Post-disaster decision making

Post-disaster decision making

Disaster recovery can be described as a ‘process of interaction and decision-making among a variety of groups and institutions’ (Mileti, 1999).  It is also complex, multi-dimensional, non-linear, uncertain and conflict-laden, with outcomes ‘strongly influenced by decision-making, and conditioned on institutional capacities’ (Chang 2010).  Some researchers claim that the key difference between pre- and post-disaster conditions is time compression.  From their perspective the disaster recovery process can be understood as an abnormally large demand for capital services (such as housing) and a correspondingly large ‘increase in the demand for decisions, information flows, financing, and institutional formation’ (Olshansky et al. 2012).

Olshansky et al graph

Source: Olshansky et al. (2012)

In addition to volume the complexity of decisions also increases.  I’ve mentioned before the challenges of balancing short term needs and long-term aspirations but I think you could argue this is always part of decision-making.  By definition in a disaster local capacity has been overwhelmed and so disaster recovery always involves both emergent and external groups and organisations.  I think a critical difference between pre- and post-disaster situations is the complexity of stakeholder relationships; indeed a recent mapping of humanitarian decision-makers identified more than 130 actors in eight key stakeholder groups.  What interests me is how this network of individuals, groups and organisations make decisions – individually or collectively – based on the different motivations, mandates, capacities and resources of all the different actors involved.

The Humanitarian Decision Makers Taxonomy

Source: Decision Makers Needs Community (2013)

Within the humanitarian community there is currently significant interest in evidence-based decision-making but authors note that response analysis remains largely eminence-based – i.e. the domain of ‘experts’ and specialist advisors.  In deciding on an appropriate response the specialist advisor plays a critical role in appropriately synthesising explicit and tacit knowledge from both situations in order to extract relevant lessons from one situation in order to apply them to another.  Being only human however, these ‘experts’ are subject to individual and organisational biases, assumptions, and preferences.  Many of us will recognise from experience that ‘people become specialized in something and it becomes more and more difficult to have an open mind and look at other responses options’ (Darcy et al, 2013).

Borton role of the expert

Source: Borton (2002)

Disaster recovery involves decisions about large amounts of money and ‘that combination is politics’ (Olson, 2000).  Government officials face not only the challenge of managing the recovery process, but also of demonstrating their compassion, correctness and credibility, while providing an adequate explanation of why the disaster occurred (Olson & Gawronski, 2010).  Researchers have suggested that disasters can be categorised as accidents, emergencies, disasters or catastrophes depending on the level of organisational response required (Quarantelli, 1987).  It’s  important to recognise that the political stakes also increase at each of these levels – both because increasing levels of damage highlight the failures of government policy prior to the disaster and because of the increasing scale and complexity of the response required.

From a bluntly political perspective, the purpose of mitigation and preparedness is not only to ‘save lives and protect property,’ but also to control the political stakes, to keep events from crossing the thresholds to increasingly problematic political levels.  ‘Accidents’ do not really overload political systems.  ‘Emergencies’ might, depending on the context in which they occur and especially if they are coupled with other events tied to larger issues.  ‘Disasters’ certainly do overload political systems, and ‘catastrophes’ can bring down regimes (Olson, 2000).

My preliminary research has investigated the decision-making processes of just two of these stakeholder groups but I hope you agree that this is fascinating stuff and quite far from our current discussions within the humanitarian ‘bubble’.  I’ve included the questions guiding my research below and I would very much like to hear whether you think this research is valuable and your opinion on any of the topics raised.

  1. Which individuals, groups and organisations make decisions about shelter and settlements after disasters?  What is the relationship between them?
  2. What kinds of decisions do they make?  How? When? Where?
  3. Why are these decisions made?  What factors influence the decision-making process?
  4. What effect do these decisions have on the actions of 1) affected communities or 2) assisting individuals, groups or organisations?  Which decisions are most important?  Why?
  5. How can post-disaster decision-making be improved?