Disaster response: why democracy matters

By Isabelle Desportes

It is inherent to times of crises, and we can witness it in the way the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled too: strong leadership emerges, many decisions and emergency legislative mechanisms are enforced, and some key issues move to the background. While such centralistic measures are often necessary, they also bear the risk of infringing on an effective and socially just handling of crises, and shape our societies on the long term.

My PhD research on disaster response in Myanmar, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe showed that, while responses to the disasters (a flood in 2015 in Myanmar and crippling drought in 2016 in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) were mostly coordinated and efficient, the political contexts in which the disaster occurred meant that discussions on disaster preparedness and the modalities of relief were scarce. All three processes had important dynamics in common: as the disasters destroyed homes, disrupted livelihoods and uprooted communities, their intense impacts had to be handled in the midst of an ongoing marginalization of certain population groups at the hands of other groups and/or the state. Disaster responders were highly mobilized, but with little space to openly debate the modalities of relief, to have full insight into the extent of needs, and to raise concerns.

Following the disasters, a number of longer-term changes could be observed, according to the 271 disasters responders that I interviewed and who were active in organizations ranging from grassroots community groups to United Nations bodies:

  1. The already marginalized were impacted most strongly by the disasters, being the most vulnerable to start with, with limited coping capacities and safety nets, fewer rights, a lack of voice and of bargaining power;
  2. Disaster responses were not always carried out in the common interest of societies at large and in accordance with humanitarian principles, but could serve as a conduit for violence, and to further enforce the interests of a few. In Myanmar for instance, the government had long aimed to homogenize its multi-ethnic and religious peoples into a unified Buddhist and Bamar entity. During the response to 2015 cyclone Komen in the ethnic Rakhine and Chin states, state aid was biased against religious and ethnic minority groups, and self-help and non-state aid initiatives to help those groups were grossly hampered. Muslim communities were forcibly relocated in military vehicles following the floods, state aid was distributed from monasteries not accessible to non-Buddhist groups, and the Rohingya minority was framed in public discourse as not worthy of support;
  3. The marginalization of certain groups  mostly occurred not via bold announcements and clear restrictions, but through everyday political acts. This includes how data is collected, analysed and shared as part of disaster needs assessments, or which seemingly bureaucratic conditions are tied to response mechanisms. The manner in which certain topics are routinely framed in public discourse also plays a role. When certain issues are not discussed transparently or not discussed at all, they cannot be taken care of. As civil society and international actors often felt that raising sensitive issues would compromise their humanitarian operations and/or safety , self-censorship became one of their preferred strategies to navigate the politics of disaster response. For example, the Ethiopian government did not admit to cholera epidemics which followed  the drought—this did not sit well with Ethiopia’s alleged double-digit growth numbers. Humanitarian practitioners routinely referred to ‘acute watery diarrhea’ instead, even though this hampered the importation of proper drugs to treat the sickness.

Myanmar has embarked on a dubious handling of the coronavirus crisis already, initially denying cases of COVID-19 infections, and prolonging military operations, internet and media shut-downs in the ethnic minority conflict zones of Rakhine and Chin States. Once again, minorities seem to be left aside in the crisis. In April 2020 in Ethiopia, the government declared a State of Emergency to fight the spread of the virus, allowing the Council of Ministers to suspend some ‘political and democratic rights’ when necessary. Implications are still unclear, but caution would be warranted. As highlighted in my PhD research, the last State of Emergency, declared in October 2016 following political protests, had also been used to undermine a fair drought response. In Zimbabwe, the regime appears to instrumentalize lock-down measures to selectively close down informal trade activities, with corruption practices and political networks playing a role.

But, crucially, what is described above is not only a matter of concern for faraway countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’. In a 2019 article, political scientist Marlies Glasius highlights how the label of authoritarianism does not apply to entire regimes in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, but to patterns of action that sabotage accountability between the people and their political representatives “by means of secrecy, disinformation and disabling voice”. Such practices can be applied everywhere, including in democratic settings.

The risk of this happening is especially high in situations of crisis, which, quite rightly so, call for urgent and extraordinary measures. Political leaders from France to Spain recently proclaimed that they were ‘waging wars’— a rhetoric that bears the risk of stifling criticism and pluralistic views in the name of ‘national unity and security’. In academic jargon, such moves are termed ‘securitization. The Hungarian parliament thus had to enter a phase of imposed hibernation as Viktor Orban was granted extraordinary emergency powers. Journalists could be fined for propagating ‘fake news’, without clear definition of what such fake news would consist of—a classic move pushing towards self-censorship via the instilling of uncertainty and fear, as observed in my PhD case study countries. In several European countries, governments are negotiating with telecommunication companies to track population movements. One of the advanced arguments is that ‘if this saves but one life, it is worth it’. Yet, these privacy-invading practices can also be difficult to unwind, and can set precedents.

A key democratic concern is not only how decisions are taken, but also whether they are taken in the common interest of societies at large. Our political representatives, the media, but also every one of us have a crucial role to play in this. Social and environmental issues must be kept central, not only serve as adjustment variables to the economic or political interests of a few.

This crisis can be a political turning point, and it is for all of us to make that future a desirable one.

Isabelle Desportes stresses the importance of upholding democracy in times of crises, because she studies how humanitarian emergencies are handled in settings where this is not the case. She is a PhD researcher at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University in The Hague, contributing to the research programme ’When Disaster meets Conflict’ (funded by NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, project no. 453/14/013). Prior to her PhD, she has worked on climate change and disaster governance for the International Organizations, local municipality, and civil society organizations.

Image: Water Alternatives under a Creative Commons Licence  on Flickr

A different version of this blog post was originally published on BLISS : The ISS blog on Global Development and Social Justice