“Our approach to tackling crises - including climate change - must prioritise the most vulnerable”

By Ben Webster, formerly head of climate adaptation and early action, British Red Cross, now head of secretariat, Risk-informed Early Action Partnership 


Last updated 4 August 2023

Ten years ago, I was working for an NGO in Haiti shortly after a devastating earthquake struck the country, killing an estimated 230,000 people and decimating Port au Prince’s infrastructure. My team was based in the hills south-west of the capital – not too far from the epicentre – where village schools, homes, shops, roads, bridges and water points had all been damaged or destroyed completely. It’s estimated that some three million people were affected in one way or another. 

A small portion of our team’s budget was dedicated to ‘cash for work’ – providing paid labour to help with public services that would benefit the community. We discussed with community members and leaders what would most benefit their village and then co-designed a short programme of work where people could be paid to help.

Within a few days, schools had been cleared of rubble and were starting to set up temporary classrooms within the space; pre-existing dirt roads leading to the local market had been strengthened with rubble so that motorbikes could pass, carrying both goods and passengers. The local economy started to revive and community members secured financial resources to buy items.

Soon, conversations turned to what would be done differently in these communities in future – introducing building codes to ensure stronger homes were rebuilt, a more inclusive education system, more representative local governance structures; how Disaster Risk Reduction measures could make these communities more resilient in future. 

I’ve worked in and around disasters and crises for the past 17 years and I know they bring chaos and confusion. They can destroy, decimate and devastate. But they can also bring opportunities to do things differently. Opportunities for change. 

On the global stage, many countries regularly face hazards of different kinds and are adapting to become more resilient accordingly. Whether it’s Mexico establishing their Natural Disaster Fund, Mongolia introducing anticipatory humanitarian action in response to extreme weather events, or Mozambique adapting to the climate risks they face in the coming years, countries can and are considering what lies on the horizon and endeavouring to adapt accordingly.


Crises are a catalyst for learning and for change

It’s clear that at an individual, community or national level, crises are often a catalyst for learning and for change. I would also propose that the bigger the crisis, the more radical the change can potentially be. With the COVID-19 crisis being one of the largest the world has faced to date,  there is an opportunity for significant, collective and transformative change. But let’s not wait passively for change to happen – where are the areas that need proactive and strategic foresight? On World Environment Day 2020, the next big crisis for the world to address must be that of climate change. 

Numerous articles have been published regarding the links between COVID-19 and climate change. All of them identify the opportunities that lie ahead for us to become more resilient in the face of future shocks and stresses. However, the coming weeks and months will be crucial as decisions are made regarding economic stimulus and recovery packages (will they be used to build a greener future?); how our early warning systems and preparedness measures should be adapted for future shocks (will they take an integrated risk management approach?); and the world tries to either slip back in to ‘business as usual’, or to embrace a different path ahead.


Following natural hazard disasters, we often refer to ‘building back better’. As we start to consider what a world after COVID-19 might look like, how can we ensure this window of opportunity is capitalised upon and what are the priority areas to change? Here are some suggestions from me (but I’m sure you’ll add your own):

1,)    Firstly, this pandemic has shown - once again - that when disaster strikes, it is the most vulnerable communities that are hit the hardest. Our approach to tackling crises, including climate-related ones, must prioritise and intentionally target those who are hardest to reach.


2.) We’ve learned that the world can mobilise and respond to an imminent threat if the political will exists. Whilst the climate crisis has been rising up the global agenda in recent years, the general consensus is that the level of global ambition required to limit carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement remains elusive. The COVID-19 situation is demonstrating that we need to work with a global perspective and in unison if we are to stand a chance of tackling crises of this nature and magnitude. The coming months leading up to the next United Nations Climate Change Conference will be critical if we are to secure global and ambitious commitments to tackle the climate crisis – we’ll need to use them wisely.

3,) Thirdly, we need to invest more in risk-informed early warning systems and early action capabilities that are linked to crisis finance instruments. Whether it’s a global pandemic or climate-related shocks and hazards, we need forward-looking risk management approaches, just like those being promoted by the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership. And the capacity for this early action MUST be developed at the local level – we can’t pretend it can be flown in at the last minute and delivered by international organisations.

4.) Finally, we’ve learned that international travel isn’t as necessary as perhaps we had assumed in order to survive. Of course, there are exceptions; however, many people and businesses are finding that it’s possible to reduce international travel and still deliver organisational objectives by using online tools and platforms. Colleagues at the Red Cross Climate Centre are developing materials to help humanitarians to be virtually amazing, thereby reducing carbon emissions and beating coronavirus at the same time!

On this World Environment Day in 2020, we are faced with opportunities to decide what a post-pandemic world looks like. Let’s make good (long-term) decisions and ensure it’s a greener, happier place where fewer people are vulnerable to crises.

Ben Webster

Ben Webster

formerly head of climate adaptation and early action, British Red Cross, now head of secretariat, Risk-informed Early Action Partnership