Assistant Secretary General Speech


July 1, 2021 - Washington, DC

His Excellency, Minister Robeson Benn, Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of Guyana and President of The Council for National Security and Law Enforcement (CONSLE)

Her Excellency, Ambassador Rita Claverie, Chair of the Committee on Hemispheric Security and Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the OAS;

His Excellency, Ambassador Sir Ronald Sanders, Coordinator of the CARICOM Caucus of Ambassadors in Washington D.C., Permanent Representative of Antigua and Barbuda;

Arthur Weintraub, Secretary of the OAS Secretariat for Multidimensional Security;

Distinguished Permanent Representatives and Alternate Representatives;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good Morning,

I am honored to participate in this important meeting to discuss a multidimensional approach to advancing disaster resilience in the hemisphere and the Caribbean. This is a topic that my office has been advancing since my assumption to this position. Today’s meeting is being convened at a most propitious moment. As we speak, Tropical Storm Elsa has formed in the Eastern Caribbean and is threatening the islands of Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. We pray that everyone remains safe. In this context, we hope that today’s session will be informative and thought provoking, and most importantly, it will present us with an opportunity for fulsome dialogue on the way forward.

The past year, marred by the Covid-19 pandemic will forever be etched in the annals of history. It has been a turbulent year replete with tremendous pain, loss of life, and livelihoods. It was also a year that revealed deep-rooted inequalities and unjust structures within our societies, which exacerbated socio-economic chasms and further marginalized the most vulnerable populations. Yet, in spite of the many challenges, the past year has provided a sound opportunity to reflect on the world that was and the world that could be.

It is a singular moment to re-assess and re-focus our nation-building strategies with the ultimate goal to ‘build back better’ in the face of natural disasters and now, global pandemics. Across the Caribbean we have heard our leaders repeat this rallying call to action, reiterating the importance of constructing more resilient societies so that we can bounce back from emergencies and disasters instead of collapsing under them.

It is no secret that our region is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. While we cannot change our geography, we can make strident efforts towards developing resilient societies in the areas of education, health care, infrastructure, critical systems, energy supply, and at the community-level. Measures must be undertaken to equip our region with the capacity and expertise to face one of the most formidable phenomena of our time: climate change. This can be achieved through effective policies geared towards building resilience, investing in clean energy, and strengthening the response capacity of the Global South.

Just last month, the OAS held a High-Level Meeting with CARICOM Ministers responsible for Energy, Heads of International Financial Institutions, bilateral development partners, and the private sector to discuss opportunities for investment in clean energy projects. This reinforces our commitment to support Member States in positioning themselves for resiliency.

Additionally, just a few weeks ago I participated in a virtual dialogue with Ms. Elizabeth Riley from the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), where we discussed the gravity of the effects of climate change if left unchecked. Our small island and low-lying coastal states are most at risk to suffer from the impact of global warming. The Caribbean region must be a leader in an energy transition plan, mainstreaming a clearly defined pathway to the development of clean and sustainable energy through diversification of its energy matrix and less reliance on fossil fuels.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also important for the hemisphere and the Caribbean to strengthen their public health systems in order to respond more effectively to public health emergencies. This can be achieved, in part, by providing preventative care measures which would include a focus on Non-Communicable Diseases; and by having access to much needed vaccines.

Initiatives such as these reflect the ongoing discussions happening at the OAS to address climate change and build resilience through adaption, mitigation, prevention, and recovery measures. It is imperative that we become more proactive rather than reactive in the face of disasters. We must also seek public-private partnerships to ensure that climate finance is a priority in all spheres. International financial institutions should make available concessional resources geared towards disaster resilience projects and which take into consideration the peculiar vulnerabilities of small island developing states and low-lying coastal areas through the adoption of a multi-dimensional vulnerability index in its lending criteria. Furthermore, given that Caribbean countries are highly susceptible to external global shocks, efforts ought to be made to strengthening the overarching financial system, which would allow for small island states to rebound from exogenous shocks, natural disasters, and global pandemics.

At the OAS, we have come to recognize the multi-dimensional nature of disasters, disaster response, and disaster recovery. Disaster resilience must be viewed from a human security perspective which places the needs and vulnerabilities of individuals and communities at the center of policies enacted. Bearing in mind the nexus between the role of the state, individuals, and public policy, a broad-based and multi-dimensional approach must underpin any efforts towards disaster resilience. The OAS employs various tools to that end.

One of the principal regional instruments to assist Member states in matters of disaster assistance is the Inter-American Convention to Facilitate Disaster Assistance which was adopted in 1991 at the 21st Regular Session of the General Assembly held in Santiago, Chile. It is the only regional, legally binding instrument in the world which addresses international disaster response through the provision of a set of rules for coordinated and collaborative international assistance. To date, only six countries have ratified this treaty. I hope that after today’s discussions, Member States would be encouraged to consider reviewing the treaty and begin the process of ratification.

In addition to that instrument, the OAS counts on a very productive and agile mechanism: the Inter-American Committee on Natural Disaster Reduction (IACNDR). Under my leadership, the Committee has met several times since 2016 during moments of crisis to ensure efficient coordination among members who form part of the Inter-American System of agencies focused on disaster prevention and mitigation. Most recently, Committee Members have been rendering support to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the wake of the volcanic eruption of La Soufriere.

The Executive Secretariat for Integral Development has played an instrumental role in building community resilience through the integration of Disaster Risk Management objectives across all programs and projects. For example, The Inter-American Network for Disaster Mitigation or INDM hosts an online database of the only government-authorized archive in the Western Hemisphere featuring national information on the installed capacity of each OAS Member State for disaster preparedness and mitigation. It is a useful platform during times of crisis enabling Governments to swiftly identify counterparts to assist with specific needs. SEDI has also implemented a wide range of projects which seek to build resilience in the tourism and energy sectors and in basic services, including electricity, water, and sanitation.

In spite of all these initiatives, we are keenly aware of the need within our organization to strengthen a cross-cutting and cohesive organizational structure and multi-dimensional approach to advancing disaster resilience in our hemisphere. We are working on it. With our extensive technical expertise, convening power, and resources, the tools for advancing such a strategy are already at our disposal. For example, in 2017, under my leadership the Regional Organizations and International Financial Institutions Platform was created to aid in harmonizing the activities of the member institutions and allow for information-sharing and knowledge transfer.

We look forward to working with Member States in pursuing other avenues for strengthening our hemispheric and organizational approach to disaster resilience.

Today, let us take full advantage of the collective wisdom of this Committee as we contemplate the future course of action and strengthen our multidimensional approach to advancing disaster resilience for our Member States. I wish to reaffirm the General Secretariat’s unwavering commitment to supporting its Member States in building a more resilient hemisphere and Caribbean region. The OAS looks forward to continuing to build on its record of service in working with Member States as we respond to climate change and in taking proactive steps in securing a strong foundation by which we become fully resilient to the impact of natural hazards.

Thank you.