Shocks and Change

December 29, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

Funny thing, the Chatham House rule. Introduced by the Chatham House thinktank to enable policy makers to speak more freely at seminars and meetings, people often assume it means you are sworn to complete secrecy about what was said. Not so. The actual rule reads “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

Which means I’m allowed to describe the extraordinary room in Whitehall (home of the British government) where I recently attended a discussion on the changing nature of risk. Called the ‘Treasury Board Room’, with high vaulted ceiling, portraits of bewigged aristocrats staring solemnly down, and the First Lord of the Treasury’s red and gold throne still in place (roped off, so we couldn’t sit on it). Gordon Brown currently holds the post, but as far as I know, does not spend much time sitting on his throne.

We sat round a vast and ancient carved table and an assortment of civil servants and academics (20 men, one woman – risk is obviously a guy thing) talked about the changing nature of the risks facing the UK – bird flu, floods, terrorist attack, that sort of thing.

What was interesting for me were the differences with Oxfam’s work on emergencies in developing countries. The same emphasis on the role of both the state and active citizens in reducing risk and preparing for disasters, but much more concern in Britain’s post-Thatcher economy over the responsibilities of privatised utilities (water, electricity etc).

But perhaps the main contrast was how much more aware of politics this group was than many in the development community. Gordon Brown was seen to have had a ‘good flood’ in the summer of 2007, whereas the French government had a disastrous heatwave in 2003, when tens of thousands of people died in their homes. One speaker portrayed it as the beginning of the end for President Chirac.

Disasters highlight both competence and corruption: in Nicaragua, popular outrage at the theft of relief money by the Somoza dictatorship after the earthquake of 1972 was a tipping point in the upsurge of protest that led to the Sandinista Revolution seven years later. The feeble response of the Mexican authorities to the earthquake of 1985 galvanised independent social movements and weakened the stranglehold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled the country since 1929. The catastrophic famine in Ethiopia in 1985 contributed to the fall of a dictatorship.

More recently, the 2004 Asian tsunami set the stage for a resumption of peace talks between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, culminating in the signing of a peace agreement in August 2005 bringing a 30-year conflict to an end. The story in another civil war, in Sri Lanka, was less happy – the tsunami led to initial reconciliation, as Tamil Tigers and government officials worked together to distribute relief supplies, but peace remained out of reach and conflict has now returned.

Disasters alone do not cause political change, but act as catalysts of processes already under way. Just as earthquakes release the accumulated tensions in tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust, disasters unleash the underlying social and political tensions that have built up over decades, and expose the effectiveness of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, to the harshest of scrutiny. Regimes that steal aid money, or only look after powerful elites, may end up paying a heavy price. Active citizenship can be galvanized by a national moment of solidarity or outrage.

This raises challenging questions for the aid community about how to respond to wars, natural disasters, or political upheavals. Major changes (both good and bad) that would normally take decades may occur in weeks or months. Should humanitarian and development practitioners respond differently to emergencies, not just saving lives, but promoting wider systemic change, suggesting new approaches to old problems, and encouraging shifts in positions and alliances of political actors and movements for change? But doesn’t doing so imperil the neutrality that they need to persuade governments to let them help after disaster strikes? How do we manage the trade-offs between the short term need to save lives and the long-term commitment to improve them through social change?

No easy answers – any difficult ones?

Further Reading
Political Economy of Large Natural Disasters: With Special Reference to Developing Countries JM Albala-Bertrand, 1993

‘Natural’ Disasters as Catalysts of Political Action. Mark Pelling, King’s College London and Kathleen Dill, King’s College London. Seven Hypotheses for Disasters and Political Change


December 29, 2008
Duncan Green