witness so-called risk governance mechanisms developing with a clear but narrow focus on the hazards and on preparedness to respond to emergency situations. Moreover, risk governance mechanisms, in many cases, are set up to monitor and study the hazards and prepare for responding to their impact with little or no understanding of the relevance of social vulnerability in the causation of disasters. This is clearly not sufficient as very little can be done to change the course of the hazards and geoengineering should not be one of them, while much can and should be done to reduce social vulnerability.6

Public authorities at all levels, from urban areas to international organizations, still tend to focus on the hazards as the main culprits of disasters and the disasters themselves as the main object of public management, relegating managing risk as a secondary policy task to be undertaken when possible and after enough resources have been allocated to preparing to respond to the disasters and recover from them.

My experience at UNISDR showed me that addressing risk reduction as the main policy target for reducing disasters and ensuing mortality faced obstacles that required much greater attention than has been accorded thus far. There are some strong cultural and political reasons that have not allowed policies to focus on what is most urgent: managing and reducing vulnerability. I will try to explain what these obstacles are based on my interaction with specialists, government officials, and many local practitioners around the world.

Understanding Risk and Governance

What Creates the Risk, the Hazards, or the Social Vulnerability?

Risk has been defined broadly as the combination of hazard and vulnerability (susceptibility to harm and exposure) affecting any given community, the basic formula or equation being the following:


Hazards are natural phenomena on which humans have little control; some are more predictable (hydro-meteorological hazards) than other (geohazards) but as part of nature, they are phenomena to which humans need to adapt and learn to live with. In the process of adaptation, some societies have learned faster than others to build resilience capacities, hence reducing their vulnerability to those natural events. The examples of Japan, Chile, Bangladesh, California, and Florida in the United States and a few other places are regularly cited as models from which to learn.

Vulnerability reduction or resilience building (two sides of the same coin), therefore, is the component on which society (government, civil society, or individual citizens) can act upon to influence risk. It is basically government at various levels and the larger society’s actions or inaction that contribute to either reduce or increase social vulnerability, thus risk.

It would seem obvious that if there is little we can do to change the onset or course of natural hazards, we should focus public policy intervention on the other components of the equation, that is, exposure, vulnerability, and capacity, which depend on human intervention or action. Reducing risk would, therefore, depend mainly on the ability of any society to identify and reduce its vulnerability and exposure while building robust capacities to adapt to natural events or phenomena that become hazardous to the society.

The central idea of the “social construction of disaster risk” (Lavell, 2012) is therefore at the base of risk governance requirements.

Although knowledge and understanding of the hazards is an important starting point, the actual reduction and effective management of risk will depend, above all, on the ability of any society to reduce existing, while avoiding new, social vulnerability related to the hazards to which such society and its citizens are exposed.

However, despite all the above obvious evidence, when we look at governance systems dealing with disasters in various countries, the clear majority of them still focus not on managing risk but rather preparing, responding, and recovering from the disasters themselves, that is, dedicating greater resources and capacities to emergency or disaster management.

At present, following at least 30 years of international guidance available and some examples of good practices, most of the governments have developed some risk management capacity in their disaster governance systems with some policy and legislative capacities addressing risk issues. This is nevertheless being done with insufficient capacities and resources to effectively reduce vulnerability, the main component of disaster risk reduction. So far, most cases are still window-dressing exercises not yet involving full national strategies or action plans on DRR to reverse the trend of rapidly increasing risk.

It would require a longer and deeper research effort to identify specifically how each nation has confronted this challenge and which mechanisms and capacities they have developed. Many times, so-called good practices are found rather in local settings, led by either local governments or civil society or community-based organizations without major influence at national or regional levels. Even at national levels, we can find regions or areas in a country that are better prepared or more resilient than other, for example, the case of Gujarat versus Orissa in India or California and Florida versus Louisiana and Mississippi in the United States, to name just a couple.

Being a subject in which evidence overwhelmingly shows a clear path for action, we still find heavy resistance to changing behavior towards a greater focus on vulnerability reduction, be it at the government or civil society levels.

