Interview with Mr. Sálvano Briceño, UNISDR Director


Foto: © UNISDR

In your opinion, what should be done so that efforts for disaster risk reduction are more effective? What would be the key changes?

The most important change must take place at the political level, among decision-makers. The leadership in a country must prioritize the issue because it requires a change of attitude, values and behavior. All this must be encouraged by those in leadership positions. This is the most important change. In countries where the authorities take the lead in risk reduction, people follow and pay more attention.

In your opinion, what are the major challenges that people face in the region to reduce both risk and vulnerabilities? How can these be overcome?

There are two obstacles that, while not very common, are very real: the first is a culture of believing that disasters are natural. With this mindset, people assume that disasters are inevitable. If they are natural, then nothing can be done to prevent them. But what is actually natural is the hazard or the danger, not the disaster itself. There are natural hazards, but disasters are manmade, for instance, by building houses in places where they should not be built. How can we change this culture so that disasters are not regarded as natural? By insisting that disasters are caused by vulnerability to natural hazards.

In your opinion, what is the greatest obstacle to disaster reduction, lack of political will or scarce economic resources?

I believe that it is primarily the lack of political will because that is what is required to bring about change. If we want to change a situation there must be political will among government leaders, heads of State and government, and the ministries. Economic leaders and the private sector should also promote risk reduction. This is what makes change happen.

Which do you think is more important for risk reduction, technology or education? Why?

Definitely education. Technology is also important but we have to begin by educating people. If they are not aware, do not understand, and do not know what this is all about, then they will not use the technology either. So education must come first. Once people understand that they can do something to reduce their vulnerability —by looking at how and where their houses are built, how their children’s schools, hospitals and workplaces are built— then they will do something about it.

How would you define a “culture of prevention”? In your opinion, what should be done to change people’s attitudes?

It is very similar to what happens with health. Over the past few years, we have seen how people have learned to take better care of themselves, to eat better, to exercise, to take a number of measures to reduce the risk of becoming sick. Now everyone knows that if they eat well, exercise and take care of themselves, they will get sick less often. The same is true of natural hazards. People who pay attention to how their houses are built — the materials used, whether flammable materials are involved, whether their houses are vulnerable to wind, hurricanes or earthquakes—, can prevent disasters. Preventing is anticipating what could happen. This is true of health and disasters, which also affect everyone.

Realistically speaking, of the initiatives in which the UNISDR has been involved, which have had a significant impact in terms of risk reduction in the region in recent years? Why? How?

There are initiatives at different levels. Some have been undertaken jointly with governments, such as the creation and promotion of national platforms. This has led some countries, such as Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica and Chile, to take more of an interest in the issue. Some countries are doing very good work that began with a process we supported. There are also specific initiatives such as radio drama series. In Central America, the series have influenced people to think about the issue and realize that there is something they can do. The first radio drama was called “Tiempos de Huracanes” [Times of Hurricanes], and the second was “Réplicas del Corazón” [Tremors of the Heart]. These have been very good educational initiatives. In addition, Riskland is a board game that children are playing more and more, and they are learning a lot from it. Therefore, there are many initiatives I could mention.

Do you think that we can learn more from past good practices or from bad practices? Please provide examples.

I think that, generally speaking, one learns more from bad practices than from good ones, because when we make a mistake and then suffer the consequences, we become more interested in change. However, there are some very important and useful practices too. When, for instance, we see a country where no one dies in a hurricane —such as in Cuba, where almost nobody dies when a hurricane hits— while next door, the same hurricane kills one or two thousand people, such as in Haiti, this should tell us something. We must learn from the good practices in Cuba in order to reduce risk in countries like Haiti. In addition, there is more clarity about many activities. For instance, we now know what type of construction and materials create risk and lead to the destruction of a house or a building when facing a natural hazard.

What makes investments in risk reduction cost-effective for governments and how does this translate into practical terms?

This is a very important issue that we are currently studying. We are working jointly with the World Bank and the UN Secretariat on a cost-benefit analysis of investment in prevention, because it is very easy to say that investing in prevention saves money, but governments want specific figures. We are currently working on this. There is no question that disaster response is becoming more costly and that disasters are having increasingly serious impacts. This is not because natural hazards are worse, but because there are more people on the planet who live in high-risk areas and behave inappropriately. As vulnerability increases, disasters will worsen and become more expensive. Prevention will become increasingly justifiable. Again, we are conducting a cost-benefit analysis to equip governments with more specific arguments in favor of investing in prevention.

What is the role of governance in this context?

Well, governance is what we discussed at the beginning: the need for leaders to get involved. If the president of a country states that the government plan will prioritize risk reduction, in order to reduce mortality and the economic impact of natural hazards, then s/he will prioritize the issue and organize the administration around it, since risk reduction requires the involvement of many sectors. This is a common theme in terms of the governance needed to address this issue, because when it comes to risk reduction, no single ministry can do it all. They must all be involved along with civil society representatives, the private sector and the media. Everyone must play a role in terms of advocacy and risk prevention, but actions must begin at the highest levels.

In an ideal world, free of political interests, what approach would you apply to risk reduction? Why?

First, I do not think that in an ideal world there should be no political interests, because these are also people’s interests. Hence, in a world full of people, we will always have political interests. I do think that we should avoid selfish interests, selfish political interests, or as we say political maneuvering. But politics is necessary. Politics is the art of co-existing as a society and it is inevitable. It is not a matter of just doing politics, but rather of doing better politics. In this sense, it would be ideal if politicians showed concern for people’s well-being, especially that of the most vulnerable, poorest groups, rather than just help the richest, as is so often the case. People with money and resources have the ability to advocate for themselves. Those lacking such resources need the government’s help. So, in an ideal world, governments should work more to improve the living conditions of the poorest.

Pretend you are an inventor with a limited budget. What would be the three innovations you would propose for reducing risk in an efficient manner?

I think that the most important thing is to invest in education at all levels. Education refers not only to school children. Education is also for parents and citizens. There are many different ways to educate people. In this context, it would be important to look at high-profile issues, such as climate change, environmental protection and even the economic crisis. One way to address the current economic crisis is by reducing the risks associated with natural hazards, because they are very costly. This would be a way to save money in order to mitigate the economic crisis. Risk reduction is key in the area of climate change, both in terms of adapting to it and reducing its adverse effects. So we must include the issue of risk reduction in all these areas, and this is what I would promote if I had enough money to raise awareness on the issue.

What are your expectations for the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction? In your opinion, what changes will it bring about?

During this session of the Regional Platform, we expect to start a team-building process with agencies working in disaster risk reduction in the region and with governments. The idea is that governments get used to more frequent, regular discussions among themselves and with agencies, in order to find common solutions to address hazards, which pose a risk to all countries. The Regional Platform would facilitate this discussion and serve as a forum. This is what we would like to see come out of this meeting.

Do you feel like you are making a difference through your daily work? What is the vision that guides you?

In my everyday work, I try to explain this issue as much as I can with everyone I talk to, but without becoming tedious, because one cannot only talk about this all the time. But I think that there are many occasions — when I am talking to friends, relatives, or at the office— when it is appropriate to raise the issue of risk reduction. I also reinforce the idea that there are very simple actions that people can take in their daily lives to reduce risk. What I try to do every day is to talk about and promote this issue as much as I can. It is like missionary work, like religion. Some espouse a particular religion, while we are doing something similar by raising awareness among people that they must and they can reduce risk to natural hazards in their daily lives.