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Code red: we're barely prepared for a borderless crisis

Worldwide, countries are barely prepared for major borderless crises such as extreme natural disasters or other unexpected calamities that destabilise society, Professor of Political Science, Arjen Boin, warns. In his inaugural address on 23 October he makes some recommendations.

Following 9/11, the Western world has done much to better organise the fight against attacks, disasters and other types of crises. However, this only applies for disasters with a clearly defined ground zero, says Boin. In terms of borderless crises, which extend beyond geographic, judicial, policy and public-private boundaries, we are helplessly unprepared. He bases his conclusions on his long-term research on crisis management over almost 25 years.

Hurricane Katrina

Boin mentions a few examples. Hundreds of deaths resulted when, in 2002, the SARS virus spread from China to nearly forty countries. In 2005, hundreds of Americans drowned after Hurricane Katrina broke the dikes around New Orleans, and the bankruptcy of the American bank Bear Stearns in 2008 led to a free fall of the American and European economies. 

Cross-linking of critical systems

In his inaugural address, Boin analyses why this kind of borderless crisis is so difficult to curb. The increasing complexity and interwovenness of critical systems - such as electricity, Internet and financial systems - ensure that even a relatively small disturbance can quickly mutate and escalate into something much greater. Ready-made solutions are just not available, he says, but he advocates greater awareness and a better plan of attack.

No decision-making authority

It is only possible to intervene quickly if we understand how, in a complex system, incidents can develop into calamities. The European Union has already invested heavily in warning systems in many areas, says Boin. ‘But often nothing happens with this information because the organisations that monitor these situations rarely have decision-making powers.’ Moreover, information often gets stuck in the chain, making it difficult to quickly gain a clear picture. The conclusion is that information management needs to be organised better, from the level of the individual employee to the exchange of information between organisations.

Who should take the lead?

During a borderless crisis, there is a great deal of uncertainty at the highest levels about the division of tasks. Boin: ‘The plan of attack lands on many administrative desks and it is often unclear which management team should take the lead.’ It is crucial that critical decisions are made by the right people and/or bodies and clear agreements are needed here. He studies the crisis capacities and competences of EU institutions in international research groups and makes recommendations.

Coping with uncertainty

What is missing is a political philosophy for crisis management. What kind of mindset is best suited for dealing with a crisis? Together with the political scientist Chris Ansell from Berkeley University, Boin developed a pragmatism-inspired guide for crisis management that they are testing in talks with successful crisis managers. Coping with uncertainty is an important part of this. ‘The tendency is to want to wait to get as much information as possible to make good decisions, but time isn’t on your side. You shouldn't try to get rid of uncertainty. You're better off acting quickly and discovering what is needed by trial and error. On that basis, you can decide what is the best large-scale approach.’

Disaster scenarios

Boin has just finished his book about the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina, which gives some lessons for the fight against this kind of major disaster. In addition, through his own agency, Crisisplan BV, he gives training courses to directors and managers.  The agency has countless disaster scenarios, such as a terrorist attack during Leidens Ontzet (the Relief of Leiden) or King’s Day. But he won't be talking about this. ‘My training is particularly about coping with uncertainty, because a borderless crisis is especially unpredictable.’