From my experience in interacting with many governments in the world, during my 10-year experience as director of UNISDR, I have identified a few specific factors, some of cultural or religious nature, with even historical relevance; others more political, which represent major obstacles to developing governance systems aiming at effectively reducing risk related to natural hazards. The discussion of these obstacles represents the main purpose and content of the second part of this article.

What Are Essentials Components of Governance?

As for any other governance sector, risk governance encompasses specific functions involving decisions and services required to ensure that risk related to natural hazards is maintained at its lowest possible level in any society, aiming at reducing substantively the loss of lives and livelihoods when natural hazards strike.7

Governance usually and mainly refers to the capacity of States to conduct and organize the work required to respond to their areas of jurisdiction and the institutional systems put in place to achieve such objectives.8 It basically provides the framework and guidance for the action of governments (public authorities) in general or for specific sectors or areas of work, for example, reducing disaster risk (Renn, 2005).

A governance system comprises the capacity to develop policies with all its phases of research, formulation, consultation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation with a view to addressing current issues affecting the society, such as in this case, reducing the risk of disasters. It starts with identifying specific goals and objectives, then programming, planning, and strategizing to implement actions aiming at achieving the goals and objectives identified, and then continuing with monitoring and evaluating the implementation with a view to feeding and enhancing the continuing policy process.

Risk management, while being a main component of sustainable development policies, needs to be the object of a specific policy while, at the same time, integrated or mainstreamed into policies of other sustainable development sectors (agriculture, transport, health, education, finances, tourism, environment, energy, etc.) Moreover, among sectors or policy areas, some are more urgent (urban development, land use planning, construction, water management, etc.), and some are more strategic (education, environment, climate change, etc.).

A key requirement for policy effectiveness is the capacity to identify priorities and propose a sequence of actions to gradually, in an orderly manner, address the vast number of areas to be covered by a risk reduction policy. Relevant literature in this field, from the various international agreements providing policy guidance to the more specialized academic books, tends to list actions and measures needed, lacking, however, an indication of priority for governments to address this complex issue in a proactive manner while bearing in mind the huge obstacles facing them.

A risk reduction policy must clearly start by identifying the appropriate organizational base or office to carry out the policy implementation requirements. In my view, such a base needs to be hosted at the highest level of authority, Office of the President or Prime Minister to lead and coordinate the formulation and further implementation of a comprehensive risk reduction policy and its further strategies, plans, and programs. Such policy should start with a comprehensive risk assessment, focusing in identifying existing vulnerabilities at all levels and sectors, in order to determine which would require a prospective, corrective, or compensatory type of measure.9 In an early stage, a substantive awareness-raising effort must be planned to involve high-level authorities and civil society and private sector leaders to convey key messages and provide the sense of urgency needed to effectively engage the population in a behavioral change process. From there on, all other risk management measures would ensue, from land use planning, urban risk management, early warning systems, ecosystem management, building codes, insurance and other financial measures, preparedness arrangements, pre-disaster recovery plans, etc., etc.10

In my experience, interacting with governments, on many occasions, public authorities would inform me of a substantive early warning system recently set up, or a preparedness plan they were implementing, or a building codes update being undertaken (these are three real cases), as their approach to address risk reduction and implement the Hyogo Framework for Action. When explaining that despite their importance, these specific actions were not sufficient, they recognized that more needed to be done but firmly believed that they had already accomplished a major effort with such initiatives. In each case, I could detect the professional background of their top advisors: a meteorologist in the first case, an emergency manager in the second, and an engineer in the third. In these and many other cases, an integrated and participatory approach to policy making was lacking, showing also the urgent need for integrated approaches in education and research at the professional or university level.11

Governance also involves legislation, which includes the consideration of principles and rules to be inscribed at various levels (constitutional, organic laws, regular laws, or others) and to be approved by constituent assemblies or parliaments with the aim of guiding and organizing public and private sectors’ behavior as well as that of civil society in the various sectors or areas of work of interest to the society.

While policies adapt their guidance to the changing nature of the issues they address in a more frequent manner, the legislation includes norms that are of a more stable or longer-term perspective, adapting or changing their guidance when major changes occur, thus necessitating legislative reform or simply new legislation.

