Monday, 22 February 2010

Italian Civil Protection Amid Privatisation and Scandals

In 2004 the Israeli sociologist Avi Kirschenbaum published an interesting and authoritative book on disasters entitled Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management.(1) The core of this volume presents the results of a well-conceived academic study of disaster preparedness in Kirschenbaum's home country: in this it is laudable but unremarkable. In contrast, the beginning and end of the book are both startlingly heretical. The first chapter draws attention to the huge increase in disasters in the last half of the twentieth century and suggests that it can be explained by corresponding increases in the number, size and importance of disaster management agencies, as these have sought to aggrandise the problem. Kirschenbaum's prescription is given in his last chapter: to privatise disaster management and make it a subscription service offered only to those who pay for it in advance.
Avi Kirschenbaum's book ought to be required reading for policy makers who deal with civil protection, but what would they make of it? It should be a sort of cod liver oil for disaster managers--foul tasting but good for them. In other words, rather than inducing the reader to advocate the privatisation of civil protection, it should stimulate him or her to marshal the arguments against such a move, and they are as numerous as they are powerful.
Suddenly, Kirschenbaum's book is highly relevant to Italy. On 30 December 2009, the Italian government emitted a decree-law (DL-195) to regulate the clear-up of toxic waste in Campania, a very necessary act, given the enormous damage to environment and health caused by years of mafia-controlled dumping in that region. Almost unnoticed in this legislative instrument, Article 16 turned the national civil protection organisation into a private company, with the Prime Minister as the only shareholder. For weeks before and after the publication of this law, politicians and the public devoted remarkably little attention to it. Employees affected by it demonstrated, and no one took any notice. Trade unions fulminated against it on their web pages, and no one noticed. Suddenly, more than six weeks after the publication of the decree, it all fell apart. The government retracted article 16 amid a welter of criticism and adverse publicity in the country's mass media.
By 2009, as a result of piecemeal legislation that left grey areas and superimposition of competencies and responsibilities, the need to do something about the Italian civil protection system had become acute, as was amply demonstrated during the aftermath of the L'Aquila earthquake of 6 April 2009. However, as noted above, the arguments against privatisation as a solution are powerful, for example:-
• the reaction to disasters needs to be a collective responsibility of society
• privatisation sits very badly with the selfless ethic of voluntarism
• it is open to abuse by commercial interests and organised crime
• it would be unethical for a government-sponsored company to make profits out of disaster relief.
General Luigi Manfredi, Vice-President of the Rome-based think-tank ISPRO, conducted a penetrating analysis and published it on the Institute's website.(2) Among his arguments were the following:-
• Article 16 of DL-195 is vaguely worded regarding responsibilities and the provenance of funds for disaster relief and recovery.
• It represents a form of privatisation of the civil service, but without the safeguards for personnel inherent in public employment.
• The relationship between the national Department of Civil Protection (an appendage of the cabinet of ministers) and the new company is unclear, and hence the latter's loyalties could be divided.
• The decree could lead to assumption of power without adequate democratic controls, or at least to the complication of a chain of command that in reality needs to be simplified.
And then, equally suddenly and without warning, the government retracted Article 16 of the decree-law.
In point of fact, this is not the first time that something of the sort has happened in Italy. To begin with, modern civil protection had a difficult birth, as from 1982 until 1991 political polarisation inhibited the creation of a viable system. The left wing feared, not entirely without reason, that measures adopted to combat natural disasters could lead to abuses of power and, in the last resort, to a potential coup d'etat. Hence, for many years the status of the country's disaster management organisation varied: a department of the Ministry of the Interior, a Ministry in its own right under a Minister without portfolio... And in 1999 measures were enacted to make it an autonomous agency, perhaps modelled on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, but potentially even more independent of central government control. For three months in early 2000 the agency actually existed, and then it succumbed. Meanwhile, much responsibility for civil protection had gone to the regions as part of the devolution of Italy, fruit of the Bassanini law of 1998. Clearly, successive Italian governments have been torn between the desire to conserve power at the centre and that to offload responsibility to lower levels of government, and also between the desire to have a civil protection organisation under prime ministerial control or one that has full autonomy of action. The result is a mess which has done much to diminish public confidence in how the state performs in times of disaster. Rather than leaving citizens contented and feeling protected, they have acquired a dog's dinner of conflicting strategies, policies and legislation. As they say, "è stata una cosa all'italiana"--done in the Italian style.
Civil protection, or emergency preparedness, is as susceptible to corruption and scandal as any other field of public activity. In the USA the early years of FEMA were marked by accusations against its leaders, who were periodically driven into resignation. A detailed political analysis of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (after August 2005) painted a desperate picture of croneyism and incompetence in FEMA and its post-9/11 parent organisation, the US Department of Homeland Security.(3)
In Italy, many will remember the scandal that broke in August 1999 over the alleged misappropriation of funds and relief goods destined for the mission to Albania in favour of refugees displaced by the Kosovo war. Despite the flimsiness and inaccuracy of the allegations, several key officials were forced out of office, including the Undersecretary of State for Civil Protection. Conspiracy theorists, who abound in Italy, would regard this as a political means of effecting regime change in the civil protection hierarchy. It worked.
Currently, as I write, things are in a state of flux. Accusations are flying about corruption in the apportionment of contracts for the post-seismic reconstruction of L'Aquila. Once again, the accusations seem to be little more than business as it is normally conducted in Italy. The aftermath of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, which affected 637 municipalities, led to corruption on such a scale that it has been suggested that only 25 per cent of the vast sums of money allocated to reconstruction actually reached the beneficiaries' This is remarkable for how little scandal it generated, not how much.
My fear is that we are in the middle of another attempt at regime change in the civil protection hierarchy. Currently, there is little sign of innovation or improvement in the system, which badly needs to be clarified, simplified and brought up to date. This is unlikely to happen amid a welter of legislation and counter-legislation.


(1) Kirschenbaum, A. 2004. Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 328 pp.
(2) Manfredi, Gen. Luigi 2010. Una nuova società di stato. ISPRO, Istituto di Studio della Protezione Civile, Roma, (accessed 20 February 2010).
(3) Cooper, C., R.J. Block and R. Block 2006. Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. Times Books, New York, 333 pp.