Foreign Aid

Dictators and Disasters: a disaster waiting to happen

(September 2, 2010) The impact of a disaster on a country’s citizens may have more to do with politics than nature, writes Brady Yauch.

If an identical earthquake struck two different countries of the same economic standing, but of a different political makeup, would the results be the same? And if one country was founded on a democracy, while the other was led by an autocrat, who would be worse off? Two professors, writing in Foreign Affairs, provide a convincing argument that citizens living under a democratically-run government would be much better off than those living under the rule of an autocrat.

According to Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores, two professors of politics at New York University, while governments are unable to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters, they are certainly capable of preparing for them—and in this regard, based on the amount of casualties from major earthquakes, democratically-elected governments fare much better.

To support their argument, they highlight the huge disparity in casualties from this year’s earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Haiti was rocked by 7.0-magnitude earthquake that brought the country to its knees and killed approximately 222,000 people, while Chile, just one month later, suffered a an 8.8-magnitude earthquake—approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti—that killed only 500 people.

“Why the disparity?” they ask.

The authors believe it’s easy to suggest that the overall wealth of a country is the key determinant in its ability to prepare of earthquakes. But wealth, while it certainly plays a role, is not nearly as important as the politics of a country. The authors, pointing to other earthquakes in Peru, San Francisco Mexico and Pakistan, show that earthquakes—when they occur in non-democratic governments—often produce far higher casualty counts than those in democratic political systems.

This is not just a matter of coincidence, they believe.

“In a democracy, leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population in order to stay in power,” they write. “To do so, they need to protect the people from natural disasters by enforcing building codes and ensuring that bureaucracies are run by competent administrators.”

Politicians in democracies run the major risk of losing their jobs if they fail to either properly enforce safety codes or competently manage in the aftermath of the disaster. For example, the authors say, statistics show that, while 39 percent of democracies experience anti-government protests within any two-year period—that rate nearly doubles after a major earthquake. Furthermore, between 1976 and 2007, 40 percent of democratic nations replaced their leader in any two-year period—yet 91 percent of them did so following a major earthquake.

So, it seems, a government’s natural emergency preparedness can determine its own survival.

In start contrast, non-democratic regimes—where, like democracies, the rate of anti-government protests almost doubles after major earthquakes—the rate at which these governments are deposed increases far less, from 22 percent over any two-year period to 24 percent following a major earthquake.

“Political survival lies at the heart of disaster politics,” the authors conclude. “Unless politicians are beholden to the people, they have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature, especially when these resources could otherwise be earmarked for themselves and their small cadre of supporters.”

Worse, with a higher casualty count, undemocractic countries are able to appeal for a much larger amount of aid money. In un-democratic countries, this large inflow of foreign aid can then “enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites,” the authors write.

“Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue.”

Brady Yauch, Probe International

Further Reading from Probe International:

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