If the past few years has taught us anything, it’s that the world is connected in ways that can demonstrate our common humanity or highlight the growing disparity between nations and communities. It’s also shown that economics affects us all and that, through faster and more accessible communications, many more people have the inclination, opportunity and capacity to press for change.

The wave of protests from Tahrir Square in Egypt to the Square Mile in London make it glaringly obvious that leaders can no longer shy away from their responsibilities to empower, protect and support the aspirations of their own people. It was gratifying that this emerged as central to the discussions we had this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In my experience, the over-reliance on top-down leadership during times of great change is not the best route to creating prosperous and dynamic societies. Individuals and groups are demanding greater accountability from their leaders, and more effective interventions when things go wrong. And they want to participate in defining and building solutions, rather than being passive observers. In 21st Century development, people need to be in a position to help themselves.

This desire for more participation has been married to a rapid increase in the availability of simple, relatively cheap global communications technology. The consequent spread of knowledge and awareness is a major challenge to all leaders, whether they’re responsible for a corporation or a country. In my discussions over the last three days it’s clear that this will be one of the defining issues of the next decade. Decision-makers are now under a lot more pressure to listen, and respond, to the concerns of their customers, critics and citizens.

While austerity is difficult for many, there is a growing consensus that change is now inevitable, and so this newly active population will demand and expect more effective use of the resources that are available, especially when lives are at stake. With disasters striking more frequently – and often in densely populated urban areas – governments need to get serious about disaster risk reduction and preparation.

Investing in disaster preparedness measures dramatically increases the value and sustainability of our development efforts, as well as saving lives and making humanitarian responses much more cost effective. It’s estimated that every dollar put into these strategies yields a 10-15 dollar saving in emergency response. It should not be seen as a charitable endeavour but as a financial and social investment.

It’s clear that we need to invest more in people and communities if we’re serious about eradicating poverty, reducing the impact of disasters, and developing stronger societies. This is especially true during times of austerity.

 

Bekele Geleta is Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

People silently hold mobile phones with alarms ringing to show solidarity with Belarussian demonstrators during a protest outside the Belarussian embassy in Kiev July 20, 2011. Over recent weeks activists have gathered on Wednesday’s in the Belarussian capital Minsk to silently demonstrate against the government in an event called “Revolution through social networks”. REUTERS/Vladimir Sindeyev

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