Legislation focusing on risk reduction and management needs to be of a general or organic nature, that is, encompassing various set of rules and providing main values, criteria, and general goals, leaving more detailed guidance to specialized sectoral laws and further regulations of an administrative order (decrees and administrative instructions).

Same as with policy, there is the need for specific legislation addressing risk reduction and management while specific DRR rules are inscribed in other sectoral legislation (water, agriculture, environment, health, education, energy, finances, tourism, etc.).

Governance also encompasses public administration or public management, which includes the organizational arrangements and capacities responsible for implementing and monitoring governmental functions and tasks, such as policies, legislation, and public services. Administrative functions include technical processes and procedures, measures and systems, rules and regulations, reflected in decrees and administrative orders that represent a gray area shared with the legislative function, and required to provide more specific or detailed guidance to implement policies and legislation addressing risk management.

Although these instruments provide a quasi-comprehensive list of policies and measures required in risk governance, they still lack a priority setting and strategic approach in addressing such large number of functions and tasks. This has led to a “pick and choose” approach by some governments, assuming that by implementing some of the requirements, it would suffice to achieve risk reduction, as described above under policies.

The public administration is composed of the various organizational arrangements (ministries, agencies, departments, offices, public enterprises, commissions, etc.) established to focus, lead, and manage specific areas of government. Depending on how organizational arrangements are designed to deal with disaster risk, they can become a facilitator or enabler of effective risk reduction policies and legislation or rather turn into a major obstacle to achieving DRR goals, in other words, “the DRR circle can be either virtuous or vicious” (Meerpoël, 2015).

Probably the most relevant item in this area is, as mentioned earlier, the need for setting up an office in charge, if not exclusively at least mainly, of coordinating and overseeing risk management, preferably separated from emergency management.

An option for such a high-level office is to address various types of risk, not only risk related to natural hazards, thus including risk related to health epidemics, terrorism in all its forms, financial crises, cyber management and other modern hazards. The challenge, however, in all the risk areas, is to pay closer attention to identifying, managing, and reducing vulnerabilities as the primary priority while keeping an eye on the hazards, in close team effort with the various specific sectors (health, finances, defense, etc.), better prepared to follow each type of hazard. The focus on vulnerability is needed because vulnerabilities tend to be the same for various types of hazards and also because the policy and cultural shift to focusing on vulnerability, hence a paradigm shift, requires attention and leadership of the highest levels of authority.

Such an office should be located at the highest levels of authority, that is, the Office of the President or Prime Minister. This is required mainly because managing risk involves all sectors in government and therefore, only a higher enough arrangement can effectively interact with all other ministries and other public offices.

All the above components of risk governance are essential; however, they can mean much or nothing depending on the individuals that will undertake leadership and management functions in government and its public administration. On the one hand, good policies, legislation, and organizational mechanisms can be useless, even counterproductive, without the right persons leading and managing the process. On the other hand, in the absence of adequate policies, legislation, and other institutional mechanisms, competent persons can more easily ensure appropriate decisions by motivating and facilitating the development of adequate risk governance structures and mechanisms. Hence, the relevance of leadership and management when considering risk governance at any level, whether the nation, the city, or the international setting is extremely vital.

Another relevant component of governance is that of decentralization and participatory processes. Making decisions and managing processes at the level closest possible to the population provides a major challenge to governance. As societies develop, public policies place greater importance in involving the population in the conception and formulation, as well as in the implementation and evaluation of policies affecting their daily lives. It is needless to remind you that in managing natural hazard risk, the role of every person, family, community, or town is essential. Government action can only be effective if the population is fully aware, cooperative, and responsible in making the appropriate decisions and participating in coordinated actions with the authorities or following their guidance. Depending on how decentralization and participatory processes are carried out, they can also entail a virtuous or vicious cycle, hence the need for an ethical perspective thus providing appropriate responses to communities’ needs (Blackburn, 2014).

