Flexibility and Learning in Times of Global Uncertainty

Guest blog written by Nahuel Arenas-García

Nahuel and his team from Costa Rica successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2017.

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Between January and May 2017, authorities and technical staff of the Costa Rican National Risk Prevention and Emergency Management Commission (CNE, for its acronym in Spanish) joined staff of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Regional Office for the Americas & the Caribbean, to analyze gaps in disaster loss and damages data-collection system using the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach under Harvard University’s Building State Capability (BSC) program. The goal was to analyze challenges in the national data-collection system as a basis for the design of a capacity-building strategy for the implementation and monitoring of the National Disaster Risk Management Strategy, developed in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the global blueprint for addressing disaster risk. Counting with reliable information about the impact of disasters is fundamental to understand risk, and understanding risk is a pre-requisite to address it effectively.

Among the many challenges involved in the development of disaster loss and damages databases are the criteria for data-collection, the quality of the data collected, the capacity of data collectors and the definition of roles and responsibilities for those involved in the process, including defining the institution that will consolidate and report the information. The PDIA methodology enabled the identification of crucial bottlenecks in these different dimensions and stages of the process and enabled the formalization of a multi-sectorial data collection system. As it was revealed in the exercise, an effective and accurate disaster loss and damages data collection system needs to result from a multi-sectorial effort at all levels, in this case led by the disaster management authorities. The capacity of one institution of government to lead such a multi-sectorial effort faces multiple institutional challenges, even when the normative framework in place assigns that institution the necessary mandate.

The nature of risk in the world has changed and is increasingly systemic, with complex interactions between the human, political and economic systems (e.g. international finance system, urbanization, global supply chains) and the natural systems.[1] Thus, to avoid fragmented responses to systemic problems, reducing disaster risk can only be achieved through a multi-sectorial, multi-actor effort. In this vein, Costa Rica’s institutional response to the COVID-19 pandemic has become an example of the role that disaster management authorities can play to bring different stakeholders together in the face of risk.

The multi-sectorial data collection system, alongside a solid normative framework, were steps in the right direction for Costa Rica. The collaboration between UNDRR and CNE to build data-collection capabilities has evolved since the application of the PDIA. The leadership of the CNE coordinating the response to COVID-19 has enabled and strengthened the multi-sectorial approach to disaster risk (of natural, anthropogenic or biological nature). Costa Rica will be the first country in the world to pilot the UNDRR-led Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF), an initiative to analyze the complexity and interconnectedness of risk in a determined country and bring together global expertise to synchronize data, methods, models, insights, practical tools and incentives in open collaboration. In this context of systemic risk and complexity, approaches to implement solutions to problems in small steps and learn in quick feedback loops are crucial to deal with uncertainty. As the Global Risk Assessment Report puts it, “Our flexibility must be as dynamic as the change we hope to survive”.


[1] Global Risk Assessment Report 2019, UNDRR.

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