19 March 2009 - 21 March 2009

Society’s resilience in withstanding disaster

Chair: Sir Richard Mottram GCB

On a spring weekend of unremitting sunshine, we looked at a subject of alarming unpredictability, the vulnerability of society to twenty-first century risks.  It was a stimulating, disturbing but in many ways encouraging discussion, if both governments and public opinion can come to understand the real nature of their vulnerability and take the right preventive and reactive responsibility.  We learnt that there was a great deal still to be done. 

Because of the breadth and complexity of the subject matter, we had to agree to focus primarily on the developed world.  No-one had any doubt that the developing world was much more vulnerable, in that disasters, whether man-made or natural, could lead to a much higher casualty rate within poorer and less capable communities.  Climate change in particular threatened changes of a magnitude we could not really take in.  Nor did we look in depth at the consequences of conflict.  But the conference accepted that the well-being of the developed world to some extent depended on our helping the developing world to grow capability.  How we do this will be for another conference.

In looking at the range of modern risks, our discussion suggested that a sense of proportion was necessary.  The impact in the past of climate, natural disasters, wars and plagues had often had a far greater effect on populations than the dangers we were likely to face now.  We might be living in a lucky age.  But how could this be calculated?  Since we had gathered to examine society’s real vulnerability, as opposed to the impact and probability of certain assumed dangers, it was important to assess above all whether our communities and systems could do more by way of effective prevention, preparation, response and recovery.  Advances in science and technology were not necessarily going to be helpful:  as Bill Gates had said, automation magnifies both efficiency and inefficiency in our systems, depending on how we design and use them.  As we increasingly relied on sophisticated information and communication systems, opportunity multiplied for forms of “cyber” attack.  Advances in biological sciences, including genetic engineering, opened up new risks with potentially very high impact.

We attempted to define what was new in the third millennium.  Terrorism, climate change and population increase loomed large, but many participants saw public opinion as being confused about their real impact.  We divided resilience into first generation and second generation issues:  first generation, where government was already active in planning and delivering protective measures and response services;  and second generation, where the psychologies and values of societies needed to be preserved and where a new understanding of the respective responsibilities of governments and the public might need to be promoted. 

Many participants thought that society could cope more easily with natural disasters, because their provenance was understood and no-one could easily be blamed for their occurrence.  Losses might be inevitable and certain defences, for instance against floods or sea-level rise, were a visible government responsibility.  There were serious consequences if disasters were mishandled, as Hurricane Katrina had shown, but lessons were learned.  Short of the most cataclysmic and unexpected disasters, developed communities would adjust and move on.  It was more difficult to predict the effect of new and uncertain risks such as terrorism (particularly involving weapons of mass destruction) and systems failure.  Unfamiliarity with the true nature of a threat made it seem worse;  and vulnerability was a combination of objective and perceived danger.  The practitioners around the table had to admit that, for all the good work being done to face up to identifiable risks, it was difficult to plan and prepare for high-impact and linked catastrophes of unpredictable probability and our systems would not be able to cope if they had simultaneously to face two such threats.

In this context we spent some time on the interconnectedness of our modern infrastructure and communications systems.  A cascade of collapses from accident or attack was bound to be a risk in a highly tuned and interlinked structure.  It was even possible that the careful engineering of defences to respond to short-term threats (for instance, the raising of levies along a river to make a valley more habitable) could enlarge the disaster when the storm of the century happened.   (We all enjoyed the image of “Murphy’s waterbed”, where a bulge in one quarter could be haphazardly redistributed to another or several others.)   The same trend could be seen in the field of communications technology, the power of which was increasing exponentially, but with the risk of creating a fragility of unknown dimensions. 

Having raised these disturbing spectres, we turned to prevention and protection.  The government practitioners amongst us explained their rational approach, involving forward assessment of the reduction of risk where possible, plans to improve infrastructures and systems and strategies for keeping the public informed.  The American approach revolved around preparation, integration, coordination.  Yet these concepts tended to bring us back to integrated failure as well as success.  Vulnerability was a constantly shifting attribute whose dynamics had to be understood in depth. Nor was it clear to what extent government should take the whole responsibility for prevention and protection, and to what extent it should be devolved to local communities and individuals.  Many participants felt that the resilience of infrastructure should be a central responsibility, while survival of a massive disaster might have to be devolved to the local level.  In a country like the United Kingdom, with much of its infrastructure in private-sector hands governed by light-touch economic regulation, there were particular concerns over how resilience was to be achieved across the national infrastructure as a whole.

