Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Disasters, Government and Governance

On theory

The purpose of disaster research is to seek the truth, not to legitimise particular actions, decisions or phenomena. This may seem too obvious to need stating, but in reality there are cases in which research has distorted, rather than clarified, the image of reality.

The root of the problem lies in people's motivations, and what the researcher assumes about them. In an ideal world, the threat or impact of disaster would move people to act for the common good. Thus they would respond to, or help create, Barton's 'therapeutic community' (Barton 1970). Disaster would reinforce the commonwealth, instead of promoting the interests of its individual members. In reality, motivations vary and hence decisions and their outcomes cannot be analysed in terms of a single modus operandi. For fear of appearing biassed, disaster researchers are usually reluctant to attribute unethical motives to particular decision makers, or even to question their ethics (Beatley 1989). However, not all protagonists of disaster response and disaster risk reduction act ethically, or at least their view of ethics is not that which a bona fide researcher would be likely to agree with.

It is in any case difficult to assess both motivations and corruption. The clandestine and illegal character of the latter means that information is hard to come by and the process of acquiring it can be dangerous. Thus surveys of global corruption are restricted to compiling a 'corruption perception index', rather than any concrete measure of the phenomenon (Transparency International 2009). However, the disruption caused by disasters offers a great opportunity to both organised and casual criminals to subvert legitimate activities. In extreme cases of political or economic scarcity, this may be the only way to get things done. In no case is it a sustainable way of managing recovery from disasters.

This essay will use the case of the L'Aquila (Italy) earthquake of 2009 as an example of how conventional analysis based on the idea of a common social motivation can distort the interpretation of events and decisions. We live in an age that often prizes individualism over the common good. The concept of disaster as a social leveller (at least in the first instance) has had a long history but has been vanquished by events, especially Hurricane Katrina, a paragon of unequal opportunity (Germany 2007). Social inequality is not merely a matter of access to resources, power and publicity (Tierney 2006), it is also a question of motives, as the following example demonstrates.

The L'Aquila (Italy) earthquake of 2009 as a case history

On 6 April 2009 an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 occurred in the Abruzzo Region of central Italy, with epicentre close to the regional capital city of L'Aquila (population 73,000). Some 308 people were killed, 1,500 were injured (202 of them seriously), 67,000 were rendered homeless and 100,000 buildings suffered major damage. In brief, the response involved committing 94,000 volunteers and copious resources of the Italian state to the relief effort, housing 40,000 people in tents and hotels and then building more than 50 complexes of transitional housing, about 40 per cent of which consisted of base-isolated (i.e. anti-seismic) multi-storey buildings. According to official sources, the cost of the latter averaged €280,607 per dwelling unit (€3,875 per sq. m), including the costs of urbanisation and landscaping. In the meantime, buttressing went ahead in the 15 town centres and one city centre (L'Aquila) that had been cordoned off for reasons of public safety, but reconstruction stagnated. During the first year after the earthquake, four million tonnes of rubble remained in situ and the process of repairing buildings was largely restricted to those that were only lightly damaged.

Various aspects of the Italian Government's strategy for responding to the L'Aquila earthquake are singular and perhaps debatable (Alexander 2011). They can be questioned in terms of logic, efficiency, outcome, economy, fiscal prudence and general efficacy.

Immediate relief

The immediate response to the earthquake involved directing a huge quantity of relief resources to the area, including 94,000 volunteers, more than one for every survivor. While this solved the problems of search, rescue and care of the survivors, it did not do so efficiently and would not work in a larger earthquake of a kind, which, unfortunately will one day be inevitable further down the peninsula or in Sicily. Such a strategy contributed nothing to the future ability to ration disaster response resources in cases of scarcity. It is akin to the doctrine of overwhelming force (Lantis and Moskowitz 2008)

Transitional housing

Survivors were accommodated in tents for 6-7 months and then transferred to transitional housing in wooden prefabricated buildings or steel-framed two- or three-storey blocks (the base-isolated housing). Initially, they paid no rent and were given all necessary furnishings and fitments. Some of the complexes were built on expropriated conservation land, and others on prime farmland. Some are on floodable terrain, others on hillsides. Some are susceptible to winter weather hazards and all had a degree of isolation from basic services. Many of the sites were also somewhat isolated from public transport.

