Q&A: UN disaster risk reduction expert Jo Scheuer explains why a new approach is key

Jo Scheuer (center), director of climate change and disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. chief António Guterres sounded the “alarm” on Monday, issuing a warning that countries may risk “missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change,” unless a change of course occurs by 2020.

Guterres also announced a high-level climate summit in 2019 during his speech at the U.N. headquarters.

Despite recent accords such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the visible intensification of the impacts of climate change, many governments have yet to adjust their funding and planning to match this reality. This gap extends to disaster risk reduction funding and programs, Jo Scheuer, the director of climate change and disaster risk reduction at the U.N. Development Programme, told Devex following Guterres’ speech.

Devex spoke to Scheuer about why most governments and development organizations have been slow to change course on disaster risk reduction, and why this shift makes sound economic sense.

Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Have you seen a shift over the last few years in terms of funding and work on disaster risk reduction and how it is approached? 

The short answer is no. We do not see enough increase in these investments.

We have, of course, the Paris Agreement and the Sendai framework [for disaster risk reduction]. And while we see incidents of disaster going up, mostly climate related, the world does not yet invest enough, commensurate with what the issues are. We see a little bit of an interest in investments, globally, but mostly from climate instruments, not from traditional ones, or what we call the disaster risk community.

Jo Scheuer, director of climate change and disaster risk reduction at UNDP. Via YouTube.

Could you differentiate what you mean by climate instruments and the disaster community?

“[Disaster risk reduction] is a development issue. It is about doing development right.”

Traditionally, risk reduction has been misunderstood. People think about managing a disaster-related event, versus the work that has to happen to reduce risk — so looking at a response, more than looking at avoiding the response in the first place.

Those resources have usually come out of humanitarian budgets. Yet often, this is a development issue. It is about doing development right. It should be a full expenditure from those budgets, and that shift has not happened.

We need to make sure all of our development investments and programming are risk-informed. The world is moving toward that. But a commensurate increase in expenditure has not happened, except out of climate instruments. If you look at the project pipelines approved by the Green Climate Fund over the last three years, a bunch of those adaptation projects are actually classic disaster risk reduction or preparedness investments, as well.

Why does it matter who is paying for it?

It doesn't matter who is paying for it. It matters that we invest enough. And we do not invest enough.

So is the typical cost of a climate disaster response more expensive than it needs to be?

Absolutely. We know that overall the accounted losses last year was way over $300 billion. Most of it is not protected by any insurance. So those are direct, immediate economic costs.

“It is about making a clear political and economic case.”

The cost is staggering and we know from experience that investments in preparedness and risk reduction pay for themselves. Sometimes we ask how much cheaper [an outcome with preparedness planning] is, but you cannot pin it down to one specific number because it depends on where the disaster happens. But investment and preparedness always pay.

What do you think the roadblocks are to incorporating disaster risk reduction into routine investments and development planning? 

Especially when you talk about disaster risk reduction and climate change, you hear, “Well it is going to happen sometime later. I have more pressing priorities at this time.” And it is true. In many countries where we work, these governments do not have the ability to focus on everything at the same time.

It is about making a clear political and economic case. Traditionally, we are talking to disaster management authorities, environment ministries, when it comes to disaster and climate change. But you actually want to take the discourse to the rest of the government.

And, most importantly, we have not mobilized enough accountability, or demand for accountability, from society to their governments. It is something that is out there, but it has been difficult for people to say, “We want action, now.”

About the authors

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.
  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.