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New people-centred global policies prepare communities better for diasasters

People who live in disaster-prone locations are exposed to increased health risks before, during and after disasters occur. This is the case for climate-related emergencies triggered by floods, droughts and cyclones, or through other incidents, such as conflicts, pandemics or extreme poverty. Professor Andrew Collins works with populations living in some of the highest risk locations to embed local disaster action plans, based on local knowledge and infrastructure, that recognise and use a community’s own assessment of their needs towards ongoing and expanding threats to their homes. Thanks to the research, this people-centred approach to health management has been directly introduced into recently developed UN and WHO disaster prevention and response policies worldwide, making communities on the ground more resilient and better prepared to deal effectively with future disasters.

Professor Andrew Collins from the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences has worked with communities across the world who are vulnerable to elevated health risks (e.g., high levels of infection and mortality), often caused by uneven development or environmental changes that increase their vulnerability. His research specifically looked at the effect of disaster and disaster risk reduction on the resurgence and spread of infectious diseases such as cholera. It exposed the reasons for the fragile physical and institutional infrastructure in the most disaster-prone areas, and the need for the most affected people to be included in decision-making on how to become safe and healthy.  In partnership with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), UNICEF, UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Government Departments, local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and community leaders, a distinctly people-centred disaster risk reduction model was developed, applied, and tested. This model engages local communities in the assessment and risk management processes used when planning disaster responses, using local knowledge to create action plans that improve the community’s resilience and capacity to deal with a disaster when it does strike; for example through increased social cohesion, education and sanitation related activities. This then helps reduce dependence on external support during, and following, the onset of increased disaster risk.


International commitment to people-centred approaches

Collins’ people-centred research has become an integral part of the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction established in 2015, something he has been involved with for over 20 years throughout its evolution. 187 countries have adopted the Sendai Framework - and it represents the first time that health and disaster risk management has become substantially interwoven into global policy with community health at the heart of it. This framework replaces previous policies where disaster planning and responses were predominantly centralised and did not meet the needs of the vulnerable communities. The research has also fed into the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Health Emergency and Disaster Risk Management (H-EDRM) Framework launched in 2019, which is designed to deliver on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction commitments. For the Officer for Health Policy in Disaster Risk Reduction at the WHO, this is now ensuring ‘a people-centred and inclusive approach…which serves as a continual reminder to focus on action at the local level’ when preparing for disasters.


Making a difference in communities

The people-centred approach and health and Disaster Risk Reduction frameworks above have been implemented on the ground within the UN Development Program in Mozambique. Here community volunteers are now serving on Local Risk Management Boards to create an important link between community-level and government-level disaster risk management. The Chief Technical Advisor for Disaster Risk Reducation at UNDP for Mozambique explains, ‘working with local officials in communities is proving far more effective for embedding resilience to disasters’.

Collins has also been working with No Strings International (NSI), an NGO working to improve children’s health and hygiene, through locally-owned communication, engagement and people-centred approaches, to introduce the best hygiene practices (e.g., good hand-washing) into schools for children aged 6-15 years in the highest risk areas of Nairobi, Kenya - an action also helping to address the COVID-19 crisis in those locations. Through teacher training and child-centred activities, with an emphasis on children being responsible for their own hygiene, schools have improved hygiene awareness and introduced more water points and sanitation facilities. 2,500 schools in Nairobi have ‘seen a measurable decrease in faecal and related diseases at the class level’ where these projects have run. This reduces sickness and therefore improves school attendance, performance and well-being in school children. Often, children also take their new hygiene routines back home where they are put into practice by the children’s families and communities.

Collins is also using his leadership of a Sendai Framework related UN Global Science and Technology data working group to further understand at the global level the implications and applications of data as a voice from these high-risk contexts, as ‘action data’ that also serves to help science create more impact. The approaches are also being used to steer a United Kingdom Research and Innovation series of over 20 events worldwide that examine adaptation and resilience solutions in the preparation for and outflow from COP26, hosted in the UK in 2021.

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