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The Sendai Framework: A catalyst for the transformation of disaster risk reduction through adaptive governance?

This discussion brief examines how elements of adaptive governance appear in the Sendai Framework, and how they might support transformative change in DRR.
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The approval of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 was a milestone for efforts to build resilience to natural and human-caused hazards around the world. In an unusual coincidence, world leaders adopted three critical global agreements in a single year: the Sendai Framework, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Addressing these issues at once highlighted the close interconnections among them.

The Sendai Framework aims to achieve “the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries”. Far more than its predecessor, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015, the Sendai Framework highlights the importance of broad-based collaboration to realize this goal: among governments, with the private sector and other stakeholders, reaching well beyond the traditional disaster risk reduction (DRR) community.

Putting this vision into practice will require robust and innovative approaches. This discussion brief examines how one promising approach, adaptive governance, already informs the Sendai Framework, and the potential benefits of developing it further. The concept of adaptive governance emerged from environmental management and resilience research as a way to achieve flexible, multi-level, inclusive governance systems that can deal effectively with complex social-ecological systems, in the face of uncertainty and even abrupt change. Key aspects include coordination and linking relevant actors and institutions across scales; collaboration with stakeholders; experimentation and innovation; and deliberate learning and reflection.

This brief* examines the elements of adaptive governance aspects that are built into the Sendai Framework, and how they could serve as a catalyst for transforming DRR. It also outlines key opportunities and challenges in taking an adaptive governance approach in the implementation of the Sendai Framework.

*Download the full text from the right-hand column. Key messages from the text are captured below – see the full text for more detail.

Figure 1 from page 2 of the brief: The Sendai Framework’s expected outcome, central goal and priorities for action.

Adaptive Governance and the Sendai Framework for DRR

Adaptive governance offers potential mechanisms through which to fundamentally change DRR, with implications for science, policy and practice. For example (see the full text for more detail):

  • An adaptive governance approach could facilitate a holistic evaluation of multiple hazards, human vulnerabilities and exposure, options to reduce disaster risks, and capacity gaps. Adaptive governance also promotes both retrospection and forward-thinking, which together are critical aspects of building disaster resilience.
  • A key challenge in dealing with disaster risks is that social-ecological systems are inherently complex and uncertain. A key benefit that adaptive governance brings to DRR is its potential to enable stakeholders engaged in DRR to better understand these complexities, by fostering collaboration and the consideration of multiple perspectives, disciplines, types of knowledge, experiences and possible actions. Through open and cooperative decision-making structures, adaptive governance also provides a framework for integrating science and other forms of knowledge, such as traditional ecological knowledge, into policies and practices to advance disaster resilience.
  • An emphasis on learning and experimentation also makes adaptive governance particularly suitable to dealing with (and reducing) uncertainties. The Sendai Framework recognizes the usefulness of such approaches in dealing with complex disaster risks. For example, it recommends the use of disaster risk modelling to consider different scenarios, which makes it possible to better address the complexity of the systems involved.
  • Adaptive governance does not favour a specific organizational or administrative structure. Adaptive institutions interact horizontally and vertically, through formal and informal networks, and help to foster learning, knowledge-sharing and innovation. This promotes iterative, context-specific problem-solving processes that can respond to new insights and changing conditions and are based on science or on local knowledge and traditions.
  • Adaptive governance can also help draw attention to important cross-cutting issues that might not be always considered in a conventional risk management approach, such as power relations, culture, and social capital.

The literature on adaptive governance identifies several characteristics that make it particularly suitable for achieving transformative DRR. Four have been found to be particularly important in this regard: polycentric and multi-layered institutions, participation and collaboration, self-organization and networks, and learning and innovation. In the brief the authors discuss how each of these four key adaptive governance characteristics suggested appear in the Sendai Framework.


Despite the progressive aspects of the Sendai Framework, a number of challenges are likely to arise in its implementation. For one, the articulated goals are both very broad and ambitious. Below we identify key challenges and propose ways to avoid some of them or to reduce their potential negative impacts.

Enhancing collaboration: Successful implementation of the Sendai Framework will require close collaboration between state and non-state actors, and robust logistical arrangements. The requirement of inclusive and “all-of-society” management and reduction of disaster risks demands increasing organi- zational capacity in terms of skills and resources to support operational costs.

Organizations that traditionally employ different operational approaches will need to come together in pursuit of the goals of the Framework. Some of these organizations will not have traditional working relationships with one another, and their mandates and ways of working may be very different. This is one of the issues that adaptive governance is meant to address, but that does not mean that coming together will not be challenging. The ability to communicate well and find ways to collaborate and, if needed, compromise, will be crucial to success.

Mobilizing resources for adaptive governance: Implementing the Sendai Framework through an adaptive governance approach is likely to increase organizations’ operational costs, at least in the short term. Additional transaction costs relate to ensuring or enhancing the extent and quality of participation, maintaining polycentric and multi-layered institutions and networks across different scales, and facilitating the required learning and innovation.

New coordination and collaboration efforts will compete for scarce resources at all levels, but especially at the local and national levels. This could be a particular burden in develop- ing countries (and especially Least Developed Countries) with fiscal deficits that make it difficult to address even the most immediate development priorities, such as education and public health. A greater challenge will be faced by the non-state actors who have traditionally lacked a consistent, predictable revenue stream to fund their work. The Sendai Framework does not have a dedicated funding mechanism.

