Daniel P. Aldrich of Northeastern University, Thomas A. Birkland of North Carolina State University, Rob A. DeLeo of Bentley University, and Jason S. Enia of Sam Houston State University lead the Hazards, Disasters & Crises Group. This past week, APSA spoke to them about how disasters are interconnected with political science and how their research can benefit disaster preparedness and mitigation policies.
1) Why study disasters?
One of our founders, Daniel Aldrich, actually had his home, car, and all of his material possessions destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in August 2005. After that he had a strong personal interest in understanding the factors which promote resilience. Aldrich spent time in India, Japan, and the Gulf Coast looking into this question and has been studying it since. Disasters can also provide fertile contextual material for testing and refining important theories and concepts. For example, both Rob (DeLeo) and Tom (Birkland) used the study of disasters, risks, and hazards to advance policy scholars’ understanding of Kingdon’s multiple streams theory, which is one of the most widely utilized theories in the subfield of public policy. Jason uses disasters to explore the politics of global public goods, comparative institutional arrangements, and other topics important in the field of political economy.
2) What connections are there between politics and crises?
We have seen a great deal of research which underscores that, despite the best of efforts, much of the international and domestic aid provided to survivors of disasters is not distributed proportionally based on factors such as damage. Instead, countries that have a strong connection or interest in another country are regular contributors to aid, and often those victims with strong political connections may find themselves receiving aid before others. Further, the government’s response itself is often influenced by politics — past studies have shown how disaster declarations and the amount of aid given vary with election years and party regimes. Politics has also undermined our ability to prepare and ready for disaster. Studies have identified a number of disincentives to disaster preparedness, including electoral concerns and a fairly pervasive, cultural aversion toward making long term public sector investments. Politicians need to deliver tangible goods and services to their constituents every election cycle. Unfortunately, because preparedness effectively aims to ready for events that have yet to occur, it’s often difficult to sell these types of programs to constituents, despite the fact that these types of policies can save both live and money. Indeed, scholars have shown elected officials receive a higher vote share for disaster relief than preparedness spending. In short, politics and disasters are intertwined.
3. What have been some of the most surprising findings?
Aldrich has looked closely at issues of resilience and recovery after disasters around the world, and he has underscored that social ties and connections – more than factors such as private insurance or aid, wealth, or preparedness – are critical drivers of recovery. Further, much research illuminates the connections between the strength and transparency of political institutions – such as levels of corruption and government spending – and disaster outcomes, such as mortality. Institutions and networks are critical components of recovery and mitigation, and Jason’s comparative work demonstrates that different types of institutions – discretion over disaster declaration for example – can have important political effects. Scholars have also examined the extent to which disasters induce distinctive policymaking dynamics. Birkland, for example, shows that catastrophic events have the capacity to catalyze issues to the top of government agenda and, at times, prompt policymakers to revise existing policies and statutes. However, he shows that substantive change is rarely a foregone conclusion, and political institutions often militate against large scale reform—even after disasters. Policy scholars have thus underscored the extent to which disasters are ultimately political and social constructs. Indeed, DeLeo demonstrates that, despite the enormous electoral, institutional, and cultural disincentives to prepare, policymakers can, at times, enact policy in anticipation of an emerging hazard. While a number of factors need to converge to induce such a proactive policymaking process, the widespread dissemination and uptake of narratives analogizing the threat to a similar historical event is especially important to creating the perception of a looming crisis.
4) How can your group connect research with policy?
Several of our members work regularly with non governmental organizations (NGOs) and local and national governments around the world to fine tune disaster preparedness and mitigation policies. Others have set out to link their research and pedagogy to applied policy discussions. For example, DeLeo’s students assisted a state public health department in devising a workplace influenza vaccination program. Beyond direct consulting and pro bono work with organizations, such as the Institute of Medicine, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, FEMA, and the Red Cross, the group can offer useful insights into how individuals and organizations organize themselves and respond to crisis. Lessons derived from the group’s research can provide useful insights into disaster preparedness and mitigation policy. For example, the work of both DeLeo and Aldrich implies preparedness cannot be achieved through “top-down” command-and-control policy designs, but necessitates a broader, culture of readiness emanating from citizens.
5) What are the broader lessons learned from events like the 3/11 and Hurricane Katrina disasters?
Even in advanced industrial democracies where government regularly works pretty well, we may be overly reliant on the notion that recovery is a top down process initiated by government. Instead, much of the rebuilding effort comes from bottom up, locally centered work undertaken by survivors, NGOs, local governments, and state agencies. Many of us imagine the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a “knight on a white horse,” ready to save us at a moment’s notice, but these norms are outdated and inaccurate. Disasters also underscore just how difficult it is to create effective policy change, especially in the U.S. While 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for better or worse, triggered a number of important changes in local, state, and national policies, many national tragedies, like mass shootings, do not create the widespread policy response one might expect.
On behalf of the Hazards, Disasters & Crisis Group (HDC), we are circulating a petition to the American Political Science Association (APSA) to recognize the working group as an organized section of the APSA. HDC has existed as a related group since 2011. In that time our membership has grown dramatically as has our contribution to APSA.
The formation of an organized section for HDC acknowledges the important contributions of scholars dedicated to the study of hazards, disaster, and crises and it will allow us to formally affiliate with Risk, Hazards, & Crisis in Public Policy — a print publication with four yearly issues.
To be recognized as an organized section, we need the signatures of 200 current APSA members. Please indicate your support for our objective by signing our online petition. Please include your name, APSA ID number, and email address on the form. Thanks for your support.