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Training in the Asian-Pacific region

Brian Ward

Programs need people to implement them and people must be trained. This paper addresses the why, who, what, how, and where of disaster management training. It is based on five years’ experience at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) assessing training needs and implementing training programs in the Asian-Pacific Region. The greatest need for training is in Africa.


The goals of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) reflect awareness that disaster management is a national responsibility and that disasters and development are closely related. The importance of strengthening disaster management capabilities in disaster-prone developing countries has been repeatedly emphasized. But most discussions of the Decade have taken place in the developed world. The developed world’s identification and support of risk reduction strategies must be matched by an improved capability in the developing world - which already faces awesome developmental difficulties and conflicts of priorities - to implement those strategies nationally. Without human resource development programs in developing countries, the altruism of the developed world may be misunderstood, developing countries may become disillusioned, and the expectations of the Decade may be unrealized.

“At times training becomes a remote and irrelevant activity with little apparent impact on performance and with considerable waste of resources,” wrote W.C. Baum and S.M. Tolbert (1985) in an evaluation of World Bank experience. Why is training sometimes ineffective? Are the aims wrongly defined? Is the training badly organized? Are the trainees incorrectly selected? Surely nobody would suggest that training per se is wrong.

What is disaster management and why is it necessary to train for it? Disaster management is the term used to describe all disaster activities from prevention to reconstruction. An effective disaster manager must, first, be a good manager generally; second, understand disasters; and third, be a good crisis manager. In normal circumstances, managers usually have time on their side and can proceed cautiously, using sophisticated planning tools to arrive at considered, economical decisions. But a crisis manager is expected to analyze information (often incomplete and sometimes inaccurate), make decisions, and issue clear, unambiguous instructions under extreme pressure.

The aim of disaster management training is to improve the skills of practicing managers by

· Upgrading their knowledge of the theory and practice of disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, reconstruction, and recovery, and their relationship to development.

· Introducing to them the special tools of disaster management, such as risk and vulnerability analysis, counterdisaster planning, and crisis management.

But in a crisis people with good basic management skills will outperform intrinsically weak managers, no matter how much disaster management training they have had.

To be effective, training must be preceded by thorough needs assessment studies so that aims are clearly defined and appropriate programs developed to meet them. There have been several needs assessment studies in recent years. A comprehensive regional assessment was undertaken at the Australian Counter Disaster College, Mt. Macedon, to determine training requirements in the Asian-Pacific region (National Disaster Organization, Australia 1981). Another review conducted in the region by UNDRO/WHO (1985), with funding from UNDP, led to the establishment of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC). UNDP commissioned a global survey and WMO/ESCAP reviewed areas of interest to the Tropical Cyclone Committee. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR 1988) conducted a global survey on behalf of UNDRO. Although heavily oriented toward Africa the survey highlighted the recurrent lack of comprehensive disaster management programs and dependence on external ad hoc assistance for training. It recommended that training methodologies be formulated to stimulate national capabilities and suggested the following avenues for action, which apply equally in the Asian-Pacific region:

· Strengthen cooperation between neighboring countries and the donor relief community through existing regional apparatus, provide a central point for accessing and diffusing disaster information, and improve coordination of relief activities between donor organizations, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and the national government itself.

· Use “trainer training” to build the relief assistance officers’ skills in training personnel with other roles and functions.

· Strengthen the link between the means of collecting disaster information and its dissemination to improve decisionmaking about the stocking and distribution of relief supplies, for early warning and forecasting, and for building public awareness.

· Find more innovative ways to interpret the evaluations and translate the experience of relief assistance managers into training activities.

· Improve the disaster management skills of the personnel responsible for managing relief operations, including full-time relief assistance managers and personnel charged with food supply and distribution and early warning systems.

· Define the disaster and environmental threats each country faces and define training needed to meet those threats.

· Identify the latest techniques and skills in disaster management and find ways to adapt them to training programs for disaster authorities.

The UNITAR report stresses the importance of stimulating national capabilities. Sykes (1989) suggests that the answers to the challenges posed by disasters are to be found in the disaster-prone areas themselves - that the first order of business is to learn from traditional practice and response, to strengthen local capabilities, and to seek locally based, low-tech solutions for local disaster reduction. This bottom-up approach - focusing disaster mitigation and response at the community level - has always been a cornerstone of the ADPC’s program philosophy. Top-down programs - in which the role of intervening international agencies or the protection of donor investment are seen as paramount - are conceptually flawed. The first priority for the international community should be to help strengthen national capabilities.


Who needs to be trained? Almost everybody, because disasters can affect the whole community. But not everyone needs to be trained as a disaster manager. Training must be appropriate to the level at which it is conducted. Potential victims need to be shown what they can do to help themselves, relief workers need to be trained to help others, community leaders must be shown how to prepare their communities, and so on. In acquainting themselves with the sort of assistance that is likely to be asked of them and preparing to provide it, donors must recognize that their perception of what is needed may not be the same as the recipients’ perception.