Financing DRR: A single fund for financing activities that support sustainable development and resilience to climate change and disaster risks could make a big difference to the success of the Sendai Framework and would make an adap- tive governance approach to DRR more achievable. To create a joint DRR fund, existing mechanisms would need to be streamlined, and common criteria for funding, monitoring and evaluation would need to be developed. However, such a move would likely face considerable resistance from actors operating in existing institutions with their own finance streams. To achieve the collaboration among policy-makers, practitioners and researchers across all levels and scales envisaged by the Sendai Framework, such tensions will need to be overcome.

Addressing power relations: Power is at the centre of govern- ance for DRR, development and climate change. Adaptive governance requires cross- and multi-level linkages and a high degree of cooperation. Even though the Sendai Framework recognizes this, it does not provide an adequate assessment of the challenges in actually achieving it. Such power relations are evident in the approval of separate global agreements on development, climate change and DRR, in which the custodi- ans of each agreement protect their own identity, mandate and resources, rather than creating a single agreement together.

At the same time, at the national and local levels, social networks, organizations and processes of implementing the Sendai Framework are vulnerable to elites taking advantage of their power to further their own interests. The self-organization aspect of adaptive governance would thus be hampered by social stratification, inequality and social injustices in different communities. Some political economies/ecologies and govern- ance systems that are more autocratic than democratic are likely to feel threatened by an adaptive governance arrange- ment of DRR, since it requires participation and inclusion of all peoples and knowledges.

Overcoming hegemony: Policy-makers are expected by their communities to provide solutions to public concerns, including development issues and climate and disaster risks. They tend to be more directly confronted with difficult questions when disasters strike and adversely affect large numbers of people. Such events often reveal that they may not have answers to all questions. By asking policy-makers to share their power with other stakeholders, including the people at risk, to jointly iden- tify risks and jointly develop solutions, an adaptive governance arrangement for DRR will challenge their hegemony. This may result in resistance from policy-makers and prevent their cooperation with the communities they are supposed to serve.

The implementation of the Sendai Framework will thus require the development of mechanisms that detect and resolve such tensions at the earliest opportunity. This could be done by engaging neutral partners such as independent research organizations.

Tailoring and contextualizing solutions to the local level:

Another challenge will be to apply adaptive governance at the sub-national and local scales, especially at the individual, household and community levels. This will be difficult because adaptive governance is predicated on the ability of systems and institutions to be flexible in order to “manage adap- tively”. This means that, depending on the type of system disturbance or change (e.g. a disaster), stakeholders need to adjust to anticipate, cope with or adapt to the disturbance, or transform to a different state. To achieve this is challenging, especially within institutions that are governed by stringent codes, standard operating procedures and bureaucracy. Due to the sheer size of governments, it is usually difficult to effect drastic changes or transformations. Electoral cycles can also pose challenges, as they can lead to early reversal of policies due to political disagreements.

Measuring resilience: The success of the Sendai Framework in building resilience can only be measured through proper monitoring and evaluation. The challenge of measuring resil- ience remains, even as the implementation of the Framework begins (Mitchell et al. 2014). Although indicators may be approved by the appointed working group, it is highly likely that they will not be expressly agreeable to all actors in the research, policy and practice communities. In addition, collect- ing all of the required data is labour- and resource-intensive. This is likely to be a major challenge for the cash-strapped developing nations and Least Developed Countries, and thus compromise the validity and reliability of data or variables in the places most at risk.

Scale-appropriateness: Policies and measures to reduce disaster risk need to be developed and implemented at the right scale, to ensure that they reflect knowledge of the relevant context. Yet what the Sendai Framework calls the “local” level is not well-defined – it could mean many different things, depending on the governance system in each country. While this reduces tensions between the incumbent and any pro- posed system, the efficiency of this scale in triggering DRR efforts and finding what is doable within these levels may be problematic. Larger regions described as “local” levels might have more complex dynamics compared to smaller “local” levels. What works at the international level may or may not work at a much lower level. Finding the right bal- ance between scale-appropriateness and policy and practice balance is a continuing challenge.


The presence of attributes of adaptive governance in the Sendai Framework creates potential to serve as a catalyst for transformative change in DRR. However, as mentioned above, there are several challenges which must be overcome in order for adaptive governance to achieve such a transformation. Finding solutions to these challenges will depend on political will and the presence and actions of engaged citizens and empowered social movements; the protection of advocacy groups and whistle-blowers; opportunities for collaborative learning; and the sustained combined effort of all DRR stakeholders.

More research will play an important role in identifying opportunities for transforming the relationship between development and disaster risk and in enabling, navigating and institutionalizing deliberate transformations that lead to sustainable, equitable and resilient development for all.

This discussion brief was written by Martin Brown Munene, Åsa Gerger Swartling and Frank Thomalla. The authors would like to thank Mark Pelling, of King’s College London, for his expert review of an earlier version of this paper, and Marion Davis, of SEI, for her helpful edits and suggestions. This brief is an output of the SEI Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk. To learn more, see https:// www.sei-international.org/transforming-development-anddisaster-risk.

Suggested Citation:

Munene, M. Swartling, A and Thomalla, F. (2016) A catalyst for the transformation of disaster risk reduction through adaptive governance? SEI Discussion Brief, Stockholm, Sweden.

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