An interesting way of deciding on this division of functions could be to consider what was really worth funding, at what level.  Local funds would not be allocated for any response to terrorism, but might be more relevant for the response to natural disasters.  Perhaps governments should be encouraged to provide guidance, training, exercises and resources for local communities to deal with the things that could be reasonably predicted.  This would have the added benefit of spreading information more fully through the public domain, because democratic decisions would be needed on the allocation of resources.  It was also suggested that the assigning of clearer responsibilities for what could be predicted would prepare communities better for the unpredictable. 

The discussion touched on the economics of disaster prevention and response.  Surely it was sensible to build economic incentives for behaviour which made catastrophe less probable or more survivable.  An example given was insurance policies for flood plains or low-lying coastal areas.  At a broader level, communities with better resilience policies might attract more investment than others.  This concept of competitive advantage was likely to develop further as the responses to climate change clicked in.  Greater awareness of the effects of disaster might give a greater value to resilience in the future, building networks of information-sharing and policy-making, particularly if professionals in governments exchanged experience and best practice at the international level.

This led us on to international cooperation.  We heard about the progress being made within the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which had already gone a significant way in defining how cross border cooperation should work, involving a strategic framework, professional networking and an umbrella body at the global level.  It was quickly noted, however, that the design and theory of an international strategy was some way ahead of implementation.  Indeed, the responses from participants in this conference suggested that the first step – knowledge amongst the practitioner community of the work of the ISDR – had yet to be achieved.  The key to realising the effectiveness of ISDR had to be to address the unwillingness of national governments to commit resources to a collective approach.  Differences in culture, interests, risk responses, government capabilities and information-sharing all raised barriers to effective coordination.  Jealousies over sovereignty abounded;  and mistrust between different regions, and particularly between the developed and developing worlds, damaged institutional approaches.  These issues were nevertheless being addressed with some success in certain areas, of which the work of the WHO on international health policy was perhaps the most advanced.  The way SARS had been handled was an indication of this.  The key features which would need to be worked on were to establish an effective framework, to encourage the different actors to understand their separate roles, to develop a common language on “resilience” and to train up professionals within the emerging system so that government responses were increasingly technocratic.  In many respects, especially under the Hyogo framework of ISDR, these areas were being addressed.  But it was critical that resources and political will had not yet been adequately committed.  If governments could not manage to respond just to the logic of sensible cooperation, then perhaps opportunities needed to be seized when disasters actually happened.  The Indian Ocean tsunami was mentioned as an illustration.

An important part of this whole debate was the conference’s view on the nature of society itself in this context.  Several participants were worried that nations and communities in the developed world were adopting twenty-first century characteristics without really understanding what actual risks they were taking on or how their vulnerability might be growing.  A lot remained familiar:  disease, floods, criminal violence (not excluding conventional terrorism), industrial accidents.  New threats such as mass-murder terrorism and climate change were much talked about, but improperly understood.  Yet most change was related to the way societies worked through increasingly interconnected and fragile systems.  The public had not been consulted on how modern systems had developed and therefore did not feel a particular responsibility for the vulnerable aspects.  In this sense a good deal of confusion had been allowed to develop, while governments were uncomfortable about explaining the fragilities, in case they were blamed.  Each new catastrophic event, such as 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK, had its own unique characteristics;  and as time moved on from a big disaster, the sense of psychological preparedness diminished.  Participants thought that this was less a matter of complacency than a problem of sustaining the public’s awareness of the need to develop resilience.  There seemed to be no easy context or language for the communication of distant threats.  This situation was not helped by an overall relationship between governments and peoples where mistrust seemed to be growing, governments appeared over-sensitive about the release of information and officials did not trust the public to act rationally.  This meant that the potential of local communities to develop self-sufficiency or to back up the capacity of emergency services was not being realised. 

