“Gimme Shelter”: The Role of Democracy and Institutional Quality in Disaster Preparedness

Date01 December 2017
AuthorTove Ahlbom Persson,Marina Povitkina
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18Z71FpZT7M4kN/input 716335PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917716335Political Research QuarterlyAhlbom Persson and Povitkina
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 833 –847
“Gimme Shelter”: The Role of
© 2017 University of Utah
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Democracy and Institutional Quality
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917716335
in Disaster Preparedness
Tove Ahlbom Persson1 and Marina Povitkina1
Natural disasters cause suffering for millions of people around the globe every year, and as climate change unfolds,
the likelihood of natural catastrophes is increasing. While weather shocks such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and
floods are beyond our control, the governments’ capacity to protect populations largely determines the degree of
human suffering in disasters. Democracies, with freedom of speech, broad public participation, and representation,
are believed to protect their populations better than nondemocratic regimes. However, democratic institutions are
insufficient for securing protection from disasters in contexts of corruption, poor planning, and public administration
incompetence. We argue that the effect of democracy on the extent of human suffering in disasters is contingent on
the ability of governments to implement their tasks or the quality of implementing institutions. We test this interaction
hypothesis using time-series cross-sectional data from the Varieties of Democracy project, the Quality of Government
dataset, and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. The results show that more democracy is
associated with fewer people being affected by natural disasters only in settings where institutional quality is high.
When institutional quality is low, more people seem to suffer in democracies than in authoritarian states.
democracy, institutional quality, vulnerability, natural disasters
type) and processes shaping the supply of public goods
(i.e., quality of public policy implementation). Democratic
Natural disasters affect millions of people around the
institutions, through which state leaders are held account-
world every year. While governments cannot prevent
able to their constituents, are believed to create more
earthquakes or tornadoes from happening, it is in govern-
incentives for leaders to deliver public goods and ensure
ments’ power to adopt and implement policies that can
security for the population than institutions in authoritar-
reduce the devastating consequences from natural disas-
ian regimes (Schmitter and Karl 1991; Sen 1990). There
ters for the people. Yet, the extent of human suffering dif-
is a lot of variation, however, in how democracies per-
fers substantially and systematically between countries,
form. Just as authoritarian states, they can also be domi-
indicating a great variation in how well countries are pre-
nated by special interests and distribute protection
pared to protect the population when an adverse weather
unequally; they can be inefficient and corrupt, which can
event strikes. The aim of this paper is to explore the
hamper long-term policy undertakings, such as building
sources of this variation.
up a country’s readiness to cope with exogenous shocks
Coping with natural disasters is one of the key func-
(Bueno de Mesquita 2003; Diamond 2007). Therefore,
tions of the state as a part of its task to provide security to
governments’ ability to implement vulnerability reduc-
its citizens. This involves extensive provision of public
tion policies and their capacity to deliver public goods
goods1 such as early warning systems, shelters, roads,
health care centers, and other necessary infrastructure
designed to ensure the safety of the population in an
1University of Gothenburg, Sweden
emergency situation. Two sets of political processes stand
Corresponding Author:
out as particularly important in determining the extent of
Marina Povitkina, Department of Political Science, University of
public goods provision: processes shaping how people’s
Gothenburg, Box 711, 40530 Gothenburg, Sweden.
demand for public policies is articulated (i.e., regime
Email: marina.povitkina@gu.se

Political Research Quarterly 70(4)
and services to all entitled recipients are also crucial for
become natural disasters (World Meteorological
developing disaster preparedness.
Organization [WMO] 2017). Outside of their relationship
Both democracy, which helps bring people’s demands
to humans, these hazardous events can be simply seen as
for disaster prevention onto the political agenda, and state
nature merely taking its course (O’Keefe, Westgate, and
capacity, which is necessary to supply public goods and
Wisner 1976). Proneness to suffering the severe conse-
fulfill those demands, are widely acknowledged in the lit-
quences of natural hazards depends on vulnerability, a set
erature on disaster prevention as political sources of
of conditions that influences people’s capacity to “antici-
disasters (Kahn 2005; Keefer, Neumayer, and Plümper
pate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a
2011; Lewis 2011; Wisner et al. 2004). We move the pre-
natural hazard” (Wisner et al. 2004, 11). The key to
vious arguments forward and stress that neither of the
reducing vulnerability is preparation for hazardous
factors is sufficient for minimizing the count of people
weather events and disaster prevention rather than miti-
affected by natural disasters. We claim that the effects of
gation of the consequences of disasters. As the effects of
democracy and the quality of implementing institutions
adverse weather events unfold quickly, the most effective
on public goods provision—as demand and supply parts
way to minimize damage is to be ready for them. Well-
of the political system—are dependent on one another
functioning early warning systems that can, for example,
and interact in the production of vulnerability.
stop railways and plants, open emergency exits, and trig-
Preparation for emergency situations, such as natural
ger alarms; the presence of roads with clearly marked
disasters, requires dealing with the uncertainty of the
routes that can facilitate and speed up evacuation; the
future and long-term planning, which is only possible in
availability of shelters; and the prevalence of strong
those political systems where politicians are committed
structures made of robust building materials can be life-
to serve the long-term interests of the people. Without
saving (Schulz 2015). While specific conditions, such as
facing the immediate consequences of their actions,
the number of storm shelters or the existence of regula-
shortsighted politicians have an incentive to underinvest
tions concerning the robustness of buildings, are specific
in such long-term commitments as disaster prevention
outcomes of political decisions, the roots of vulnerability
and undersupply public goods. The necessity of long-
lie in the political and economic processes that shape
term planning and forward thinking makes disaster prep-
governments’ decisions to invest in disaster prevention
aration a good test of how well the state works for its
and their ability to implement disaster prevention pro-
grams (Brooks, Adger, and Kelly 2005; Wisner et al.
We test our hypotheses on the interaction between
2004). In this paper, we focus on these root causes of vul-
democracy and institutional quality empirically on the
nerability, as these should be the primary targets in the
global sample using data from the Centre for Research on
process of vulnerability reduction.
the Epidemiology of Disasters, the Varieties of Democracy
project, and the Quality of Government dataset. The find-
ings reveal that the effect of democracy on disaster out-
Disaster Prevention as a Public Good
comes is contingent on the institutional quality that
Ensuring public safety and security from natural disasters
shapes the implementation of public policy programs,
involves the provision of public goods, including the map-
while the level of democracy in turn moderates the effect
ping of hazard areas, construction of preventive measures
of institutional quality on the number of people affected
such as dikes or levees, establishment and maintenance of
by disasters.
early warning systems, reliable public infrastructure,
The paper proceeds as follows. In the next section, we
evacuation roads, health centers, and shelters (Raschky
provide a brief overview of the existing theories on the
2008; Schulz 2015).
political roots of vulnerability and introduce the study’s
Although public goods are meant to be nonexcludable,
theoretical model. Then, we introduce the data and
politicians can restrict access to them to certain groups in
method of the study. Next, we describe the main findings
polities with high levels of inequality or where favoritism
of the paper. In the final section, we discuss the main
is common. Health care centers, roads, and shelters may
results and offer conclusions.
be built in some regions but not in others; they may be
available to some groups of citizens and not others.
Theoretical Background
Information on the impending natural hazard can be made
available only in those regions that have the infrastruc-
To avoid conceptual confusion, we, first and foremost,
ture necessary for receiving such...

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