The Interview


Jeremy Collymore, Executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), responds to questions about the agency’s new strategic approach, the Caribbean response to the Haiti’s earthquake, the role of international cooperation regarding risk management and the actions that should be taken to increase cooperation between CDEMA and the health sector among other issues.

1. It has been a year since CDERA formally became the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) with a more strategic approach in comprehensive disaster management. What progresses have been made and what are the challenges ahead?

Change as you know is an ongoing process and notwithstanding that we can comfortably say that we have made some significant adjustments to our governance mechanism.  The establishment of the Management Committee of Council provides a mechanism for more direct political engagement and oversight of both the organization and the disaster risk reduction enhancement process.

We have established technical subsets, comprising the directors of the national disaster systems, into specific skill or function-related committees.  This allows for more and early direct country participation in our programme design and development as well as the review of these programming and related initiatives.

As a result of this deeper country participation we are already seeing the benefits in terms of fuller participation and more responsiveness to the requests made to our Participating States.

Internally, we have made some substantial advances in the improvement of our administrative and financial systems.  We have strengthened some of our procurement and financial mechanisms which allow for deeper transparency on the services we seek to provide and solicit.

We have also established our human resource programme which is beginning to address some of the staff needs in this whole change process.  

Beyond these however, we have also enhanced our architecture for sharing and receiving information from our participating states in a more time sensitive way through the introduction of ICT mechanisms that allow for more spontaneous consultation such as  the “go-to-meetings”.  This “face-to-face” approach provides a facility for getting more direct feedback and has also had a positive impact in terms of reducing operational cost. 

2.  Haiti's earthquake occurred a few months after this country signed the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency Agreement. In that sense, how do you qualify the Caribbean response to the Haiti’s catastrophe and what things need to be improved for the future?  Which were the main challenges?

In the context of the available resources and institutional arrangements in support of Haiti, our response was timely as we were there in less than 48 hours.  The response was impactful in the sense that it supported the arrangements around the national civil protection mechanism.  This was important for Haiti to absorb and relate to the massive external insurgence in their national space. 

Our intervention in Haiti really allowed us to test the operational principle of the sub-regional focal point system, in this instance the Jamaica sub-regional focal point.  Haiti benefitted from the true embracement of this principle by the Government of Jamaica and really facilitated that front line intervention that was critical during the initial stage and thereafter.  

However, the absence and limitations of the existing arrangements for coordination and response in Haiti was a major challenge. In this regard our support focused on:  supporting the elaboration of a warehousing programme to be managed by the civil protection department; developing guidelines and standards for the camp settlements that we anticipated would have been developed; providing strategic guidance to the civil protection department on what to ask for and how best to access the resources that were being provided by the external partners including those of the UN family; helping to create that bridge between the political leadership in Haiti, the Caribbean Community and the larger international reconstruction dialogue that was ongoing; providing relief supplies for distribution, supporting the distribution especially to communities outside the radar of the main relief providers as well as providing emergency medical care.

Our role was really to give Haiti the kind of briefing and intelligence which was necessary to allow them to best extract, utilize and tap into the support that was being provided.  As we look at the main challenges, I believe, firstly, there is a need to revisit the whole idea of the (UN) clusters to ensure that the support they provide is beneficial to the impacted states.  This is a general observation that is also supported by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator. 

Secondly, there is a need for responding entities to focus their support on the needs of the impacted states and the victims and less on the visibility opportunities that arise from their presence in that place. In my view too much of the Haiti support was determined by the priorities that were articulated by the responding entities  as opposed to those generated by the State or the Civil Protection department.

As we move forward, we have already invested resources to help Haiti to review and elaborate its National Emergency Management System within an environment that engages a wide set of stakeholders at the district level.  We have established a strong collaborative partnership with many of the local agencies with the overarching goal of rationalizing the interventions and therefore deepening the impact and the efficiency of our efforts.  This support to Haiti in the definition of its recovery program is being facilitated by resources from the Government of Australia. 

We look forward to the deepening of that process over the next 1-2 years around a national disaster risk reduction program designed by the Government of Haiti where partners will identify the opportunities for their contributions to this national program.  I really feel that is going to be the only way in which you will get some structured programming in Haiti that does not overwhelm the country.

3. How do you see the role of international cooperation in this issue of risk management? How can we create synergies and greater impact in reducing vulnerability, building capacity, and, above all, reducing disaster risk?

The international cooperation in disaster risk reduction generally and in response coordination in particular must be driven by the principles of “subsidiarity”.  What does this mean?   It means that the international community should only seek to engage where there is demonstrated evidence that the country, its neighbors and sub-region cannot support due to any type of resource deficit. 

We are now having an evolving intensity of engagement that does not adequately recognize the capacity of the states.  This enthusiasm by international entities must be tempered by the recognition that countries do have capacities and their support should not focus on “external institutionally defined programs” but should support the implementation of nationally defined priorities and programming. This in my opinion is the biggest challenge in international cooperation in the area of risk management.

Although global initiatives in disaster risk reduction may identify broad thematic areas in which there is a global agreement for action, one must be mindful however that the global definition of a problem is not the same as the local articulation of the solution.  The dynamic of generating local solutions in a global programming framework needs to be managed so that there is more connectivity between the global organizational mandates and the beneficiary (country) priorities.

