Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thoughts from UNISDR Science and Technology Conference

The UNISDR Science and Technology Conference has provided a platform for discussion of many pertinent topics relating to the implementation of the Sendai Framework. However, what has really struck me is the absence of what I would have thought were important discussion points. Perhaps these issues are outside of the scope of this conference. But does their absence (or brief appearance) in the dialogue undermine the objectives of DRR scientists?

1. Root causes of disaster

It is certainly not popular to discuss poverty, inequality, conflict, discrimination, globalisation etc. as drivers of vulnerability and therefore disaster risk at forums like this. Perhaps scientists feel powerless to address these issues. Ok, but we must lend our voice to the cause of the vulnerable, rather than colluding to perpetuate structural violence. We must make clear that many of the solutions of science cannot succeed while global inequality and injustice flourish.

2. Inequality

The existence of inequality in not only wealth, but access to knowledge and opportunities was raised briefly on day 1. This issue came up again as individuals decried the academic paywall and the fact that much DRR knowledge is inaccessible to those who need access the most. In addition, we must ask whether the push that we are seeing towards privatising DRR is a healthy shift? Corporate control in DRR, climate change and sustainable development (*shudders*) is growing. Will this reduce vulnerability, or have the opposite effect by creating a bigger gap?

3. Discrimination

We are of course much more sensitive to discrimination against minority groups now than ever before. Thankfully we have witnessed great societal shifts, with rights being won for many. However, we must guard against cultural norms that are still inherently discriminatory against groups that we may not normally perceive as marginalised. One clear issue arising from this conference is that of discrimination against young scientists. 'You are so young'. 'You have to earn your credibility.' 'Wait till you have a PhD and then talk to me.' You only have to speak to a sample of PhD students to realise the gravity of the issues that young scientists face. We need mentoring, opportunities, resources, recognition for brilliant young minds. Uncorrupted. Uncompromised. Idealist. I'd prefer that they made decisions about our future than those currently holding power.

4. Political will

Disasters are political beasts. Much of the discussion has avoided the simple fact that the global political structure is highly resilient to change. I feel that the solutions being offered at this conference are based on the assumption that a system driven by growth, consumption and domination cannot be challenged. Our current system is creating new problems and exacerbating existing problems faster than we can solve them. Can science and technology solve problems that are inherently social, economic and political? Perhaps not directly, but we can become advocates and even activists. We know that there is an absence of will to change in the political establishment. Is there also an absence of will to advocate for change among researchers who rely upon the support of the establishment to further their careers?

Overall, we have heard some interesting perspectives on SFDRR implementation and about fascinating advances in science and technology. These things give me hope. However, like Sendai I will depart a bit frustrated at the general reluctance to engage with the systemic issues that uphold the status quo. All of our advances will be useless if we ignore these. As a speaker pointed out yesterday, we are in a special position where the public trusts our community of knowledge. We have a responsibility to communicate, not only about the technical aspects of our work but as commentators on the big issues society faces. As DRR researchers, we are uniquely qualified to do so.


  1. Absolutely spot on. I am writing this from the conference in Geneva, and I raised inequality in one of the sessions. No response. If we don't look reality in the face we will never get anywhere. The other issue not covered is the role of human mobility in transforming disaster risk reduction.

  2. Thanks for the comment David. I suspect that many researchers are compromised by their reliance on smooth relationships with agencies, corporations, foundations, donors and governments for funding and support in their projects. It is not easy to resist being driven by career aspirations. The really difficult questions are ignored because they threaten to destabilise a status quo that is content with addressing symptoms.


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