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What then are crises?

Feb 1, 2012 1:30:52 PM - www.ft.lk

We often hear the word ‘crisis’ mentioned in discussion, speeches, orations, in poetry, fiction, articles, cartoons, within corporate board rooms, on strategic plan presentations, broadcasts, narrowcasts, etc.

The word assumes even greater weight depending on what adjective is placed before it, such as global crisis, European debt crisis, financial crisis, real estate crisis or a pandemic crisis. It becomes more micro and inward in outlook when it is a personal crisis, an identity crisis or a marital crisis.
Wikipedia explains crisis as “derived from the Greek word pronounced krisis, as any event that is, or expected to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community or a whole society. Crises are deemed to be negative changes in the security, economic, political, societal or environmental affairs, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning. More loosely, it is a term meaning ‘a testing time’ or an ‘emergency event.’”

Not a negative
A crisis is usually associated with a negative but is not always so. In Mandarin, the Chinese use two characters to denote a crisis and those separately represent danger and opportunity. What we would usually consider as being poles apart, is the way the people of that nation look at in overcoming crises, i.e. seeking opportunity even in the face of danger.
What was ‘Communist China’ to the world, reportedly ridden with many a crisis in the not so distant past, is today a most pragmatic proponent of generating wealth, able to uplift the material standards of living of hundreds of millions of its people. It is today looked at as a ‘saviour’ when much of the Western world is seeking to avert an economic and financial crisis.
We often talk of corporate crisis, when a business organisation, a company or an institution face unwarranted threats on its operation and management and are caught unawares. Sometime such crisis is the result of happenings in the external environment while at other times they are generated as an outburst of the cumulative impact of internal mal-management.

Like a phoenix
Crisis situations are faced and resolved by countries, nations, societies, tribes, communities or individuals depending on their ability to withstand them. They wade through and gather the pieces left behind by its impact to reconstruct and rebuild.
The crisis faced by Japan when nuclear bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in response to Japan’s fighter plane attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, was one that the country faced as penalty for choosing the option of engaging in wars with other nations. Japan had the resolve, and aided by others was able to rebuild that country once again like the mythical phoenix rose from the ashes.
Most recently, it faced another nuclear disaster of crisis proportions when its power generating nuclear plants at Fukushima were destroyed by an earthquake. And she is fighting her way out of that crisis with much resolve.
Most of the time, crisis is generated through human error while at other times it is the outcome of ‘acts of God’ as we know it, used in the exclusion clauses of insurance policies. Crisis and events of crisis proportions sometimes have a short duration while some go on for years and yet others for decades.
During Sri Lanka’s near 30 years of terrorism related conflict, we faced many individual events of crisis proportions, while the whole duration was one big crisis this nation faced.

Lessons learnt
I recall being in the midst of one when the Colombo Airport was attacked by LTTE terrorists and several of our national carrier’s commercial air craft were destroyed or damaged on the tarmac in July 2001. I was then head of Sri Lanka Tourism and had to face the challenge of averting a possible communication fallout of crisis proportion.  Such would have resulted in delaying our hopes for rejuvenating our tourism in the event’s aftermath.
I was fortunate for I had prior training in crisis management at the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) where I was employed in Singapore and was able to put most of that learning into practice at the time. Some of the lessons were on basics such as dissecting the crisis into manageable portions, creating rapid response for managing each, relying on team work, coordination and maintaining high morale and a ‘can do’ attitude.
Crises, thankfully, have their ways of teaching lessons. Some are learnt and amends made while others do not yield sensible resolves. Those create other post-crisis crises, which need to be managed and resolved all over again. Events in post Gaddafi Libya and post Mubarak Egypt are two recent examples.

Different strokes
Some crises create huge waves of sympathy and result in mass mobilisation of support and assistance. Yet others generate limited response and only gain institutional support. The Asian tsunami of 2004 is an example of the former, while famines of crisis proportions in some African countries represent the latter.
At the personal level crises can be of varying intensity. Loss of a loved one, or a love lost  can become an event of crisis proportions to some, while for others it will have less impact and be just another of life’s travails. So will be loss of one’s job, income flows or a situation of disability or terminal illness. It is at this level that crisis counselling becomes an important aspect of crisis management. Almost all religions advice on how we as human beings should anticipate and face crises; the prescriptions include reducing our dependence on things material, being caring of others, banding together in distress, taking solace in the belief of divine help and to gaining an understanding of the true nature of our existence.  
Some believe that the breakthrough technologies in the alternative energy generation sphere as well as in the spheres of nanotechnology, biotechnology and its variations will offer us some hope of preparing us to avert or postpone some forms of crisis we may face.   

Living in denial
One of the greatest follies of human kind is that we are never geared adequately in preparation to meet a crisis. True, crisis is by its very nature unpredictable, yet the fact that it may come at a most unexpected moment is a certainty. There have been so many crises faced by us humans this far in our known existence, there is a fair chance that we can be somewhat prepared to meet them when they come. In the earthquake prone zones in the US, Japan and several other countries, every person or family carries a ‘crisis preparedness kit’ of survival essentials in their vehicles and/or have it at their homes. On an appointed day each month in some critical areas of the world, tsunami warning sirens and broadcast stations are tested in drills to ensure that they work fine. These are but a few examples of crises preparedness. Back in time, we have heard of Noah’s Ark and its role in preserving life on earth during crisis.
Another interesting psychological feature of crisis management is that most talk about it but only a very few do something about preparing for its effective management. Most of the time our actions on planet earth and our very extravagant life styles lead to creating crisis of never before seen proportions and frequencies.
Some examples are those attributed to climate change and global warming. Yet there is very little that the global leadership has a collective done to mitigate such this far, apart from vetoing mitigation proposals and/or refusing or sidestepping meeting of obligations.

Limits to growth
The biggest crisis humankind faces now is that it does not want to accept that there are limits placed by Mother Nature on our ability to achieve growth. It is interesting that the Ministry of Defence in the UK announced in 2006, that they are preparing the military for handling conflicts of crisis proportions caused as a result of lack of resources expected in 20-30 years’ time.
The facts are that, if every person in the world lived as an average person living in the UK does, we would need three planets like the Earth to sustain us. If every person lived as an average American, we would need five. With the developing carbon-based economies of India and China improving the living standards of over a third of the world’s population, there will soon be an even greater squeeze on the Earth’s limited resources.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at renton@wow.lk.)