COVID-19 stretched global disaster management resources to the limit and the world continues to grapple with the devastating effects of climate change. The need for effective disaster management has never been greater. AIPM fellows Dr Angela Lecomber FAIPM CPPD and Geoff Rankins FAIPM CPPD discuss how project management could be the key to transforming disaster management practices and improving recovery outcomes.

Geoff: Angela, with your understanding of project management methods used in disaster situations, you are the perfect person to describe the range of methods used to manage emergency and climate-related projects. What’s the usual approach?

Angela: Emergency projects focus on preparedness for an emergency, emergency response and longer-term recovery. The generally accepted phases of disaster management are mitigation, preparation, response and recovery.

Terminology does vary though. For example, some agencies split response into ‘emergency management’ and ‘disaster relief,’ while others split recovery into ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘reconstruction.’ The graph on the previous page shows how the approaches fit together.

Commonly used disaster management terminology
Commonly used disaster management terminology (source: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction)


The role of risk management

Geoff: Disaster management has a strong relationship with risk management. How can the principles of risk management improve disaster outcomes?

Angela: The G20 recently established a disaster risk reduction working group because they recognised that reducing the likelihood and impact of a disaster are risk management activities. Undertaking risk management helps communities and economies to be resilient when shocks occur. Australia has also recognised the link, establishing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (informed by the Sendai Framework). It sets out the foundational work to proactively reduce risk now and into the future. It guides national, whole-of-society efforts to proactively reduce disaster risk to minimise the loss
and suffering caused by disasters.

Investing in resilience

Geoff: Mitigation is a risk management concept, and risk management is an ongoing activity, so I don’t understand why mitigation occurs in just one phase. What are your thoughts on this?

Angela: You’re correct. Risk management underpins disaster management. The mitigation phase could probably be replaced by a parallel and ongoing risk management process because risk management repeatedly iterates throughout the preparation, response, and recovery phases.

Case study: Aceh tsunami disaster

Project management to the rescue

Geoff: Where do you see project management supporting disaster management?

Angela: Early warning systems trigger emergency management and disaster relief agencies. Both will have standard processes, but their activities are more operational. Agencies might manage preparedness for a disaster using projects, but projects and project management usually kick in during rehabilitation and reconstruction. The project management methods used vary depending on the agency.

Some develop their own in-house method based on the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and/or Projects in Controlled Environments V2 (PRINCE2). The Logical Framework (LogFrame) is one of the principal tools used to establish the logic of projects in the field of International Development. LogFrame is akin to a benefits map as described in Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) which links activities via outputs and outcomes to benefits or goals. PSA ProFrame was developed to address some of the deficiencies associated with LogFrame.

Geoff: Where do you think the biggest opportunities are for improving disaster management?

Angela: I don’t think we’re effectively using project management methods and governance approaches to build back better or build in resilience for the next disaster.

I often notice response activities commencing before the disaster, then overlapping with recovery activities later. There needs to be a clear demarcation.

A body of research (Next Generation Disaster and Security Management, Chapter 6: Project Management Training to Improve Disaster Management in the Next Decade, Steinfort and Lecomber, 2012) also demonstrated that politics, confusion and a lack of trust and communication often dog reconstruction. There is a need to demonstrate that something is being done for the money poured in by donors. Combined with the media spotlight, kneejerk decisions can be made. This happened after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, and we’ve seen it in several disasters since.

If reconstruction work is not properly managed using robust project, program and portfolio management methods, it can further exacerbate vulnerabilities in affected communities introducing a human disaster following a natural disaster.

To satisfy donors, reconstruction becomes a focus of demonstrating quick wins rather than taking the time to consult and adopt a broader perspective, using new technology in a smart way coupled with extensive consultation and the collective knowledge, resources and cohesiveness of the community that has been affected.

Geoff: How could more effective use of project management principles help?

Angela: Whatever descriptors you use for project management stages (like identify, define, deliver and close or similar), neither PRINCE2 nor PMBOK can offer anything in the early work of the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases. In other words, the ‘identify’ stage may not be set up using formal project management methods because of the urgency of the situation. Program management is not generally used. Projects may have been set up using approaches such as LogFrame, but this is primarily a communication tool. It is not sufficient to properly prioritise and manage projects.

We need a method at the front end of reconstruction, wrapped in formal portfolio, program and project (P3) management practices, which provides the flexibility of governance and management required in a disaster. PSA ProFrame was developed to address this deficiency, but this approach is yet to be widely adopted.

Geoff: The Praxis Framework could be helpful as it can be scaled up and down in the fluid environments found post-disaster.

Angela: I don’t know much about Praxis. What makes it a good fit?

Geoff: Praxis is built on a philosophy that the differences between portfolio, program and project management practices are relatively minor. An enormous and growing body of knowledge from P3 practice supports it. Using Praxis, something that started as a broad idea or portfolio view could later be refined into one or more programs, each of which in turn could be elaborated as a group of projects. There is no need to change terminology or redevelop documents in each refinement.

Reimagining disaster management

Angela: With your impressive knowledge of formal project management and P3 practices, do you see
opportunities to improve the disaster management framework?

Geoff: I think we need to re-imagine disaster management. It needs to be underpinned by sound risk management and P3 management practices. The diagram on the left is a condensed version of my thoughts.

Reimagined approach to disaster management
Reimagined approach to disaster management


I’ve converted the commonly used cyclical model of disaster management into a linear timeline model. The mitigation phase in the cyclical model is replaced with a concurrent series of risk management activities in the timeline model.

Risk analysis after a disaster should identify three types of responses:

  1. responses to implement during the recovery phase for the current disaster (shown in the graph as reactive responses during recovery)
  2. responses to implement during the preparation phase before the next disaster (shown here as proactive
    responses during preparation)
  3. responses developed in advance to implement during response stage after the next disaster has occurred (shown here as reactive responses during recovery, but for the next disaster rather than the current disaster).


Using a timeline is also helpful, as there are no clear boundaries between activities in the response and recovery phases. For example, Emergency Services and Disaster Relief agencies would commence response activities after receiving an early warning. They would not wait until after the disaster had occurred.

We know that activities in the rehabilitation and reconstruction aspects of the recovery phase may overlap in time. Using a timeline allows for the possibility that a second disaster might need dealing with while the response and recovery phases for a first disaster are still underway.

I’ve also shown a ‘Disaster Retrospective Review,’ which would use lessons from the current disaster to clarify what ‘resilience’ and ‘build back better’ mean in this context. It could recommend broad streams of work that could evolve via portfolios and programs into projects, as suggested by the Praxis Framework. This review would seek to establish, as early as practically possible, formal project management rigour around reconstruction initiatives that may be risky, expensive or contentious.

Finally, I think it could be useful to recognise that the reconstruction phase may include constructing better and more resilient infrastructure rather than solely reconstructing damaged infrastructure.

Angela: Thanks Geoff, that gives us lots of food for thought for improving disaster management.

Geoff: And thank you Angela.


This article is taken from the Autumn 2023 edition of Paradigm Shift.