The base isolation was very expensive (Calvi and Spaziante 2009). The cushion capitals cost an average of €1,427 and each of the 187 buildings required 40 of them (€57,000, a grand total of €10.6 million). It could be argued that, as fewer than half of the transitional dwellings have base isolation, either it was not necessary or the majority of prefab-dwellers are disadvantaged in terms of seismic protection. The whole project (known as CASE - Complessi Antisismici Sostenibili ed Ecocompatibili) appeared to be a lavish experiment in seismic design.

Learned authors have argued that transitional housing creates a risk of slowing down permanent reconstruction (Johnson 2007). In the L'Aquila area, the contrast between the vast parks of prefabs and base-isolated buildings and the abandoned town and city centres was striking. Visually, and perhaps functionally, it appeared to be a kind of enforced modernity in an area that had never known anything of the sort. Moreover, it is modernity on the American model, in which the so-called "sustainable" and "ecocompatible" housing induced a massive dependence on the private car, without making provision for those residents who lack their own transport, or for needed improvements in infrastructure and access to services.

Survivors were left with the paradox of transitional--i.e. temporary--housing and no plan for returning to their original homes or revitalising the town centres. The paucity of services and induced social fragmentation in the transitional housing areas led to high levels of depression and post-traumatic stress, especially among women (Microdis 2011). It also contributed to stasis in the long-term recovery process.

Economics, employment and livelihoods

During the year 2009 some 24,000 jobs were lost in Abruzzo Region, 16,000 of them in the L'Aquila area (ISTAT 2010). The effects on employment were partly mitigated by outmigration, particularly of professionals and owners of small business who had lost their accommodation. Government policy offered few incentives to businesses and little flexibility to restart the local economy. Moreover, the new Italian fiscal federalism championed by the Northern League left rich provinces well off and deprived poor provinces of revenue. L'Aquila was at the bottom of the list, the greatest net loser of tax revenue as a result of the policy of decentralising taxation. This was welfare in reverse.

Although a modest boom was experienced in the construction industry (as is usual after earthquakes--Olson 2008), other sectors struggled to survive, including education, which is a vital economic motor for L'Aquila, a city that lacks other sources of employment. Moreover, the local infrastructure was placed under great strain during the aftermath and clearly needed major improvements, for which funds were not available.


In the aftermath of disaster it is common for groups to emerge that respond to the need to safeguard public interests. Although there were emergent groups in L'Aquila, they never achieved the public profile and political weight that such organisations have managed to acquire elsewhere in the world. This was one of several indicators of the lack of effective public participation in the recovery. Moreover, the local and regional political processes showed a lack of focus, power and influence, and thus responded ineffectively to public demands.

This decision-making and power vacuum was filled at the national level. Policy and strategy responded directly to the will of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

It is unusual that the National Department of Civil Protection (DPC), a disaster response organisation, was so heavily involved in both the early reaction to the emergency and the medium-term recovery process (Alexander 2010). Although there is noting inherently wrong with such a strategy, elsewhere in the world more specific institutions have taken over. For example, in Pakistan after the 2005 seismic disaster the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) was constituted to manage the recovery (Zimmermann and Issa 2009).

There are two probable reasons for the deep involvement of the DPC in the recovery process. One is its role as a dependency of the Council of Ministers, the national cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister. After a brief, abortive attempt in 2000 to make it an independent agency, it has increasingly become an instrument of prime ministerial policy and has thus been politicised (Alexander 2002). The other is the ability of the DPC to issue emergency ordinances, which are legal instruments that in the interests of rapid reaction conveniently bypass the normal checks and balances on law-making. The scandal that broke in Italy in late 2010 about the misuse of ordinances from more among than 600 that had been passed in eight years, and the uncontrolled expenditure of €10.6 billion, can be seen as a means of wresting arbitrary power from the Prime Minister back to the other organs of state (Alexander 2011).

