12 February 2014

The UK Floods: Policies, Politics and Public Finance

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson said when two English people meet, "their first talk is of the weather." Bill Bryson the American writer, says "one of the most striking things about the British weather is that there isn't very much of it". Jeremy Paxman, the English journalist disagrees and says "life at the edge of an ocean and the edge of a continent means you can never be entirely sure of what you are going to get".

Well, at the moment, us Brits are talking a lot about the weather simply because there is rather a lot of it. The forecast for today is for 4 inches of rain --the total average for February.

There are several strands to this ongoing talk.

1. Coordinating across government departments is difficult. There is no Ministry of Natural Disasters (no sly nominations please) and so responding to these kinds of events requires coordination across government departments. Whether this is needed to address the silent and invisible crisis of malnutrition or the very noisy and visible crisis of flooding in the UK, mounting a coherent response is not so easy.

2.  The UK Government needs to get a grip and to show it has a grip. It is the year before an election for goodness sake. The intergovernmental squabbling has looked very bad for the Coalition Government and David Cameron has had to get involved with lots of "I'm in charge" photo-ops. He is right to be worried.  A recent paper in the Journal of Development Economics (Cole et. al. 2012) looking at Indian State election results shows that voters blame incumbent governments for natural disasters which they have no control over and while governments that were seen to respond quickly and effectively suffered less electorally, they still suffered. Wrong place, wrong time.

3. The UK Government now assumes that  extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more extreme. The UK Minister of Transport was on BBC radio this morning making this point. This feels like a big deal, although one that many countries have already internalised, high and low income alike.  Even in the US, the National Climate Data Centre's 2013 analysis shows that the frequency of "billion dollar weather and climate disasters" is on an upward trend between 1980 an 2011 (see below).

4. The UK Government should divert the foreign aid budget to help people at home. Ah, the Daily Mail, DFID's most loved newspaper. Good old Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government said that ODA spent on emissions mitigation would slow down climate change and therefore help the UK. True, in theory, but not much comfort to those currently affected. The UK numbers are interesting: the estimates are that immediate relief response will be about £60m, the repair bill  for the current floods will amount to £1 billion, current spending on flood and coastal risk is about £1 billion, the UK aid budget is about £11 billion and the total UK Government spend is about £800 billion. In other words, there is a lot of money around for relief, repair and rehabilitation. But what of the fourth "R", resilience?

5. Well, resilience has gone totally mainstream. Yesterday alone I heard the word resilience used by the UK PM and two UK Secretaries of State. Get ready for resilience overload. To find out more about the strengths and weaknesses of resilience, and the policies to deal with it, consider attending the IDS short course run by Stephen Devereux and Keetie Roelens on Social Protection: Policies, Programmes and Evidence. It is a new short course and it will be superb. There might even be some politics in it.

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