Governance networking for managing natural disaster in Bangladesh

28 Jun 2017, 22:36

Tareq Zahirul Haque

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to natural disaster because of its unique geographic location, high population density and widespread poverty. According to World Bank, in the past two decades, 60% of the global deaths caused by cyclones were in Bangladesh. Over the last four decades, it has been experienced by seven of the ten 20th century’s deadliest cyclones. In addition to cyclone, the country is frequently and harshly affected by a large number of natural disasters such as floods, tidal surges, tornadoes, landslides and river erosion.

Until recently, Bangladesh has invested about US $10 billion to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters. The biggest investment has been made on building cyclone shelters, coastal polders and flood management embankments. The country has therefore been now able to decrease the mortality of natural disasters substantially. However, the increasing and recurrent natural hazards, higher economic growth, growing assets and urbanization expose Bangladesh’s overall economy to the risk of colossal losses. Statistics reveals that yearly economic damage in Bangladesh mounted by disasters is about $US 550,726,000 coupled with over 10 million affected people.

Against this backdrop, Bangladesh has recently shifted its disaster management policy focus from traditional reactive response to more proactive risk-reduction and holistic approach. The National Plan for Disaster Management (2010-2015), a comprehensive disaster management plan, is the product of this focus. This plan has been prepared through an intensive consultation with all relevant stakeholders. More importantly, it has not only emphasized the importance of networking among stakeholders but also depicted how resources from diverse actors in the network will be shared to implement the plan. This paper is an attempt to analyse how the network of disaster management in Bangladesh looks like and what the potential challenges of network approach are from administrative perspective. The tenet of network governance is applied as a theoretical basis for analysis.

Natural disaster management practice in Bangladesh has received increased attention worldwide because of its recent considerable success. The government is intimately working with all stakeholders to attenuate the risk of disaster and to manage it to an acceptable humanitarian level. Consequently, a network has already been developed around the current disaster management framework and practices in Bangladesh. It is worth mentioning that, since long Bangladesh has been following predominantly traditional command-control based administrative culture and structure with recent little practices of New Public Management (NPM) and finally little practices with partnership style of governance. Given that, it is very timely to know about how the government has been maintaining this network, a most modern approach of governance, on natural disaster management and what could be the potential challenges.  


Network governance can be defined as ‘the process of engagement between organisations involved in managing a collective resource; and for which there is no obvious central body that exercises dictatorial control, although some organisations may be more important than others in the system of governance’. This definition illuminates that the concept of network governance is a wide divergence from the traditional command and controlled or market based governance. Besides, it can connect both state and non-state organizations and provides them collective decision making power to manage resources. Within the structure of network governance stakeholders can be involved through either formal or informal relationships, meaning a flexible organizational arrangements rather than guided by the stringent organizational rules, regulations and culture. Nevertheless, as indicated in definition, some organizations need to play more active role for steering the network.

The strength of network lies on the shared knowledge, resources, assets, costs and capacities as well as building new skills across the network scale. However, given such interdependence nature, network governance is also characterized by a form of complex interactions and decision making with much uncertainty. Networkers therefore, tend to focus to the means necessary to win stakeholders’ cooperation, pay more attention in building trust and see the success as an outcome of joint action. Significantly, communication, coordination, power relations are few critical factors within the network in order to create a cooperative and trustworthy relationship.

Governance challenge like natural disaster deserve to be addressed through coordinated efforts where network governance model has received increased attention world-wide. Disaster management usually have four stages of activities such as prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Large-scale disasters create catastrophic impact on the affected communities and therefore it becomes a daunting challenge to tackle the situation. Responding to disaster multiple agencies come to play that require communicating information and coordination among them that is best described by the idea of network approach. The rational of network governance’s potential in disaster management has become further strengthened following the recent failure to tackle the situation of the Hurricane Katrina in USA and the Haiti earthquake due to the lack of coordination between the rescuers, relief workers and citizens.

In Bangladesh, the natural disaster management network scale extends from top echelon of national body to local community where non-state and international actors are connected horizontally at each level. The functional relationship of state institutions from one level to another level is hierarchical. The central responsibility is vested to the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management (MoFDM) while three high profile councils/committees (composed of state and non-state actors including international such as the UN is a member of the National Disaster Management Council) provide overall policy directions and coordination of natural disaster management activities. The MoFDM manages disasters with the support of its technical department, the Disaster Management Bureau (DMB) and other two Directorates: the Directorate of Food (DF) and the Directorate of Relief and Rehabilitation (DRR). The DRR manages the post-disaster functions relating to relief and rehabilitation and the DF ensures food availability for relief distribution. The DMB maintains liaison and facilitates coordination and promotes cooperation among government, global aid agencies, NGOs/CBOs, private sector and local communities.