The heart of the matter

Mr Belusconi made his reputation as a populist prime minister who could be seen to exercise benign power in favour of needy people. In reality that power was wielded as a matter of self interest. The transfer of the G8 politico-economic summit from the Sardinian island lf La Maddalena to L'Aquila was a grand gesture. It led to the abandonment of facilities on which €300 million had already been spent and, in the end, it contributed very little to the recovery in L'Aquila. But it looked good.

The decision to concentrate efforts on the very rapid provision of durable, very high quality transitional housing also raised the Prime Minister's public profile. Again, it looked good, despite the damage done to the overall recovery process, the salvaging of cultural heritage, the viability of urban and regional systems and the processes of local governance. Resources were channelled into housing but not into other aspects of recovery. Considerable--and favourable--media attention was gained by the inauguration of this housing (1), which also helped Mr Berlusconi's party win provincial elections on 6-7 June 2009. Thereafter, the dysfunctional nature of the recovery process no longer mattered, as the political objectives had already been achieved.

Analogous conditions occurred with the problem of unplanned mass migrations from the other side of the Mediterranean. At the end of March 2011 Mr Berlusconi promised to liberate the island of Lampedusa of the 17,000 North African migrants that has accumulated there and severely overtaxed its accommodation facilities. He did so in the promised 60 hours by loading them onto a ship and dispersing them among other regions of southern Italy, notably Puglia, which is governed by the main opposition party. This transferred the problem elsewhere without solving it. Indeed, absconding, conflict and overloading of facilities were probably worse on the mainland. However, the net effect on his public image was positive, as the negative impacts had been offloaded onto other administrations.


In 1931 the writer B. Traven wrote a book called Government, which has since been reissued (Traven 1994). Set in provincial Mexico, this apocryphal novel contrasts the rigorous, severe democracy of the indigenous peoples with the corrupt, immoral administration of the Hispanic ruling caste. As each day passes, this 80-year-old work becomes more and more current. In a remarkable parable it chronicles the descent of democracy into subservience.

Traven's work combines acute observation of culturally specific factors with the elaboration of universal truths. Both sides can be seen in Abruzzo after the earthquake. At the time that Traven was writing so was the Abruzzan novelist Ignazio Silone (Fontamara, 1930; Bread and Wine, 1937). He chronicled the misery and subservience of 20th century feudalism. Both authors share a rich vein of irony and a prescient sense of history. In Abruzzo it is only a matter of decades since modernity arrived, unable to cancel out the traces of the feudal past in such a short space of time. Perhaps this explains the lack of demand for participatory democracy in L'Aquila. Where it has occurred in an exemplary manner (at Onna village), the prime mover has been the German Federal Government, which has sponsored the recovery there.

The key words that point the way to a valid interpretation of the L'Aquila earthquake are 'paternalism' and 'political expediency'. By means of the former, and in the name of the latter, vast sums of public money have been spent on image-mongering and vote garnering. The welfare of the earthquake survivors has thus been reduced to a byproduct of the national political process.

The essential conclusion of this analysis is that any attempt to understand the recovery from the L'Aquila earthquake in terms of conventional logic (i.e. common sense) is doomed to failure. Conventional logic assumes that people act in good faith for the common good. Undoubtedly, some of them do. Heroic efforts are being made in L'Aquila to recover from the earthquake by people who have the region's best interests at heart. But at the levels of policy and overall strategy the process responds to a political logic, whose priorities are not those of "the greatest good for the greatest number of people". Any attempt to force the model of recovery into something as Benthamite would lead to nothing but an erroneous interpretation. Worse still, by providing a normalised explanation, it would legitimise decisions and actions that deserve moral condemnation.


(1) On behalf of the Italian State, and in the glare of television lights, the Prime Minister also inaugurated the transitional housing at Onna village, the worst damaged settlement outside L'Aquila city. This was despite the fact that the new village was largely paid for and constructed by the Autonomous Province of Trento, whose president conspicuously refused to participate in the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Italy, stating that his home territory had been annexed in 1919, not founded in 1861.


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