Tuesday, 29 April 2008

On Disasters and Democracy

In his book Disasters and Democracy, Rutherford Platt (1999) did a superb job of analyzing the democratic imperatives and shortcomings of the American system of emergency preparedness and disaster mitigation. However, I believe the issue is much wider than his scope would suggest.

To begin with let us distinguish between participatory and representative democracy. The phenomenon was invented in Ancient Greece as the former and has since undergone the transition to the latter, while retaining forms of direct participation at the grass roots level. The transition has brought problems of isolation of the represented from their representatives, together with depoliticisation of the former and corruption of the latter.

Perhaps the contemporary problems of democracy deserve to be listed more fully before they are considered specifically in the light of disasters. [1] One aspect is globalization, or the loss of sovereignty by governments and its gradual accretion to multi-national corporations, that represent only their own interests, usually the making of profit. Given the present-day dominance of capital over labor, governments are held hostage to the private sector, owing to the political imperative to protect jobs. On the other hand, the excesses of globalization have at least resulted in spontaneous forms of participatory democracy (recently in Seattle, Prague and London, for example) by way of reaction.

Secondly, there has been phenomenal growth in the size and clout of underground economies. These are thought to represent about 20 per cent of world trade and drugs alone may account for 12-13 per cent. By and large, underground economies exploit people and create situations of harm, danger and illegality. They remove people from the protection of the law, and in fact usually pit them against the law. Revenues are not taxed, but the recycling of profits makes illegal economies thoroughly intertwined with legal ones. The "black" and "grey" (partially legal) economies are in no sense democratic.

Thirdly, at least in the Western countries and Japan, we are seeing the gradual isolation of populations from democratic processes. Clear mandates to govern are obtained on the basis of minority support. Factions are played off against one another, while political debates become too schematic or superficial to mean very much.

Fourthly, politicians spend much time trying to convince their electorates that they can pay fewer taxes and have more services. In this impossible equation, tax reduction wins, with the inevitable consequence of fiscal stringency. Services have declined as they have become more expensive and taxation has failed to cover them.

These issues are perhaps self evident, but I have listed them as a basis for discussion in the context of disaster. Fundamentally, one can ask whether catastrophes boost the process of disempowering people. Do they form part (perhaps fortuitously for the victors) of a subterfuge to consolidate the power of the rich over the poor? Here are some reflections.

With respect to globalization, labor has not internationalized as fast or as successfully as capital and, despite any impressions to the contrary, neither has disaster relief. Although the end of the Cold War led to a temporary boom in international aid, by 1995 this was already winding down. International disaster relief is strongly tied to development aid, which has not only failed to reach the target (0.8 per cent of the GNP of donor countries) set at Rio in 1992, but has been cut repeatedly as part of fiscal stringency. On the other hand, one cannot look to the private sector for solutions: the globalization of capital and production does nothing to reduce basic vulnerability to disaster. Western companies hold their manufacturers rigorously to prices and production targets so that there is no opportunity to develop responsibility for social progress, including resistance to or recovery from disaster.

Some economists view disaster as a form of accelerated consumption of goods. Others regard it as a "zero-sum game" in which there are no net losses. Be that as it may, there are obviously net losers and people who are forced by the brute circumstance of catastrophe to "consume" what they cannot afford to replace. The two ideas, however, are interconnected. Disaster stimulates the production-consumption function of society, which thus compensates for losses. The strong distinction between winners and losers in this process tends to reinforce globalization. In the usual pyramid, capital and profit are further concentrated in the hands of the producers--the few--and the losers are the consumers, the many. The only mechanism that counteracts this is government intervention in market forces. But governments are now caught up in a nineteenth century-style free-trade binge, with economic, if not geopolitical, excesses comparable to those of the heyday of colonialism. As governments weaken in the face of trade imperatives, they become less and less able to guarantee the sort of welfare functions that people demand in the wake of disaster.

Turning to the second aspect, the relationship between disaster and underground economies is largely unknown and unresearched. There have been attempts, some of them successful, by criminal organizations to take over post-disaster recovery and reconstruction or to pervert it. Disaster commonly fosters a black market in certain goods, such as foodstuffs, roofing materials, and cement. Clearly, the boom that ensues after disaster with full-scale reconstruction is ripe for intervention by criminal organizations and their "alternative economies." In other cases, stagnation results from the intertwining of disaster impacts (usually repetitive ones) with perversions of the local economy caused by elicit economic activity. In either case, the underground economy is an undemocratic force in disaster.

For Afghanistan, Clausewitz's famous dictum has been altered to state that warfare is economics (rather than politics) carried on by other means (Cliffe and Luckham 2000). In this extreme case of the isolation of a population from its democratic rights, democracy is suspended or abolished (if it ever existed in the afflicted area), it become subsumed by ideologies fuelled for convenience sake by illicit economic interests. More generally, the complex emergency, characterized by breakdown in politics, economics, society, environment and security is one of few models of how warfare and disaster interact. The principal victims are women and children and the only antidote is stability. But stability on its own does not usher in democracy, mitigate natural catastrophe or ensure democratic forms of recovery from disaster. Everything depends on the ability to build institutions, on how they are built and on what forces, internal and external to the society in question, act upon them.

With respect to disaster, in societies classified as stable democracies, the question of peoples' relationships with democratic processes (our third issue) is strongly related to the fourth question, that of taxation and fiscal stringency. Disaster prevention, mitigation and relief cannot easily be privatized, as they usually offer either no expectation of adequate profits or a long and uncertain gap between investing and reaping the returns. In point of fact, catastrophes represent a counter-tendency, an occasion for fiscal profligacy in order to satisfy the electorate. Governments that refuse to grant aid to those of their citizens who fall victim to disaster become unpopular and this induces many administrations periodically to break their own rules on fiscal stringency. For example, the number of US federal disaster declarations has virtually doubled in two decades, not necessarily because there are more disasters, but because such declarations are one way to obtain influence over the electorates of affected counties. If this is so, there is little incentive to involve the electorate in an open debate on the ethics, morals or efficacy of heaping aid on victims.

These observations are somewhat bleak, but one can also be more optimistic. Disasters are, or ought to be, opportunities to involve people in new or reinvigorated forms of participatory democracy. Even in the most individualistic places, emergencies are dealt with by socializing them. Disaster cultures and subcultures, forms of therapeutic community, and emergent groups are all forms of grass-roots democracy in action. We need to learn to build on them and turn transient responses into healthy forms of permanent participation.

Further thoughts can be read in my recent book (Alexander 2000).


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe. Terra, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York, 280 pp.

Cliffe, L. and R. Luckham 2000. What happens to the state in conflict? Political analysis as a tool for planning humanitarian assistance. Disasters 24(4): 291-313.

Platt, R.H. 1999. Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events. Island Press, Washington, D.C., 320 pp.


[1] The setting of modern democracy includes the following four paradoxes of modernity

(a) Ninety per cent of international money transfers are speculative, 80 per cent with return time of less than 1 week. Collectively, 358 billionaires are richer than 45 per cent of the world's population. 'Income redistribution' is thus a very relative term.

(b) Income differentials more than doubled in the second half of the 20th century and in the final decades 89 countries experienced decline in national wealth. 'Equity' is thus a very relative term.

(c) Since 1945, between 25 and 50 million people have died in about 300 conflicts. In recent wars about 84 per cent of casualties have been non-combatants, especially women and children. In all of this period there have been only 126 days of global peace. 'Security' is thus a very relative term.

(d) Half of the people in the world have never used a telephone and more than 90 per cent are not Internet users. 'Information technology revolution' is thus a very relative term.