Localized development gaps in global governance: the case of disaster risk reduction in Oceania.

AuthorHollis, Simon


THE PEOPLE AND STATES OF OCEANIA ARE OFTEN CATEGORIZED AS BEING highly vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards. There is much truth in this statement. The construction of social vulnerability in the region is defined by a combination of natural, geographical, political, social, and cultural elements that entangle risk solutions and stunt development processes. Cyclones, drought, rising seawater levels, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis are a constant threat to Oceanic livelihoods. The vulnerability of individuals and the state are heightened when weak financial and institutional structures characterize the governance of National Disaster Management Offices (NDMOs); when building standards are not implemented or enforced; when traditional social structures become eroded by urbanization, out-migration, and the global economic system; and when social perceptions of risk subvert resilient practices.

The problem of vulnerability in the Pacific--and beyond--has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Spearheaded by the UN during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) in the 1990s, three world conferences on risk reduction have since taken place, each of which have produced a global strategy on disaster risk reduction (DRR). The most recent strategy--the Sendai Framework Programme (2015-2030)-- builds on the Hyogo Framework Programme for Action (HFA) (2005-2015), which provides a blueprint on risk reduction for a wide range of international, regional, national, and local agencies and organizations. International assistance has included, for instance, awareness and education programs, financial and technical support to NDMOs, and the provision of water tanks and sanitization plants.

Yet the ability of the international community to create positive change at the community level remains limited. The implementation of global prescriptions into local practices has been fairly unsuccessful. (1) This observation is most apparent in Oceania and other developing countries that are highly vulnerable to sudden raptures in the everyday functioning of their societies. Moreover, it is the very countries that are most at risk that have made the least progress in strengthening local capacities. (2) Even if the international community has become increasingly active in promoting DRR, change in local practices has been fairly insignificant. (3) The efficacy of these programs has not been fully realized due to a poor understanding of cultural determinants of risk.

In this article, I examine the adaptation of DRR through a reframed version of localization theory, which aims to uncover particular cultural attitudes that affect social behavior and hence how society perceives and reacts to risk. By applying anthropological concepts in the Pacific for understanding local implementation, this unique approach provides an alternative method for understanding norm diffusion and adaptation as well as an important heuristic for thinking about how the international community can effectively support developing countries to reduce their vulnerability in the future. If greater resilience can be achieved, people, communities, and states will have a greater capacity to reduce the impact produced by natural hazards.

Culture is important for understanding risk because it colors how society perceives and thus reacts toward risk. (4) It helps us understand the "social construction of vulnerability." (5) Culture and its relationship to risk is understood as "widely distributed, lasting mental and public representations inhabiting a given social group" that construct particular perceptions of risk and, thus, a particular level of vulnerability. (6) Identifying such traits is not easily achieved, especially if the multifarious Pacific is viewed as a whole. Yet my study suggests that some similar cultural traits can still be recognized that can help aid in our understanding of risk in the Pacific.

This article begins with an explanation on how the division between global expectations and local practice can be understood by explicating a modified version of localization theory. I then apply this conceptual framework to the case of Oceania, which emphasizes the concepts of resilience, time, and governance. In the following sections, I consider the broader meaning of a cultural explanation for norm resistance in Oceania and offer a tentative suggestion based on aesthetics for overcoming existing barriers.

Norm Diffusion and Localization

DRR can be understood as a fairly typical instance of global governance, whereby the international community has collectively agreed that a collective action problem exists--the vulnerability of individuals and states to the effects of natural hazards in an interdependent world--and it attempts to partially solve this problem through advocating good practices on disaster management and promoting risk awareness at the local, domestic, and international levels of interaction. (7) A consensus on how DRR ought to be framed is consequently achieved at the global level, which is then reified and diffused by the "three UNs": nonstate actors, UN member states, and UN civil service and agencies. (8) A considerable amount of theoretical work has been achieved on how the three UNs diffuse such norms. These include insights on particular aspects on norm diffusion such as norm emergence, nonemergence, emulation, and congruence as well as comprehensive accounts on the life cycle of norms. These, and a number of other studies, provide robust qualitative and quantitative support on the constitutive or casual role that ideas have on an interdependent world. (9) However, comparatively less is known on how norms become internalized within international organizations or at the individual and local level. (10) A focus on global-scale events and issues in global governance, such as state authority, supranationalism, global trade and markets, and responsibility, can skew analytical attention from "locally scaled practices and conditions articulated with global dynamics." (11) This lack of attention has also meant a limited space for theorizing the local reception of global norms. However, weak theorizing of local norm adoption does not equate to its irrelevance. On the contrary, understanding the extent to which global norms are internalized at the local level is especially relevant for providing insights into the heterogeneous processes of globalization and the efficacy of global governance. With these broader aims in mind, I develop Amitav Acharya's regional theory of localization to provide an explanation on how and why external norms on DRR are adopted and internalized at the local level. (12) Localization theory is well suited for addressing research questions that ask: What are the conditions under which external ideas are modified, rejected, or taken wholesale by a particular community? Unlike many theories of diffusion that are process orientated, localization provides analytical tools to help us understand the possible outcomes of foreign and local norm interaction. The potential outcomes of this interface exist on a scale between little or no alteration (norm resistance) to significant change (norm displacement). Acharya argues that structural and agentic-driven mechanisms will determine where a particular phenomenon of norm adaptation is placed on this scale. Structural mechanisms include external shocks to the system, systemic change in the distribution of power, or domestic political change. (13) Agentic mechanisms include norm entrepreneurs who will prune external ideas according to perceived political and social costs vis-a-vis the benefits of gaining credibility and legitimacy. (14) Briefly described, this theory provides a useful strategy for understanding the scope conditions of DRR diffusion and excels at locating rational and interest-based explanations for the adaptation of norms at the local level.

In this article, I reframe localization theory in two important aspects. First, I move the level of analysis from the adoption of norms between states in a regional organization to the adoption of norms within a state at the local level. Second, I use a cultural-based explanation for understanding the adaptation of norms at the local level. Instead of acting under the assumption that an actor consciously aims to maximize his or her interests by selecting useful aspects of an external norm, I assume that individual and group behavior are governed by a set of collective representations that will be conducive or resilient to external ideas. I thus go beyond the interests of a norm entrepreneur by examining how external ideas are understood from a particular cultural perspective. In other words, I attempt to take a step back to grasp certain features on the cultural foundations of social behavior. To be sure, this is not to deny agentic-driven explanations, but I attempt to illustrate the contours of acceptable behavior, how these contours shape existing perceptions on risk, and thus contribute toward understanding cultural scope conditions on norm adaptation.

The focus of this adjusted conceptual framework thus concentrates on the idea of internalization: the capacity of an individual or a group to acquire a meaningful representation of an external idea that is "intrinsically rewarding." (15) Like Acharya's notion of adaption through the reconstructed fit of an external norm with local practices, internalization is intrinsically rewarding when an idea is not simply adopted through compliance or identification, but is associated with and becomes a part of an individual's worldview. (16) Locating cultural conditions that are conducive or resilient to the internalization of DRR norms is the main concern of this article, which relies on an inductive and dialogic approach.

Toward a Dialogic Approach to Localization

Based on an aesthetics approach to the study of...

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