Date of submission:01 April 2011 Title:Given that disasters create opportunity for active learning, why do they repeat? 1. Introduction Natural and manmade disasters are a gloomy recurrent feature of today’s reality.
The 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl, the 2004 hurricane in Brazil and, the same year, the devastating Tsunami in East Asia; the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the BP oil spillage in the Mexican Gulf in 2010; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; and the latest tragic Tsunami that hit Japan in March of this year along with the subsequent threat of a nuclear calamity, are but a few examples of humankind’s vulnerability to the, often unpredictable, strikes of nature and to the, far more predictable, technological calamities.
During the past sixty years, the number of disasters has significantly increased. The value of properties destroyed by natural disasters in the 1990s was 15 times greater than the one in the 1950s. Approximately 2. 6 billion people were affected by natural disasters over the past ten years, compared to 1. 6 billion in the previous decade. No country is immune to disaster.
The increasing frequency, intensity, duration and range of today’s disasters, both natural and manmade, are challenging even the strongest of leaders and institutions and pushing them to apply new thinking and approaches to disaster risk reduction and risk management strategies. As part of this new thinking and approaches, “active learning” is growing in popularity. “Active learning” is defined as a process by which an organization, after receiving information from a public enquiry, generates active foresight.
By building on lessons learned in past disaster and recovery experiences and by systematically applying them before, during and after a disaster occurs, it should be possible to both minimize its consequences on the people and the environment and , to a certain extent, event prevent it from occurring (at least in the case of technological disasters). The title offers the opportunity for a dual reflection: one related to the application of the active learning process to technological disasters and the other related to its application to natural disasters. Active learning is indeed relevant to all type of calamities and its application can have a very considerable impact on how the consequences of disasters are handled and, even more importantly, on how some disasters can be prevented in the first place. Technological disasters, usually caused by human failure, for instance the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, offer better chances to risk managers to identify the elements that can spark a calamity and thus allow them to correct these elements and limit the risk of occurrence of another disaster.
In the case of natural disasters instead, an earthquake or a Tsunami, the application of active learning can at least significantly reduce the impact of the disaster over the peoples, infrastructures and environment in the stricken affected areas. By using the above analytical framework and by making reference to specific case studies, this essay examines some of the positive and negative factors that have either contributed to the effective application of the active learning theory or to its failure.
Section 2 provides an overview of theoretical issues within which the essay question ought to be framed using a descriptive approach; section 3 analyzes the application of active learning in the case of natural disasters and its overall effectiveness using the example of the Mozambique and 2010 earthquake in Haiti; The same paragraph, considers the impact of active learning in the case of a technological disaster using the 1979 Three Mile and 19836 Chernobyl disasters as cases study.
The paper concludes with some broader reflections on the vast potentials but also the limitations of active learning in the overall disaster management theories and applications based on the March devastating Tsunami in Japan. 2. Learning from disasters: theoretical considerations Disasters do not cause effects. The effects are what we call a disaster (Dombrowsky, 1995: 242) Anywhere in the world, the occurrence of a disaster, regardless of its nature and causes, and the management of its effects on people, assets and the environment are always a source of major concern to political leaders and government elites.
Paraphrasing the above quote from Dombrowsky, a badly managed disaster is another disaster in itself. Government do not want to be seen by their citizens as failing to manage (or prevent) a disaster effectively. Media coverage of disasters and its effects both at national and global level is another important determinant of the ever growing attention given but governing institutions, regulators, political leaders, among others, to risk management theories and practices.
Active learning, which is part of risk management, is a tool that guides risk managers in analyzing, studying and understanding why a disaster occurred, why people lives were lost, why infrastructures and properties were destroyed. Based on these analyses, lessons learned will be drawn for reducing the risk of occurrence of future disasters and/or limit their impact. Indeed, experience has shown that learning from past disasters can prevent future ones from occurring and also can provide valuable insights to help institutions, individuals and communities to overcome recovery challenges.
Active learning is a structured organizational learning process which involves several theoretical stages. Each of these stages is briefly described below. The analysis of past disasters demonstrates that many of them “display similar features and characteristics”, in terms of the way they occur, the way they spread and their impact, among other things. This discovery has led to the application of the concept of isomorphism to risk management theories, a notion originally developed by the biologist Von Bertalanffy.
Isomorphism is based on two hypotheses: the first one is that a failure occurring in a defined environment will have a tendency to occur in another similar environment for similar reasons. The second one argues that two different systems that may have the same underlying processes or procedures may be exposed to identical system failures. The effects of a disaster over the people who survived it, or even over the people who assisted in the recovery phase, have a strong emotional impact.