Below the national level, the District Disaster Management Committee headed by the Deputy Commissioner coordinates disaster management activities at district level. Similarly, the Upazilla Disaster Management Committee chaired by the Upazilla Nirbahi Oficer (Chief Executive Officer) at Upazilla level and Union Disaster Management Committee headed by the Union Chairman at Union level coordinate disaster management activities. In urban arena, Municipal Disaster Management Committee headed by the respective Mayor coordinates activities. It is evident that the central government and its field level agencies play the key role to steer the network at all levels. A big number of local national and international NGOs, CBOs, private sector actor are actively engaged in disaster management network through information sharing, capacity building, problem solving, and service delivery under the state agency lead coordination mechanism noted above. Thus, Bangladesh has a well-developed countrywide institutional network to manage natural disaster and as such has brought recent considerable success but not at expected level. Despite institution network in place, available literature suggests that the following inherent administrative challenges highly undermine disaster management network to function effectively.   

Power distance and elitism: Hofstede’s study on cross-culture reveals that Bangladesh is a ‘high power distance’ hierarchical society in which less powerful people expect and accept unequal distribution of power. The sense of unequal power was penetrated to the national culture through ancient normative root, ‘Samaj’. Eventually, high power distance cultural element became prominent in Bangladesh public administrative culture that still exists between superior and subordinate and between bureaucrats and citizens. As such, an elitist bureaucratic character has developed within the administrative culture where bureaucrats usually think themselves superior and people also view themselves as inferior to the bureaucrats. Another root of elitism bureaucracy is the colonial administration when public administration’s responsibility was only limited to maintain law and order for collecting tax and thereby a distant relation was created with common people.

Though the philosophical basis of ‘power’ and ‘elitism’ lie in the ‘father-like behavioural attitude’ of public officials towards the citizen for their welfare as a less informed obedient child, such bureaucratic mind-set towards non-state actors undermines the equal and autonomous partner principles of network governance in practice. Thus, the above traits of power distance and elitism in Bangladesh public administration are fundamental impediments in building a trustworthy relationship with the non-state actors of the network.

Centralized decision making: Centralized decision making authority is another drawback found to be existed in Bangladesh public service that weakens network performance. All decisions with regards to natural disaster response as well as recovery are confined to the MoFDM that undermines quick response and recovery by the local authority. Financial autonomy of the field level authority is very limited to tackle local level emergency situation. For instance, Upazilla administration has no emergency funds for disaster although the Upazilla is the most vital administrative tire to respond to disaster at grassroots level. The Upazilla administration depends on district administration for emergency fund where it consumes time to release fund from the district administration because of the cumbersome bureaucratic process.

Coordination problem: Coordination in general is a long standing challenge in Bangladesh public bureaucracy. But the network mode of governance itself and especially the disaster management networks require a high level of coordination for effective functioning. Bangladesh disaster management plan emphasizes the institutional coordination and thereby setting coordination responsibility at all levels of disaster management network. This is however, like other sectors coordination in disaster management network has remained as a vital problem. Coordination within government departments, between NGOs/CBOs and government agencies, between international donors and government are poor. The bureaucratic attitude and their poor communication and low coordination capacity, disaster management committees’ reactive approach, insufficient interdependence of network actors, and lack of accurate information among actors are the main reasons of poor coordination in disaster management network.

To conclude, natural disaster management network in Bangladesh though is yet to utilize full potential of network governance, it has brought all relevant actors/institutions under a common umbrella and accordingly have achieved considerable success in the management of recent disasters. Some inherent elements with respect to organizational culture, practice and structure such as centralized power, lack of local level financial autonomy, unequal power relation, bureaucratic superiority, coordination dilemma etc. are identified as functionally problematic in existing network. Nevertheless, it is too early to comment whether this network is success or failure since it is in early stage. Even though, pioneer countries of network governance who have decentralized decision making power, more or less equal power relation, advanced coordination mechanism also face challenges to establish an inclusive engagement of actors involved in network. But what becomes quiet important, public governance in Bangladesh is slowly shifting its focus from traditional command and control based administration to most modern participatory centric approaches that is partly from fostering innovative culture in public service and citizen demand, and partly from international pressure (global governance).

Therefore, it is recommended to give time and put much systematic effort on shaping the critical elements of network governance with considering contextual reality. Louis Brandeis in 1932 coined the phrase ‘laboratories of democracy’ to mean US state legislatures as an innovative source to deal with democracy problems. Finally, in line with this famous phrase establishing a ‘network governance laboratory’ by the state disaster management authority in Bangladesh is recommended for dealing challenges of network governance in an innovative way.