Theory that democracies react better to natural disasters is flawed
By Jonathan Eyal
THE devastating floods swamping parts of Pakistan, killing 1,600 people and rendering another four million homeless, already rank as one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
The vast destruction wrought by other recent natural calamities, in places as far flung as China and Haiti, has prompted some Western academics to advance a radical theory: that there is a direct link between the heavy loss of life in such disasters and a country's form of government. Mother Nature, it seems, is only one culprit in such tragedies.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, professors Alastair Smith and Alejandro Flores of New York University looked at the casualty rates in several apparently similar natural disasters worldwide.
The statistics highlighted are startling. The Haiti earthquake in January killed some 222,000 people, but the quake which hit Chile a month later took the lives of 500 even though it was about five times stronger than the Haitian quake.
The 1906 earthquake which flattened San Francisco left 3,000 Americans dead. But a similar quake in Mexico in 1985 - when rescue technology was much more advanced - killed 10 times more people. And whereas a 2001 earthquake in India killed some 20,000 people, a slightly smaller one in Pakistan in 2005 killed over 80,000.
What accounts for such disparities?
In their analysis, the academics examined factors such as different population densities, geographic features and wealth, and concluded that none of these was enough to provide a satisfactory explanation.
Mexico's wealth in 1985, for instance, was comparable to that of the United States in 1906. And Pakistan in 2005 was slightly wealthier - on a per capita basis - than India, but still suffered more deaths.
The real explanation, Prof Smith and Prof Flores claim, lies in the democratic character of governments. Chile, the US and India are democracies, unlike Haiti, Mexico and Pakistan. And democracies lose fewer people because while 'in a democracy leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population' by 'protecting the people', in dictatorships, politicians unbeholden to their electorates 'have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature'.
This seemingly neat theory is not as novel as it sounds. Dr Gregory Van der Vink, a Princeton University geosciences expert, warned three years ago that 'governments with low levels of accountability to their citizens may feel less pressure to maintain a high-level capacity for response to the humanitarian impact of natural disasters'. Prof Matthew Kahn of Stanford University has also made a similar point.
Nobody doubts that there is a link between the level of preparedness for natural disasters and the casualty rate. While some are killed in the first impact of an earthquake, for instance, many more die because they are not rescued promptly, or are felled by disease and hunger.
But the evidence is not so clear-cut for concluding that the democratic nature of a government is the chief reason why some countries do better in handling natural disasters than others.
Russia has a popularly elected government. But, two decades after the fall of authoritarian communism, it continues to botch the handling of natural disasters. Just look at the recent forest fires which have killed few, but continue to poison the lungs of millions almost a month after they started.
The Philippines under then President Corazon Aquino was also a democracy. Nevertheless, it experienced the worst peace-time maritime disaster of the 20th century - the sinking of the MV Dona Paz in 1987 with the loss of 1,700 people - as well as the Luzon earthquake of 1990, which left over 1,600 dead, and Typhoon Uring in 1991, in which 6,000 were killed. All these calamities were mishandled, with some people dying unnecessarily.
Tellingly, the American academics are keen to look at only one type of calamity: earthquakes, where the rigorous enforcement of construction standards and building zone arrangements clearly mitigates the loss of life. The fact that authoritarian governments seem to pay little attention to such measures while democracies such as Japan do is presented as proof of the theory that democracies are superior.
But what about other natural disasters, such as landslides or flooding, where the threat is geographically more widespread and unpredictable, and safety measures not so obvious?
Here, it is poverty - rather than the form of government - which makes the biggest difference. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that 65 per cent of deaths from natural disasters between 1985 and 1999 happened in nations where incomes were below US$760 (S$1,030) per capita. By focusing mainly on casualty rates in earthquakes, the US academics are engaging in a circular argument: They pick only the statistics which seem to prove their pre-ordained conclusions.
Nor is it evident that authoritarian governments are necessarily worse at handling natural emergencies. Almost by definition, such governments can marshal the necessary military resources to clear rubble and rescue survivors with little attention to legal niceties.
The disgraceful disputes between the local, state and federal authorities in the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not happen in China after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
And even governments which do not rely on popular will know that their legitimacy ultimately depends on the way they handle disasters. The hands-on, empathetic leadership shown by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during many of China's recent natural calamities is a case in point: 'Grandpa Wen' has done more for the stability of the Chinese government than all the official propaganda combined.
In short, it is not necessarily democracy as such, but good governance, low corruption levels and higher living standards which can reduce the number of casualties in natural disasters. However, that is probably far too complicated and mundane an argument for those who prefer neat theories.
[There is a better link between poverty and mortality in disasters than government types and mortality. With wealth, more disaster readiness is possible. While it is possible that democracies tend to be wealthier than say non-democracies, this is not an absolute. Certainly the vibrant democracy of the Philippines have not resulted in widespread wealth. Democracy proponents still seem to think that the democracy is an end in itself. The purpose of democracy is to pick the best possible government. But this objective have been undermined and democratic processes become the end in itself. Trying to selectively pick case studies that support the hypothesis is disingenuous and misleading.]