For governments, disaster management is an extension of routine administrative responsibilities. The Government of India (1878 and 1913) recognized this long ago, which may account in part for the remarkable success of its recent relief operations after the severe drought in 1987 and the cyclone in Andhra Pradesh in 1990.

The district officer or governor is the person who takes charge of local disaster relief operations, no matter what the cause of the disaster - be it a typhoon or an industrial accident, the effects of which extend beyond the factory fence. That person - as an administrator, not a specialist - has to coordinate the work of different relief agencies: the people themselves, government departments, NGOs, the private sector, and international agencies. So government officials should be high on the priority list for disaster management training.

The ADPC has found that its twice-yearly six-week disaster management courses - which bring together 25 to 30 people from various disciplines and from 12 to 15 countries - provide a stimulating forum for interdisciplinary and international interchange. It is not easy to promote dialogue between different disciplines - engineers and sociologists talk different languages - but if they cannot work together in disaster training, what hope is there that they can work together in the event? The ADPC has also introduced a novel series of courses on “Improving Cyclone Warning Response and Management,” for which a team of three experts is selected from each country - a meteorologist who is responsible for preparing and issuing cyclone warnings, a disaster preparedness official responsible for public awareness and response programs, and an engineer or planner responsible for preparedness and mitigation measures. The aim is to create the nucleus of a national interdisciplinary team for a common purpose. Once a small national multidisciplinary cadre of like-minded people - a critical mass - has been established in a country, disaster-related programs begin to expand.

Given the limited availability of training programs it is important that training be put to good use. The ADPC’s primary criterion for selecting participants for its training programs is that applicants must hold positions in which they have direct responsibility for some aspect of disaster management. The application form for the ADPC Disaster Management Course asks them to state to what use they will put the knowledge they will acquire in the course. There is inevitably waste as alumni move on to other jobs, but the training is not entirely lost. They may return later in positions of more authority and probably remain disciples of the disaster management philosophy.


The first step in organizing a course is to decide specifically its aim, target group, and content. The ADPC adopts the “need-to-know” principle in designing its course curricula: what does a person need to know about a particular topic to be able to do a job better? The assumption is that applicants are already practicing disaster management professionals, and that the aim of training is to sharpen their skills. Emphasis is on practice rather than on theory and principles. Participants are encouraged to share their knowledge and experience, are introduced to new concepts and skills, and are stimulated to think through course work to commit their experiences and thoughts to paper. Each national group is required to give a presentation on the disaster profile and organization of its country. Individuals are required to present a case study and prepare a briefing paper incorporating the disaster profile (including a 10-year projection), a description of the counterdisaster organizations in their country, a statement of the role of their own organization, an analysis of their organization’s performance, and recommendations for improvement.

In addition to individual skills training and sectoral training programs, an essential component of a national disaster management training strategy should be multidisciplinary training programs for managers. The “generalist” training of disaster managers should be matched by technical training for specialists. Academic training is not enough for specialists in disaster mitigation; practicing professionals need updates. In the Philippines, in collaboration with national institutions, the ADPC organized two intensive training courses - Aseismic Design and the Construction of Structures - to introduce practicing engineers and architects from the Philippines and other ASEAN countries to the latest techniques in seismic hazard mitigation. In the Philippines the ADPC has also helped train local engineers and foremen who are now supervising an immensely successful Core Shelter project in which people in local communities are building their own typhoon-resistant, low-cost housing out of local materials.


The recent rapid expansion of disaster-related training in the Asian-Pacific region has been most encouraging. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam, for example, have all organized successful programs. Support has come from donors who have been quick to recognize the value of this training: AIDAB, CIDA, SCF (UK), UNDP, UNESCO, ODA/UK, USAID/OFDA, and others. Donor agencies such as WMO/ESCAP and the Australian Overseas Disaster Response Organization have helped with regional training programs. But all national programs have been conducted on an ad hoc basis despite considerable difficulties, handicapped by a shortage of qualified trainers and good teaching materials and no national institutional base. It would be sensible for any future programs to build on these successes. How can these handicaps be overcome?

All supervisors have an obligation to improve the professional skills of their subordinates. On-the-job training and learning by example are important parts of this process - but only parts. There is also a need for professionally conducted training programs. It is unrealistic to expect busy officials to organize high-quality, intensive training programs on top of their routine duties, although they make valuable contributions as resources. It is wrong to assume that someone sent on a disaster management course will return as a trainer able to organize effective training programs. It is one thing to acquire knowledge; it is another to know how to pass it on. Disaster management training courses are best organized by a small cadre of professionals who usually have learned better teaching skills in short courses on teaching methods. There is a need for “trainer training.”

National trainers can easily become discouraged by the lack of available teaching materials. There is a pressing need to develop high-quality common-user teaching packages - including audiovisual aids of the style used by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) - to use, with appropriate modifications for local circumstances, in national training programs.

