Daring to question the "self-evident" assumptions of disaster management

13 June 2017

Helena Hermansson successfully defended her dissertation "Centralized Disaster Management Collaboration in Turkey" at Uppsala University on June 8. Helena conducted her PhD studies at the Political Science Department, Uppsala University, and she has also been associated with CNDS (Centre for Natural Disaster Science). Her dissertation has examined and questioned the perceived self-evident assumptions of disaster management in practice.

In order to reduce the risk of disasters and to alleviate the effects of them, the prevailing assumption is that those involved in disaster management should be organized in collaborative and decentralized structures. This approach is strongly advocated in international discourse and practice related to disaster risk reduction and disaster management, for example in global frameworks such as the Hyogo Framework for Action and its successor Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Turkey recently reformed its disaster management system to reflect international best practices. Collaborative and decentralized strategies were implemented but the political and administrative system of Turkey is many ways the anti-thesis of such strategies. Soon after the reforms were implemented, the country was hit by several severe earthquakes. This enabled an investigation of the reformed disaster management system and how reforms played out in practice.

In order to collect appropriate data, Helena did field work in Istanbul, Ankara, Van and Erciş. In a context where it is difficult to establish trust as a researcher and difficult to ask sensitive questions, Helena was able to interview 44 government, municipal, city, and civil society representatives.

The dissertation provides indications that the inherent dynamics of disasters (and the processes they produce) as well as the political-administrative system in a country affect how applicable previous research on cross-sectoral collaborative actors is, since such research has often been developed in another context. The dissertation also shows that in most cases such collaboration seemed to help and improve the management of the disaster and its consequences. This may seem obvious, but research on collaboration has not been very successful in explaining what collaboration actually leads to. There were also times when relief efforts became more effective when NGO's distanced themselves from collaborating with state authorities. Therefore, we should be careful to uncritically advocate cooperation as a key factor for effective disaster management.

Decentralization is strongly advocated in international disaster risk reduction circles since it is believed to contribute to increased local participation and increased local capacity. However, research on disaster risk reduction and decentralization is in its infancy. Although Helena's dissertation underlines the importance of local actors in all phases of disasters, she raises a warning finger to pairing this with the advocacy of decentralization reforms. Helena shows how a number of aspects, including disaster dynamics and the political-administrative context, must be taken into account in understanding how decentralization reforms are received in practice.

Overall, the dissertation indicates that collaboration has, to some extent, been integrated and proven successful in the Turkish disaster management system when the collaborative disaster management structures have been adapted to the Turkish political-administrative system. However, the attempts at decentralization in the disaster management system have been less successful, partly because the local actors have not been sufficiently prepared in terms of resources and capacity. In fact, more recently parts of the Turkish disaster management system have taken a re-centralizing turn.

Helena is currently employed as an analyst at CRISMART at the Swedish Defence University.