[by Terry Gibson | 3rd WCDRR Sendai | 16 March 2015 | Day 3]
A personal view*
Another night of protracted negotiations over the wording of the new disaster reduction framework. No one seems to know when they will finish tonight: it's already after 11pm. It all comes down to money and two phrases have special meaning: 'international cooperation' and 'common but differentiated responsibilities'. Both are to do with whether richer countries provide money to poorer countries for disaster risk reduction measures; like those that might reduce the devastation of Vanuatu by Tropical Cyclone Pam. Couching a conversation about money in these vague coded terms suggests these are taboo topics, like sex and death. My colleagues report that the tentative and embarrassed conversations are going round and round and going no-where -an update just in is that negotiations will continue all night. Even more perverse is that at least one negotiation is actually about sex: with a state objecting to the term 'vulnerable' as it might imply that they have responsibility for the wellbeing of homosexuals. When I visited the negotiating hall briefly discussion was about the right place to put the word 'relevant' in a sentence. Good advice in the circumstances might be simply to remove it.
How has it come to this point? Our colleague Lucy who is in the hall reports wearily that the discussions being held now are repeating points made months ago. The discussion isn't about seeking a common goal but about defending individual goals. In this it is similar to many of the events held at the conference which though organised with the intention of illuminating particular themes are sometimes a kind of babel of representatives from different organisations relishing the few minutes when the chairperson says 'you have the floor' to push their own project or point of view. In the absence of a common goal the United Nations become the dis-united nations: rightly defending the interests of their own countries in the absence of a compelling vision to do otherwise. I can think of only two ways that this could be remedied:
Option one is disruption. By this I mean any major disruptive event which galvanises action. The fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantling of apartheid were not achieved by detailed negotiations over frameworks or treaties, but through disruption which created sufficient energy to galvanise action for change. If the world was confronted with some great impending disaster (subsequently made into a blockbuster film starring Tom Cruise) then nations would indeed become United. People would work together, accepting the need for consensus and compromise for the greater good. We hope we don't face that possibility so I can see only one other option.
Option two is leadership. Getting any disparate group to converge on a possibility requires establishment of a strong and compelling vision; something people want to sign up to; something governments would recognise as a worthy goal (and if not, would face social pressure to pursue). Leadership need not be autocratic or domineering, it may be a matter of understanding the group, interpreting the need and shaping a vision which is attractive and credible. Within our own network, which is entirely voluntary, there has to be a persuasive vision to encourage its membership to invest effort in its realisation. It is leadership, it seems to me, that is lacking. There is a vacuum of leadership, of vision, of clear and compelling goals and without this sharp focus, nations understandably retreat to self interest. In the current structure that role rests with UNISDR. Easy to say from the sidelines, but I can see no other entity who can provide that impetus and what we have seen in practice is a lacklustre and lengthy negotiation with no golden prize suspended just out of reach to be grasped at. Most accept that the die is cast in this case. At the very least all those involved can learn from this experience. Unfortunately history tends to repeat itself. It has to, no one listens.
*Title to be sung to the tune of 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll' by Ian Dury and the Blockheads