Most participants thought that this potentially quite serious problem should first of all be addressed in a climate of greater transparency.  Governments could not afford to take all the perceived responsibility.  The public needed to be aware that they were living in an era where their freedom of action and choice was as high as it had ever been in history, when measured as a proportion of the responsibility they assumed for its sustainability.  A much more informed debate was called for, particularly about the second generation resilience issues, the ones capable of undermining society itself.  It was also worth considering whether market forces could not be marshalled more systematically to support resilience and avoid undermining it.  The current banking crisis, leading to a macro-economic downturn of unknown severity, was a clear and very present example of the wrong values undermining the right ones.  Even at a more conventional level, a company’s business continuity plans could often be dramatically wrong.  Both public and private sectors needed to rethink what constituted resilience at both the micro and macro levels. 

Our discussion briefly touched on leadership in all this.  The technical competence of civil service departments, local authorities and the private sector was not enough.  It was critically important for government not just to plan sensibly but to sound and act competent and effective.  It was a big call to ask for leaders to be both wise and charismatic, but it made a difference.  The enormous expectations placed on President Obama clearly reflected that. 

Behind this debate lay a constant question:  what in fact is “resilience”?  We were given some interesting pictures of different aspects of it:  short-term/long-term, general/specific, partial/integrated, local/national.  Ideally, the capacity of society to sustain itself and recover from catastrophe across a broad range of possibilities had to be calculated.  While massive, abnormal disasters caught the imagination more easily, it was more normal failures, and particularly a concatenation of them (for instance, a cyber collapse on top of a pandemic), which might do the greatest real damage.  Point resilience and system resilience were separate issues;  and the right ways to maximise both should be calculated separately.  In practice, it was almost always the local capacity to react which mattered first in a big disaster;  and yet government planning often focussed on the first 72 hours of centrally-driven action, rather than the need to re-connect the localities after a few days had passed.  A deeper and more comprehensive approach to second generation resilience, in which social systems and resources were much better prepared, might lead to the evolution of a degree of unplanned resilience which could prove highly valuable.  One could even imagine a third generation of resilience at the global level, through which the unpredictable effect of massively increased populations and rapid geopolitical change could be addressed by a better understanding of respective responsibilities and by cross-border systems of response and coordination.

In looking for the right conclusions to take away from this eye-opening discussion, we began to sketch the substance of a fresh understanding that would be capable of rising to the level of events.  In some respects this might even amount to a new deal between populations and their governments, in which everyone would be clearer about their own relative responsibilities and contribution and the tendencies towards ignorance and buck-passing would diminish.  The ingredients going into this might include the following:

·         It was not enough just to look at impact and probability of putative disasters, but actual vulnerabilities had to be addressed.  Types of disaster which had been experienced and were familiar were more likely to be handled sensibly;  and so new threats and fragilities needed to be assessed with especial care.

·         It should be for central government to take responsibility for the infrastructure, while self-sufficiency should be developed at the local level.  Prevention, preparedness, response and recovery all had different characteristics;  and the different levels, from government to individuals, all needed to react differently.  The role of market forces must be included.

·         Since resilience was not a scientific process, the choices to be made, including on the allocation of resources, had to be debated democratically.  There was no other way to distribute responsibility fairly between government, the private sector, communities and the taxpayer. 

·         Debate needed information and, for all the sensitivities, central government ought to take a risk on openness.  Education in schools and universities should be a part of this.  The media itself had a responsibility, which they would be far more inclined to take seriously if they were properly briefed and even trained.  This would pay dividends in the first few vital hours of an emergency.  It would also raise the credibility of government if information-sharing was addressed in these ways. 

·         At the political level, resilience policy ought to be bi-partisan.  Public trust would be increased if policy-making was not competitive.  This might enable politicians to become more ambitious in the whole resilience area, with the building of trust, networks and leadership capability.  This was also the most sensible approach to building a combination of top-down and bottom-up, without which no comprehensive system would work.

·         Prioritisation needed to be approached in a more sophisticated, or even hard-headed, way.  Measures that might protect a small minority could have the effect of making a larger number more vulnerable.  Governments made a mistake if they tried to introduce protective measures that ran counter to society’s values.  Risk-averse approaches to school trips, for instance, needed to take account of the educational downside.

