Research Case Study

Impact: Helping countries improve their response to disasters

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    Economy, business, politics and society

picture of Professor Kelum Jayasinghe

Across the world the work of Professor Kelum Jayasinghe is helping disaster-prone countries, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia, understand how to prepare and respond to the challenges they face.

Assessing and reducing risk is vital in disaster-prone countries to try to minimise disruption to food supplies, health services and other essential daily needs when facing earthquakes, floods, bushfires, droughts or social unrest. 

This is only possible when all concerned work together – sharing the responsibility between central and local government, aid organisations, members of the public and those on the ground. Essex research has identified barriers to this collaborative accountability and provided the roadmap for how the United Nations (UN) and governments can make their communities safer and more resilient to disasters.

The challenge

In disaster-prone countries, decision-makers struggle to establish effective collaborative relationships between public, non-profit and private sector organisations. For these countries, collaborative accountability – establishing goals as a group and measuring performance against them - is crucial. This is especially true for central and local government level organisations since government bodies must be responsible to their Ministry, to the general public, the disaster victims, and also to external funding bodies. Consequently, accountability is essential in the pre-disaster, disaster and post-disaster recovery periods.

Unlocking the barriers which are holding back the effective allocation of disaster funding and resources is essential to ensure responsible, accountable, and effective disaster management on local, national and international levels.

What we did

Professor Kelum Jayasinghe is an expert in accounting, accountability and governance, particularly in the context of developing economies, and third, public and voluntary sector organisations. He has led research focussed on poverty alleviation and also disaster management projects and studied the effectiveness of development accounting and accountability mechanisms used in resource allocation. His findings reveal how often the resource allocation at community level were trapped due to institutional barriers and cultural constraints. This is due to lack of collaboration between institutions, the powerful influence of local elites, preventing the local communities in participating in decision-making and local accountability.

Based on his findings, Professor Jayasinghe produced guidance that drew on his research on accounting and accountability practices in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia and post-earthquake New Zealand.

His research findings identified

  • constraints that resulted from manipulative practices and political influences hindering the implementation of local government level accounting and accountability practices,
  • institutional and cultural political issues that hindered the effective implementation of accounting and accountability reforms,
  • the need to build on and critique the usual narrower views of accountability.

Particularly, in a longitudinal case study of coast conservation projects in Sri Lanka, Professor Jayasinghe analysed how international organisations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have used accounting and accountability rhetoric/language to promote development discourses at different stages of their international development policy.

The findings of this research indicated the World Bank had failed to bring any sustainable benefits to its target communities, such as the rural poor through its management and ‘good governance’ styles which are driven by their development ideologies and rational accounting and accountability rhetoric.

In another study, Professor Jayasinghe examined how accountability of collaborative governance was constituted in the context of disaster managerial work carried out by the Government, local authorities, and Maori community organisations, after the 2010–2011 Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand. The findings of this study signified importance of a more multifaceted model of ‘accountability combined with collaborative governance’ as a way to build on and critique some of the seemingly narrower views of accountability in practice.

These research findings were directly relevant to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and provided a benchmark for effective policy making at UN level for the benefit of similar communities who experience disaster.

What we changed

Essex research into collaborative accountability has had a direct impact on international and national policy towards disaster risk reduction, particularly in terms of responding to situations involving natural disasters.

Professor Jayasinghe has collaborated with the Sri Lankan government where he has informed central and local policies on disaster management and collaborative accountability. His research also feeds directly into the UNDRR Advocacy Group and was central to developing the implementation guidelines for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction on the topic of “Accountability and Governance for Disaster Risk Reduction” for UN member countries.

As the sole ‘accounting expert’ on the steering committee, and through workshops collaborated by him, Professor Jayasinghe’s research on the conceptual framework for accountability and the challenges of introducing such collaborative accountability frameworks in disaster risk reduction was drawn upon by the UNDRR, moving its policy beyond traditional top down and bottom up accountability towards working together with multiple disaster agencies and community organisations.

The Words into Action Report published by UNDRR draws on his research and provides the roadmap for how the UN can make communities safer and more resilient to disasters. This guide was used by the commission set up by the Australian Government in response to the extreme bushfire season of 2019-20 and was cited to stress the state’s responsibility to ensure the public’s safety and awareness of risks, and to prevent and reduce further risk of disaster.

“The accountability in the context of good governance was one of the important tools used by the World Bank in its international development programs and discourses. The intention of these accountability mechanisms and related rational accounting rhetoric was to empower the vulnerable communities and enabling them to participate in decision-making, local accountability and performance evaluation of key stakeholders” (UNDRR Words into Action Report, 2019).

Lead Academic