BIARI beyond Brown: Improving disaster response where disasters happen

October 18, 2018

Last September, Adam Levine, director of the Watson Institute’s Humanitarian Innovation Initiative (HI2), and Seth Stulen, HI2’s program manager, were working with partners in the Philippines to finalize the details of a conference on natural disaster response when Typhoon Mangkhut hit the island of Luzon and Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina. Two weeks later, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that decimated Palu, Indonesia, and less than two weeks after that, Hurricane Michael eradicated Mexico Beach, Florida.

Effective response to natural disasters, it would seem, has never been more critical. And local response has never been more urgently needed, according to the organizers. While international assistance is still necessary, Levine says “we must also develop robust local and regional capacity for disaster management if low- and middle-income nations are to survive the increased severity and frequency of disasters expected over the course of the 21st century.”

In 2017 alone, 335 natural disasters affected more 95.6 million people--killing an additional 9,697--and caused $335 billion in economic losses, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

Since 2014, Levine and colleagues have convened working groups on human security, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction as part of the Brown Advanced International Research Institutes, or BIARI. From 2009 to 2018 BIARI brought promising young scholars, mostly from the Global South, to Brown every June to explore solutions to pressing global issues from HIV to climate change.

Now BIARI is going local. The new model, BIARI Beyond Brown, holds regional gatherings around the world that are locally adapted and conducted in partnership with public/private sector partners on the ground. BIARI Beyond Brown has already held conferences in Kenya, Spain, and Mexico, and Director Matthew Gutmann says there are plans to convene more in India, Brazil, and South Africa.

The BIARI Philippines 2018 conference, titled Community Resilience for Natural Disasters, will take place at Holy Angel University in Pampanga on October 21-27. Participants will zero in on the Philippines and surrounding South East Asian nations. Most of the 40-some participants, from universities, the private sector, government, and NGOs, are from the region. HI2 brings a wealth of expertise, says Stulen, but the bulk of knowledge is going to come from the local speakers. “Learning can be more effective when participants are in their own space,” he adds.

Levine agrees. “I’m excited by the variety of participants,” he says. “They bring a diverse range of skill sets and will almost certainly learn as much from each other as from our speakers and panelists during the institute.”

The conference will narrow not only its geographical focus, but its content as well. “We need to shift the conversation away from individuals to systems,” says Stulen. “Community resilience is about infrastructure. It’s making sure that a community can withstand disturbances to their built environment, to their natural environment, to their social environments and rebound more quickly.”

According to Levine, the goal of the conference—whose topic was chosen by HI2’s Filipino colleagues—is for participants to return home and develop their own trainings and research projects, on their own or in collaboration with Brown University or each other. He says he hopes they’ll discover new ways to prepare their communities to manage the effects of natural disasters that work in their local environment and context.

In the same room, on the same page

The idea for BIARI Philippines 2018 was born when Alfredo Ayala ’82, a managing director and member of the Management Committee of Ayala Corporation, a Philippines-based business group, attended an alumni event in Hong Kong featuring Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, and Watson’s director, Edward Steinfeld. “When Ed talked about the great work that HI2 has been doing in disaster preparedness and humanitarian response,” says Ayala, “it struck me that there would be much interest in their research and educational activities in my home country because of the many typhoons and earthquakes we content with every year.”

The double concentrator in development studies and economics says, “Brown very much shaped my world view and my desire to come back to the Philippines and help figure out how to address the many challenges we face here.”

Through conversations among Levine, Stulen, and Ayala, the idea for a conference took shape. The theme was chosen, Ayala says, “because of the strong local interest in enabling communities to bounce back quickly from disasters.” They invited Holy Angel University and the Philippines Disaster Response Foundation (PDRF), an organization that partners with companies, local governments and civil society to improve disaster preparedness, to co-host the conference. Last April, PDRF opened the world’s first private-sector 24/7 Emergency Operations Center, located at the former Clark Air Base near Mount Pinatubo, site of one of the world’s worst ever volcanic eruptions. Some conference activities will be held there.  

Guillermo Luz, PDRF’s chief resilience officer, has provided vital on-the-ground programmatic and logistical planning. He believes it makes sense to locate the conference in a country whose people face more than their share of natural disasters. “The Philippines is ranked the third most-vulnerable nation in the world in terms of disaster risk,” he says. “We experience 23 to 25 typhoons a year and face earthquake and volcanic risks.”

Luz hopes the conference will help participants train, prepare, prevent, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. “The Philippines is a country of 105 million people scattered over more than 7,000 islands. There are 1,634 cities and municipalities, many of them coastal or vulnerable to typhoons and storms. They are at the front lines of response and preparedness, so community resilience is of vital importance.”

Stulen says PDRF steps into the gaps left by governments that don’t have the capacity to prepare for or respond to disasters. “I think this is a trend we're going to be seeing more of,” he says. “The space is ripe for private sector engagement.”

Connecting scholars with experts on the ground

In addition to being locally based and more narrowly focused, this BIARI is also the first to have its own alumni as faculty, including Maria Carinnes Gonzales and Pamela Cajilig, who were instrumental in the planning. “BIARI alumni have been really crucial in making sure the program is in line with the current scholarship and correctly adapted to the Filipino context,” says Stulen.

Joining the experts from the Philippines will be individuals from the World Bank, the World Food Program, Harvard University, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Participants will be broken up into working groups, each of which will present a research or program proposal on the final day. Selected proposals will receive seed funding, Stulen says, so that the groups can continue to work together on their projects.

Stulen says he hopes that “working in the same room and being on the same page” will break down barriers of communication and coordination, and that participants will leave the conference with common objectives for community resilience.

In addition, he says, the conference “hits the heart of our mission—bridging the academic-practitioner divide and making sure that folks doing real humanitarian work on the ground are being connected in with academics so we can bolster the evidence base.”

--Sarah Baldwin