Towards a comparative political ethnography of disaster prevention.

Author:de Waal, Alex

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. (7) Their claim is correct, but does not address Sen's larger point that no famines on the scale of 1943 in Bengal, or the calamities of 1896-1903 and the previous half century under the Raj, let alone anything comparable to the catastrophe of 1958-62 in China, have occurred. While it is clear that India and other relatively open societies avoided the disastrous manmade or man-exacerbated famines that befell Soviet Ukraine, Mao's China and, most recently, North Korea, it is far from clear that the association between liberal rights and overcoming hunger is as closely aligned and automatic as Sen implies. Liberal democratic processes do not operate in a vacuum. A second, equally important part of the explanation for India's success lies in the substantive issues of concern to the subcontinent's activists, and in particular on the place of famine in India's political imaginary.

Comparative history allows us to examine why famine became such a potent focus for political activism in India. (8) At the close of the 19th century, the British Raj was especially vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy over its famine policy. While it proclaimed a "civilizing mission" in its largest imperial territory, its mid-century famine policy had been dictated by Malthusian principles--and senior administrators in the Raj made no secret of their views that India would benefit from the mass death by starvation of its supposed surplus population. 9 Irish nationalists, drawing upon their own experience of famine and insight into the cruel realities of British rule, advised their Indian counterparts to use recurrent famines as a means to discredit the Raj among British liberals. Famines in India were huge in scale and horribly visible, congregating hundreds of thousands of people in towns and relief shelters. These were not only graphic material for columnists in the Manchester Guardian. In the aftermath of the 1857 Mutiny, such concentrations of desperate people were an obvious threat to law and order, and indeed the stability of the Raj itself. The combined pressures worked. After the "bang-bang" famines that straddled the turn of the 20th century, the British revised the 1880s Famine Codes (introduced chiefly as a symbolic gesture twenty years earlier) so as to make them a real obligation on civil servants, and hence effective.

For forty years after 1903, prompt action repeatedly averted impending famines. While the British Famine Codes were careful to ensure that they only specified an administrative obligation, without establishing any corresponding right to relief, the leaders of the Indian Congress were surely correct in their interpretation that they had gained precisely such an entitlement. Elsewhere I have called this a "political contract" for famine prevention. (10) The existence of such a contract was demonstrated in 1943 when the British violated it by refusing to intervene to prevent a famine in Bengal, largely because of fears of a Japanese invasion. This event, the largest loss of life in the British Empire during the Second World War, quickly became a political scandal and hastened the end of imperial rule in India. Consequently, independent governments in India were careful to ensure that they honored the contract. The country's free press, active trade unions and farmers' associations, and the demands of electors, ensured that they remained vigilant.

In Bangladesh, the crisis of 1974 showed the limits of this mechanism. The young Bangladeshi government, stepchild of the Raj, despite its facade of democratic institutions and a free media, was mired in political crisis and failed to prevent a famine.

Africa was different. The most instructive parallel is colonial Sudan, where in 1920 the Anglo-Egyptian government introduced Famine Regulations closely modeled on the Indian Famine Codes. (11) The impetus for this was comparable to the Indian precursor: a major drought-famine in 1913 that affected the whole country, and a second crisis in 1919 brought about by food price inflation generated by the post-war boom in Egypt. These combined with two forms of local agitation: urban nationalism (shortly to result in a mutiny) and rural messianic revolt. But after 1920 the Sudanese Famine Regulations lapsed, in part because implementing them would have been prohibitively expensive and complicated for a rudimentary rural administration based upon tribal notables, and in part because food crises no longer threatened the stability of imperial rule. The regulations were revived in the late 1930s, when hunger briefly became a cause for nationalist agitation, and were selectively implemented thereafter. However, Sudan's remote, rural food crises were an irritant rather than a political danger, and Sudanese nationalism focused on issues other than famine (notably, on questions of Arab and Muslim identity and unity with Egypt). Thus, the Governor-General had a much simpler food policy: Feed the civil servants and the towns. Insofar as there was a "political contract" against famine, it consisted of guaranteed cheap bread for townspeople.

Independent Sudanese governments inherited this contract. Its most striking manifestation was in 1988-9 when the country was suffering a very severe famine in the war-affected South, to which the government was utterly indifferent. Indeed, that famine was largely an act of policy that brought political and economic benefit to both central government and local actors, such as garrison commanders, militia leaders, rural traders and military intelligence officers. (12) Some of the famine migrants made it as far as Khartoum by road and train; in one incident several children died at the capital's railway station within an hour of a train pulling in. (13) Simultaneously, there were food riots in Khartoum, but at issue was the government's plan to remove the urban bread subsidy, a reform that the Minister of Finance...

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