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 8.9 on the Richter scale literally moved Chile's second-largest city, Concepcion, 10 feet to the west, according to GPS data. Though just separated by two points on the Richter scale from the Haitian quake, due to the logarithmic measurement the Chilean quake was 64 times stronger, yet fewer than 500 people were killed.
Natural hazards only become disasters when the particular patterns of human settlement leave a population vulnerable to the whims of nature. In Chile, a competent government enforced well-known building codes and ran rehearsed disaster response drills. In Haiti, self-reinforcing patterns of poverty, natural resource over-exploitation, and limited social cooperation meant the impact from any natural shock was amplified when it struck.
Meanwhile, any form of international engagement between rich countries and poor countries is subject to pulls from multiple forces. Not every foreign engagement is seen as a potential battle in the so-called war on terror, yet basic geopolitical forces are still at work whenever a dollar is dispersed through official channels. Even the large minority of disaster relief that comes from not-for-profits is not always spent on the victims who are most in need. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) cannot simply print their money, and their aid must go to those places where the agency's future funds can be raised. These are the politics of disaster relief: aid driven by donor priorities to calamities that shouldn't have occurred in the first place.
The role of disaster relief
According to research by Swedish economist David Strömberg, around US$5 billion is spent on natural disaster relief per year, whereas disasters inflict economic damage on the order of US$40 billion per year. Much of that economic damage occurs in rich countries, and much of that is privately insured. The bulk of aid flows from richer countries to poorer countries, and is naturally redistributive. While the US$5 billion figure may seem impressive, it must be put in proper perspective. It represents less than 0.02% of the combined GDP of the European Union, the United States, and Japan, and is smaller than the vending machine industry in the United States.
Unlike much foreign aid that is provided as a transfer between governments (or to support the functions of the recipient government), disaster relief is often provided in kind. This means that donors bring in actual goods, like blankets and shelter, or services, like helicopter transport. More often, donor governments support in-kind relief provided by international organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP), or contract specific relief tasks to international NGOs like Catholic Relief Services and CARE. These NGOs and others also raise funds privately, and the resources that they bring to bear on disaster relief are substantial, though dwarfed by official funds.