Communication for Action at UR2016

At the Understanding Risk 2016 conference in Venice, BBC Media Action, King’s College London, and Resurgence organised a session on Communication for Action: What’s Needed? The session drew on the experiences of researchers and practitioners who are actively involved in risk communication.

Emma Visman, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London, began the session highlighting that the gap in communicating knowledge is not new – this has been something that we have had difficulty in implementing for a long time. But we seem not to be learning our lessons. She gave several reasons for this behaviour – there are a lack of opportunities for sharing learning, there is no reward for sharing failure, and there is a lack of risk communication as part of science training. She went on to outline some advice to help with this communication gap: regular sharing of lessons – including what did and did not work, the need for a two-way communication process, at all levels, scientists need to understand the needs of the users of the outcomes, and people at risk require a seat at the table to have a voice in decisions.

Diagram attributed to Emma Visman’s presentation in UR2016 session

Mark Harvey, CEO of Resurgence, then walked us through two examples of communication in disaster situations. The first was in Srinagar, Kashmir, where an assessment was carried out in 2010 warning of likely inundation in five years related to unplanned development in risk areas. However, this warning did not reach the public health department or the public, and in 2014 300 people died from flooding. The second example was from Myanmar – in 2008 there was vital information on the likelihood of landfall of Typhoon Nargis, but there was poor communication of the risk, referring to it as a “rainstorm”, and a lack of communication via radio (the main source of information for many poorer or rural communities). As a result of the Typhoon, 84,500 people were killed and 53,800 went missing. However, in 2015, Myanmar’s radio station regularly communicated the progress of Typhoon Komen and flooding risks with BBC Media Action, including guidance on how to prepare and respond. As a result, the impacts were less devastating than in 2008, with approximately 100 people killed.

Srinagar and Myanmar
Photos attributed to Mark Harvey’s presentation in UR2016 session.

Allan Vera from Christian Aid focused on a case study of urban resilience in the Philippines. Communities in urban areas at risk from natural hazards felt blamed for their risks, were prohibited return to their homes post-disasters, felt like powerless victims, and did not want to move away from their source of livelihoods despite the risks they faced (and if they were forced to move, they were then exposed to natural hazards they had no previous experience with). Due to a loophole in the law, urban dwellers risk eviction without the recourse of challenge in the face of disaster risks, and as such there is a prolific lack of investment in housing and risk reduction measures. To tackle this, Christian Aid focused on building trust by settling organisers to live within the community, initiating informal conversations about risks, mentoring leaders, encouraging grass-root groups and building leadership skills such as debate and disaster risk management knowledge. The project built confidence and trust within the community, and later, scientists were welcomed into the community to discuss the risks the community faced through workshops. Overall, the approach lead to disaster risk reduction strategies aligned with the community needs and wishes.

Photo attributed to Allan Vera’s presentation on community organisation in the Philippines in UR2016 session.

Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action finished the round of presentations with some advice on how to communicate risk to enable action:

Know your target audience.

If you address everyone, you address no one. Therefore, figure out who you are targeting and focus your energies on communicating what they need in a way they will understand. Also, understand their motivations to communicate effectively. For example, a study found people were ignoring evacuation advice because they were returning home to save their pets. By communicating an evacuation plan that included their pets, people were more likely to evacuate.

Know what you want to change.

Identify the problem that you want to change. Identify what help you need to achieve those changes. Realise there is a process between knowing information and behaviour change. For example, most people who smoke know that it is bad for their health. But this does not change their behaviour. We need to understand the process between information and change to reach the end goal of change.

Be engaging.

Good intentions are not enough to bring about action. As a communicator, your job is to make it interesting so the end-user will pay attention. Change cannot be made without starting a conversation. So start the conversation.

lisa robinson
Image attributed to Lisa Robinson’s presentation in UR2016 session.

START Network Annual Conference: Humanitarian funding is not fit for purpose

The START Network’s Annual Conference on 11th May 2016 brought together 250 senior representatives from some of the world’s largest civil society organisations, multilaterals, and governments, as well as innovators, opinion-formers and other stakeholders concerned with connecting people in crisis to the best possible solutions.


