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Towards stronger and more accountable EU-wide disaster risk management

By Mette Petersen, Red Cross EU Office

Deadly flash floods hit the South-West of France, leaving a trail of overturned cars, collapsed bridge and houses and damaged roads. French Red Cross teams worked across the affected areas, helping people to clear up storm damage, Aude, France, October 2018. © Matthieu Lacroix/French Red Cross.

Around the world, the 192 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are key players in working to prevent, lessen the impacts of and respond to all kinds of crises and disasters. Such a presence does not come about overnight and requires preparedness, organisation, funding and — first and foremost — commitment and enthusiasm to help. Mette Petersen is Director of the Red Cross EU Office, a membership office for the 27 National Societies in the EU, the Icelandic Red Cross, the Norwegian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). For the last 20 years, she has worked continuously for the IFRC and National Red Cross Societies in different contexts in Asia, the Middle East and Turkey. Below she explains that accountability for its actions, not only towards donors but also towards people affected by disasters, is one of the cornerstones on which the Red Cross thrives. Greater accountability requires investment in many areas, including cooperation, coordination, local capacities and continuous community involvement. When it comes to disaster risk management, these aspects are also critical to creating a more resilient society in the EU, aided by the Union Civil Protection Mechanism.

By Mette Petersen, Red Cross EU Office

Making people-centred investments for resilience

In the face of climate change, disasters are expected to continue to grow in frequency and intensity. The disruption that the world is experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated something that the ongoing climate crisis had already been alerting us to: we urgently need to be better prepared for complex emergencies and climate-induced disasters. In recent years, the EU has been reinforcing its crisis management system in the face of threats and hazards that require more collaboration and coordination, across both countries and sectors. The Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) is the key instrument in these efforts, with its extended budget and strengthened legislation.

Larger investments to bolster the resilience of people, systems, and critical infrastructure, while anticipating and reducing risks, as well as taking early action to mitigate impacts, are crucial. However, as the growing gap between humanitarian needs and resources persists, these investments must be accompanied by measures to boost accountability — in the widest sense: including accountability to affected people, donors, taxpayers, and the staff and volunteers involved in disaster preparedness and response.

Through their auxiliary role (1), National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (National Societies) have gained extensive knowledge and good practices, including in cross-border and international contexts, that could help make the EU crisis management system more efficient and accountable as it evolves. Years of experience in the humanitarian sector have also provided valuable lessons on how to increase effectiveness by putting the people affected in the driver’s seat, listening, and ensuring that their needs are met in the best possible way.

Accountability to disaster-affected people

From the Red Cross’ perspective, we are accountable, first and foremost, to the people and communities we aim to support. Trust is the foundation of humanitarian action, and the best way to concretely build trust and improve the quality of assistance is to make sure that we engage people in a transparent manner and base our activities on their feedback and needs (see Box 1). Community members must be recognised and valued as equal partners and active participants in their own future and recovery (see Box 2).

While citing good use of public funds as the starting point, the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid — the EU’s joint statement providing a common vision that guides the action of the EU in humanitarian aid in third countries — agrees that accountability to those in need is most important. Clear quality standards, principles, policies, and guidelines are also critical to promoting greater accountability. As the EU’s civil protection response grows larger and extends to humanitarian contexts, it should become more people-centred, and strive towards higher quality, cost‑effectiveness and transparency. Could it learn from the humanitarian sector, where community engagement and accountability are part of business-as-usual?

As local as possible

Boosting accountability also means making sure that action is fast, effective, and relevant to the local context. Local actors are the ones best placed to ensure this accountability through their knowledge of the conditions, resources, and needs of vulnerable people on the ground. The Red Cross and Red Crescent network employs an approach which is ‘as local as possible, as global as necessary,’ optimising locally led action, while being able to scale up and use available national, regional, and global resources efficiently when needed. The experience of National Society volunteers and staff in meeting growing needs in the quickest and most appropriate way makes their action more effective and reinforces the trust of communities.