Participatory processes also refer to the strategic alliances, partnerships, or simple team efforts that government (at all levels) must undertake with specific sectors that have a particular relevance or role to play in this regard. The major take-home message from large international surveys at local scale in low and medium income countries is that there is a large untapped potential for partnership between communities and their local government units (GNDR, 2013). From the early stages of policy formulation, a close team effort with the academic or scientific community is essential. This is not only because they dispose of a major source of knowledge, information, and data, but also because their research and educational functions can prove to be major assets to government when needing to advocate and raise awareness on the need to focus on vulnerability reduction as its major policy target. Partnership with other sectors is also important, for example, with the private sector for implementing a business continuity policy and with the media for raising awareness on the topic. At the local level, team efforts with NGOs and CBOs as well as with religious groups can have great multiplying effects in reaching and mobilizing local communities.

An essential requirement in governance is that of an ethical or human rights approach. The main purpose of a governance system is to respond to society’s needs by creating and conducting the processes that provide solutions to those needs. As mentioned, such processes include policy and legislation development, public management, organizations arrangements, leadership and management, etc. They also require a set of values, principles, approaches, and procedures allowing for the understanding of who (which groups of citizens, social classes, communities, sectors, etc.) will benefit most from government’s prescriptions and actions, who will have to pay greater or lesser cost, who are responsible for decisions taken, what levels of transparency and accountability in decision making and administrative procedures does society wish to have, and what level of sanctions are expected to be enforced when wrong decisions or wrong behavior is established by administrative and judicial systems.

Despite the strong influence of specific political and religious ideologies, beliefs, or doctrines, which have historically influenced governance systems, albeit with a divisive approach, it is possible to envisage a universal or international approach to a common set of values and principles that would rule national governance systems. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an initial framework, which has been complemented with other agreements addressing additional rights, among which is the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Following their example and considering the Yokohama, Hyogo, and Sendai agreements, it would be possible to identify values and principles to guide work on reducing risk and building resilience to natural hazards with a common international approach.

The above initial or preliminary considerations are, of course, general and serve as an introduction to the subject, which would require further research and analysis to address all risk governance components. Substantive research has produced publications specializing on the topic and providing more detailed information to those interested in achieving a deeper understanding of this important topic.12

Understanding the Obstacles to Risk Governance

Usually, policies seek to facilitate behavioral change either within government systems, in the wider society, or a specific sector (private or other). Therefore, it is understandable that policy implementation in any sector usually encounters resistance, particularly from special interests defending specific privileges or attitudes and behavior, which benefit from the traditional knowledge needing to change.

Identifying and understanding such obstacles or barriers should, therefore, become an essential preparatory exercise in policy development.

In the case of disaster risk reduction, obstacles are of varied nature, mainly cultural or political, responding as mentioned earlier to traditional beliefs and behaviors that have proven to be strongly resistant to change.

Disasters Are Not Natural

As explained earlier, the social nature of disasters makes no doubt to experts. However, most authorities and the media continue to refer to them as “natural” disasters, highlighting the natural hazard and presenting it as the disaster. This traditional and negligent use of the term “natural disasters” by governments as well as academics to describe what in fact is a social disaster is, in my view, a major barrier to effectively managing and reducing risk.

In my presentations to governments, I used to explain that an earthquake or a cyclone in the middle of the ocean is just natural events, that they become disasters only when they meet vulnerable communities. Also, that it is not the earthquake or cyclone that kills people but the poorly built buildings that fall on their heads.

However, despite the obvious reality, some narrow-minded authorities I met preferred to continue referring to these disasters as “natural” given their difficulty in assuming responsibility and preference for blaming nature for the disaster. Such wrong or deficient behavior can only be confronted with raising awareness in the population on the real reasons and causes of the disasters, usually based on wrong action or inaction by governments, be it at national or local levels.

The excessive and incorrect use of the term “natural disaster” to describe disasters caused by vulnerability to natural hazards has historically contributed to the perception in vast segments of the population that if they are natural, there is little we can do to avoid them except just getting prepared to respond. This has been denounced by experts, even philosophers and historians since the 18th century when the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, with, unfortunately, little impact as yet on policy development.

A major awareness-raising exercise, therefore, is required in which community leaders, from both public and private sectors, join efforts to identify and address the deep causes of social vulnerability that more often than not transform natural events into social disasters. Such an educational exercise needs to be prominent and a priority in any policy aiming at reducing risk. Political and community leaders are best placed to influence social behavior and achieve the paradigm shift required on this field.

