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Guest Lecture: Reflections of Preparedness, Mitigation, and Child Protection in Emergency Management

April 6, 2021 All day

By Everett Ressler

Date: 6 April 2021

Venue: Zoom meeting UNESCO Chair

Participants: 28 MSW students (S2)

Objective: The online guest speaker session was organized exclusively for the MSW students is to discuss and learn about Disaster Preparedness, Mitigation, and Child Protection in Emergency Management from a long term expert 

About Resource Personnel: 

HDPi Executive Director, Specializes in preparedness, risk reduction and child protection

Everett has a lifetime of work internationally in the humanitarian and development fields. He has lived and worked for most of career in Asia, Africa and Europe. The focus of his work includes organizational development, programme management, research and evaluation, training and consulting support.

Event/Session Details/Discussions/Highlights

When I was your age, as a young student, I made a decision, I made a decision that the field of emergencies, that is working with people in acute distress situations would be my field. So it doesn’t have status, and it doesn’t have money. But it has purpose. And I decided that would be my life’s work. And so I have decided I have found that there’s three parts that go together to being as good a person in this field as possible. 




-And mixing these three in a search to understand how to be helpful. 

Because of your geography in India, you undoubtedly have the most experience in emergencies of almost any people in the world, your droughts, for example, in some places, monsoons, and your floods and your heat. And the cyclones and other types of emergencies mean you have more experience, than most. 

And you have the long political history. Over your 5000 year history there have been many rulers in which one built and another destroyed. From the time of the low Neolithic culture in Mysore to the Greek invasions and Ashok and the Gupta dynasties, and the hands in the Arabic conquest in the age of Raj Putin, we could go on and on. And each one, the story is told in part by both what was built and what was destroyed, and the emergencies are there, the social work issues are an important part of that story. Now, I say that for two reasons. This point, again, is that it’s you who we can learn from from India.

When people face emergencies, one after another, they built up systems and practices and learnings from that, to address those problems. And so systems don’t transfer well. But principles and lessons learned do, so for example, when Ethiopia looked to solve their emergency problem they look to India for lessons learned. And so you have your experiences, and you have a lot that the rest of us can learn from.

I want to tell you a story. During the some years back, I was invited by the government in India to look at the emergency drought management systems when you had a major drought in Rajasthan and Gujarat and so forth. So I went to India and had the privilege of going across the regions and talking with people who are working in the fields and administrators and senior people. And on the way home from that trip in the last flight to Delhi. By chance I sat by the window in the airplane, and next to me set a man who asked me why I was in India. And I said I’m here to learn about your disaster management systems, your drought response, and he said, Oh, the government is terrible. And the people are starving and it’s an awful situation and I said to him, ah, but I’m not so sure you let me show you and I pulled out my notebook. And I showed him some drawings. And I said, you have a very interesting approach to drought management, you have a very interesting way to deal with all sorts of issues from animals to people, food and so forth. So I said, I’m not sure that you’re seeing the whole picture, the man next to him by the aisle, leaned over and said, May I join the conversation? And the man in the middle of said, what do you do? And he said, I’m a merchant, manufacturer, he said, I manufacture watches.

But it was very clear that the man by the aisle knew all about drought. And we became interested in discussing, and we just talked across the man in the middle, and all the way to Delhi, we talked about drought, and off farm employment and the needs of the people and how you respond to the needs of the people. So he might have been a manufacturer, but he knew so much. And we had a wonderful conversation. And when we got to Delhi, and I was getting in the car that was going to take me to the ministry.

The man came up by the aisle came up to me and said I want to apologize that I didn’t fully introduce myself for reasons of discussion. He said, I am the relief commissioner from Rajistan. I planned your trip.

So it was a chance meeting. But to me it was a wonderful experience. I had so much respect for him. I thought it was fantastic that he was he wanted to know. He was curious and just wanted to hear my feedback on these things. So when I got to the ministry, I told them what he had done. And they were laughing like crazy. They were so enjoying it and said, Let us tell you a story about him.

So they said, when the people at one point in the drought, the people were not paid, went for their works projects. And the cabinet, called him before the cabinet and said we understand that the people have not been paid.

And he said, That’s correct, because you in the central government didn’t disperse the money to the state. And they said, Mr. Karani, have you received your salary? And he said yes. And they said, we insist that your salary is withheld until the people are paid. 

This story was part of the wonderful learning experience about the dynamic governance systems, the drought management systems and the care in India. And of course, there are many problems, but there are many good things. And when you are searching for answers in the beginning of your career, you will find in India, so much depth.