When it comes to the UCPM, cost-efficiency and accountability of civil protection deployments would benefit from more efforts to reinforce local preparedness and capacities. This could happen when organising and conducting activities in the field or liaising with local authorities. More opportunities to use remote support and coordination could be explored. As shown by the COVID-19 crisis, deployment of staff and assets is not the only way to deliver international assistance. UCPM technical experts could also build the preparedness and response capacities of local authorities, contributing to local resilience beyond the short-term civil protection deployments.

Enhanced collaboration

Improved collaboration and transparent knowledge-sharing help build synergies and strengthen accountability among all actors. Working together effectively is key to enhanced response and to ensuring better understanding of risks and levels of preparedness. Recent major operations have also pointed to the need for a clear division of tasks and efficient coordination mechanisms between different authorities at all levels. Public health emergencies and disasters with health consequences have illustrated the vital importance of increased cooperation between civil protection and health authorities. The same applies to cooperation between different European Commission directorates-general, which are working towards a comprehensive approach to EU-wide and cross-border threats. Often, collaboration increases knowledge of different actors’ systems and ways of working, widening possibilities for future partnerships. For example, teaming up with the Red Cross in the COVID-19 response has led the Portuguese authorities to engage the National Society in new sectors and working bodies.

Floods in the Netherlands: Red Cross teams worked around the clock to help people and pets affected by floods, 15 July 2021. © Netherlands Red Cross.

While the EU bolsters its crisis management framework, it should seize the opportunity to engage all partners in a clear and inclusive way, capitalising on existing capacities and knowledge. The UCPM Knowledge Network — which aims to gather civil protection and disaster management actors to work together and learn from each other — has great potential to ensure this inclusiveness in its set-up and future functioning. Key actors with strong disaster management expertise should be invited to the lessons-learnt exercises, particularly when it comes to major humanitarian operations where they can contribute significantly. In addition to contributing to accountability, publicly sharing UCPM lessons learnt would benefit operational collaboration with partners.

Better laws, better accountability

The urgency and chaos created by disasters can pose serious challenges to quality and accountability. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some critical weaknesses in existing public health emergency laws and gaps between public health, emergency management, social protection laws and institutions2. With exemptions not in place to allow the movement of people and goods by actors like the Red Cross, the continuity of assistance to people in need and responses to ongoing disasters was jeopardised.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has over 20 years’ experience supporting National Societies in advising their governments on strengthening legal frameworks (3). It has learnt that laws, policies, and institutional arrangements play a crucial role in supporting all aspects of disaster risk management. These laws should contain measures to ensure that during a state of emergency, safeguards are in place for transparency and accountability, as well as for maintaining the rule of law, preserving democratic institutions and protecting human rights. Legislation should also allow efficient and timely access to funding while enabling the early release of funds ahead of hazards.

Smart(er) investment in disaster risk reduction

We are all also accountable and have a responsibility towards future generations. But while everybody knows that prevention is better than cure, the Red Cross’s experience is that funding for managing and reducing disaster risks remains limited. When prevention is not possible, anticipatory action triggered by forecasts could help to significantly reduce the potentially catastrophic impacts of extreme weather events. This is another instance where civil protection could benefit from the experience of the humanitarian sector (see Box 3).

Forest fires in Greece: having been engulfed in flames for six days, thousands of people in Greece were evacuated from around Athens. Hellenic Red Cross teams worked day and night, distributing basic necessities for rescue teams and the people affected, Attica, Greece, 8 August 2021. Source: Hellenic Red Cross.