Learning from this aspect is important too as it provides guidance on what approaches work better in regard to the aftermath of a disaster and its emotional effects on survivors as well as on people who were directly involved in the provisions of assistance and recovery efforts. Active learning in disasters management involves also a rethinking around the overall safety philosophy of an organization or system. Indeed, disasters may lead to significant changes in the way an organization, government and individuals themselves see and approach their own safety.
Learning from experience can definitely help in preventing the occurrence of a disaster. However, it is important to take into account, as part of the learning process, the fact that some people or institutions may see disasters, being them natural or man-made, as acts of god. This kind of external factors can significantly undermine the whole learning process and prevent people from engaging into an analysis of the causes of disasters, what can be done to prevent them and or to mitigate their effects. In an active learning process, the analysis of the organizational reactions to any given disaster is a crucial step too.
Organizations affected by a disaster, reacts in different ways. Some organizations may decide to put in place new risk management plans and even introduce new legislation which may contribute to the reduction of the occurrence of a disaster. Others may just overreact and fail in their response. Organizational and individual retrospection and observations after a disaster occurs are also very important elements of active learning in disaster management and can offer invaluable insights to inform the development of a safety culture. To be prepared for the worse is the sign of a strong safety culture within an organization.
Any organization shall have a set of minimum rules and regulation in regards to safety. The analysis of the pros and cons of such rules vis a vis safety efficiency is another central element of active learning applied to disaster management. . By applying these different elements of active learning in a holistic way, risk managers would reach the “active learning stage” and would be in position to design the best strategies for mitigating the risk of occurrence of a disaster as well as the best strategic for effectively managing the recovery stage after a disaster has occurred.
All the active learning stages briefly described above have a common element, that is, safety culture. The beliefs and attitudes of the members of an organisation towards safety are a key element to consider in the learning process as the interpretations and perceptions of safety can indeed significantly vary among individuals within the same organization. The next section offers an analysis of the application of active learning by humanitarian agencies in the response to natural disasters. 3 What are risk managers really learning?
The opportunities and limitations of active learning in disaster prevention and recovery practices the application of active learning to natural calamities? “... throughout the world, we must work harder in the recovery stage to avoid reinstating unnecessary vulnerability to hazards. As I have often said, “building back better” means making sure that, as you rebuild, you leave communities safer than they were before disaster struck” -Bill Clinton, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, 20 December 2006
In 2005, the total number of disasters increased by 18% compared to the previous year. While the number of deaths associated with disasters has declined in recent years, the economic losses have been increasing steadily. In the Asia Pacific region, between 1994 and 2003, there were 1,143 natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes landslides, flooding, droughts/famines, extreme temperatures, floods, forests fires, and windstorms). Given the frequency and magnitude of natural calamities around the world, the United
Nations and non-governmental organizations with a humanitarian mandate have been increasingly facing the challenges of ensuring timely and effective response to disasters, often of a biblical scale. In response to such challenges, the 2005-2015 action plans on “Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters” was integrated into the Hyogo Framework. This is a document that defines the strategic goals of the United Nations and 168 countries in disaster risk reduction, establishing mechanisms and building resilience to hazards, emergency preparedness and recovery programmes.
Active learning is a key element of this strategic document. This confirms the important place that active learning has gained within organizations having a mandate to respond to disasters. In relation to natural disasters, active learning is very relevant insofar as it can significantly contribute to more effective disaster management and recovery efforts. There are many concrete examples around the world that support the idea that active learning is effective; but, there are equally other examples that show that active learning is not always effective because of the very many variables that are at play when a disaster occurs.
Some concrete examples can help in arguing this case. Mozambique is a post-conflict country facing recurrent natural disasters, especially flooding caused by tropical cyclones and by river flooding. From 1965 to 2001, there were fourteen major floods, nine major droughts and four major cyclone disasters in the country. Mozambique has ten main rivers that cross the country from west to east and drain into the Indian Ocean. The catchment areas of these rivers drain water from vast lands of southern Africa, stretching into Botswana.
The management of water flows from two major dams, the Cabora Bassa and the Kariba, also has a major impact on flood risks in Mozambique. Until 2000, early warning and flood control systems for Mozambique were therefore a regional issue that involved close collaboration with other countries of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Floods in Mozambique affect, on average, a quarter of the population, displacing and killing thousands of people each year. In 2000 in coordination with the government and donors, the UN and various humanitarian agencies worked on the development of a comprehensive preparedness plan and ecovery strategy, including the procurement of emergency supplies, the setting up of coordination mechanisms and the prepositioning of supplies in the most at-risk floods prone zones of the country. Floods occur every year in Mozambique and are seasonal (between January and March). While floods cannot be prevented, the lessons learned in the nineties, enabled the government, humanitarian agencies and the donors to at least set up emergency preparedness and response mechanisms that helped in minimizing the effects of the floods over the population during the recovery phase.