Disasters Are Not God or Nature’s Punishment

Narrow-minded religious authorities or representatives in almost all religions have taken advantage of disasters to sell them as God’s response to “bad behavior” in society. These religious leaders have interpreted their sacred books in wrong ways and undertaken proselytism based on fears. In many of my encounters around the world, I heard expressions such as “if I must die in an earthquake, it’s God’s will . . .”13

Despite scientific advancement in the understanding of natural events or phenomena, many people still believe in extraterrestrial influence on them. Depending on how strong such beliefs may be, and coupled with the perception created by the term “natural” disasters, the religious attitude can become a strong obstacle for implementing risk reduction measures in many communities.

Public authorities, at national as well as local levels, many times see such religious claims as very convenient to avoid taking a deeper look into the real and deep causes of the disasters, many of which would reveal their lack of responsibility.

Joining efforts with open-minded religious leaders is in consequence another major effort in policy making for reducing risk, particularly in countries where religions exercise a strong influence.

Reducing Risk Requires a Long-Term Sustainable Development Approach: It Cannot Be Managed With the Short-Term Approach of Emergency Management

Given their long-term perspective, policies addressing risk reduction are based on strong awareness raising and educational efforts; such efforts are therefore a central part of risk management. This means that risk governance and education governance must work hand in hand to ensure that risk becomes an important part of educational systems and communities’ daily life, that is, inscribed in the long term.

Currently, too many disaster governance systems around the world still give priority to preparing to respond and recover from disasters, rather than managing risk. In many cases, these institutional systems are led by officials specialized in emergency management with a military, police, or firefighting background. This has facilitated a reactive, short-term-oriented behavior focused on the management of the disaster. Narrower-minded political conveniences tend to give priority to preparedness and response measures given their high visibility—hence attracting media attention—rather than investing in the much less visible vulnerability reduction measures, which instead are essential for sustainable development.

The predominance of emergency management services in providing risk management is understandable as it was these services who first became concerned with looking for the deeper root causes of disasters. However, instead of facilitating the transfer of the risk management function to the development sectors, more competent to deal with root causes, many of them have kept risk management under their bailiwick, some with good intentions, believing that they can do it, but others not wanting to let go a function that provides greater prestige to their clearly insufficient response management function.

Additionally, the short-term perspective of electoral systems—essential, however, for democracy—does not help to cement a solid vulnerability reduction or resilience building approach in risk management as new governments bring new approaches and priorities.

Therefore, reducing risk related to natural events or phenomena needs to become a national cause, going beyond shortsighted political approaches; it needs to unite all political parties or components in any society or community, in a similar effort to those in environmental, health, or educational sectors.

Risk governance can only be effective if it involves a long-term sustainable development perspective, focusing on reducing the various sources of vulnerability and moving beyond the still predominant emergency or disaster management approaches.

Conclusion: Lessons Relevant to Risk Governance

Summing up, a first lesson to be drawn from my experience was the need to identify, understand, and address the obstacles that hinder or slow down the implementation of what seems to be obvious to the scientific community but of difficult implementation by governments, the private sector, and civil society. This could be also addressed as the reasons for shortcomings and weaknesses in risk governance.

A second lesson identified was that health risk prevention provides a valuable model and experience on which to base risk prevention and mitigation efforts.

In the health sector, it was clearly understood that in order to fight the various sources or vectors of diseases (microbes, bacteria, viruses . . .), it was important to identify and combat such vectors, but above all, it was essential to motivate and facilitate behavioral change aiming at reducing health vulnerability, hence preventing and reducing the risk. Such changes included among others, promoting vaccination, hygiene measures, and healthy lifestyles that would facilitate a stronger immune system or health resilience.

Therefore, the focus from the beginning was human behavior and the strengthening of the human body to face challenges coming from the environment that we are not always able to avoid. Although understanding the behavior of viruses, bacteria, or microbes was important, in particular for researchers working on vaccines and other ways to counter the effect or attack of these unhealthy agents or organisms, it was not the main purpose of public policies, which instead sought to promote human behavioral change in the way of healthier lifestyles, including making water drinkable, good nutrition, physical exercise, and other hygiene measures, which were the target of health prevention policies. It was made clear to the public that a stronger body would be more able to resist the impact of outside vectors of diseases.

