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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

“Disaster Politics: Why Earthquakes Rock Democracies Less”

July 20th, 2010 · No Comments

“On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake — approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti — but only 500 people died. Why the disparity?”

That’s the question addressed in an interesting piece on, “Disaster Politics: Why Earthquakes Rock Democracies Less,” by Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores.

The authors conclude that a nation’s political system may be the most important indicator of disaster preparedness and response success:

The recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti are illustrations of this dynamic. Given the extremely high magnitude of the earthquake in democratic Chile, the resulting 500 casualties were relatively few, and the government has been rightly praised for its effective response. Though Bachelet was nearing her term limit at the time of the earthquake, her management of the crisis helped her party and is expected to benefit her if she runs for reelection in 2014. On the other hand, the more autocratic Haitian government has failed to provide even basic recovery services for the 230,000 victims buried in rubble. Elections in Haiti are notoriously corrupt, and the regime has already used the earthquake as an excuse to postpone even these half-hearted contests. Although there have been a few protests, the regime seems likely to endure despite its abject failure to help its people.

Political survival lies at the heart of disaster politics. 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. What is worse, the casualty count after a disaster is a major determinant of the amount of international assistance a country receives. Relief funds can even enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites. Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue. The fix can only be political — leaders will not use the policies already available to mitigate the effects of natural disasters until they have the incentives to do so.

The full article can be found here.

Terremoto @ Santiago, Chile | Photo 02 by slaff on

Repair efforts in Chile after this year’s earthquake.

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Tags: Earthquake Preparedness · International

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