In the wake of natural disasters, we often see the immediate and devastating impacts through images of displaced people and destruction of property, sobering statistics about loss of life, and calls to contribute to humanitarian organizations’ relief efforts. What might be less familiar is the impact of natural disasters on state-society relations as actors are confronted with a changed physical, political, and social landscape. Wood and Wright (2016) argue that the instability that follows disaster is often characterized by popular movements against the state as well as a decline in the state’s capacity to police, sanction and control the population. The state will respond to lack of control with overt repression in order to reassert its authority. In addition, the influx of humanitarian aid following a natural disaster may either mitigate or exacerbate the state’s repressive response to disaster. The authors posit that democratic states are more likely to use aid for the intended purpose, lessening criticisms against the state and the need for using repression. Autocratic states may misuse aid, which exacerbates tensions, thus increasing the likelihood of a repressive state response.
The authors support their argument with data from 1977 to 2009 on state-sponsored repression and natural disaster occurrence and severity in approximately 166 states, as well as data on humanitarian aid. The more ‘severe’ the disaster was, as determined by the number of people in need of immediate assistance, the more likely the state was to use repression. Interestingly, the higher the amount of aid given to a democratic state, the less likely it is to use repression, an effect that increases as the disaster becomes more severe. Conversely, for non-democratic states, increased aid was related to an increased risk of repression as the disaster becomes more severe.
These findings have implications for the fields of conflict resolution and international development. Natural disasters can expose the underlying political and social tensions that exist within a state and that drive it towards conflict or peace. Practitioners must be aware of the influence of their own activities as certain states will potentially react to these dynamics repressively, exacerbating the drivers of conflict.
Wood, R.M. and Wright, T.M. (2016). Responding to Catastrophe: Repression Dynamics Following Rapid-onset Natural Disasters. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 60(8), 1446-1472.
Photo: Alex Brandon/The Times-Picayune New Orleans Police Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann aims his gun on the Claiborne Overpass in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005.