Greg Bankoff writes on environmental-society interactions with respect to disasters, natural hazards, human-animal relation, development, resources and community-based disaster management. Among his publications are Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines (2003) and the co-edited volume Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People (2004). He is Professor of Modern History at the University of Hull, United Kingdom.

There are no such things as "natural disasters.“ Hazards are natural events, occurring more or less frequently and of greater or lesser magnitude, but disasters are not. What makes a hazard into a disaster depends primarily on the way a society is ordered.  Human systems place some people more at risk than others, creating relationships best understood in terms of an individual’s, household’s, community’s or society’s vulnerability. Vulnerable people are at risk not simply because they are exposed to hazards but also because they have been made marginal in some way by a combination of variables such as class, gender, age, ethnicity, or disability. So, if disasters are not fundamentally natural, why are they alluded to as such? Why is the term “natural disaster” so prevalent, etched into the popular consciousness by governments and the media alike to refer to extreme events that result in loss of life and damage to property?

The implicit assumption about disasters

The answer is simple: it suits some people to explain them that way. As natural events, disasters are nobody’s fault. The people affected are victims at the mercy of a capricious climate and/or an unpredictable seismicity. Not so long ago, disasters were simply considered “Acts of God,” even justified as chastisement by a wrathful deity for the misdemeanors of sinners. Nor has this explanation entirely lost its hold on the popular imagination. Only recently, charismatic American evangelist Pat Robertson suggested that this year’s seven-magnitude earthquake in Haiti should be understood as divine retribution for its leaders swearing a “pact with the Devil” in exchange for their country’s independence from France. “Ever since,” he announced over the Christian Broadcasting Network, “they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.”

It is easier to understand why disaster is still naturalized when one bears in mind that most of these disasters occur outside of the self proclaimed “developed” world. Over the last decade (1999-2008), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRCS) reported that medium and low human development countries (as measured by UNDPs Human Development Index) accounted for 64 percent of the total number of natural disasters, 92 percent of all those reported killed in such events and 97 percent of all those reported affected by them. Only in financial terms is the situation reversed with the cost to high human development countries amounting to 68 percent of the trillion plus US$ in damages during that period. However, even these figures need to be treated with caution as the monetary value accorded to infrastructure in developed countries is much higher than in developing ones, and the costs incurred are proportionally greater in terms of gross national product for developing countries. Moreover, what these statistics fail to convey is the implicit assumption that a lack of development leads to disasters and the concomitant belief that development reduces the incidence of disasters. Disasters are “natural” in the sense that loss of life and relatively greater loss of property mainly occur in developing countries that lack the technological resources to mitigate or even prevent their occurrence. The more developed a country is, so it is assumed, the less toll a disaster wreaks.

A question of history and expediency

The enduring popularity of “natural disasters” in policy and print lies in both the historical origins of colonial relief and the political expediency of development aid. Natural disasters were first recognized in the second half of the nineteenth century in the sense that such events prompted some form of coordinated international relief. Unsurprisingly, given the imperial ethos and political composition of the times, responses to disasters were mainly framed in terms of colonial discourses. What this meant in practice is exemplified in the Indian Famine Codes drafted in 1880, the first detailed articulation of what relief should constitute in the modern era. As David Hall-Matthews shows, these codes had their foundations in the European philosophies of the day regarding both the role of the state and the proper market treatment of the poor but transferred to a colonial setting. This meant blaming the poor for their poverty and holding the land and its people responsible for the hazard. The state’s role in relief was to be minimal, based more on expediency than any other factor. That the state accepted any responsibility for relief at all was not due to any sense of morality but was more a matter of “good governance” based on past experiences like the Irish Potato Famine and the Indian Mutiny. These colonial origins have served as the precedent for development aid in the modern era, instilling a preoccupation with averting dependency through over-generous assistance, a heavy reliance on free-market solutions, and, above all, the retention of external management and control of the relief programs. The result is relief campaigns that often better serve the interests of the “relievers” rather than the “relieved”.

The link between colonial relief campaigns and modern aid programs is rarely explicit. Instead, development aid is mainly seen as the child of the Cold War and, more specifically, as a product of U.S. foreign policy considerations like the perceived need to orchestrate a series of diverse economic initiatives to ensure that the newly decolonized nations of the so-called Third World did not fall prey to Communism. Aid promised an alternative means of achieving rapid economic growth and national development without the massive economic dislocation and social upheaval suggested by the Soviet model. While its philosophical underpinnings can be traced back to notions of progress of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, development as a foreign policy project is presented as having little past history. As the United States had been (and some say still is) a colonial power with dependencies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, it was important that the program of overseas development assistance (ODA) bore no hint of a colonial stigma.

An interesting but largely overlooked transitional phase between colonial relief and development aid has to do with the war damages commissions established to decide compensation for the widespread destruction in many countries during the Second World War, a “natural disaster” of truly epic proportions for many in the developing world. A revealing example is the Philippine Rehabilitation Act of 1946, whereby the U.S. Congress allocated over $600 million to act as a “rehabilitation stimulus” to their former colony. In the complex mixture of motives behind this gift were notions of colonial responsibility interspersed with a sense of gratitude for the loyalty shown by Filipinos during the war against the Japanese. As phrased in the Final Report of the Philippine War Damages Commission in 1951: “Freedom without financial aid would have been comparable to putting a friend to sea in an unprovisioned open boat.” Just as evident, however, is American economic self-interest. Compensation was made dependent on the signing of the Philippine Trade Act that established the future of trade relations between the two nations and curtailed the ability of the new government to set import duties or alter the piso’s exchange rate with the dollar. The Act even granted American citizens parity with Filipinos to own and exploit the natural resources of the former colony, a right whose implementation required an amendment to the Philippine Constitution. There was also the threat of Communist subversion to counter. After all, the Huk rebellion threatened to topple the newly established republic unless the government received massive U.S. military assistance.

