The Norman Transcript

Opinion

November 13, 2013

Are democracies better at dealing with disasters?

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

In 2010, Alejandro Quiroz Flores and Alastair Smith developed the idea further, arguing that democratic countries have greater incentives to prepare for disasters and put response systems in place than autocracies.

In democracies, leaders take a political hit when casualty numbers are high and the response by authorities is perceived as inadequate. If the number of casualties are low and the response and the authorities are seen as responsive, a leader can even benefit politically.

The incentives work differently for autocracies. Leaders depend not on public support but on the loyalty of their closest followers. So funds that could be spent on improving infrastructure or developing disaster response systems are better spent on enriching the leader’s cronies.

Disasters can hurt autocratic governments by concentrating displaced people in small areas and giving opposition leaders a focal point to rally around.

The Fores/Smith paper argues that the anti-government protests that followed the 1985 Mexico City earthquake helped the city develop a stronger civil society, leading eventually to the direct election of the city’s mayor and the erosion of the PRI party’s monopoly on power. Patrick Meier argues in iRevolution that online organizing in the wake of disasters can serve a similar function.

Here’s where the bad news comes in for the Philippines. The country’s infrastructure is in rough shape after years of underinvestment.

With one recent president convicted of corruption and another charged with election fraud, it would be understandable for Filipinos to be skeptical of their leaders.

Indeed, there’s already something of a blame game developing between President Benigno Aquino III and the local authorities in devastated Tacloban city.

Hopefully this controversy will put some pressure on authorities to take steps to prevent the next storm from being quite so deadly.

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