Management is best taught by creating an environment in which people learn from experience in an interactive process for which lectures or self-instruction are no substitute. On-the-job training - observing good and bad managers at work - works well in normal circumstances but not for teachers of crisis management. The training would come too late. Simulations are an indispensable teaching tool. Simulations were invented by the Germans more than a hundred years ago to give their armies practice at war; they called them war games. Recently business schools discovered them and renamed them simulations; then academia discovered them and called them hypotheticals. Whatever they are called, they try to recreate as realistically as possible in a learning environment a real-life situation and the problems that are likely to occur in it so that the players can develop their individual and group response skills. The ADPC routinely uses the ATLANTIS crisis management simulation exercise developed by the Cranfield Disaster Preparedness Center - jointly with the IBM/(UK) Scientific Center - for its disaster management courses.


Disaster management training, like any form of continuing education, is an ongoing process. Officials move on to new appointments and those taking their places must be trained. Trainers themselves must be kept up to date, to refresh their knowledge, lest they get out of touch with the realities of disaster and their teaching becomes remote and irrelevant.

Ad hoc programs lack continuity, have no institutional memory, and are denied the security of ongoing budget provisions. An institutional base can be provided in three ways: by creating a separate entity, by assigning the responsibility to a particular government ministry or department, or by assigning the responsibility to a particular agency or institute.

All three options have been tried. Australia established a Counter Disaster College. The United States has the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Indonesian Disaster Management Center, with interdepartmental responsibilities, is under the day-to-day care of the Department of Social Affairs. The ADPC is part of the Asian Institute of Technology, an autonomous regional institute of higher education. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. There is no definitive formula; the most appropriate option depends on a country’s organizational structure, perceptions of operational responsibilities, research needs, funding, and so forth. Whatever formula is adopted, it should be seen as no more than an institutional base that, while conducting its own training activities, also supports training elsewhere.

Training should be conducted as widely as possible. Schools can teach children basic survival skills; universities should be encouraged to introduce relevant disaster-related courses into their routine curricula. Governments should make greater use of institutes, schools, and colleges through which promising officials pass in midcareer as part of the promotion process - for example, institutes of public administration, schools of management, and service staff colleges. Introducing disaster management training into the routine curricula of such institutes would provide a wonderful opportunity, at minimal cost, of disseminating the concept of disaster management to captive audiences of people at the right level of seniority who might well be key actors in a real event. This concept was put forward by UNDRO (1975) and Ritchie (1976) but has yet to take root.

What is the role of international centers? The UNITAR report (1988) highlighted some of the advantages of a regional multidisciplinary disaster management center or mechanism. It:

· Provides a formal, multidisciplinary approach for training national relief assistant managers and managers from NGOs, especially the national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

· Gives specialized training for technical disaster experts such as health managers, assessment teams, and engineers specializing in disaster-resistant construction.

· Establishes a permanent forum for disaster management networking, facilitating collaboration among international, bilateral, and nongovernment organizations providing disaster assistance.

· Provides a center for disseminating information on training techniques and practices and disaster-related publications.

· Encourages predisaster activities to stimulate planning in countries that have few resources or weak response capabilities.

The ADPC sees its role as directly analogous to that of its parent organization, the Asian Institute of Technology - which is to provide training in an international forum, usually multidisciplinary, at a level that is not now available nationally. Thus its role is support, not substitution. The formula seems to be working. The ADPC has served as a catalyst in Asian-Pacific countries.

Putting knowledge into practice

Training is a means to an end, not an end in itself - its purpose, to enhance capabilities. At the ADPC, all course participants are told that the success of their training will be measured by what they do when they return home. It is not enough that they are better informed; they must put their knowledge into practice. Each participant is invited to make a list of personal goals for the next 12 months and encouraged to report his achievements. Training strategies should build on past achievements and make use of available opportunities. The disaster training needs of Asian-Pacific countries are for help in creating cadres of trainers, providing them with effective training tools, providing national institutional bases, and providing opportunities to share knowledge and training expertise with neighboring countries.

This paper has concentrated on training in the Asian-Pacific region and claims little knowledge of training in other regions, although it may be similar. According to the UNITAR report (1988) the greatest need for training is in Africa. The Cranfield Disaster Preparedness Centre has trained about 500 African officials. Other organizations - notably the UNDRO/Pan-Caribbean Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Project (PCDPPP), the Disaster Management Center at the University of Wisconsin, and the Oxford Polytechnic (UK) Disaster Management Center - are providing support to national and donor agency programs elsewhere. The Relief and Development Institute (UK) has developed excellent training materials. The UNITAR report suggests that the ADPC and PCDPPP represent new approaches to disaster management, “models from which applications could be made for the formulation of a training curriculum in the targeted sub-region(s) of Africa,” but these two organizations are by no means the only actors. IDNDR offers a golden opportunity to pool worldwide expertise and develop training programs and materials for the benefit of disaster-prone developing countries.