·         Internationally, the value of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction needed to be translated into practical action.  In particular: 

  •     a sense of reciprocal responsibility internationally was required.  The developed world could not expect the developing world to tackle those problems which threatened to spill over and risk the well-being of developed-world citizens, if it was not at the same time prepared to help tackle more immediately compelling risks faced by those living within developing countries.  This was already an important issue in international public health policy-making;
  •    a better case had to be made to the public, with real stories and using non-governmental organisations to convey them, in order to raise the pressure on politicians to contribute and coordinate better;
  •    leading donor states needed to promote funding for NGO activity in policy areas such as food, conflict, migration and energy which were receiving insufficient focus;
  •    Standards of government performance should be internationally monitored;
  •    Risk management should be built into all government programmes;
  •    Training and real life exercises should be promoted by international institutions and donor governments, perhaps also using NATO’s experience and the ISDR network.

·         While much of the above was conceptual and addressed in particular to policy makers, the idea of instituting more regular exercises, in both the domestic and the international context, should be pursued.  The problems we were looking at, and the vested interests of virtually everyone in the right outcome, made it necessary for practical action to drive the message beyond information-sharing. 

This was a fascinating exchange, appropriate to a date so close to Darwin’s two-hundredth anniversary, on the fundamental adaptability of human society.  We were all made very conscious that the gaps are numerous and there is a great deal to do.  Ditchley is immensely grateful to all those who brought their considerable expertise to the table, and in particular to a chairman who steered us through the complexities with wisdom and humour.  A great deal hangs on the right messages getting out from this conference to the wider world.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chair :  Sir Richard Mottram GCB
Chairman:  Amey plc, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory;  Member, International Advisory Board, GardaWorld;  Visiting Professor, London School of Economics.  Formerly:  Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Cabinet Office (2005-07);  Permanent Secretary, UK Civil Service (1992-2007), including Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998-2001),  Intelligence, Security and Resilience and Ministry of Defence (1995-98).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management of The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Brian Walker

Research fellow, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems (2005-);  Chief, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology (1985-2000);  Program Director, The Resilience Alliance (2000-08);  Chair, Board of The Resilience Alliance (2000-);  Research Fellow, Stockholm Resilience Centre (2008-);  Fellow, The Beijer International Institute for Ecological Economics, Swedish Academy of Science (2008-).

Mr Mel Cappe

President and CEO, Institute for Research on Public Policy.  Formerly:  High Commissioner for Canada to the United Kingdom (2002-06);  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1999-2002);  Head of the Public Service.  Member, Program Advisory Committee, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Suzanne Hurtubise
Deputy Minister, Public Safety Canada (2006-).  Formerly:  Deputy Minister of Industry (2004-06);  Deputy Minister of the Environment (2003-04).
Mr Conrad Sauvé
Secretary General and CEO, Canadian Red Cross (2008-);  Board Member, St Mary’s Hospital Centre, Montreal.
Dr Frances Westley
J W McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, Waterloo University, Waterloo, Ontario (2007-).  Formerly:  Director, Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin (2004-07).

Professor David Alexander

Professor of Disaster Management, Centre for the Study of Risk Conditions and Civil Protection, University of Florence.  Formerly:  Scientific Director, Advanced School of Civil Protection, Region of Lombardy (2003-07);  Professor of Disaster Management, University of Coventry (2004).

Mr Günter Bretschneider

Head, Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, NATO, Brussels.

