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Cedric Stephens Avoiding ‘compound’ disasters

In 1984, Michael Replogle, the founder of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, ITDP, had a simple but novel idea as a response to the US-led bombing campaign of Nicaragua: “Send bikes, not bombs”.

This form of humanitarian aid was desperately needed for mobility by teachers and healthcare workers to travel into rural areas.

“We set out to organise bike clubs and churches to donate second-hand bicycles to empower ordinary American citizens who felt helpless to stop the actions of their government,” said Replogle. “This was a way to show how basic mobility can massively improve quality of life.”

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy was incorporated the following year. It grew beyond Nicaragua to include efforts to reform the transport policies of the United States government and the World Bank.

“Through conferences, publications, and letter-writing campaigns, our small team challenged the World Bank and other institutions to pay attention to bicycling and walking and the transport needs of the poor,” says Replogle.

In a paper discussing the implementation of rapid transit systems many years later, the ITDP wrote about the complexity of that task.

“Governments not only need access to funds and debt finance to build successful rapid transit infrastructure, but they must also have a robust institutional capacity to plan, finance, design, build, a rapid transit system,” it said.

Jamaica’s National Works Agency technocrats involved in projects to upgrade the island’s road network understand the complexities of these undertakings. The United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction Offices define institutional capacity as the capability of an institution to set and achieve social and economic goals through knowledge, skills, systems, and institutions.

In the ‘Mishandling of ODPEM’ – published May 16, 2021 – I carefully questioned the wisdom of placing the Office of Disaster and Emergency Management under the supervision of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The ministry’s actions, the article’s subject, suggested that it lacked the institutional capacity to supervise that agency. The response to this criticism was a deafening silence. The local government ministry’s failure to start and complete the Maverley Park redevelopment project is another example of its shortcomings.

At the launch in August 2022, according to the Jamaica Observer, the minister said he was “hoping (note the verb choice) the project would be completed within 12 months”. Despite the inactivity on the site and missing its 12-month deadline, a councillor told the newspaper that “work is happening on it now”. Setting and achieving social and economic objectives by applying knowledge, skills, and systems demonstrates institutional capacity. Failure to meet goals implies the absence of institutional capacity.

Worldwide, disaster and emergency risk professionals are now carefully studying what The Washington Post calls the ‘Maui compound disaster’. The island of Maui is the second-largest island in the state of Hawaii at 727.2 square miles (or 1,883 square kilometres).

A compound disaster defines a situation with adverse consequences resulting from different but related disaster agents. Many agents acted together to make the Maui fires horrific. As human influences on the climate and environment grow, the risk of these disasters escalates.

“Recent floods in China, fires in Greece, and deadly heat in the Southwest United States are other recent examples of how extreme weather, human-caused climate change, and changes to the local environment can converge devastatingly,” it reported.

A Time magazine report said “many Hawaiian residents, but likely also of officials who may have been unprepared for fires of this magnitude. A February 2022 emergency management plan by the state of Hawaii rated wildfires as low and medium risk across the board for their effect on people, property, the environment, and emergency management program operations”.

Over 1,000 people are reported to have died in the fires. Are the folks at the Ministry of Local Government and the ODPEM analysing this disaster event to perform their jobs more effectively and protect the island’s residents?

There are other worrying signs that all is not well in the ODPEM. The agency was ‘battered’ in a ministry audit, screamed a headline in a July 4, 2021, Gleaner article. A few months earlier, another headline blared: ‘McKenzie out on a Limb: Letter Triggers Discontent At ODPEM as Interference Concerns Linger’. Desmond McKenzie is the minister of local government.

The examples that I have cited do not inspire trust or confidence. The Ministry of Local Government has a critical role in implementing the country’s National Natural Disaster Risk Financing Policy 2021-2026, the subject of articles I wrote two months ago. Presumably, the folks at the ministry do not have the capacity to connect the dots. Therefore, their counterparts in the Office of the Prime Minister should intervene.

Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: or

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