Introducing SF Associate Member Mercedes Aguerre

What have been the key milestones on your disaster risk reduction education journey so far?

There have been many experiences and persons that have influenced my disaster risk reduction journey. But there is one particular experience that shaped my career and determined my full involvement with disaster risk reduction.

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, until I moved to France to pursue my Master’s studies. During my Bachelor degree in Political Science I started to develop a deep interest in international security, particularly in peacekeeping missions. Hence, after finalizing my studies I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in National Defence, which gave me the opportunity to start working at the Argentinian Ministry of Defence as adviser to the Secretariat of International Affairs. My main activity was to monitor and suggest improvements in bilateral cooperation between Argentina and European countries that is till the Haiti earthquake happened in January 2010. I was truly touched by the catastrophic consequences that this natural disaster had for one of the poorest countries in the world. Argentina was deeply committed to supporting Haiti by providing immediate humanitarian aid as well as full involvement in the UN stabilization mission, MINUSTAH. Therefore, I asked my supervisor about the possibility of being more involved in humanitarian relief activities, which he agreed to. Working at the MoD enabled me to assist and observe how this aid was coordinated and delivered to a devastated country, and I realized that I wanted to do more, that my efforts were not enough. At this particular point, I felt that I should be in Haiti supporting and assisting the victims. Consequently, I decided to re-orient my career towards humanitarian assistance with concentration on disaster risk management. From this point, all my professional experiences have related to this subject.

I moved to France in order to pursue a Master’s program in International Humanitarian Assistance. Following my two years Master’s degree, I had the opportunity to carry out my first field mission as a volunteer in Guatemala with an Italian international NGO. I was finally going to put into practice all the knowledge acquired during the previous years, and more important, I was going to be able to directly assist the victims of natural disasters. In Guatemala, I met someone who became a sort of mentor to me, my superior, the Head of Mission. Deeply committed to humanitarian principles, she shared with me her passion for the humanitarian cause and for hard work on behalf of the most vulnerable. She helped me to structure all my knowledge and to put it into practice. Great opportunities were given to me in Guatemala and I learnt many things, at both personal and professional levels, such us the importance of a community-based approach in humanitarian programs; the necessity of avoiding duplication of efforts by sharing experiences and lessons learnt with stakeholders; strengthening the link between local authorities and communities, among many others.

Deeply motivated to continuing working in the field, I was proposed as Project Manager in DRR, in Afghanistan. This experience was completely different but equally rewarding. Cultural and language gaps were definitely a very stimulating challenge. Approaching the communities was very difficult to me, as a translator was needed but not always available. But the reality is that no matter where a disaster strikes, the needs of the affected ones are going to be similar. The actions to meet those needs will differ from one context to another so as to be correctly adapted to each particular situation, but losses will be registered, regular ways of life will be momentously halted and humanitarian assistance will be needed.

How do you see the DRR education landscape at this point in time?

I see the humanitarian community and the governments concerned, integrating DRR education across their programmes, but facing obstacles such as bureaucracy and lack of resources. In 2005, 168 countries committed to making their communities more resilient by adopting the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). Since HFA came into effect, countries have been monitoring their progress in order to keep a record of how they are achieving agreed commitments. But unfortunately, in some countries changes are hard to incorporate, resulting in slow progress or lack of significant impact.

DRR education has been given a priority place in the HFA, underlining that DRR and recovery concepts and practice should be included in school curricula, education materials and relevant trainings. In this regard, governments have faced some barriers, including lack of awareness in Ministries of Education, lack of funding for training and for providing training materials; and the need to adjust national curricula to the local context, among others.

Moreover, different valid approaches have been used to integrate DRR in school curricula. The most frequent one has been the physical explanation and characterisation of hazards included in a specific school subject such as geography or natural science. The main problem with this approach is that DRR is just tackled in a one-day class without continuation and never put into practice, like, for example, through the implementation of drills.

Furthermore, I consider there to be an issue of primary importance: academics contributing alongside policy-makers. As Project Manager in DRR in western Afghanistan we encouraged collaboration between the Faculty of Agriculture and the Regional Agency for Disaster Management. What principally stimulated this initiative was the lack of human resources at the Afghan Regional Agency for Disaster Management. In this sense, we promoted an exchange between academics and policy makers and a volunteer service for students. The selected students were supposed to support the public servants with their technical knowledge and in return they could have the experience of volunteering in the public sector and could make also use of the new and modern material recently donated within the frame of our project designed to monitor natural hazards.

In summary, I believe that DRR education should be provided in a comprehensive way, and to be truly effective local government servants, as well as teachers, must be appropriately trained so that they are able to adapt and transfer their knowledge to accord with local realities.   

What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications for your own work?

As we speak, we are on the point of welcoming the Third UN World Conference on DRR. During this conference a post-2015 framework will be adopted, in order to continue our efforts to create more resilient communities and to generate a culture of safety. It is encouraging to see the concern of international organizations as well as involved countries to renew their commitments.

Hopefully, these future steps will bring more concrete changes and strengthen the goodwill of authorities to further implement DRR measures and programs in their countries. Even though some progress in reducing losses has been achieved, with a significant reduction in loss of lives, properties and livelihoods, further advances call for unremitting persistence and perseverance. Not only do authorities and organizations need to renew their commitment but also DRR practitioners at a personal level.

How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?

I have recently joined SF so I have big expectations of our work together. I first got to know SF by going through their Disaster Risk Reduction School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries document [1]. This report offered me a better understanding of the efforts made in the countries reviewed to integrate DRR in school curricula. The methodology used and the accuracy of the data presented, allowed me to clarify which are the most used and convenient approaches to DRR integration. I admire the way that David and Fumiyo present the results obtained and I didn’t hesitate to get in touch with them to explore potential cooperation. After some email exchanges and a phone conversation we realized that we could join our strengths. I am really glad to have joined SF and I am eager to begin the collaboration.


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