After natural catastrophes, aid mismanagement leads to civil unrest

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Dozens of people have blocked traffic and shouted slogans against the government after being denied space on free buses out of Kathmandu. Picture by Niranjan Shrestha | AP

Dozens of people have blocked traffic and shouted slogans against the government after being denied space on free buses out of Kathmandu. Picture by Niranjan Shrestha | AP

More than 9,000 people were killed in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25, 2015. Four days later, nearly 200 Nepali villagers blocked roads and marched outside Parliament to protest the government’s slow distribution of aid and unwillingness to respond to victims’ needs.

This is nothing new—poor aid management by governments is often a catalyst for civil unrest. Exogenous factors provoke instability and vulnerability, and with mismanaged aid added to the equation, disaffection is then exacerbated.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, protesters placed bodies of earthquake victims on the roads of Port-au-Prince to bring global attention to the poor and insufficient distribution of disaster aid by the Haitian government. As disasters draw media attention, the fragile dynamics within countries are exposed to the international community, as aid is pumped in and then mismanaged. When aid is put in the hands of corrupt or inept governmental departments, the likelihood of poor aid distribution increases, and this leads to domestic instability.

Though the purpose of emergency aid is to provide humanitarian relief, its capacity to aggravate domestic stability must be further explored in order to prevent unrest after disasters. And the sensitivity of aid allocation must be considered by donor countries in order to prevent potential instability.

Academic research shows that state-societal relationships color the future of domestic conflict, especially in already fragile states. A set of rules, governing institutions, decision-making leadership, and policy-making bodies link the state and society, and these interactions determine whether a country is vulnerable to conflict.

Successful governance leads to positive capacity building, credibility among state-society, feasible and effective policy-making, and, ultimately, greater stability. Poor governance produces higher state fragility, fruitless decision-making, illegitimate institutions, and a higher likelihood of violence. In short, government effectiveness helps determine state fragility.

The differing Indian and Pakistani responses to the 2010 floods illustrate the connection between governance and unrest in the wake of disaster. On one side, Pakistan’s military diverted manpower away from security and toward relief measures to compensate for ineffective disaster management institutions, resulting in an increase in suicide bombings by Islamic extremist groups. The military is a critical government institution because it directly reflects the ability of government to respond to security threats. Without an effective military response, domestic issues fester and security risks intensify.

In a catastrophic environment, aid used as a vehicle for corruption or a tool for spoils exacerbates tensions. A country steeped in corruption before a disaster is prone to exploit aid and risk increased conflict. Victims of the 2010 floods in Pakistan protested against a government that only provided food rations when the media was present.

On the contrary, India developed a multi-disciplinary approach to the management of natural disasters with the inception of the 2005 Disaster Management Act. This innovative and holistic approach embraced prevention rather than relief and rehabilitation efforts, and strengthened collaboration across agencies. The preparation and deployment of these strategies yielded a more effective and efficient response to the 2010 floods that hit the border of Pakistan and India.

When institutions are weak, state-society relationships suffer. Victims may feel disaster management is not directly responding to their needs, further exacerbating their grievances, or causing more harm. If there is no effective strategy to improve disaster relief, aid has no clear avenue to be productive.

A state must display some form of accountability to its society. All regimes, including the most authoritarian and corrupt, possess some form of operative social contract to maintain credibility and power over a population. Aid mismanagement after a disaster allows blame to be directed squarely at leadership, which puts at risk government longevity and amplifies state fragility.

As in any complex situation driven by human factors there is no typical presentation of conflict from which sweeping generalizations can be made. While no two situations are exactly alike, it is clear is that in the wake of disaster, effective governmental management of relief efforts is critical—the angry reaction to mismanaged aid in Nepal illustrates this point. Without a successful strategic response, domestic instability increases and citizens already in crisis become more vulnerable. Any barriers that prevent relief aid from acting as it is intended, to relieve human suffering post-disaster, must be critically examined and understood. While disasters inherently exacerbate existing grievances to some degree, the extreme discontent in Nepal could have been mitigated if the government had taken proactive steps to allocate aid effectively.

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About Author

Samantha Spurlock

Samantha Spurlock recently graduated Trinity College Dublin in Dublin, Ireland with an MSc International Politics. During her time in Ireland, she focused her studies on disaster politics, looking at the role of human right violations in the wake of natural disasters around the world. While Sam enjoys academia, her real passion is travel. In an ideal world, she would buy a one way ticket to the middle of no where in Southeast Asia with her fiancé, learn languages/music/cuisine/art/culture, create deep bonds with local communities around the world, and fully immerse herself in a nomadic lifestyle. Her guiding motivation for this dream came about after she spent 2+ months teaching English to Buddhist Monks in Luangprabang, Laos—teaching Buddhist Monks to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” is one of her forever memories from this experience. She likes to have fun with whatever is thrown at her!

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