4. The health sector has been one of the most active on issues of risk and disaster management, but more coordination and collaboration are still needed between CDEMA and actors in this sector. What concrete actions should be taken to increase cooperation and have a greater shared impact in the Caribbean region?

The Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) disaster risk reduction program has clearly identified the role of PAHO, with other institutions, in the health sector and I believe that some significant advances have been made in that direction.  As part of the structured cooperation with CDEMA in relation to the health sector disaster risk reduction issues, PAHO has been identified as the lead partner in this area with responsibility for coordinating the interventions as it relates to health. 

The dialogue built around how to deal with the H1N1 pandemic and these new kinds of threats, not only with PAHO but with partners who were key to that process, provided tangible evidence of the collaboration that exist between CDEMA and actors in the health sector.  What is required now is the harmonization of the CDM Health Sector programme and the PAHO sub-regional activities in health disaster risk reduction. 

There is also a need now for some engagement around how information on impact and capacity is captured, inventoried and fed back into the central CDEMA database and capacity monitoring mechanism.  We believe that the program and monitoring framework that is being elaborated for the CDM health program will move us in that direction. There is already an awareness of the different assessment tools and standards that are being elaborated though leadership by PAHO in the health sector. 

I would not hesitate to say that the health sector is a good demonstration of efforts at mainstreaming the risk issues in sector programming and also at interfacing with the larger CDM programming. What we may need now is to reduce the frequent change in, or long periods without, leadership of the PAHO program in the Caribbean if outcomes and visioning is to be sustained.

There is also a need to develop programs that recognize the realities on the ground and not be driven by program implementation schedules of our institutions/agencies.  Presently our resources are time driven by projects and most times the project schedules do not reflect the realities of implementation on the ground so you always have a gap between where the project wants to go and what realistically can be achieved.  This confirms the need to have a more programmatic approach to cooperation and implementation and a dialogue of our partners in support of that principle. This is at the core of CDM.

5. A more personal question, since CDERA’s creation in 1991, when you assumed the leadership, what has been your proudest achievement, and reversibly, what part of the job do you think has been the most difficult, and maybe most frustrating?.

From the beginning it was always our view that the mandate for the agency would change because the realities of the environment in which we operate required that we pursued an agenda that was larger than preparedness and response. That was expressed very early from inception and that has been realized.

The need to create a common goal, around which stakeholders and partners supporting disaster risk reduction in the region can collaborate and cooperate, was always going to be a critical gap in any significant advancing of capacity building in the region.  I believe that the Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) agenda could be considered to be a major achievement in that direction.

The journey of CDERA to CDEMA has been associated with the transformation of the national arrangements for disaster management.  We have seen a wholesale shift from part-time disaster management activities to established legal entities with allocated resources, staffing and dedicated facilities.  These may not meet the ideal but they represent, for us, a fundamental shift in the institutional landscape from when CDERA started and a clear commitment of the government to resource these. During this period, the public consciousness of the need to be more sensitive to hazards and their consequences has been deepened.  This can be attributed not only by the activities associated with CDM and our own programmes but by the lessons that we have been able to harness from some of the major events that have taken place during our lifetime.

A very silent and unrecognized development during this period has been associated with a number of young people seeing disaster management as a profession.  This is important because it means that we will now have a cohort of well trained and competent individuals who will be there to chart and sustain the progress that is being made.  We will need this especially as we seek to link DRR to the development issues and broaden the actors. 

This is also an area in which there needs to be more intensity brought to the disaster education and knowledge products that are being served by the region. Currently there is a paucity of these. In terms of challenges, the region is presently at a point where there is unquestioned political awareness and commitment to addressing the vulnerability of States.  We have seen some policy initiatives and even resource commitments to address these issues.

This awareness and commitment is likely to be sidelined in this new economic environment if we do not maintain an intensity of lobbying and advocacy to reinforce the connection between our hazardousness and the pursuit of our development. 

Another issue relates to the disaster risk management industry that is being driven by institution generated consultancies and research that are not subjected to peer reviews and other kinds of mechanisms for validating approaches and generating consensus about what disaster risk reduction is, what the practices could be and what the education to support it ought to address. 

CDEMA, as a small player in this global Cohobblopot (melting pot) of disaster risk reduction actors, these issues are going to be important for giving us a real space to engage and address our particular issues.  It may seem to be beyond the routine practice but I think that we have to step back and give some reflective thinking to what we currently call disaster risk reduction/disaster risk management to make sure there is a global common understanding. 

From the outset one of the initial challenges, as the regional specialized disaster management agency, was defining and establishing our operational and institutional space in an arena where there were already actors such as PAHO, Red Cross and the military forces operating as individual entities. We also had to deal with getting the Participating States to recognize that the question of disaster management is not a part-time activity.  This had implications for staff commitment and dedicated budgets. Over the years, this challenge has been overcome.

There was also the perception by some that the mandate of the agency did not go beyond preparing to respond.  That was a challenge because it raised issues of authority to engage in areas that we thought were critical to building capacity.  We have always had the view that solid preparedness goes beyond preparing to respond but seeks to mitigate the requirements for repeated external assistance.  The difference of view of what preparedness is was a major challenge. Finally, I think moving from project based initiatives to programming required a new dialogue with the countries, partners and sponsors as to what that implied in relation to reporting, monitoring and impact measurements.

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