Towards a Comparative Political Ethnography of Disaster Prevention

By de Waal, Alex | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Towards a Comparative Political Ethnography of Disaster Prevention


de Waal, Alex, Journal of International Affairs


Every scholarly study of disasters documents that prevention, preparedness and response are determined by political factors. Increasingly, social scientists consider calamities not as fundamental interruptions to social and political life, but as variant manifestations of pre-existing processes and power relations. There is a rich literature on "natural disasters," with most writers at least questioning this term. (1) In addition there has been work on "complex humanitarian emergencies," events that a previous generation of scholars called wars. Furthermore, there is an immense corpus of work on technical, institutional and informational aspects of disaster management. Studies of how the media portrays disaster are growing in number and insight. Yet, with a few (and often old) exceptions, we have only a modest comparative political ethnography of why some disasters are allowed to occur, or inflict readily-preventable damage, while others are not. (2) This paper is a modest attempt to fill this gap. It is necessarily selective, taking the form of an essay drawing upon the author's own experience as both practitioner and researcher, rather than an exhaustive comparative analysis of types of disasters. It posits hypotheses and constructs frameworks which others may wish to test. If this paper prompts more thorough empirical investigations, it will have served its purpose.

It is a platitude of commentaries on social problems, including disasters, that effective responses require political will. One motive for this essay is to inquire what this elusive "political will" might be, to encourage such commentators to continue to the next stage and analyze what might be done to establish the preconditions for "political will," if not that will itself.

In one respect, this paper is an overdue elaboration of the concept of "political contract," developed in my comparative analysis of the causes of and responses to famine in Asia and Africa. (3) Amartya Sen's "democracy prevents famine" hypothesis still screams out for rigorous analysis and testing. It is far too important a claim to be surrendered to uncritical recycling by op-ed writers. In another respect, this paper is an attempt to systematize the argument I present in AIDS and Power on the reasons why national and international responses to the HIV/MDS epidemic have been strikingly successful at mitigating its worst social and political impacts while mostly failing to have any effect on preventing HIV infection. (4) What binds the two together is recognition of the simple fact that governments respond when there are political incentives to do so, and don't respond when those incentives do not exist. A third entry point is personal reflection on why some campaigns on social issues have proved successful, while others have not, building upon analyses of transformations in human rights activism. (5)

Famine And Democracy in India and Africa

Analysis of the politics of disaster prevention begins with Amartya Sen's remarks on the elimination of famines from independent India. This is less because Sen was correct rather than because, with characteristic elegance, he articulated a precise thesis:

   The diverse political freedoms that are available in a democratic
   state, including regular elections, free newspapers and freedom of
   speech, must be seen as the real force behind the elimination of
   famines. Here again, it seems that one set of freedoms--to
   criticize, publish and vote--are usually linked with other types of
   freedoms, such as the freedom to escape starvation and famine
   mortality. (6)

Sen is making a specific claim about India, disguised as a general truth about the links between civil and political liberties and the realization of social and economic rights. It is a hypothesis crying out for empirical examination, of which it has received surprisingly little. Scholars from India have disputed whether the country can truly be said to have eliminated famine, given the recurrence of pockets of extreme deprivation and intermittent starvation. …

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