Disasters Occur In A Political Space

Although there are those who would disagree, Natural Disasters are probably not driven by politics, but nor are they immune from politics. Far from it. The actions taken by human actors undoubtedly affect the prevention, mitigation, and damage of natural disasters and their aftermath.

The ‘shock’ refers to the natural act itself e.g. the earthquake. The ‘aftershock’ comes later. Post-earthquake 2010-2012 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Earthquake Commission, the Canterbury Earthquake Authority, the Christchurch City Council, and the Government of the day equate to the net impact of the ‘aftershock’ on the population – the physical ‘disaster’ is far from the whole event. It is also made up of those shocking post-disaster events, such as delayed insurance payouts, top-down authoritarian decisions, ineptitude of professional bodies, evidence of corruption in the post-quake city – and the list goes on…

Though governments are supposed to care about the social welfare of their citizens, they also have an interest in maximizing government income and though governments do spend on both preventative and palliative measures to lessen the impact of a potential natural shock, they also use natural disasters to redistribute power through the political effect, for example favouring disaster spending in regions that are politically aligned with the party in power. Dire circumstances provide rapacious governments with a stronger ability to increase their level of theft and to hide it. Disasters can be used as a blunt policy instrument to target or reward populations and to enrich a government and the ‘corporate classes’.

Interesting too, is the fact that a time of crisis can increase markedly the amount of information a population has about current or incumbent politicians and their governance style and outcomes. This is because disaster produces a highly informative environment where voters are continually debating and experiencing the performance and merits of the operators in power – be that a Prime Minister or a City Council. It is in these high information environments that voters learn enough to enable them to consider taking the decision to replace the political incumbents.

For example, certain incumbents in Christchurch are currently responsible for rebuilding a city infrastructure and restoring the lives of affected communities to some semblance of order. During normal times there is usually little information about how good a job the incumbent did or is doing, but during an earthquake or hurricane voters quickly learn a lot more about whether the incumbent has done a good job and who these people actually are. When there is this much information floating around, information about performance may become sufficiently informative to overcome a voter’s initial tendency to support an incumbent. Their likelihood of re-election by the persons of the affected area therefore has the potential to ‘take a hammering’. And the truth is that as voters we often understand little beyond our own or our local community’s pain and pleasure… as voters we often have only a vague, or at worst primitive understanding of the connections between incumbent politicians actions and our own pain or pleasure. Governments also rely on national media disinterest (or control) to ensure that populations outside the affected area get to hear little of their manipulations within the area.

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