Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Globalization of Disaster: Trends, Problems and Dilemmas

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Globalization of Disaster: Trends, Problems and Dilemmas

Article excerpt

After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 donor countries subscribed to post-disaster relief appeals so copiously that all the money could not be spent quickly enough to justify the reasons for which it was donated. For other contemporary disasters, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, there was an alarming dearth of funds and a general failure to respond to international relief appeals. This paradox neither illustrates that the world is becoming more generous nor demonstrates the opposite. It does, however, highlight one of the many contrasts inherent in current approaches to disaster. As worldwide involvement in the relief and mitigation of catastrophe deepens and becomes more complex, so the approach becomes more fragmentary in some respects, particularly those that relate to global security strategies, and more uniform in others, especially in terms of where the international political system directs its limited attention.

Over the last half-century the massive growth of worldwide travel and telecommunications has brought what were once essentially regional and local problems onto the world stage. In considering such momentous changes, this article surveys the global pattern of catastrophes and offers an analysis of modern systems of emergency preparedness and processes of disaster relief, with particular attention to the problems of creating resilience and the moral and practical dilemmas of prevention and response. First it examines the global impact of disasters with respect to changes in societal vulnerability and growing imbalances in economic development. Next, it considers mass communications in relation to the symbolic significance of disasters and the patterns of donation to relief appeals. It then looks critically at the logistical and organizational aspects of humanitarian relief, with particular attention to major events, such as the Atlantic hurricanes of September 2005 and South Asia earthquake of October 2005, and what they reveal about the international community's policies and practices regarding aid. Subsequently, the article considers disaster mitigation in relation to world economic trends and the changing structure of global financial power. It then examines the current international policy frameworks for catastrophe mitigation and the prospects for achieving positive change in the future.

THE GLOBALIZATION OF MODERN DISASTERS

In physical terms global disasters have been a recurrent and integral part of Earth history, as periodic mass extinctions have resulted from the "global winter" caused by gigantic volcanic eruptions or the impact of large extraterrestrial bodies. But because the geological timescale on which such events occur is so much longer than the one on which human lives are measured, these events are too rare to fall under the remit of an article about the globalization of disaster. (1) Moreover, it has taken the better part of two and a half millennia to appreciate the significance of major cataclysmic natural events. First, the form of the earth as a celestial globe had to be understood; second, the laws of modern physics had to be established, especially regarding the force of gravity; third, the age of the Earth had to be rolled back far enough to permit some understanding of the magnitude and frequency of exceptional events; and finally a robust geophysical explanation of seismicity, volcanism and the general circulation had to be worked out. Hence a proper understanding of the physical underpinnings of natural disaster only emerged in the mid 20th century. (2) It has contributed immeasurably to worldwide consciousness of major natural disasters, but much less to understanding of the key problem of vulnerability, which some scholars regard as a far greater determinant of disaster risk than the existence of hazards themselves. (3)

In terms of human perception, prior to the 20th century the event closest to a global disaster was probably the Portuguese earthquake of 1755. …

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