Three strong messages came across over the course of the day:

  • Humanitarian funding is not fit for purpose
  • Humanitarian finance is changing
  • Community engagement is essential to humanitarian action

This blog post will deal with the first point: why the humanitarian funding system is not fit for purpose.

One of the main, repeated messages from the START Network Annual Conference is that the current humanitarian funding system is not fit for purpose. This is due to multiple reasons, and has become an increasingly urgent challenge as the scale and impact of crises grow. The way the system is currently set up cannot continue and unless it is fundamentally changed, will become increasingly problematic in the face of climate change, and demographic challenges expected in the future.

Not enough funding

The amount of financial aid available is not enough to tackle the problems faced by humanitarian system. There is a gap in the humanitarian system – 38% of the needs identified in humanitarian situations go unmet. The world spent $24 billion on international humanitarian response in 2014. This seems like a lot, until you compare to the $26 billion chewing gum industry (2012).

The world spends more on chewing gum than on humanitarian aid.

Funding is too restrictive

The funding available is too restrictive – the majority of funding is sourced from a limited number of big controllers, leading to asymmetrical power dynamics. These large donors are increasingly placing restrictions and stipulations on what the funding should be spent on. This leads to two main problems.

The first is that this dynamic does not reflect the needs on the ground. Often, the needs of those affected will not be known until the responders are on the ground and can assess where the gaps are. Increasingly, the funding stipulations restrict what the money can be spent on, often resulting in providing unnecessary assistance, and leaving a gap where needs are unmet.

The second is that the humanitarian system is becoming crippled by “log-frame-itis”; the focus has shifted to chasing donor funding and measuring “success” – creating destructive competition between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rather than collaboration, and focusing on outputs rather than outcomes. In addition, these funding opportunities are disproportionately skewed towards larger, international NGOs (INGOs) and rarely make it to the local level, or only a small proportion of the funding trickles down the local level.

Lack of local funding

The top down focus of humanitarian finance often means INGOs get the bulk of funding, whilst local NGOs receive very little. The figures speak for themselves: in 2014, only 0.2% of Overseas Development Aid (ODA) went to local governments and NGOs.

$1 in every $500 of humanitarian aid are spend on local actors

This disproportionate division of funds often means less engagement with local communities and it is these local NGOs that have valuable resources and insight into the crisis situation. These local NGOs have often been working within communities over a long time frame compared to INGOs. They know the local context and have developed and already established good relationships with communities. The distribution of funding is therefore missing a huge opportunity to engage with these well-placed and experienced local actors to bring about effective delivery of aid.

Funding focuses on response

It is well-known that investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR), development, and prevention schemes pre-crisis saves not only lives, but also the amount of funding required post-crisis in response. And yet, the humanitarian funding system is almost entirely response focused. Convincing donors to provide funding before an emergency, despite the evident need, still remains a challenge in the humanitarian sector.

For each dollar spent on disaster preparedness, an average of four dollars is saved on disaster response and recovery

Time for change

We are not learning our lessons; very little has changed in the last decade. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition report requested a fundamental reorientation in humanitarian funding, and yet the same problems experienced in the 2004 tsunami were repeated in the 2014 Ebola crisis.

The issues raised by the 2016 START Network Annual Conference also went on to explore the changes that are already taking place in the humanitarian funding system, and what else is required to shape the humanitarian funding system so that it is fit for purpose.

Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR

The UNISDR Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) was held at the Centre for International Conferences in Geneva (27-29 January 2016). The conference gathered together more than 1,000 researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to agree the science and technology roadmap for implementing the Sendai Framework for DRR.


The plenary session was opened by Dr Robert Glasser (head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) during the plenary session, highlighting the importance of science and technology in not just the implementation of the Sendai Framework, but across many of the 2015-2016 international agreements. In 2015, such events as the Sustainable Development Goals, COP21, and The Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa all highlighted the central importance of DRR for decreasing poverty and implementing sustainable development. All of these agreements rely upon the support of science and technology for decision-making.

Glasser emphasised the need and ability we have to do more to decrease economic and human losses from disasters. He was echoed by Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj (Minister of Science and Technology for Thailand) who emphasised the need for science and technology to take a leading role in the world in helping to improve our lives.


