The Norman Transcript

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November 13, 2013

Are democracies better at dealing with disasters?

WASHINGTON — In an earlier post, I talked about how the economic conditions in the Philippines could play a role in the severity of the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan, but what about the country’s politics?

The Philippines is classified as “partly free” by Freedom House and has endemic problems with corruption and cronyism. But the country is an electoral democracy with an increasingly open political process, and recent progress has been made in reaching a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Will improving democratic conditions in the country make any difference in the country’s disaster relief efforts? They could.

Events like earthquakes, typhoons and droughts are acts of God, but the level of development in a country will often determine the extent of the damage. Chile experienced a more severe earthquake than Haiti in 2010, according to the Richter Scale, but only a fraction of the death toll.

There’s some research to suggest that democracies are better at preparing for disasters and responding to them than autocracies. Take Myanmar’s blocking of aid after Cyclone Nargis or China’s crackdown on those who questioned the shoddy construction that made the death toll from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake much higher than it needed to be.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously argued that famines do not occur in functioning democracies because democracies “have to win elections and face public criticism and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

In a 2002 paper, London School of Economics economists Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess built on this argument in a study of how Indian regions responded to falls in food production and crop flood damage. They found that Indian states “where newspaper circulation is higher and electoral accountability greater” were far more responsive in responding to people’s needs in the wake of disasters.

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