Political and Natural Disasters

For those of you who don’t know me, my MA was based on work in Haiti – I have many friends on the island, and spent time in rural areas, as well as Port-au-Prince in 2009 and 2010. Originally (read, before the earthquake), I had planned a photography project in one of the capital city’s worst slums, hoping to use photography to help mitigate PTSD levels and future violence in the neighborhood. And then the earthquake struck.

What surprised me was how shocked the international community was by the damage. Anyone who had traveled to Haiti previously could have predicted the outcome – a lack of planning, infrastructure, and only one Haitian earthquake engineer (who incidentally was still a student at the time of the quake) made devastation a strong likelihood in the event of an earthquake. Tropical depressions, hurricanes, deforestation, and a lack of indoor plumbing heightened the risk for catastrophic health problems following the event.

On the ground, aid groups scrambled for attention following the tremor, and competed as often as they collaborated. In the rural location where I was working, some families had offers of three new homes, but others – facing comparable damage – received none. And this was WITH the help of the UN Shelter Cluster.

So what does all of this have to do with political violence? Quite a bit. The impact of natural disaster on political violence isn’t well understood. The research is conflicted, and fascinating. Slettebak and Theisen, for example, found increased political violence following climatic disasters, but decreased political violence after geologic disasters. Other researchers, such as Brancati , found links between earthquakes and political violence. Working on the problem from an economic perspective, numerous researchers have expressed concern that a state’s wealth may be a good predictor of post-disaster political violence. Haiti, it would seem, is the first place you might look for political violence.

Let’s add a little fuel to that fire – during my stay on the island, complaints about paid gangs posting slogans for one candidate or another were rampant. Politics was a tense topic. I knew individuals who were fleeing or had fled Port-au-Prince for fear of political violence, despite better access to aid. Haiti also has a significant history of violent political uprising – nearly as many Haitian presidents have been assasinated as have left the office peacefully.

So what happened? In one of the poorest countries in the world, with a strong history of political violence,  frequent climatic disasters, and a geologic disaster of epic proportions, immediately following the earthquake significant concerns were voiced. Berg drafted a report for the USIP suggesting that specific measures be taken to mitigate a growing threat of violence on the island. Former dictators and exiled Presidents battled over the right to return to the island, and the elections that did occur were viewed skeptically by many Haitians.

And yet, did political violence on the island continue to increase? Not at the level one might expect. Perhaps the aid presence on the island has helped to limit violence. Maybe Haiti’s position in the international spotlight provides hope for the population, but regardless of the reason, the island is quieter than might be expected. Even with discontent over elections, political violence has remained relatively controlled since 2011. The island now makes the news for public health crises and poor environmental conditions as often as it does for politics.

According to the Miami Herald,

Thomas Adams, U.S. Special Coordinator for Haiti, said there has been visible progress in Haiti in areas such as housing and good economic growth.

“Health indicators are up, agricultural productivity has increased, security is getting better,” said Adams, noting that the police’s professional handling of anti-government demonstrations last year in the capital. “The HNP is getting more competent.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do think more research into the intersection of natural disasters and political violence is necessary. I also think a more robust perspective could be worthwhile. A study that looks into aid response, GDP, public health crises, international community involvement (other than direct aid), prior political stability, and natural disasters of various types, might be a good place to begin teasing apart the complex inter-relation of these topics.

If you’ve got more information on this area, please share!

Political Violence at a Glance published an excellent post on this topic earlier in the year – looking into Typhoon Hayian and the potential for unrest in the Phillipines.

More articles on this topic:

How Natural Disasters Affect Political Attitudes and Behavior: Evidence from the 2010-2011 Pakistani Floods https://www.princeton.edu/~jns/papers/FKMS_2013_Floods.pdf 

The Impact of Disasters and Political Violence on Mental Health in Latin America http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/newsletters/research-quarterly/V20N4.pdf

 Climatic Natural Disasters, Political Risk, and International Trade http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378009001009

Understanding Citizen Response to Disasters with Implications for Terrorism http://www.nifv.nl/upload/179141_668_1168610392500-perry-2003.pdf

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