When you are going to an emergency. You will find despite all of thework that has been done, people will say “ I didn’t think it would be just like this, some things are the same”. However, there are many things in this situation that are different. And that is because emergency management is such a difficult, difficult work because things are always changing society, the environment, and each event is a little bit different. And therefore it’s the constant search to understand what are the needs of people? How do we respond to people? And so for me, the study of Emergency Management at the heart of it is the helping relationship. Whether it’s government or whether it’s local action, how do we assist or and help someone else? 

Shelter is an important issue, because it’s not just shelter. But there’s such a misunderstanding about shelter everywhere in the world, when people see shelter, as they call it shelter, but the people never call it shelter. Families call it homes. So the difference between shelter and home is a very important issue. How to do this shelter is important. So I had this most interesting experience of going to one village on the coast in Andhra. And I saw that in this case, all of the policemen of the state, had collected money and had hired an architect. 

But what I found was that the people from the villages lived on one side of the new houses, and the people, the policemen were staying in their tents on the other side of the of the new houses. And there was complete acrimony. That is, the people said, who are these outsiders who came here, they chose this kind of form of housing, this is not what we want. 

And the policeman said, these people are the most ungrateful victims you have ever seen. We have collected the money and we’ve hired this architect, and we’re building this building, and they will not even sell us fish or tea, and won’t work on houses. And I said, what a wonderful learning experience, because we often misinterpret this helping relationship. And we think the West doesn’t understand the east or that what the urban eyes don’t understand the country or whatever behind this, whether it’s in Andhra or whether it’s in the US, or whether it’s in Africa, the dynamic is the helping relationship, how we do that. And this was an example where it wasn’t a conflict of cultures from other countries. It was a conflict between donor and recipient. And that to me, is a fundamental. And so that raises one suggestion for you. 

And that is, if you are serious about disaster management, the discipline you might wish to explore most thoroughly is that of sociology, particularly a field that has developed over the last 50 years called disaster studies. And there are numbers of units in India, but in around the world, Japan and in the US, and these are sociologists, and they’re also geographers and some geography has been a key discipline in it as well. But in the field of sociology is the study of human behavior and group behavior in particular, and many of the lessons they have found by looking at it more systematically, has helped us identify and define critical principles in what makes many of these systems work or not. And in fact, one of the most interesting groups of literature you could study is something called the myths of disaster response or behavior.

The myths of disaster response:

For example, many of the movies you will see about disasters are really perpetuating myths.  Just to give one example, when you see people in an emergency, in a movie, in a crisis situation, you will often see people what they call panic behavior,  that is they are running without regard to others, always sometimes screaming and so forth. That’s all a myth. That is to say what sociologist said, it’s not that it never happens. But that’s not the typical human behavior. And if you look very carefully, instead of people acting only for themselves, actually are caring for others around them, instead of running with leaving and panicking, that is to say that they’re defining it very specifically as flight without regard to others. No, that’s not what people do. They take care of people around them. So if we build our systems, and we are social workers in the field of emergency management, we need to make sure that our understanding of human behavior and group behavior is is not rooted in myth that it’s real. 

Defining Emergency

  1. If you’re in emergency management, the definition of what an emergency is. That sounds simple. It’s actually hasn’t it’s proven elusive for many people around the world. Even in the Red Cross there have been emergencies where people are plunged into helplessness. However, when we go to any emergency and emergencies that I have seen in India, and everywhere else, that’s not you won’t find people in need. Yes, that’s true. But certainly not helplessness. When you look at the pictures in the newspaper about an earthquake, or flood or a disaster, the photo photographer will always choose or typically chooses a person that is sitting motionless, out waiting relief.

That is not the typical behavior, almost anywhere in the world. People immediately act, people have agency, people are helping each other. So let’s talk about the definition of an emergency. We came up with a definition that we and UNICEF used for some time, that I believe is the most helpful one: an emergency is a normative situation in which there is some consensus, that extraordinary action is required. Now, the words that are important in that a normative situation, what does that mean? Well, it’s it means that norm, it’s a decision by people as to whether or not it’s an emergency that requires a response. And this definition is from a response perspective, I should say. But so for example, can you say and you put a stick in the ground and you said this is a flood, flood monitor stick, and it says the floods get up to six feet or eight feet or whatever? Does it mean that that the people will always respond when the flood reaches a certain level? Or take another example, if you take an example of malnutrition among children, and you can set up definitions such as any acute malnutrition of children

Above 10% is an emergency. That’s the definition. Does that mean that people will act when it’s 10%? No, it doesn’t mean that. So it is we have to decide, a decision of people, whether we consider something an emergency or not.

The second is the consensus. That means if you, as a social worker, or as a humanitarian, are shouting into the wind and say, there’s an emergency here, but there’s no consensus, there’s no one listens to you, then you will not get an emergency response. So that means that when you are trying to solve a problem, part of what you’re doing is developing the consensus around that problem. 

