Thursday, November 29, 2012

John Hannigan’s "Disasters Without Borders"

John Hannigan is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Environmental Sociology (1995, 2006) and Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (1998).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters, and reported the following:
Did Hurricane Sandy tip the 2012 presidential election towards Barack Obama? It’s difficult to know definitively. Still, the ‘super-storm’ was a welcome gift for the Obama campaign just days before voters went to the polls. The incumbent could look ‘presidential’ and the challenger was left to explain why he opposed federal disaster aid. Disasters Without Borders came out in North America only a week before this. Presciently perhaps, the book includes a box comparing the performance of three high-profile east-coast politicians – Cory Booker, Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo – during Hurricane Irene, which struck the very same region the previous August.

On Page 99, I review some key studies by political scientists that uniformly found that governments usually make decisions about how much disaster assistance to approve and where it should be directed not according to victim need, but rather in light of perceived political advantages and imperatives. Domestically, states that are politically important to the President are more likely to be declared disaster areas, making them eligible for federal assistance. In the case of foreign disasters, it clearly helps to be a friend of the United States. Time and again, altruism is trumped by political calculation.

More broadly, Disasters Without Borders is an account of key milestones, debates, controversies and research relating to the international politics of natural disaster. In the book, I highlight the ongoing disjuncture between how disaster has been conceptualized and the institutional architecture put in place to manage it. Mostly governments have ceded responsibility for disaster response and planning to the humanitarian community. Tellingly, with the exception of a minor convention on sharing telecommunication resources in disasters, there are no legally binding, multilateral treaties.

All this may be about to change. Alarmed by predictions of more frequent and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy that are possibly provoked by climate change, the Pentagon, the World Bank and the re-insurance industry are increasingly engaging with the disaster sector, importing a more aggressive and politicized form of intervention. Soon, we could see the confluence of four trends – securitization, catastrophic scenario building, the privatization of risk, and quantification – that promise to create a new global system of disaster management wherein ‘insurance logic’ will replace humanitarian concern as the guiding principle.
Learn more about Disasters Without Borders at the John Wiley & Sons website.

--Marshal Zeringue