A natural disaster is regarded as the quintessential “act of God.” When a drought or a tsunami strikes a poor country and images of disaster victims are broadcast around the world, individuals, nonprofits, and governments elsewhere respond with generous relief. This picture seems to exemplify mankind at his finest, a rare field in which humanitarian needs trump political concerns. For the most part, this conception is true. Responding to a natural disaster is a rare locus of engagement for countries like the United States in countries like Burma or North Korea.
Yet the notions that disasters are natural, and that disaster relief is apolitical, are ultimately flawed. Even though innocent victims are involved, the laws of political economy unfortunately apply. Those laws dictate that — like individuals — countries look out for their own self-interest, and governments and non-state actors respond to incentives. In the case of natural disasters, this means that disasters are sometimes more severe than they otherwise would be, and that disaster relief follows the incentives of the donors just as much as it does the needs of the beneficiaries.
How is it that natural disasters are, in fact, unnatural? Consider the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 measured a bone-jarring 7.0 on the Richter scale. Over 250,000 Haitians were killed, with 1.5 million further losing their homes. Nature seemed to hold a particular vengeance against the small country, adding a horrendous earthquake to a country that in previous years had already been subjected to hurricanes, mudslides, floods, and droughts. Meanwhile, in Chile just over a month later, an earthquake measuring