And then the third aspect of that definition is extraordinary action. So if you have a problem, let’s say a problem with food, or a problem with water or a problem with child protection, and it can be solved within your normal actions during normal programs, then it’s not typically considered an emergency.

An emergency means do something extra.

Social Workers in Emergencies

You need use the above definition. Think of it like this, if you are the engineer in the highway, and your responsibilities, were bridges and highways, etc., what would emergency be? It would have to do with the road system, the condition of the bridges, etc. And if you were an in each discipline, in other words, what constitutes an emergency, something that requires extraordinary action is going to be different. Now, why is that? Why is that important to you as a social worker? Because you are going to be calling for an emergency, you’re going to be fighting a battle against the system, because your focus is children and people and families and distress. And what it means then is that you’re going to look at that and say, Well, what from a social work point of view, requires extraordinary action. 

For example, when I worked for UNICEF, in helping to do preparedness work, all around the world, and we would go to many country offices. While working together with the whole team, we would say, and what are the situations of children in this country that are so acute, that we should declare them emergency? And what would happen? Every single time we did this, people would begin to debate and some would say, family abuse is so bad, we should call it an emergency. And other people would say, No, no, no, we don’t we don’t want to call family abuse, that that’s just normal. That is, we don’t want to call it an emergency, let’s reserve emergency for earthquakes, or floods.

My view on this is that, no, that’s the kind of debate you as social workers should always be stimulating. 

You should always be in the middle of that fight. And you should look at the conditions of families and children. And you will determine you will have to argue that the situation the kind of situations that you see, deserve to be deserved extraordinary action, and you will have to fight for that. 

Remember, an emergency is a call to action.  It says do something, do something more, do something special. And that’s what you’re calling for. 

And the if you take that you will be dynamic in your emergency management and you’ll change Emergency Management from this big thing that the relief commissioner and specialists people do. You take it to your community, your agency, the problems that you see and it’ll make you a fighter for that, to me, that’s the kind of emergency management that I think will be most dynamic for you as social workers.

One thing about warning and prediction, because India now has a very sophisticated disaster early warning system and warning system. But from your work, if you take it down to the level that you are working as social workers, remember that there is a difference between prediction and warning. So a prediction is about the likelihood of an event happening. But a warning is a call to action. So the differences and when you look at the disaster literature, for me, I found it most helpful to understand that if you issue a warning, a call to action, then you must do it. 

If it’s an action you’re seeking, then you must do it in a way that generates action. So for example, I heard a good case of someone in a flood, who was trying to warn people about the flood, and they took ways of conveying the message. And they rushed through the population. And they gave their warning, they thought, and no one acted. And then many people were killed, and there was a lot of destruction. And the person who did the warning said, ‘Well, I did my job, I did the warning’ until he was helped to understand, no, he had failed. That is, if you are warning, if you are responsible for you’re taking the responsibility to achieve action

Then you must provide it in ways that are understandable, and that cause response. Naming a problem is not enough. If you are if you are trying to get action, you must calculate and figure out what kind how to do that in such a way that it brings action.

It is critical that you know your values and beliefs before you enter this emergency field. We all think we know ourselves. And we know our values. But to me, you can benefit a lot from trying to be clear about your values and your beliefs. For me, when I was working on the problem of children and war, and what needs to be done, and I had to sit down and figure that out for myself, what are the values and beliefs and fighting for?

And for me, it became very simple. To do what you can to prevent the conflict or mitigate the conflict or prepare for it. And then break the other parts down: What are the abuse issues, are there any threats to life? What can I do to prevent? What can I do to mitigate? What can I do to prepare what’s needed. And you can say that in your belief, I believe that people who are sick should be cared for. And we should do what we can to prevent them from being sick. We should do what we can if they’re sick to help them and recover. And the same thing with rights and abuse and education and other forms. But the simple principle is give attention to the values that you hold, clarify that make sure that you know where to stand, because sometimes your values can get lost and we are we are committed to action and we

we lose it.

Always take the approach of talking and listening to people find creative ways to solve problems.

Outcome:  Students got a broad understanding of how to hold onto your values during an emergency, how to define an emergency, and what the basics of response are in terms of social work.

Attendance /No. of participants : 34

Male = 6,  Female = 28

List of the participants

Name of the participants 
3Akhila S.P
9Gopika Raj
10J. Abhirami
13Kavyaja R
15Mahesh S Unnithan
18Soorya  A Sabu
20Raimy Elsa Mathew
24Varsha saran Dev
25Vineeth Noble

Source of Funding (online lecture organized by Amrita ViswaVidyapeedam, Amritapuri)