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Disaster risk management vs. disaster risk governance and the principle of ‘risk footprint’

Created: 21 March 2017

In my work, I constantly witness confusions around the differences of disaster risk management and disaster risk governance. Recently one of the experts in the area told me that ‘disaster risk governance’ is a cross-cutting theme and it could fully fit disaster risk management subject area. This magic domain of ‘cross-cutting’ leaves many uncomfortable questions unaddressed and many definitions blurred. In this blog I’d like however, to attempt to address one of them: the difference between disaster risk management and disaster risk governance and the leading principle of ‘risk footprint’.

Risk management, including disaster risk management, implies the processes and interactions based on the existing institutional and legal structures. The legal framework defines the mandates, standards, funds allocation for disaster risk management. Policy framework provides mechanisms for the realization of the legal requirements, defining the accountability framework and addresses when relevant and possible the conflicting areas across the whole chain of risk management processes (as defined in ISO 31000). Institutional framework defines the landscape of stakeholders, with their responsibilities and accountabilities towards (disaster) risk management. While all this is formalized to a large extend there is also a growing notion that often institutional and legal frameworks with clearly defined boundaries are not sufficient to embrace and respond to some of the existing and emerging risks. There are voids in those frameworks that hinders effective risk management. The limitations of the both frameworks often meant to be overcome through introducing the principle of inclusiveness. There are two questions here, however: who to include? And in which process to include – consultations or management? While inclusion in risk management might require adjustments in the legal and institutional frameworks, inclusion in risk consultations is more feasible. Obviously, this process of risk consultation needs to be transparent, efficient and responsive, and create some ground for mutual accountability among stakeholders engaged. Eventually, all this intends to impact management decisions about disaster risk. This is often the understanding of ‘risk governance’.

“Risk governance deals with the identification, assessment, management and communication of risks in a broad context.  It includes the totality of actors, rules, conventions, processes and mechanisms and is concerned with how relevant risk information is collected, analyzed and communicated, and how management decisions are taken. It applies the principles of good governance that include transparency, effectiveness and efficiency, accountability, strategic focus, sustainability, equity and fairness, respect for the rule of law and the need for the chosen solution to be politically and legally feasible as well as ethically and publicly acceptable’. Taken from An Introduction to the IRGC Risk Governance Framework, IRGC, www.irgc.org

While in general this scope of risk governance is broad enough to cover a possible variability of actors and their interactions, the major question remains unaddressed – who to include or what is that ‘totality of actors’?

Understanding risk as social phenomena helps to answer this question. Risk doesn’t reside outside the human society, it is not an unfortunate consequence of human fault either. Instead risk is an integral part of human life: the multiplicity of uncertainties that surround individuals, organizations, or societies shape the landscape of threats and opportunities they face (i.e. the risk landscape). Any change in this landscape generates a ‘ripple effects’ that goes across geographic regions, sectors, jurisdictions, even generations. A risk gets modified and migrates from system to system triggering cascading effects often of unpredictable nature. In this process, there are those that contribute to the risk and those that are bearers of the burden (be it positive or negative). Understanding contributors is tightly linked with understanding the possible causes of a change. Understanding the bearers requires forward-looking analysis of the possible impact in a distance (in space, time, and scope) of cascading effects of any change. This is an emerging risk ‘footprint’ that covers both a) contributors and causes and b) bearers and impact.

The best model of the complex life is the life itself, however, putting efforts to define the contributors and causes as well as bearers and impact of a risk, could help to define the scope of that ‘totality of actors’ that need/must/should/and ought to be included in risk governance.  Therefore, risk governance based on the principle of ‘risk footprint’ should help to avoid a fundamental weakness of risk management: placing responsibility for risk management on those who can only address the part of it, either some of the causes or some of the impact.

In some ideal world, the dynamic of ‘risk footprint’ could require a dynamic, almost ‘fluid’ institutional and legal frameworks to fit the specifics of emerging risks. However, this is not feasible and is largely arguable due to subjective nature of risk and the high transactional costs of the process itself. Yet, complimenting formal disaster risk management processes with disaster risk governance as consultation process could significantly enrich the value and the legitimacy of the former. Meanwhile, introducing some responsiveness in both legal and institutional frameworks to support that consultation process and its interaction with the management decision-making could further benefit management of any risk, and disaster risk in particularly. Today there is a significant disaster risk governance deficit, which seems to grow with exaggerated focus on hard data, missing the focus on disrupted cause-and-effect relationship of a risk as well as on the perceptional (subjective) and value component of it.