“More than 300 billion people are affected by natural hazard-related disasters on average each year” – Dr R Glasser

It was interesting and encouraging to acknowledge how much science and technology has and is developing. However, the root causes of disaster risk (poverty and inequality) were rarely mentioned in the conference. The main discussions focused on the physical sciences, risk assessments, and technology. There were multiple calls for the consolidation of our knowledge, and better communication of what we already know, before we move forward to re-producing what already exists. However, it must be acknowledged that gaps do exist in our knowledge base, and new data is needed due to inequalities in data coverage.

A common theme throughout the conference was the difficulty of delivering and communicating scientific findings to the government and the public. Glasser held up the IPCC’s approach to delivering complex climate change information as an excellent example of communicating science; it lays out compelling and advisory information, including a section within the report which bridges the science/policy gap, and is written in layman’s terms. Links between science, technology and policy need to be improved. We need to connect with users of technology to ensure understanding and communication of knowledge. The need for hybrid expertise/translators/communicators became a recurring theme, crossing multiple divides: science/research, policy/decision makers, practitioners/NGOs, and the community/locals/those at risk.

This communication of knowledge cannot be one-directional. Glasser highlighted the need to understand the pressures as well as the problems faced by end-users. For example, we need to be able to quantify the current costs, and then the future costs (particularly due to changes in climate) to be able to engage with finance ministers on the importance of DRR. More detailed data is needed to focus the attention of decision-makers, particularly related to what they value. Whilst it can often feel contrary to the values of humanitarians, making the argument with support of economic cost-benefit analyses, and using appropriate language and terminology, can get budgets for DRR integrated into policy, therefore saving lives.

The majority of the sessions I attended focused on presented research, and specific case studies, which were rarely related back to the Sendai Framework. I felt that opportunities to discuss and contribute to the roadmap were few, and perhaps a better approach would have been to gather 100-200 expert scientists, practitioners, and policymakers together to discuss the roadmap by sections, and contributing feedback and comments to the main panel.

Whilst the conference did not close with an agreed roadmap, the three days were a valuable networking opportunity for future collaborative work, and the sessions highlighted the main challenges and opportunities for DRR in the immediate future.


Communicating Risk and Hazard to Policy Makers

At the UCL IRDR 5th Annual Conference this year, Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, gave a presentation on communicating risk and hazard to policy makers. He summarized the challenges and common pitfalls that scientists often come across, and gave advice on how to look at the issue in a more mutually-beneficial way.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Put yourself in their shoes

He began by pointing out that from the policy makers point of view, they do not have the expertise or time to research particular topics, which is where expert scientists and advisers come in. Scientists are employed to do the research and then communicate it in such a way to help the policy makers make decisions. The first thing to remember is that policy makers have time commitments, which means that scientists need to communicate risk quickly and clearly, particularly in an emergency situation. They are intelligent people, but they won’t necessarily have your expertise, so conveying the information in a simple (but not overly simple way) is necessary. They understand the concept of uncertainty, error, and risk, so these issues do not need to be swept under the carpet, but don’t need to be explained in such a detailed way as you would in an academic paper. Policy makers are also different. So they may prefer different means of communication – therefore be prepared to explain things in a variety of medium.

What’s important?

Another key point to keep in mind is to think about what your audience cares about, and then translate your information into a way which is relevant for them. For example, the government is primarily concerned with the health, wellbeing, security, and resilience of the population, followed by economic advantages to the country. Think about how the information you have will impact on those things they care about, and convey that information. There is always a risk with trying to convey all the information you have ever gathered on the topic all at once – this is trying to boil the ocean. You will lose their interest. Instead, tell them only what is relevant for them to make a decision. The other information is not wasted – it has increased your understanding of the topic, and will provide a good back-up store of information should it be needed in the future.



There is often a confusion in the terms used by scientists, compared to policy makers (and even compared to “normal” human language). Scientists are renowned for having a specific definition of every term they use. Indeed, that is how science works, it requires careful and systematic labeling and defining of things, to avoid confusion and ideally to allow for better understanding of precisely what you mean. Ironically, in the non-science world, this can lead to misunderstanding if the exact terms are not fully understood, or are completely different to those used by the other party. Use of a common language, or at least awareness of the differences is needed, to be able to communicate effectively. Scientific precision needs to be balanced with the need to be understood by non-specialists.