So, if disaster risk reduction makes sense in every way, is less costly than responding to and recovering from disasters, and thus a good use of public funds, why is it not happening more? A larger focus and share of funding continue to go to preparedness assets and disaster response, which are more visible and produce quick results. But the UCPM also needs to be more accountable by demonstrating cost-effectiveness. Additionally, the reports on the Economics for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness developed by the European Commission and the World Bank (April 2021) argue that there is a need for an environment that better enables civil protection actors to scale up efforts beyond the ‘traditional’ focus to take a more proactive and strategic role in prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

The future Union disaster resilience goals could help promote a shift in emphasis. Introduced in the recently amended UCPM legislation, they aim to improve the capacities of the EU and its Member States to withstand the effects of transboundary disasters. These goals will be useful in moving beyond the current focus on assets and equipment by placing greater emphasis on anticipating, planning and reducing disaster risks. Concentrating on deploying hardware is not only costly, but also ecologically unsustainable. Despite the challenges posed by its short operational timeframe, the civil protection sector should take measures to be more sustainable. One such measure might be joining the humanitarian sector in its efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of its actions.

The EU Adaptation Strategy (4) is another chance to promote many critical elements, such as the need to improve knowledge of climate impacts and adaptation solutions to manage uncertainty, and the importance of stepping up climate risk assessments and adaptation planning and action. Linking the civil protection sector’s efforts to the ambitions for a climate-resilient Europe is a great opportunity to manage climate risks in a coherent manner.

Accountability through legislation or soft policy measures

Accountability to donors means using resources wisely and efficiently, being open about how the money is spent, and measuring impacts rather than the number of assets or people deployed. Growing human and financial resources in the field of EU civil protection require commensurate attention to accountability. But surprisingly, the UCPM legislation does not explicitly mention accountability, and it does not include quality requirements for assessing the impacts of civil protection operations.

Indeed, the recent evaluation5 of the European Commission’s Civil Protection Prevention and Preparedness Projects programme includes a series of recommendations. Among these, it highlights the need to monitor and evaluate the performance of the programme through the development of a planning monitoring, evaluation and reporting (PMER) policy — either set out in legislation or as a ‘soft policy measure’. Monitoring of preparedness and response activities, as well as internal and external evaluations, are critical to holding actors accountable to stakeholders, improving future policy and practice and adapting actions as needed. They also help to make sure that resources are used in the most efficient way.

This Commission programme is currently one of the main EU funding opportunities for civil protection projects. To ensure long-term sustainability and increase cost-efficiency, more EU or national funds should be invested in existing solutions developed through previous projects (see Box 4). Smaller initiatives using a step-by-step approach provide a good basis that can then be replicated on a larger scale. In the Red Cross’s experience, several factors contribute to successful project development and implementation, including realistic financial planning and appropriate timelines in calls for proposals. Building the right consortia and including all partners in a meaningful way takes time but it is fundamental to developing good projects.

It’s decision time

Civil protection is at a crossroads — will it do more of the same, or will it do better by learning from the humanitarian sector’s progress towards more accountability in the recent decades? Increasing the accountability surrounding UCPM assistance to people affected by disasters can be done with simple steps. Civil protection actors can provide more information directly to the community to increase awareness of what they are doing and make space to hear any possible concerns. Working within the community, for the community, and with the community are key to guaranteeing accountability from the Red Cross’ point of view.

A properly functioning and accountable disaster risk management system consists of many essential ingredients, including — as highlighted above — improved collaboration and coordination among all stakeholders, more investments in strengthening local capacities and in disaster risk reduction, as well as better legal preparedness for effective disaster risk governance. Some of the complexities of future crises may not yet be known, but the impacts of climate crisis are already keenly felt. All actors, from civil protection, disaster management, climate change and disaster risk reduction, have a shared responsibility to urgently join forces to make people and systems more resilient.

(2) IFRC, Law and Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response — Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021.

(3) The Checklist on Law and Disaster Preparedness and Response provides recommendations for states to revise and strengthen laws and policies for climate, disaster risk management and emergency preparedness and response. See for more information: https://disasterlaw.ifrc.org/.

(4) Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Forging a climate-resilient Europe — the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, February 2021.

(5) ICF, Evaluation of the European Commission’s Civil Protection Prevention and Preparedness Projects (2014–2020).

This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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