Hans Guttman had a long international career before joining the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) as the Executive Director, but disaster risk management wasn’t always his focus.
Leaving Sweden at the age of 17, Hans attended high school in Canada, spent time as a teacher’s assistant in the Philippines, and later enrolled in James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. He graduated from the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, with a Master’s Degree before embarking on a professional career which ultimately led him to ADPC.
“While I joined ADPC without a specific background in disaster risk management, I have worked quite a lot with those elements insofar as they effect water resources, floods, droughts and those types of events, or primarily rural communities in terms of building resilience,” Hans said. “So, there’s a lot of elements of my background both in rural development and water resources that overlap with disaster risk management,” he continued.
Hans’ background, with over 25 years of policy and development experience specifically in the field of aquatic resources and water management, has cultivated a viewpoint that focuses on what really matters: improving the lives of those he is trying to help.
Beginning his career with a technical focus on water quality issues, Hans’ work would often result in research studies and assessments. While these were interesting in their own right, and potentially useful, their impact remained only in theory.
“If you are a technically focused person, as I was starting out, I remember it was hard to explain to evaluators the importance of my work,” said Hans. “But increasingly working with rural development issues, you run into the situation where you look back at all the work you’ve done, and if the people you are helping are not better off, then what are you doing?” he said.
Hans recalls work he has done in Cambodia in the mid-1990s where he and his team worked on enhancing the number and quality of fish by preventing overfishing in the dry season. An effort that made a long-lasting change in the country.
“Overall, having that work being done from scratch in Cambodia at the time and it turning into government policy, and being promoted so lots of villages benefited from it, that was very satisfying,” said Hans.
This, and many experiences like it, laid the foundation for Hans’ impact driven work approach. While being a way to, “assure myself that the work that I am doing is worthwhile,” said Hans, he draws on this importance of making a difference on the ground and applying it to his work at the executive level.
“The more you go into management, or up in an organization’s hierarchy, you have to start talking to the people that actually fund you, the ones coming up with the resources to support you,” said Hans. “They are always going to look at the impact, results, and issues.”
Strengthening disaster preparedness in the Asia Pacific
Hans supports ADPC’s agenda of creating safer communities through disaster risk management by engaging with national level representatives throughout the region. Part of this role, is advocating the importance and effectiveness of disaster preparedness.
“The difficulty in mustering support for preparedness is that you can’t be sure where and when the next disaster is going to strike. Mustering support for response is more obvious since the event already happened, but preparedness suffers from the uncertainty of how big is the next one going to be?” said Hans.
He went on to explain that fostering support from National Disaster Management Organizations (NDMOs) is not usually a challenge. What can be an issue is convincing other departments, such as the finance minister or Prime Minister’s Office, to provide resources, give the NDMOs authority, or set up the mechanism within their ministries so they can cooperate effectively during a disaster, is where it can become difficult.
“The risk is that when an emergency happens, all the responsibility falls on the emergency agency and other departments want to remain isolated from the problem, saying that it’s not their place to provide further support,” said Hans.
Over the years, Hans grew to understand the complexity of government systems, and how each country is unique in terms of mainstreaming disaster risk management. What is important is the linkages an organization, like ADPC, can make to its work in other countries to better understand what works, what doesn’t and in what context the initiative is operating in. This can help ensure the work that is being done actually has impact.
“Technical expertise is not always enough, you need the institutional context,” said Hans. “Technical solutions from America or Europe can’t be resourced the same way in some parts of Asia and therefore aren’t feasible,” he continued.
In terms of government systems, what often happens in the region is that agencies within a government system lack the capacity to coordinate as they would elsewhere in the world. And from the management level, there needs to be an understanding of how to deal with these different situations.
“So there’s always a balance in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction, countries all have different solutions, learning how it worked or didn’t work in other countries can be very useful,” said Hans.
Supporting the global agendas and making an impact
Over the past few months, Hans has worked on revitalizing the ADPC 2020 Strategy. The document outlines the goals of the organization and is currently being updated to remain relevant in the post-2015 development agenda and the associated global frameworks. The goal of the strategy is to provide the framework for ADPC’s initiatives to create impact.
Hans views ADPC as being in a unique position to support the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, an important agreement of the post-2015 development agenda in part due to the organization being closely involved in the framework’s development, as well as its predecessor, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA).
One of ADPC’s comparative advantages is that it can draw upon its 30 years of regional experience where it has fostered a close working relationship with countries and NDMOs in the region to implement its work. Simultaneously, the very structure of the Sendai Framework, is that it has much more of a focus on preparedness than the HFA, which makes ADPC even more relevant in supporting its implementation.
“One of the things identified in reviewing the outcomes of the Hyogo Framework was that it missed out on the preparedness issues, there was a lot of aspects discussing the importance of response and many discussions on disaster risk reduction, management, the issues about preparedness visa-a-vi response,” said Hans. “Response is necessary, but the advantages of mainstreaming disaster risk management in development are immense and thus worthwhile to push for.”
However, as countries began to strive for the goals set out by the Sendai Framework, challenges were identified at the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in New Delhi, India, last year.
Countries expressed that while they could report at the national level, there was difficulty linking their work to the global system they have committed to. This posed a concern because the post-2015 agenda needs to aggregate progress, and demonstrate that progress is being made towards these goals. The importance of this, can tie into the very argument of why disaster preparedness is a hard sell in the first place – it’s challenging to guarantee results for something that is a theory in principle.
“If countries can clearly demonstrate progress, then they will be able to secure more funding and leverage those resources for further development,” said Hans. “Countries will be able to say, ‘What we are doing works. We are on our way to eliminating hunger, poverty and other issues. We are on our way to achieving all these goals,” he continued.
ADPC is in the process of helping countries report their progress at the global level and has already begun doing so in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Viet Nam, Pakistan and Thailand.
While focusing on the global goals, Hans makes it a point not to lose sight of what is actually happening at the ground level, to ensure that the work ADPC is doing is having an impact and fulfilling ADPC’s vision – to create safer communities and sustainable development through disaster risk reduction.
“The most important part is that good work is being done and achieving results,” said Hans. “It’s not the activities that matter, it’s not even the output, it’s the outcome and the impact that matter, simplistically speaking.”
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