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Why political will is important to reduce risks of disaster

Located on the Ring of Fire, Indonesia is prone to natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. YT Haryono/Reuters

This article is part of a series to commemorate Indonesian National Disaster Preparedness Day on April 26.

Political commitments are often cited as essential for governments and people to reduce potential human suffering in disasters ranging from disease, hunger and poverty to climate vulnerability.

The United Nations’ Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction (DRR) underlines the need for political will to apply proactive measures, including prevention and mitigation, rather than reactive responses.

Political will can be defined as an aggregate of commitments made by leaders and decision-makers. They include those in the executive agencies (presidents, governors) and in the legislative arm (lawmakers, politicians).

They have the authority to allocate resources such as funds for poverty reduction, disaster mitigation, or prevention of epidemics. They are often known as policymakers within the government sectors.

A leader who fails to prioritise an agenda of public concern, such as disaster risk reduction (DRR) or public health, can be considered to have low political will.

As a signatory of the Sendai Framework, Indonesia has failed to demonstrate political will to allocate funding for mitigation and disaster risk reduction. DRR funding accounts for only 7% of its total program budget from 2007 to 2012 and in recent fiscal years.

DRR agendas including mitigation measures should receive at least 25%, and more is better.

For Indonesia, a country situated in the Ring of Fire and prone to natural hazards and disasters, providing an adequate budget is important. And that requires political commitment from leaders and politicians.

Why is political will important for disaster reduction?

Political will is often seen as a key factor in resilience.

The problem is most political commitments for societal development and progress largely focus on short-term and must-do-now agendas. Examples include national economic development and fulfilling popular promises to the voters.

In “normal times”, disasters are seen as future events that can be delayed.

But in the middle of a large crisis – like the COVID-19 pandemic – political leaders often adopt policies like committing extremely large emergency management funds that are impossible to use in anticipation during pre-disaster stages.

This is entirely logical: first things first; desperate time call for desperate measures.

However, after the crisis ends, most political leaders shift their commitments and allocate resources to other sectors.

Their political mood will go back to business as usual. They will again focus on short-term goals in areas like the economy, rather than on anticipatory policies on issues like climate change, disaster mitigation and pandemic prevention.

For example, there was a spike in the budget allocation for BNPB to deal with catastrophic forest fires in 2015. Data suggest the allocation then declined significantly from 2016 until 2018 before Indonesia was hit again by series of disaster events in late 2018.

How does Indonesia fare?

Despite its low DRR budget allocation, Indonesia has a relatively high level of DRR knowledge compared with other countries in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is among countries that rank high on the bureaucratic preparedness index, but still behind Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Political will for disaster risk reduction in ASEAN countries. Source: Lassa et. al. Measuring political will: An index of commitment to disaster risk reduction, Elsevier

Indonesia scores relatively low in terms of public and private investment in disaster resilience. This is measured by general and catastrophe insurance penetration, integration of DRR with environment and climate policy, commitment to building codes, and disaster impact assessment in development project.

Interestingly, some of these data are based on formal information provided by the Indonesian government to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) from 2009 to 2015. These include building codes and disaster impact assessment in development projects.

Despite having considerable disaster legislation, Indonesia’s overall DRR governability is still lower than Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and ASEAN’s average.

Having good political will does not always translate into real policy reform on the ground. But no sustainable change can happen without political willingness.

How to measure political will?

How do we measure political will for DRR, including for climate change and global health risks?

I worked with collaborators in Australia, Indonesia and Singapore to develop our own framework. This is possible due to the unique set-up used by UNDRR to develop a global reporting system. Countries provide self-assessment of their progress in disaster risk reduction.

These assessments use “scorecard” analysis that can be easily translated into a global database.

Five variables we used in measuring political will for DRR are:

  • countries’ commitment to understanding their disaster risk

  • governability of disaster risk

  • willingness to invest in risk reduction

  • bureaucratic promptness and preparedness

  • political will to develop early warning systems.

These variables all contribute to the total “political will”, or the aggregation of commitments to reduce disaster risks that arise from natural hazards and climatic risk.

In other words, the aggregation of political will – as shown by both policy (including laws, regulations, planning) and implementation – will serve as predictors of countries’ disaster risks.

Getting detailed specific data on political will relating to DRR is often difficult. However, by using general governance data – such as bureaucracy index and rule of law and regulatory quality data – we can predict countries’ disaster governability.

The research result is not surprising. Political will is generally low in Africa and Asia-Pacific. It is highest in OECD countries and Europe, followed by Southeast Asia, Latin America and Caribbean nations.

Political will for DRR knowledge in selected countries. Lassa et. al. 2019. Measuring political will: An index of commitment to disaster risk reduction. International journal of disaster risk reduction. 34:64-74

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