Sunday, July 18, 2010

The worst form of government - except for all the others

There are many reasons the countries of the West need to be in the democracy-promotion, rule-of-law promotion business. The indisputable fact that democracies are more respectful of human rights is one. Alastair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores in "Disaster Politics" explain another.
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. ....

.... In 2003, an earthquake in Bam, Iran, killed at least 30,000. China is plagued by such disasters, which can leave hundreds of thousands dead. Similar earthquakes in Chile, Japan, and the United States have killed far fewer. The difference is in the preparation: Chile, Japan, and the United States have implemented policies that keep acts of nature from becoming massive human tragedies; Iran and China have not.

It is tempting to suggest that a country’s ability to prepare is a matter of money. After all, the United States and Japan are extremely wealthy. However, although wealth certainly matters, politics are more important. Four decades ago, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck Peru, killing about 66,000 people. In 2001, an even stronger earthquake hit but killed less than 150 people. Admittedly, the population density in the area of the first earthquake was about twice that in the second. But that alone does not account for the huge disparity in casualties. Neither does income. Peru’s per capita income was virtually identical in real terms at both points. The big difference was political. In 2001, Peru was a democracy, whereas in 1970 it was not. ....

.... Despite high casualties, autocrats can expect to keep their thrones. On the other hand, democratic leaders who fail to prevent natural disasters from causing calamity are replaced. As such, democrats plan and react to natural disasters, while autocrats do not. ....

.... 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. [more]
Disaster Politics | Foreign Affairs