While Mozambique is a good example of the effectiveness of active learning in relation to natural disasters which have a cyclical nature, organizational learning within the humanitarian system has not always been so effective. The below paragraphs analyze some of the reasons that have been found altering the effectiveness of active learning within an organizational learning process. The first one is linked to the possible and unpredictable conflict between individual learning and organizational learning.
Individual learning is necessary for organizational learning, but individuals do carry their own personal institutional recollection of lessons learned in disaster situations. In the process of learning, this conflict may hamper the initial objective of the organizational learning process Because of the unpredictability of humanitarian funding flows, personnel of humanitarian organization are often on short term contracts. The high turnover of staff is another factor that could work against organizational learning.
In addition, outsourcing projects and work has become more and more common within the aid sector and this has affected also the capacity of individual organizations to consistently and systematically build institutional memory. Ideally, humanitarian organizations should develop, as part of the active learning process, a thorough understanding of the context in which they operate, including the geopolitical and socio-economic dimensions. Failure to do so, it can affect the effectiveness of the organizational active earning process. Another factor that can negatively impact on the precision and effectiveness of any given organizational learning process is the issue of information gathering and information management. Within the learning process, risk managers have to be cautious with the vast amount of information they gather. Indeed, risk managers have to be able to select and prioritize information and to identify what is important and what is not from the perspective of risk management. Often, much of this information is not centralized and this also limits the possibility of using it in a systematic and effective way. Active learning can also be ineffective when lessons learned from one context are generalized and mechanically applied to another context. The humanitarian response to the catastrophic earthquake which stroke Haiti in January 2010 can be regarded as a typical example of ineffective disaster response and recovery despite the innumerable lessons learned from previous similar natural cataclysms.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, more than thirty thousand aid workers from thousands of organizations landed in this small island to support recovery efforts and yet grievances about the slowness in the delivery of even basic services, duplication of efforts and lack of coordination were and continue to be numerous. Haiti is no stranger to natural disaster. In addition to earthquakes, it has been struck frequently by tropical cyclones and flooding which have usually caused severe and widespread damages to people and the environment.
Disaster response and recovery efforts in countries prone to frequent natural disasters should be solidly grounded on a host of lessons learned. In the case of Haiti, active learning does not seem to have led to the desired outcome of increased effectiveness in emergency preparedness and disaster relief. One year after the earthquake, the recovery phase seems to be at its beginning, with still over one million people striving for survivals in makeshifts accommodations. Some of the sectors analyzed above can explain the failure of organization learning within the international aid community in the case of Haiti.
Having discussed some of the opportunities and limitations that active learning offers to risk managers with regard to the planning and implementation of mitigation and recovery measures in the case of natural disasters, it is now useful to reflect on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of active learning in the case of technological disasters. A case study is again offered as a basis for the analysis. Similarly to the arguments presented above, active learning applied to technological disasters can lead to both positive and negative results.
Technology gets increasingly sophisticated based not only on scientific progress but also on structured learning from past mistakes. Nuclear power technology is a good case in point. For example, a tremendous amount of lessons was learned from the Three Mile Island accident. The construction of the nuclear power plant of Three Mile Island in the USA was completed in 1974, but an accident occurred in 1979, which was classified as level five according to the International Nuclear Event Scale.
The collapse of the cooling system provoked the partial fusion of the heart of the reactor, leading to the release of an enormous volume of radioactivity in the air. It was the first time that an accident of that scale occurred in a nuclear power plant. A lot was to be learned from that event. Within weeks, two large new organizations, the Nuclear Safety Analysis Center (NSAC) in Palo Alto, California, and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) in Atlanta, Georgia, investigated the accident in order to understand and learn from it.
Relevant government agencies were also very active in trying to learn from the Three Mile Island accident. Following the investigations from these organizations and in response to the identified problems, the NRC developed a set of regulations imposing some modifications in all nuclear plants on the US territory. The lessons learned from the Three Mile Island accident have indeed revolutionized the nuclear power industry. From a risk management perspective the impact was great. The same cannot be stated in the case of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In the aftermath of the event, both Ukrainian and American government agencies, including the nuclear industry, were eager to investigate the causes of the accident and to apply lessons learnt from past failures of a similar nature. A study demonstrated that some of the failures that caused the disaster could have been prevented had the US approach to the management of nuclear plants be applied. It is instructive to highlight that all nuclear programmes implemented outside of what at the time was the Soviet bloc used the US technology.