In the same vein, a parallel could be drawn with healthy or stronger buildings (houses, offices, health centers, schools, etc.) vis-à-vis natural phenomena or events that may become hazardous. The same as a stronger body can resist better the impact of viruses, bacteria, and microbes, a stronger or healthier building can resist better the impact of natural phenomena. A clear emphasis thus in risk reduction policies is the location and strengthening of constructions according to the various natural hazards to which they are exposed—land use planning and building codes or regulations. Everybody should be fully aware, when buying, renting, or moving into a house, using an office, sending children to school, etc., of the location, design, and materials of the building. It should become routine behavior, same as choosing the clothes you or your children need for specific types of weather to avoid catching a cold or pneumonia; or checking whether the roof, walls, doors, and windows work well in the new house.

In the field of natural hazard risk, however, an emphasis or focus still prevails on understanding the hazards (earthquakes, tropical storms, drought, floods, landslides, etc.) rather than the human behavior associated with creating or reducing vulnerability. In this regard, I must recognize that the academic and scientific sector has yet a long way to go in ensuring the shift of focus from understanding natural hazards to promoting understanding of social vulnerability to those hazards.

A reason for this may be that, the same as in government emergency, managers were the first to develop concern with managing risk; and in the academic and scientific institutions, it was the natural or geoscientists who first became interested in understanding the root causes of disasters. Unfortunately, the same as for emergency managers, it has proven difficult for them to let go and incite and facilitate social scientists to focus on the topic working in an integrated manner with them.

It is important to recognize as well that governance in the field of risk related to natural phenomena, while learning from other areas such as health risk, can also provide lessons for governance of other types of risk in society—environmental, financial, health, security, etc., each a separate and specialized topic, sharing, however, common risk governance approaches.

A third lesson, of a more personal nature, was the relevance of understanding leadership and management as essential components in governance. When conducting any program or organization, particularly when the topic involved is a new, not well-understood subject, it is essential to promote and advocate with a clear focus on raising awareness, explaining, and developing a pedagogical approach in the management of the organization.

Such an educational effort must be borne by the entire team in the organization and not only by the manager. The role of the manager becomes, therefore, mainly a supporter of his or her team while being also their spokesperson. It is such a team effort that will achieve a substantive impact on its interlocutors, in this case, mainly governments but also NGOs, private, and academic sectors. This is not only good management but it also facilitates the right approach in dealing with risk reduction, which requires above all a team effort in society.

Given its new approaches, long-term perspective, and multisectoral nature, risk governance will require leaders and managers that understand not only the complexity of the topic but also the need to mobilize the highest levels of authority and other sectors in government and civil society to advocate jointly, with a common strategy, for changing behavior with regard to natural hazards risk, aiming at what experts have agreed to call a paradigm shift in the way society relates to natural phenomena or hazards.

Drawing lessons from one’s own experience is always risky as it involves some subjectivity in the analysis. The article, nonetheless, aims at the utmost objectivity on what are the essential learnings of having conducted the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction—UNISDR—from 2001 to around 2009 when leading and managing was shared with another manager, as I prepared for retirement in 2011.

While identifying elements of risk governance, I realized how much more could be said on each of the components mentioned, an impossible task in such a short space. Therefore, I trust that this preliminary and abridged undertaking will stimulate the curiosity of students and researchers around the world to look in greater depth into one of the greatest challenges of our times and a necessity for ensuring a sustainable development.

This list is mainly based on the literature consulted for the preparation of this article and it includes recommended reading on the topic of risk governance. Many more relevant books, articles, and gray literature on the topic are available and can be consulted online at as well as at, which inherited a large part of the ISDR Library.

