Like the poor, natural disasters have always been with us. Recently, however, the incidences of natural disasters have been gradually increasing – due probably to the shifting climatic conditions in the modern era. With no end to disasters in sight, the disaster relief regime also appears to have undergone a drastic transformation.
In the past, disaster relief was seen as purely philanthropic — with the UN taking charge of operations along with host governments and NGOs. Now, however, disaster relief has attracted the attention of multiple actors besides those traditionally active in the area.
Canadian Naomi Klein, a noted theorist and activist who rose to fame with her book “No Logo” (which critiqued the practice of consumers falling in love with brand names and logos of MNCs), has now honed in on the phenomenon of disasters — both natural and planned — and how business interests have parlayed disaster relief operations into big business. In her new book, “Shock Doctrine”, she traces the parameters of the budding phenomenon of ‘disaster capitalism’, in our age. She delineates the growth of the most rapacious form of this phenomenon during the presidency of George W. Bush.
While Klein may be accused of some hyperbole, she is evidently proposing an alternative paradigm to the institutions that radical theorists have insisted up to now drive America’s foreign policy – the military industrial complex. Her proposal is the “disaster industrial complex”. This is certainly a novel suggestion, and it ought to be interesting to a country like ours that is faced with the certain disaster of rising sea levels in the not-too-distant future.
The days when natural disasters descended upon us to the surprise of all, like the Biblical ones of yore, — and then the relief operation machinery swings into operation — are now in the past. Henceforth, according to Klein, most disasters will be manufactured, either politically or strategically.
In 2004, the US established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (OCRS) to craft post-conflict and disaster plans for up to twenty-five countries that are relatively stable at this time.
In close coordination with the National Intelligence Council, the OCRS maintains data of a combination of rapid response teams comprising private companies, NGOs, think-tanks and defence contractors. The OCRS has pre-completed contracts with these rapid response teams responsible for rebuilding countries that are yet to be broken up.
Thus, according to Klein, a pre-emptive deconstruction brigade has set up an office for perpetual pre-emptive reconstruction. Klein cites examples of how millions have been pocketed out of disaster-related aid to Iraq.
Almost daily, one or another scam involving billions in the “rebuilding” of Iraq is reported in the US papers. Moreover, under the guise of disaster, the disaster merchants are working overtime to displace the people from the juiciest real estate to other areas: the evacuated areas with great business potential are snapped up by greedy business interests.
Klein has also highlighted how the World Bank has cashed in on disasters. The UN has been gradually eased out of disaster relief operations, because it is too diffuse, and the more pliable World Bank has filled the institutional vacuum.
The latter has ratcheted up its aid — not grants — for such initiatives from sixteen percent in 1998 to twenty-five percent today. The World Bank focuses primarily on institutional reform — opening the host country to private capital during disaster as well as in post-disaster periods.
Klein illustrates her thesis with several case studies, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Haiti, and concludes that “disaster capitalism” in its rapacious form is using the anxiety and fear precipitated by calamities to unleash fundamental social and economic engineering in developing countries.
Allied to her broader thesis of disaster capitalism is the all-important theme of how disasters maintain already existing discriminatory practices benefiting the richer segments ahead of the poor. According to Klein, this was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
If Klein’s thesis is to be believed, the development discourse on disaster relief needs to be re-examined, and governments ought to be very wary during disasters to keep the “disaster capitalists” at bay.
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