John Hannigan. 2012. Disasters without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters

By Waters, Tony | African Studies Quarterly, December 2014 | Go to article overview

John Hannigan. 2012. Disasters without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters


Waters, Tony, African Studies Quarterly


John Hannigan. 2012. Disasters without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters. New York: Polity Press. 195 pp.

Disasters without Borders is about natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes. Despite the title's reference to the NGO "Doctors without Borders," the book is not about "man-made" disasters like wars, and the medical and famine conditions that wars often cause. Rather the focus is on the international politics of government-led assistance for natural disasters and the development of policies by governments in rich countries to deal with such events whether at home or as part of foreign aid programs.

As the author describes the response to disaster often occurs via UN agencies, and NGOs, but in the context of rhetorical flourishes cultivated for the international media. Such rhetoric is important for international bureaucracies like the UN Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO) whose budgets depend on attracting the attention of rich donor governments whose publics are tuned into CNN and its news cycles. But as Hannigan points out, such disaster assistance is also undertaken in the context of the same governments seeking realpolitik advantage in the international system.

In developing such points, Disasters without Borders focuses on how governments, international agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, NGOs, and the ever-present international press frame natural disasters, and as importantly, how governments respond. Much of this work takes places in the context of international meetings where standards, policies rules, and international laws about responses are negotiated, and hopes for "mitigation of risk" are debated beyond the cameras of CNN, but nevertheless with an awareness that emotional media attention makes or breaks funding for natural disaster relief. Hannigan's discussion about how the "rhetoric of claims making" develops in the context of national interests, humanitarian need, and international politics is well-developed.

Hannigan emphasizes that disaster response is often "at the whim of [CNN's] electrons" and uses as examples the responses to Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and Australian floods. He is an effective story-teller, and there are numerous asides in the form of text-boxes, and examples, although these "lessons learned" are at times only loosely tied together. …

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