In the past, disaster management was strongly infused with implicit assumptions that there were clear-cut 'normal' roles for the state, the private sector and civil society. Disaster mitigation and preparedness (DMP) mainly consisted of technical and material inputs to prepare for the predetermined roles of these different actors. We felt that we at least knew who should do what when dealing with disaster mitigation, preparedness and response. Methods to deal with natural disasters were debated, and quality was a topic for concern, but the goal posts were not in question. In recent years, however, changes in the nature of disasters, in the structure of international aid architecture and in the discourse on humanitarian response, have compelled us to reflect critically on who should be doing what before, during and after a disaster strikes. The implications of globalization and structural adjustment have introduced a growing ambiguity into what had been seen as self-evident set-piece roles for states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector.
Behind the discourse on disasters, neo-liberal policies have taken hold and pressured states to assume a narrower set of responsibilities. Particularly with respect to DMP, it has become increasingly clear that this has been done without making clear who will shoulder these duties instead. Critics of globalization are responding to failure to prepare for and mitigate disasters with calls for stronger state institutions and greater control by 'communities', but these critics are also vague about how this is to be accomplished in the face of frightening demographic scenarios, spiralling conflicts and a steady decline of resources for public goods, such as DMP. Decentralization has placed greater responsibilities on local institutions to deal with disasters, but performance has rarely lived up to rhetorical aims of bringing power to the grassroots. Local politicians are, if anything, even more hostage than their colleagues at higher levels to demands to deal with immediate problems rather than distant threats. Ambiguity is perhaps greatest in the marginal areas most affected by natural disasters, where memories of the days of effective public authority are fading. In places like these,