These more self-interested motives increasingly came to the fore during the Cold War. On the one hand, the rationale behind the ODA initiated by President Truman in 1949 and projects funded by the World Bank were designed to contain the spread of Communism. On the other hand, they were meant to facilitate American capital’s penetration in newly emerging markets, building up the administrative capacity of the state and providing the infrastructure for both public and private enterprise. Development was the continuation of a discourse already started under colonialism and refined in the debates over post-war compensation about what the former colonial masters considered the best ways to deal with poverty, including the natural hazards that brought it about – disease, drought, famine, flood and the like. As the anti-Communist agenda receded in the 1980s and 1990s, foreign direct investment and private capital flows began to replace ODA as the favored development paradigm. The focus, however, remained much the same as it did in the nineteenth century in terms of its heavy reliance on free market mechanisms and the conditionality of funding dependent on the privatization of public services and infrastructure. The resultant privatization programs and sell-off of state assets have commonly taken place in the absence of proper regulatory safeguards, placing many services beyond the reach of the poor, leaving others at the mercy of substantial rises in utility charges, and rendering all more vulnerable to the impact and effect of natural hazards.

Development aggression

If development programs conceal the colonial origins of aid and the relations of dependency that it creates, disasters serve to obscure the developmental issues that put people at risk in the first place. This chain of explanation that links the impact of a hazard with a series of societal factors that generate vulnerability is now well understood and clearly expressed in the pressure and release model of disaster causation. The proponents of this model set out to reveal the links that connect a disaster to the processes that generate it. The “root causes” of the disaster are the interrelated set of widespread and general processes within a society and the world economy that are spatially distant (arising in a far-away centre of economic and political power) and temporally distant in the sense that they constitute the unquestioned worldview of those most at risk. Next are the “dynamic pressures,” the more contemporary manifestations of the general underlying economic, social, and political patterns that constitute more immediate triggers such as epidemic disease, rapid urbanization, wars, foreign indebtedness, and structural adjustment programs. These dynamic pressures translate root causes into the specific forms in which the vulnerability of a population is expressed as “unsafe conditions” like living in hazardous locations, inhabiting makeshift dwellings, engaging in dangerous livelihoods or not having sufficient food entitlements. 

Of course, development is meant to ameliorate many of the unsafe conditions and dynamic pressures that have put people at risk. It largely fails to do so, however, because development is too much a part of the root causes that underlie societal vulnerability in the first place. In many developing countries, some development projects such as the new dams, mines, plantations, and tourist resorts that require the conversion of prime agricultural or seafront land to industrial and commercial plots are regarded as more “disastrous” than natural hazards. To make way for such projects, local communities are often displaced without consultation, losing not only their homes, livelihoods, and rights to cultivate (ancestral) lands, but also their identity and roots. It is hardly surprising that many environmentalist and grassroots activists in these countries have begun to talk about “development aggression,” a form of development in which people are neither the partners in nor the beneficiaries of projects but rather its victims. As Annelies Heijmans argues, development policies that favor national and global interests over local concerns are nothing less than an issue of human rights violation.

Statistics appear to lend some support to such a perspective, an emerging trend in the incidence of natural disasters suggests their human “costs” are disproportionately borne by the medium human development countries.  Those countries experiencing the most rapid rates of growth – much of it based on investment in “aggressive development” of mega-projects – accounted for 53 percent of all disasters, 64 percent of those killed and 90 percent of those affected between 1999 and 2008. Of course, the relationship between disasters and development is not nearly as straightforward as these figures might suggest as the medium human development category includes some of the most populous countries in the world such as India and the People's Republic of China.

Inventing “natural disasters”

This is where the discourse on “natural disasters” proves useful. Too much global public awareness that aid maintains almost colonial forms of dependency and that development serves the agendas of the “developers” more than it does those to be “developed” is bad for democracy – even if it is good for business.  A much more convenient solution is to hold natural causes responsible for this regrettable outcome; more convenient still is to blame the increasing magnitude (if not frequency) of extreme events on climate change. It has been done before on a smaller scale when the effects of ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) were first identified by climatologists in the 1960s and subsequently used on occasion by regional governments to excuse poor performance and conceal corrupt practice.

Too often, people claim that Haitians and the millions of inhabitants of similar places around the world are just unlucky and have suffered their fate due to living in the wrong place at the wrong time: it's Fate, nature, God, or even their own fault. Overlooked are a history of forced settlement, slavery, plantation monoculture, soil exhaustion, deforestation, repeated occupations, the Duvaliers – father and son, the tonton macoutes, grinding poverty and the lowest standard of living in the Western Hemisphere. Of course not all of these factors can be blamed on external causes but many certainly are or at least attributable to a world system that disadvantageously incorporate states like Haiti into it on unequal terms. The sooner we realize that disasters are never natural but always the product of hazard and history, that a people’s vulnerability is not a given of place but derivative from the past, the better we are likely to understand what fate might await us all in a world of changing climate.