Scientific concern vs public attitudes

The policy maker is not a scientist. Their concern is not making decisions solely on the scientific evidence. If it was, they would be scientists. Instead, policy makers need to balance a range of demands, including (but not limited to) public attitudes, economic implications, international relations, and scientific evidence. So scientists need to realise that they’re not have the same conversation. For example, the majority of the scientific evidence suggests nuclear power is low risk, it also suggests hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is low risk. However, the majority of public attitudes are against having a nuclear power plant or a fracking station in their back yard. Policy makers have to balance the scientific evidence with the public attitudes (etc) before they make a decision.

Differences in values

There is confusion often when science turns into advocacy. This is often experienced in the Environmental Sciences, probably because we are passionate about our topics. But we need to recognise that our values may not be the same as other people’s values. Things in this world are rarely black-and-white. Whilst science strives to define and logically evaluate evidence in an objective manor, we must remember that the non-science world is hugely subjective and opinionated. Scientists can help to provide evidence and guidance on topics, but must remember that ultimately, decisions are rarely made in policy based solely on the science.

Our job is to try to communicate that evidence in such a way that the message gets through as clearly and with as much impact as possible. By developing our communication skills, hopefully we can better influence and advise those whose job it is to make the decisions.

International Day for Disaster Reduction: Older People

Today, 13th October 2014, is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The theme this year focuses on older people. This afternoon I attended an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute with the theme: Resilience is for Life: Disaster risk reduction in an ageing world. The three speakers were Chris Roles (Director of Age International), Silvia Stefanoni (Director of Policy and Strategy and Deputy CEO of HelpAge International), and Tom Mitchell (Head of Climate and Environment Programme at the Overseas Development Institute).

2 billion older people globally by 2050, the majority in developing countries

Chris Roles led the seminar highlighting the needs and contribution of all ages is needed to build resilience to natural hazards. We need to recognise that our world is ageing, both in developed and developing countries. These demographic changes will have implications on how we should prepare for and respond to disasters; an ageing population will require different help and priorities in the face of disasters.

Elderly Man Earthquake

Silvia Stefanoni from HelpAge International spoke on the vulnerability of the elderly in relation to disasters.  For example, the provision of food in the aftermath of a disaster should be nutritionally suitable for an elderly person. Health care priorities will be different. The elderly will have mobility issues, and are often isolated, without a means of evacuating, or support networks. Displacement patterns responding to disasters are different for the elderly population. HelpAge International found the elderly are often the last to leave a disaster zone, and the last to leave the refugee camps. Poverty as a result of no, or minimal, pension schemes increase their vulnerability. Another issue for older people is whether the state able to keep paying out pensions in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Older people are more likely to suffer from psychological distress from their experiences in a disaster.

75% of deaths during by Hurricane Katrina were comprised of >60 year olds

56 % of those who died and 89% of post-disaster deaths from the great East Japan earthquake were 65 years old and over

But Stefanoni also highlighted it’s not all doom and gloom. We can use this time to focus on the opportunities the elderly provide us with before, during, and after a crisis. The elderly are, by nature, survivors with a high level of knowledge gained throughout the years. They can provide information on local weaknesses, and tensions within the community. They are often respected leaders able to mobilise local communities. They have a knowledge of the hazards that have affected the area within their lifespan. This is particularly useful for regions where historical records of hazards are sparse or nonexistent. HelpAge International have led successful schemes to empower and educate the elderly, utilising them as a resource in response and preparation for disasters.

DRR elderly

Disaster Risk Reduction preparedness training in the Philippines. Photo: UNISDR

Tom Mitchell from the ODI then offered his congratulations to HelpAid International on their coverage of the issues for older people in their report: Disaster resilience in an ageing world: How to make policies and programmes inclusive of older people. He talked about the three revolutions that are occurring in the disaster field: (1) disaster data, (2) creation of risk, (3) disasters occurring in conflict and fragile affected states. He highlighted the data availability opportunity as the one with most promise for success and growth, particularly in relation to the age issue. We must first understand the problem before we tackle it. Disaggregated data is needed before a disaster occurs, and as part of the information gathering in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, to know where the vulnerable communities are and what their needs are. Essentially, disasters are anomalous occurrences, and therefore analysing loss data can be misleading. Running disaster scenarios to identify the vulnerable areas to disasters and the potential impact could be more useful for preparation rather than waiting for disasters to occur.


