25 October 2011

Disaster Diplomacy

I was in Oslo yesterday, presenting some of the findings from the Reimagining Development work we have been doing at IDS to the Norwegian Research Council/NORAD Annual NORGLOBAL meetings.

I met some very interesting researchers doing great things at the interface of development and environment. One of them, Ilan Kelman, gave me a copy of his forthcoming book, Disaster Diplomacy. I began flipping through it on the flight back and found myself getting engrossed.

The basic question the book seeks to answer is: do disaster-related activities support or inhibit diplomacy processes?

Do disasters that affect all adversaries alike provide a space where differences can be put aside temporarily in the name of saving lives? And will this "time out", and the trust building that joint disaster-related action might foster, serve as a spur to the future construction of diplomacy?

More specifically, (1) do disaster-related activities influence diplomatic activities? (2) are the influenced diplomatic activities ongoing or new? (3) are the parties trying to make the diplomacy fail or succeed? (4) how long does the connection between the disaster and diplomacy activities last and what determines their longevity? and (5) do the disaster diplomacy activities address long standing livelihood vulnerabilities?

Kelman poses these questions of 18 case studies, ranging from food crisis (e.g. Ethiopia-Eritrea 2000-2002), tsunamis (e.g. Aceh, Sri Lanka), hurricanes (e.g. Katrina), and earthquakes (e.g. 2001 and India-Pakistan).

His conclusions are bleak. Disaster Diplomacy—at least based on these case studies and with the focus on the level of the State level--tends to fail. He concludes by saying that disaster diplomacy at the level of individuals may be happening and this may pave the way for states to practice it effectively. This is just one of the spin offs that he and others will pursue further in their work.

I was interested in this work because it displays the hallmarks of good research:

* A bridging of different worlds (disaster and diplomacy)
* Being careful about having a general framework that is flexible enough to be applied credibly to highly varied case studies, but in a way that allows those case studies to be aggregated in a convincing narrative
* Being brave enough to report a negative result (disaster diplomacy does not happen—imagine how personally advantaged the author would have been had the other result occurred)
* Being a general enough idea to have application elsewhere. I am thinking about Disaster Development—do disasters provide an opportunity to influence subsequent development in ways that are enduring and support the livelihoods of the most vulnerable?

Disasters are likely to become more frequent as population increases, current resource use patterns are maintained and climate change generates increased unpredictability. So we need to know more about how to create silver linings out of disasters—whether those linings are diplomatic or development orientated. This book is a useful way of thinking about the challenges to doing that.


Khulood Tubaishat said...

Very interesting...

Fred Olson said...

Disaster, when brought about by a specific development like infrastructure building may make diplomacy a difficult thing to accomplish. Though the company responsible for a physical disaster or man-made disaster is willing to pay for damages incurred, it would be difficult to attain the diplomacy or restore it - perhaps time is an essential factor for this kind of disaster.