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Why natural disasters can lead to authoritarian rule

  • Written by  Sam McKain
  • Published in Climate
Why natural disasters can lead to authoritarian rule
23 Aug
A report details how tropical storms are fuelling the rise of authoritarian governments through relief aid distributed to citizens in the form of a ‘bribe’

On 8 November 2013, at 4.40am, Typhoon Yolanda (aka Hurricane Haiyan) made landfall in Eastern Samar at peak capacity and proceeded to create a path of utter devastation through the Visayas, the Philippine’s central island group. With wind speeds reaching a sustained velocity of over 150mph this tropical storm affected the lives of more than 14 million inhabitants in the Philippines. Using the slow response of the government as a political leveraging tool, authoritarian leaning presidential hopeful Rodrigo Duterte, challenged his opponent, the Liberal Party’s standard-bearer, Manuel Roxas II, to explain why there was such a slow response to the natural disaster and where billions of pesos worth of funds from the international community had gotten to.

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This accusation was followed by a further claim from now-president Duterte on the fourth anniversary of the hurricane, where, angered by the slow development of suitable housing for the worst affected areas, he stated that he would ‘promise prosecution for the sub-human housing’ and began to fast-track the rebuilding process, pushing for an acceleration of newly-built homes in the worst affected areas. As a result, Duterte has seen support for his authoritarian government increase by both those located in the storm affected areas and among their representatives, such as, Leyte Rep Ferdinand Martin Romualdez who credited the quick implementation of building policies to Duterte’s ‘no-nonsense approach’.

Rodrigo Duterte delivers his message to the Filipino community in Vietnam during a meeting held at the Intercontinental Hotel on September 28Rodrigo Duterte

Examples such as this are part of a growing trend identified in a new report released by the Durham University’s Business School that demonstrates how governments in small island nations are beginning to use storms as political leveraging tools in the hopes of implementing more authoritarian governmental policies. The report, titled ‘Storm Autocracies’, details how after a major storm, such as a hurricane, island nations begin to enact more authoritarian policies and become less democratic. The authors of the report utilised data gathered from the Polity IV project which measures levels of democracy in a nation by three main factors:

  1. the competitiveness of political participation

  2. the openness and competitiveness of executive recruitment

  3. constraints on the executive

This is quantified by a ‘Polity Score’ with a 21-point scale split into a three-part categorisation of ‘autocracies’ (-10 to -6), ‘anocracies’ (-5 to +5) and ‘democracies’ (+6 to +10). Utilising this data, Durham professor Nejat Anbarci and his colleagues sought to confirm their hypothesis that storm shocks provoke a government’s non-democratic tendencies to actualise, and, as a result, cause a regression into authoritarianism. What they found was that storms, in a given year, reduced the overall Polity score by 0.25 to 0.50 points annually and 2.02 points (10.1 per cent) over the subsequent five years with an increase in political repression of 2.5 per cent per year following a storm. Anbarci states that the reason for this five-year regression was ‘a matter of inertia when storms become almost perpetual’ which explains why some island nations around the world remain autocratic.

Normally, natural disasters are characterised as local level events that cannot be traced to major political outcomes. But for small island nations, due to their scale and the ability of storms to have a ubiquitous impact across the whole island nation, they provide an ideal ground for political change. The rationale is that after a large storm a macro-level relief effort will have to be implemented coinciding with macro-level policies being enacted. As a result, the government becomes the main distributer of foreign aid and assistance, placing it in a much more advantageous position than its much poorer citizens. By feeding off the breakdown of the family unit and the family home, governments begin to take advantage of the vulnerability of those affected by the storm by assuming responsibility of a substitute provider.

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Consequently, a mutually agreed political outcome begins to form where governments provide relief efforts in return for a quelling of insurgent tendencies that would usually be present after a natural disaster. If there were to be no disaster relief effort, Anbarci and his team argue, then the payoff for the citizens in an insurgency is greater than not acting at all. This is problematic to the incumbent government and it is therefore in its best interests to provide relief to quell any form of insurgency where possible. Governments of small island nations can thus effectively ‘buy-off’ the rights to insurgency with relief aid whilst subsequently tightening their grips over citizens.

Furthermore, the study indicates that there will be a rise in militarism throughout an island nation as the military provides the best option for dealing with emergencies in these scenarios. What initially starts off as an efficient way to distribute aid transforms into a perpetual militaristic presence, an effect Anbarci terms ‘disaster militarism’.

Relief efforts after Typhoon HaiyanRelief efforts after Hurricane Haiyan

The report concludes by detailing potential future outcomes for island nation governments and how a new social contract may be emerging within these nations. Due the newness of these democracies they are not as robust in dealing with exogenous shocks to their institutions as much more ingrained democracies, such as the United Kingdom. Professor Anbarci says: ‘countries such as the UK which are storm-free would not be affected by authoritarianism through storms.’

However, this may all change due to the negative effects of the climate crisis. As the planet heats up as a result of human action, one manifestation will be a rise in the frequency and intensity of storms, transforming occasional incidents into almost perpetual occurrences. Anbarci speculates that this could generate a permanent rise in autocratic tendencies around the globe. ‘Storms are just one of the vulnerabilities that climate change could trigger,’ he says. ‘There could be further unforeseen vulnerabilities that may affect countries such as the UK, which may bring up the possibility of authoritarian tendencies.’

Anbarci hopes that the potential implications the study raises add further weight to the rationale behind a concerted effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change through a new understanding of the relationship between climate change and authoritarianism.

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