Source: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2005).

History has shown disasters result in a disproportionate loss of older people. Their needs are often overlooked in disaster preparedness and humanitarian response. By 2050, the proportion of older people will have doubled to 22%. While the ageing population represents improvements in healthcare and development progress, an ageing population means an increase in vulnerability to risks and disasters. In combination with the projected increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters, this overlooked and vulnerable population’s needs must be addressed looking forward.

Lessons from Understanding Risk Forum 2014

Last week I volunteered for the World Bank’s Understanding Risk Forum 2014 at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London. The Understanding Risk community is made up of academics, insurers, charities, and government representatives in the disaster risk assessment field. On a bi-annual basis, they meet to share knowledge and experience, collaborate, and discuss innovation and best practice in risk assessment. This was the first time I have attended the forum, and I met some fantastic people who were very encouraging in my own endeavours. I managed to get to about half the presentation sessions fitted in around my volunteering schedule.


I would like to share with you all the main points that came across to me from the experience.


1. Communicate Early

A main message that came across from the forum was, unsurprisingly, the importance of communication in risk assessments. But this was not just about effective communication about the end product to the users at the end of the risk assessment, as an afterthought. There are so many risk assessments that have been carried out that just sit on dusty shelves and are never used (roughly 40%).


The key here is to engage with the end-users right at the start of the risk assessment, to get their needs prioritised, so that the end product will actually be of use to them. There really is no point producing a risk assessment (no matter how accurate or advanced) if noone is going to use it. It just becomes an academic exercise. By engaging with the end-user early-on, the risk assessments can be tailored to their needs.

2. Engage and Empower

Another point that came across was how much more effective risk assessments were (in that they were used and something was actually done about the results of the risk assessment outcomes) came from engaging long-term throughout the risk assessment with the communities at risk from the hazards. By involving the communities or local government in the process of creating a risk assessment for their region, they become more engaged in the problems and opportunities it presents. It becomes their product, their problem, rather than something an outsider tells them is their problem. People are much more pro-active at doing something when they are engaged with the process. They become empowered, rather than excluded. It’s the difference between listening to a lecture, and having a discussion. An example of this is Geoscience Australia’s work in the Philippines conducting risk assessments.

3. Financial Incentives

It is a sad thing to admit, but the world revolves around money; companies and government are more likely to make changes based on financial reasoning rather than saving lives. Until we can change that paradigm, the only way to effect change in the way we deal with hazards is to frame it in terms of money. Several suggestions came up throughout the forum in relation to this idea of financial incentives, particularly in terms of encouraging and rewarding companies to insure.

climate change

I must admit up until then, I had always thought the insurance sector to be too focused on money and not useful in terms of saving lives or helping people much (fairly naive, I know). The discussions at the forum changed my mind. If a company has adequate insurance to allow it to recover from a disaster, then it provides a source of income for all those employed by it in the aftermath of a disaster. That means Joe Bloggs can keep going to work and pay for food and bills to keep his family safe. Without adequate insurance, Joe Bloggs (and all his colleagues) are out of work and the knock-on effect can ruin communities. The example given of this during the forum was Hurricane Sandy (2012), where many small businesses  in New York did not have adequate insurance, so have not re-open and probably never will.

If companies and government will only act based on financial reward or incentives, then let’s change our way of communicating with them. If the end goal is to be able to help people and reduce disaster risk, and this is a means of affecting change, then let’s change our dialogue. It might seem a bit morally-dubious, but it’s an effective means to an end.


Overall, the Understanding Risk Forum was a great experience to be immersed in for a few days. The presentations and discussions were interesting and often provocative. The speakers had huge amounts of experience to draw upon and talk about. Everyone was very approachable, and it was great to be part of a community aiming to reduce disaster risk, after feeling a bit isolated in the PhD world. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the contacts I made, and hopefully attending the next forum in 2016.