Professor Edward Borodzicz

Professor of Risk and Crisis Management, Portsmouth Business School (2005-);  Visiting Professor, Southampton University and Resilience Centre, Royal Military College of Science, Cranfield University.
Major General Michael Charlton-Weedy CBE
Chief Executive, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Emergency Planning College, Cabinet Office (2003-).  Formerly:  Regular Army (1971-2003);  Deputy Adjutant General, Ministry of Defence (MOD) (2002-03).
Mr Gordon Corera
Security Correspondent (Counter-Terrorism, Counter-Proliferation, International Security Issues), BBC News (2004-).  Formerly:  Foreign Affairs Reporter, BBC Today.  Author.
Dr Paul Cornish
Carrington Chair in International Security, Chatham House (2005-).  Formerly:  Director, Centre for Defence Studies (2002-05);  Lecturer, University of Cambridge (1998-2002);  Lecturer, Joint Staff College (1997-98).
Mr Charlie Edwards
Senior Researcher, Demos.
Ms Hilary Heilbron QC
Barrister and International Arbitrator, Brick Court Chambers;  Deputy High Court Judge;  Accredited CEDR Mediator;  Bencher of Gray’s Inn.  Formerly:  Chair, City Disputes Panel (2006 07);  Vice-Chair, IBA International Litigation Committee (2003-04).
Professor Peter Hennessy FBA
Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary College, University of London (1992-);  Fellow of the British Academy.  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Dulwich and West Norwood (1997-);  Dulwich (1992-97);  Minister for the Olympics (2007-).  Formerly:  Minister for London (2007-08);  Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (2001-07).
Dr Ian Kearns
Deputy Chair, National Security Commission, Institute for Public Policy Research, London;  Media Commentator.  Formerly:  Director, Graduate Programme in International Studies, University of Sheffield.
Mr Nick Mabey
Founding Director and Chief Executive, E3G.  Formerly:  Senior Advisor, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (-2005);  Head of Sustainable Development, Environment Policy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr Bruce Mann CB
Head, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Cabinet Office (2004-).  Formerly:  Secretary, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004);  Director General, Financial Management (2001-04);  Director, Defence Resources and Plans (1999-2001).
Mr Anthony McGee
Head, Risk and Resilience, Royal United Services Institute.  Formerly:  Researcher then Senior Parliamentary Researcher for Chairman of the House of Commons’ Defence Committee.
Ms Janet Meacham CBE
Deputy Director, Pandemic Influenza, Department of Health.
Professor Jim Norton
External Board Member, UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology;  Council Member, Parliamentary IT Committee;  Commissioner, IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century;  Board Member and Trustee, Foundation for Information Policy Research.
Sir David Omand GCB
Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.  Formerly:  Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office (2001-05);  Permanent Under Secretary of State, Home Office (1998-2001).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Trevor Pearce QPM
Executive Director, Serious Organised Crime Agency, London.  Formerly:  Director General, National Crime Squad.
Mr Mark Phillips
Chief of Staff and Special Adviser to the Shadow Security Minister;  Consultant, Cityforum Ltd;  Research Associate, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Mr Simon Webb
Director General, International Networks and Environment, Department for Transport (2007-09).  Formerly:  Director General, Delivery and Security, Department for Transport (2004-07);  Policy Director, Ministry of Defence (2001-04).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Paola Albrito

Regional Coordinator for Europe, UN/ISDR

Sir John Holmes GCVO KBE CMG
Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, The United Nations, New York (2007-).  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1973-2006);  HM Ambassador to Paris (2001-06);  HM Ambassador to Lisbon (1999-2001).

Mr Charles Allen

Senior Executive, Central Intelligence Agency (2009-).  Formerly:  Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Homeland Security (2005-09).
Dr Julie E Fischer
Senior Associate, Global Health Security Program, Stimson Center, Washingdon DC.  Formerly:  International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations;  Professional Staff, US Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Mr Paul Frandano
Senior Principal, Monitor Group, Cambridge, Massachussetts;  Associate, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.  Formerly:  Central Intelligence Agency (1979-2008).
Dr Gerald Kiernan
Chief Scientist, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, Pacific Northwest Economic Region.  Formerly:  Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Professor Michael Lindell
Professor, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning;  Senior Scholar, Hazard Reduction and Recovery Centre, Texas A&M University;  Editor, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.
Vice Admiral Roger T Rufe USCG (Ret)
Director, Operations Co-ordination and Planning, US Department of Homeland Security.
Dr Paula Scalingi
Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, Pacific Northwest Economic Region (2007-09);  President, The Scalingi Group;  Co-Director, Stony Brook University Forum on Global Security (2002-09).
Ms Cheryl Sullivan
Doctoral Student, Indiana University, School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Dr Cathy Ellen Roth

Coordinator, Biorisk Reduction and Dangerous Pathogens Team, Department of Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response, Health Security and the Environment Cluster, World Health Organization.