Extreme Weather

Climate Targets, Development Frameworks and Humanitarian Robots

Notes from the 8th Practitioners Workshop on Risk Reduction and Resilience in Asia

Bangkok, Thailand

“Thank god,” says the well-dressed man in the back of the Swissotel Bangkok ballroom, “that the year of frameworks is almost behind us. Now the real work begins — to figure out what in these new frameworks will actually be of use.” It hadn’t struck me until right about this moment, but the man’s right – the world is awash in new frameworks for aid and development. Yet so far I haven’t heard anyone actually connect them all together. Collectively, from the Sendai Framework to the COP21 climate negotiations, they make up what’s being called the “post-2015 development agenda.”

Observed from the global landscape view this agenda seems enormous, unruly, at times a little over-technical and unnecessarily boring, undoubtedly ambitious and altogether tough to get one’s head around entirely. It seems like something genuinely significant is happening. Climate change is being framed by the UN as the signature global emergency, within which all other frameworks must be measured. Coherence between anti-poverty, global health, disaster response and ecological investments is being encouraged in new ways within the horizon of climate change. The policy field within which humanitarian innovation and practice takes shape, like the ebb and flow of CO2 in the atmosphere, is shifting all around us.

I’ve been brought out to Bangkok this week by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to talk about the implications of new robotics technologies for aid and development. But all I can think about now is this labyrinthine global pathway through the frameworks.

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Sendai, Japan — The Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction

To get the full picture, you have to rewind roughly to March in Sendai, Japan. At that time, the UN member states met at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, culminating a series of inter-ministerial meetings. They came to an agreement, formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly, on what’s called the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The Sendai Framework lays out a 15-year set of targets and priorities intended to make the world less vulnerable to losses of life and property as the result of natural disasters. It reaffirms, as one might expect from a UN agreement, that that nation-states have sovereign priority and primary responsibility for reducing exposure to natural hazards. But it also says quite clearly, and in contrast to previous similar agreements, that the actual process of building resiliency in the face of disasters goes beyond the nation-state to include the full range of NGOs, private sector companies, and local communities, each of whom have specific and defined roles to play before, during and after disaster events.

The Sendai Framework recognizes that for a number of reasons disaster risk appears to be growing — in some areas to an alarming extent, that preventive investments must be made to reduce these new risks, that those investments must be made on the basis of improved, publicly shared data and scientific modeling, and that shared public, private and non-profit responsibility for those investments must exist in order to reduce risk exposure in meaningful ways for the most vulnerable.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — The Addis Ababa Action Agenda

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Fast forward to mid-July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With an elaborate new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set to take the place of the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015, the key topic becomes, how in the world are we going to pay for all of this? In UN-speak, this question is called, “Financing for Development.” The outcome of the July meetings is called the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA).

While it contains the usual litany of promises and proposals around increasing bilateral and multilateral aid, the big takeaway from Addis Ababa is that the lion’s share of financing for the SDGs will need to come from the taxation powers of nation-states. That means that not only with economic growth need to be maintained or improved, but that growth must occur within a context where nation-states are effectively and equitably able to use public revenues from taxation of that growth. This seems almost like a no-brainer except for the simple fact that the past three decades of neoliberal growth models have often seen tangible erosion of state capacity to generate and to use public revenues. According to the AAAA, that trend will need to be reversed, alongside a renewed commitment to foreign assistance and improved harmonization between aid, development and climate funds.

New York, USA — The Sustainable Development Goals

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With an admittedly imperfect but functional agreement on the financing framework for the SDGs established in Addis Ababa, the next stop in the global frameworks tour was New York City in September. During this past September’s General Assembly week, when the UN body reconvened for work, the new SDG framework was officially unveiled.