Baird, A., O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K., & Wisner, B. (1975). Towards an explanation of and reduction of disaster proneness. Disaster Research Unit, Occasional Paper No. 11. University of Bradford, Bradford, UK.Find this resource:

Ball, N. (1975). The myth of the natural disaster. Ecologist, 5(10), 368–369.Find this resource:

Blackburn, S. (2014). The politics of scale and disaster governance: Barriers to decentralisation in Portland, Jamaica. Elsevier Geoforum, 52, 101–112.Find this resource:

Gall, M., Cutter, S. L., & Nguyen, K. (2014). Governance in disaster risk management (IRDR AIRDR Publication No. 3). Beijing. Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (the reference list of this publication is particularly extensive).Find this resource:

GNDR (Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction). (2013). Views from the Frontline: Beyond 2015. London: GNDR.Find this resource:

Ignatieff, M. (2017). The ordinary virtues, moral order in a divided world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

International Risk Governance Council website:

Kellet, J., & Caravani, A. (2013). Financing disaster risk reduction: A 20-year story of international aid. Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), World Bank, and Overseas Development Institute, Washington, US.Find this resource:

Kelman, I., Mercer, J., & Gaillard, J. C. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge handbook of disaster risk reduction including climate change adaptation. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Lavell, A. (2012). Reflections: Advancing development-based interpretations and interventions in disaster risk: Some conceptual and contextual stumbling blocks. Journal Environmental Hazards, 11(3), 242–246.Find this resource:

Meerpoël, M. (2015). Disaster risk governance: The essential linkage between DRR and SDGs. Global Sustainable Development Report, United Nations.Find this resource:

Mysiak, J., Surminski, S., Thieken, A., Mechler, R., & Aerts, J. (2016). Brief communication: Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction—success or warning sign for Paris? Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences (EGU), 16, 2189–2193.Find this resource:

Renn, O., & annexes by Graham, P. (2005). Risk governance, towards an integrative approach. White paper.Find this resource:

Renn, O. (2008). Risk governance, coping with uncertainty in a complex world. London: Earthscan.Find this resource:

Renn, O., & Walker, K. (Eds.). (2008). Global risk governance, concept and practice using the IRGC framework. Netherlands: Springer.Find this resource:

Ruiz-Rivera, N., & Lucatello, S. (2017). The interplay between climate change and disaster risk reduction policy: Evidence from Mexico. Environmental Hazards, 16(3), 193–209.Find this resource:

UNISDR. (2004). Living with risk, a global review of disaster reduction initiatives. Vols. 1 & 2.Find this resource:

UNISDR. Global Assessment Reports on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and GAR Atlas 2017.Find this resource:

United Nations. (1994). The Yokohama strategy and plan of action: Guidelines for natural disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation.Find this resource:

United Nations. (2005). The Hyogo framework for action: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters.Find this resource:

United Nations. (2015). The Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction.Find this resource:

Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., & David, I. (2004). At risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (2d ed.). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Wisner, B., Gaillard, J. C., & Kelman, I. (2012). The Routledge handbook of hazards and disaster risk reduction. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Wisner, B., O’Keefe, P., & Westgate, K. (1976). Poverty and disasters. New Society, 9, 547–548.Find this resource:


The 2005 Hyogo Framework’s 5 Priority Actions and 2015 Sendai Framework’s 7 Global Targets and 4 Priority Actions

The Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters (

Priority Action 1: Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation.

Countries that develop policy, legislative, and institutional frameworks for disaster risk reduction and that are able to develop and track progress through specific and measurable indicators have greater capacity to manage risks and to achieve widespread consensus for, engagement in, and compliance with disaster risk reduction measures across all sectors of society.

Priority Action 2: Identify, assess, and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning.

The starting point for reducing disaster risk and for promoting a culture of disaster resilience lies in the knowledge of the hazards and the physical, social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities to disasters that most societies face, and of the ways in which hazards and vulnerabilities are changing in the short and long term, followed by action taken on the basis of that knowledge.

Priority Action 3: Use knowledge, innovation, and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.

Disasters can be substantially reduced if people are well informed and motivated toward a culture of disaster prevention and resilience, which in turn requires the collection, compilation, and dissemination of relevant knowledge and information on hazards, vulnerabilities, and capacities.

Priority Action 4: Reduce the underlying risk factors.

