Crises are inevitable, and increasingly becoming the new normal. At all levels, governments will experience a crisis, and they must be prepared to address them head on in order to save lives and ensure national and citizen security in the long term. The pandemic spotlighted the importance of government preparedness in addressing crises, showing that most were unprepared in the face of the unexpected. Other crises, including natural disasters or events exacerbated by climate change, continue to challenge worldwide infrastructure and reveal the vulnerabilities in nations that are inadequately prepared. Nations that are unprepared to act swiftly, effectively and democratically in a crisis, are more prone to economic downturns, citizen unrest, corruption and protracted conflict.
Though all nations face challenges during crises, there are proactive considerations that leaders and crisis response actors must engage to withstand the worst of an unexpected event. Experience shows that when these measures are applied through democratic principles – accountability, transparency, inclusion, representation – nations are more effective at saving lives and withstanding future events.
There are several key considerations for governments in developing crisis preparedness to defend against future events democratically, including:
Proactively establishing and maintaining crisis plans that are suited to different kinds of emergencies (i.e. health, natural disaster, civil conflict, regional conflict, etc.)
Designating a team or group of individuals who are responsible for activating the appropriate emergency plan when necessary at different government levels; ensure that they are trained and have access to the plan, including any updates that are made over time.
Understanding the powers of various crisis actors involved in a response so that response measures can take place quickly and effectively (i.e. executive powers, legislative powers, local actor response requirements); and ensuring those powers statutorily provide checks and balances, accountability, oversight, and transparency of government actions in crisis scenarios.
Developing reserve accounts that can be drawn upon quickly and transparently in order to access resources for vulnerable and needy citizens in a crisis; and as part of the crisis plan, ensure that resources may become available quickly through proper oversight channels in the event support must be administered immediately.
Ensuring there are portals for citizens to access emergency services and/or government resources in a crisis; and that are available in multiple languages, including sign language (i.e. local emergency responders, community services, evacuation routes, medical clinics, government officials contact portals – websites, social media, phone, email, etc.)
Providing that interpreters and translation services as part of a crisis contingency, including in sign language and other accessible portals, and are available through different mediums in the event disaster communications must be administered across different language, cultural, geographic and ability groups.
Requiring that crisis plans include considerations for different groups of people who are disproportionately impacted, including women, children, front line workers, veterans, individuals with disabilities and other marginalized communities.
NDI has worked with crisis response actors for decades to facilitate effective and democratic crisis response. In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, NDI worked with government officials to assess disaster response needs in communities across the country. The Institute also worked with local officials and natural resource industry leads to assess environmental impacts following the earthquake and to strengthen infrastructure in order to prepare for future events.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NDI worked with government officials to adapt their systems and structures to address both immediate and long-term citizen needs. Through NDI’s work with the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), and in collaboration with its North Macedonia Parliamentary Support Programme funded by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC), the Institute developed two briefs for legislative actors, to adapt representation, lawmaking, and oversight capacities in the face of crisis. Lessons learned from the briefs for future parliamentary preparedness include:
Ensure flexibility in a chamber’s Rules of Procedure to provide for remote plenary, voting and general participation in the event crises pose proximity hardships or require social distancing; this should also take into consideration added flexibility for working mothers and those who have additional caregiving responsibilities in crises such as the pandemic that forced individuals to stay home.
Develop remote communication platforms that ensure legislators can quickly and effectively engage with their citizens, and that those platforms equally provide citizens with access to resources and services, and the opportunity to provide feedback, to their representatives (i.e. social media and/or websites that link to available community and government resources; virtual town halls; community bulletins and newsletters; virtual mail portals where individuals can share confidential information or request assistance).
Require transparent vote-tracking in virtual plenary and hearings; develop oversight committees and post-legislative scrutiny measures that are responsible for tracking the application and delivery of government resources for citizens in need.
During the pandemic, NDI also worked with local officials in Georgia to conduct emergency simulation exercises that would support municipal leaders in preparing for crisis response and readiness. Utilizing municipal response experiences from leaders across the country, NDI designed scenarios focused on varying levels of crisis severity, to which participants worked through planning appropriate response measures. Through the design of preparedness plans for “fictional” crises, the actors recognized especially the importance of coordination among different crisis actors within their contexts in order to plan for effective and inclusive responses in different crisis scenarios. The exercise led to two municipalities adopting crisis management guidelines to prepare for future crises in Georgia. Similarly, NDI’s North Macedonia team held a series of emergency simulation exercises with partners in the North Macedonian Assembly to help actors in the legislature develop crisis preparedness plans that would take early warning signals into consideration and apply key lessons learned from the pandemic in adapting parliament’s response. The exercises supported parliament’s understanding of various offices, actors, and units involved in crisis response measures, and the importance of oversight of the executive in national crisis management processes.
As crises of all kinds increase in the coming years, governments must be at the ready to ensure the delivery of resources to citizens in need, especially to those most vulnerable who are often on the front lines. By applying a democratic lens to crisis management and response, governments are more likely to succeed in quick and effective service delivery and sustainable outcomes in the long-term. In understanding these mechanisms and proactively establishing plans in the face of unexpected events, governments can apply democratic principles urgently, and governments everywhere will more effectively keep up with the inevitable landscape of future crises.
Authors: Frieda Arenos, Program Director, NDI's Governance team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.