Letter to future leaders on International Youth Day


Mami Mizutori

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Children playing outside a resilient primary school in Barbuda
Resilient primary school, Barbuda
UNDRR/Antoine Tardy

Dear Future World Leaders,

I am sure you are all closely watching the way the world’s leaders are handling the current global Covid-19 crisis and thinking about what you would do differently. Believe me when I say, the speeches you are hearing daily are the type of speeches leaders hope they will never have to make. But, unless we all make some major and immediate changes, you should expect to make more of them when the time comes to serve your country.

For the current COVID-19 crisis is not the real disaster.

The real disaster is our failure to invest in resilient systems and communities. In low- and middle-income countries, response and recovery from natural hazards cost firms and households US$390 billion a year. We spend 25 times the amount of money in disaster recovery as we do in disaster risk reduction before disaster strikes.

We have failed to recognise that in our hyperconnected world, everything is inter-related. Individual risks cannot be put neatly in separate baskets and addressed in isolation. Risk is cascading; one disaster can trigger another.

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding, as the pandemic is threatening the ability for people to receive life-saving food and medicines. More than 860 million students are out of school as we speak. Many parts of the world are preparing to face the hurricane and monsoon season under the added burden of social distancing and stretched emergency services.

In the most vulnerable communities, people’s livelihoods are being threatened, not by the virus itself, but by the precarious situation from which they are forced to address it.

In allocating our budgets, we have failed to truly value the things we now see are most important to us. We prioritised profit over people, and our life style over planet.

But the positive news is we know what you can do to reduce our risk and prevent the next pandemic – or even earthquake or tsunami – from becoming a disaster.

When you’re making the decisions, think about planning and preparing for disasters as an opportunity to get development right:

Disasters do not respect borders, or the arbitrary ways we divide responsibility:  You will need a cross-sectoral, whole-of-government approach to planning and budgets. You will need to be committed to maintaining peace and security so you can work with your neighbours to maximise increasingly scarce resources across boundaries.

Infrastructure can be part of the problem or part of the solution: You will need to make sure that the millions (or billions) of dollars you invest in infrastructure support the resilience of your communities, serve every sector of society and ease the pressure on the environment.

A country is only as resilient as its most vulnerable: You will need to ensure that nobody is left behind as your country progresses. As we have seen time and time again, everyone benefits from an all-of-society approach.

To do all of this, above all, you will need to be bold and uncompromising.

Keep an eye on the long-term: The impact of investing in green economies or sustainable infrastructure may not be realised over your political term, but they are the right thing to do. Don’t just think about being re-elected.

Invest in the future, not in rebuilding the past: The benefit of early warning systems, or robust and inclusive governance systems may not show itself in your lifetime, but they are much better value to your tax payers than post-disaster recovery.

Use the tools at your fingertips: The Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change are blue prints for a resilient and sustainable future. There are dozens of platforms sharing innovative, technical and human solutions.

Look after the people who need it most: The importance of insisting on risk-informed financial desicions, on environmentally-sound business practices or on inclusive labour laws may not be popular with the larger corporations who have traditionally supported your political elite, but they will yield a more robust private sector, ultimately benefitting everyone.

The world has changed forever. We are counting on a future of bold leaders so that the next time we face a global disaster of this scale – and we will – we will be prepared.

We are counting on you.

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