Driven by the political desire to delegitimize the US, Ukraine’ position was that that very little was to be learned from similar past accidents. “We’ve found through 30 years of accident investigation that sometimes the most common link is the attitude of corporate leadership toward safety” Jim Hall, Former Chairman of the U. S National Transportation Board In the end, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster‘s investigation highlighted that the major cause of the accident was to be attributed to a lack of organizational safety culture.
By ignoring safety measures, technicians performing a no authorized test, damaged the heart of the nuclear plant, which then exploded causing the release of huge quantities of radioactive material in the air, the consequences of which are widely known. What can then be learned from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? The most significant lessons is arguably that different approaches in the way safety is perceived, valued, prioritized and abided by within an organization can indeed lead to lethal consequences. The absence of a shared safety culture can be a major impediment to effective organizational learning processes.
Another obstacle to the effectiveness of active learning is related to the way legislation is set to support risk mitigation measures in regard to identified risks. In many circumstances, legislation is voted after a disaster has occurred. The example of the “law Bachelot”, voted in 2003, three years after the AZF explosion in France is a good case in point. In general, regulators don’t seem to be able (or willing) to adequately anticipate risks, also based on past learning, and put in place risk prevention and mitigation measures, including legislative once.
Learning from the past is one step in the process. Putting this learning into use to prevent disasters and mitigate their impact remains at the heart of the active learning process. Experience shows that far too often organizations fail to do so. The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster sadly demonstrated that BP Oil Company had incorporated very little past disasters experience in its organization. In 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office recommended, in a report on disaster recovery to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.
S. Senate, that systems shall be developed and implemented to facilitate the sharing of lessons learned and good practices in disaster prevention and recovery This initiative addressed one general key shortfall in risk management practices which is the limited availability of tools that allow risk managers to systematically access documentation related to lesson learned from past disasters, both natural or man-made. Few organizations have developed their own system of data base to manage information related to disaster prevention, response and recovery.
Even when such systems do exist within one organization, the problem of reconciliation of information across different systems remains. Much remains to be done to ensure that the wealth of data, information and documentation related to lessons learned in past disasters is systematized and made easily accessible to those, individuals and organizations, who can make risk management decisions that can eventually have a dramatic impact on the lives of people and the environment in which we all live. . Conclusion This paper has analyzed some of the opportunities, challenges and limitations of active learning in relation to both the management of natural and technological disasters. While the occurrence of natural disasters cannot be prevented, their impact over the population, the environment and infrastructures can be to a great extent mitigated trough the implementation of risk mitigations procedures.
Disaster relief can also greatly benefit from the application of lessons learned in the past. In the case of technological disasters, active learning can have a tremendous impact in terms of both prevention and implementation of mitigation measures to minimize the impact of the disaster once it has occurred. Despite the immense potentials of active learning applied to risk management, in many nstances, lessons learned from the past are either not effectively applied or disregarded altogether. This explains the reoccurrence of disasters that could have been prevented in the first place or the ineffective management of disaster response, which can itself lead to disastrous effects (“a disaster in a disaster”). Selected case studies have been used in this paper to illustrate the above argument.
Different factors can contribute to failure in active learning in the context of risk management: conflict in the interpretation and application of lessons learned at individual and organizational levels; weak or inexistent safety culture within a given organizational setting; political sensitivities; inadequate documentation of lessons learned; lack of organizational institutional memory; inadequate systems to ensure regular access to relevant risk management data within and across different organizations (and even across different countries); inadequate legislative or policy risk management frameworks at national, and even international, level (far too often safety legislation is passed only after a disaster has occurred). All this factors and loopholes can ultimately be related to the lack of a solid organizational safety culture. The effects of disasters (especially of a technological nature) can be felt across national borders. The issue of accountability, both at national and international level, for the damages caused by man-made disasters that could have been prevented should also be taken into account and could form the subject of a separate research.
Lastly, the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that stroke Japan in March of this year is a reminder of the fact that even a rich, highly developed, industrialized country with an extraordinary technological know out and an enormous experience in managing natural disasters, can let its citizens down. A crisis of leadership and governance is the heart of this failure. While the disaster may ultimately lead to a positive change in the political system, citizens’ stoicism and resilience is for now what is helping the most Japanese stricken communities to rebuild their lives. Bibliography Robert L. Sunwalt, July 2007, “Do you have a safety culture? ”, flight safety Foundation, aerosafetyworld. Available online at: www. flightsafety. org Dr
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