Disaster risks related to changing social, economic, environmental conditions, and land use; and the impact of hazards associated with geological events, weather, water, climate variability, and climate change, are addressed in sector development planning and programs as well as in post-disaster situations.

Priority Action 5: Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.

At times of disaster, impacts and losses can be substantially reduced if authorities, individuals, and communities in hazard-prone areas are well prepared and ready to act and are equipped with the knowledge and capacities for effective disaster management.

Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (

The Seven Global Targets:

  1. (a) Substantially reduce global disaster mortality by 2030, aiming to lower average per 100,000 global mortality rate in the decade 2020–2030 compared to the period 2005–2015.

  2. (b) Substantially reduce the number of affected people globally by 2030, aiming to lower average global figure per 100,000 in the decade 2020–2030 compared to the period 2005–2015.

  3. (c) Reduce direct disaster economic loss in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

  4. (d) Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.

  5. (e) Substantially increase the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020.

  6. (f) Substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of this Framework by 2030.

  7. (g) Substantially increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments to the people by 2030.

The Four Priorities for Action:

Priority 1. Understanding disaster risk

Disaster risk management should be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics, and the environment. Such knowledge can be used for risk assessment, prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and response.

Priority 2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk

Disaster risk governance at the national, regional, and global levels is very important for prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, and rehabilitation. It fosters collaboration and partnership.

Priority 3. Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience

Public and private investment in disaster risk prevention and reduction through structural and non-structural measures are essential to enhance the economic, social, health, and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries, and their assets, as well as the environment.

Priority 4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction

The growth of disaster risk means there is a need to strengthen disaster preparedness for response, take action in anticipation of events, and ensure capacities are in place for effective response and recovery at all levels. The recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction phase is a critical opportunity to build back better, including through integrating disaster risk reduction into development measures.


(1.) In 2001, I was selected to be the first leader of the UNISDR after its establishment in 2000, following the very intellectually productive International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR, 1990–1999). My experience as director of UNISDR covered its initial period, from 2001 to 2011.

(3.) A recommended list of literature is contained in “References and Recommended Reading.”

(4.) “Human intervention mediates with environmental conditions to create new events that appear to be natural, but which are in fact socially constructed” (Lavell, 2012).

(5.) The 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states as its first principle in Article 3.1, that “Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” The purpose and scope of this principle make it relevant and essential to risk governance. At Sendai, it was impossible to include such a principle in the SFDRR although it was considered in its earlier draft version (Mysiak et al., 2016).

(6.) Geoengineering proposals, popular in studies addressing climate change, should not be an option to change the course, frequency, or intensity of natural hazards unless very thorough studies can be made and a very wide consensus obtained within the scientific community. Substantive vulnerability reduction policies can prove enough to reduce the negative impact of natural hazards.

(7.) Risk in this article refers exclusively to risk related to natural hazards.

(8.) Governance can also refer to systems established by private sector or any civil society organization to guide and organize their work, but in this article, we refer mainly to governance as it relates to the public sector (State and government).

(9.) Risk assessment is a concept and method needing further development. Assessing risk is a task to be undertaken not only by governments or specialized entities but also by communities, families, and individuals in their daily lives, and government should provide guidance and assistance to accomplish such efforts. Furthermore, the concept of risk impact assessment (RIA) needs further development with a view to become a regular requirement in all development projects, like environmental impact assessments (EIA), which are already fully recognized in environmental governance and management.

(10.) The topic of early warning systems has been evolving to include not only the hazards, but also the monitoring of vulnerability creation or development in the society. The combination of monitoring hazards and vulnerability would allow early warning systems to address risk in a more effective manner. Comprehensive lists of DRR policies and measures can be found in international agreements, the most recent of which is the 2015 Sendai Framework for DRR (see Appendix), and also, with additional explanation, in the series of UNISDR Global Assessment Reports on DRR (UNISDR, 2009 to 2017).

(11.) The Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) program of ICSU/ISSC/UNISDR was launched to respond to this need; see

(12.) A list of relevant or recommended literature is included as Annex 1.

(13.) A biblical perspective on “natural” disasters can be found at Similar perspectives can be found about other religious books.