The SDGs are in many ways a recognition by the UN, member states, and other negotiators that the business of global crisis management (from the intertwined problems of poverty, inequality and gender imbalance to global health, conflict, natural disasters and climate change) has become just fiendishly complex. When you take a look at the mammoth new SDG framework, with its 17 target areas and 169 sub-targets (which translate potentially to over 1000 evaluative metrics), it’s actually hard to disagree with any particular one of the targets. I mean, seriously, how could one claim to have a reasonable agenda for sustainable development and omit climate protection, or jobs, or gender, or water, or food, or …? So I see how we got to this point. At the very same time, it’s quite difficult to see how the SDGs will ever be achieved in practice. Not only are there almost certainly more goals than any given nation-state will be able to focus on, lacking any obvious prioritization scheme, but the actual goals tend to be framed so vaguely that it’s often unclear what actual progress towards the goals would look like.

Geneva, Switzerland — The World Humanitarian Summit

Regardless of the pragmatics, at the conceptual level it’s important and interesting to note that the SDGs echo the overall trend from Sendai and Addis Ababa of linking traditional development goals like poverty alleviation with humanitarian crisis response and climate change into a kind of three-legged geo-political stool.

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), which undertook its final global consultative process this past October in Geneva, Switzerland, aims to reconceive how humanitarian response to crisis events might occur within the context of that three-legged stool. Although recent remarks from Stephen O’Brien, the newly appointed Under-Secretary-General of UN-OCHA, raised alarm bells that the humanitarian system may be oddly complacent in the face of enormous global changes, there are reasons to be encouraged within the WHS agenda. specifically around calls for predictable humanitarian financing tied to risk reduction efforts, and increasing localization of disaster response.

Paris, France — The COP21 Climate Change Conference

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The grand year of post-2015 frameworks, from Sendai to Addis Ababa to New York and Geneva, is culminating right now in Paris, France with the COP21 climate change negotiations. The outcomes of this meeting are still in doubt, at least in terms of concrete targets for reduction of greenhouse gasses, but the significance of climate change to the entire emerging global architecture is not.

Climate change, at the level of the global humanitarian system, is being positioned as the horizon within which all other considerations will be measured. It touches and informs literally everything. Reduction of greenhouse gasses are not simply an ecological priority but also a priority for health and development, and the master framework within which disaster risk reduction investments will take place. In many ways this is the most remarkable thread which runs throughout the labyrinth of frameworks — follow that thread and you might just find your way out.

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok … Rise of the Humanitarian Robots?

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My own role at the workshop was not to do any of this contemplation about the emerging multitude of post-2015 frameworks but instead to talk to the assembled DRR practitioners about the increasing importance of robotics to the field of humanitarian innovation. It’s maybe not an obvious connection. Robotics tends to have an association with job-killing automation or person-killing military drones. However (as I’ve previously detailed here, here, here and here) the last couple of years has seen a significant rise in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for key tasks by humanitarian agencies. Data collection via remote sensing has a long history in disaster relief, but drones are making that practice increasingly customized, regularized and localized. Humanitarian logistics likewise already includes elements of automation at the warehousing level, particularly for gargantuan entities like the World Food Program. But now, automation looks to become increasingly prevalent in areas formerly thought off-limits, such as physical goods movement in the field.

I’m up here with my colleague Michael Perry from DJI who’s discussing a project DJI supported along with the UAViators Humanitarian UAV Network in Nepal. That project focused on the training of young Nepali engineers and cartographers on the use of drones for structural modeling which contributes to post-earthquake reconstruction. The assembled crowd seems universally impressed and eager to figure out how to do more.

In our breakout “ideation” session, we run a series of UNDP country representatives through thought exercises to help them understand how their own programs could better deploy emerging robotics technologies. The ideas arrive fast and furious, starting with high-resolution risk modeling and extending all the way through pretty exciting but somewhat far-off ideas about distributed sensor integration paired with drones to transform the physical world into a kind of searchable database.
The future of humanitarian robotics, much like the most alarming climate thresholds and the post-2015 development frameworks is arriving faster than we may think. My conclusion at the end of three exhausting days in Bangkok is that I have quite a bit more homework to do.

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