Political Will and Governance

  • Michael GordyEmail author
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Climate Studies book series (BRIEFSCLIMATE)


Private enterprise is subject to the inexorable pressure of having to make a profit above all else. Businesses that fail in this do not survive, a structural constraint that makes it virtually impossible for the private sector to take a neutral view towards being regulated, especially if a regulation limits even its short-term profit-making possibilities. The question of whether the regulation in question is in everyone’s interest, including its own, does not enter into its deliberations.

Private enterprise is subject to the inexorable pressure of having to make a profit above all else. Businesses that fail in this do not survive, a structural constraint that makes it virtually impossible for the private sector to take a neutral view towards being regulated, especially if a regulation limits even its short-term profit-making possibilities. The question of whether the regulation in question is in everyone’s interest, including its own, does not enter into its deliberations.

Because it is constrained to see everything through the prism of private profit and loss, the business sector cannot see DRR except in financial terms first and foremost, even calculating mortality in these terms. Although many business people may not subscribe individually to this view, the resulting de-personalization of human suffering becomes an institutionalized, if to some degree unconscious, feature of business calculation.

Governments, on the other hand, have an option. Unconstrained by the constant need to make a profit, they are not obliged to subscribe to the business accounting perspective. This leaves open the possibility that governments can be induced to act in the interests of the population as a whole with regard to DRR and to try and alleviate some of the more egregious elements of business practice noted in the previous section. They can in principle, if so inspired, put the well-being of the entire population ahead of the financial profits of a minority.

Yet even though governments are not formally subject to the laws of private capital accumulation, in practice they act too frequently as if they are. In most countries there is a symbiotic relationship between governments and the groups at the pinnacle of economic power. That relationship needs to be loosened if meaningful regulation of business investment is to take place, and the most promising means of achieving this lies with collective action at the community level.

Surveys taken across the DRR sector in recent years have asked for suggestions about what to emphasize in an extended, post-2015 version of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). Overwhelmingly, respondents said that DRR should become more solidly anchored in the community, at the grassroots level, and that community organizations should be more strongly supported in their efforts to promote resilience. This is because communities are always in the front lines when disasters strike, and are most strongly and immediately affected.

In principle, decentralizing disaster risk management (DRM) functions to empower communities facilitates citizen participation, inspires more engagement among decision makers, makes better use of local knowledge, uses available resources more effectively, and strengthens accountability. While this principle may not always be fully realized, it provides a regulative ideal towards which it pays to strive, since any progress in this direction enhances social cohesion and can lead to greater investment in DRR.

On a daily basis, local communities tend to be less beholden to the power of trans-national capital and its dominant global economic paradigm than central governments, and while there is no doubt that self-interested politics play an important role at the local level, those politics are often more sensitive to local conditions and to the views of the community as a whole. It is more difficult to ignore the needs of one’s neighbours than it is to view their concerns with relative indifference from the national capital or from a boardroom on the other side of the planet.

To make a practical difference, this shift in focus requires a significant transfer of DRM resources to the local level, otherwise genuine empowerment cannot occur. Moving responsibility to local authorities and organizations without sufficient funding is merely abdication. Political decisions have to be made at the national level to devolve real power over DRM to communities.

It is clear that political decisions about massive transfers of public resources do occur concerning issues other than devolution of DRM; witness the political response to financial crises. During such crises, central governments act quickly to provide money to shore up banking systems and protect wealth. In a more rational world, human mortality and the destruction of the livelihoods and futures of the broad mass of the population should inspire similar actions. In fact, governments often say that a lack of financial resources constrains such investment. Nonetheless, how available resources are allocated reflects political priorities, and in most cases governments can allocate a greater proportion of public money to DRM than they currently do.

The reason that they don’t is a matter of political weight and pressure, which is why an effective politics for DRR and DRM has to begin at the community level. Because local politics are somewhat more sensitive to the wishes and needs of the whole population, non-governmental movements need to be encouraged to pressure local authorities to take positions that in some situations go against the policies and plans of the central governments and trans-national capital, for example with regard to hydraulic fracturing gas extraction (fracking).

One reason this community mobilization is required is that so many central governments are in thrall to powerful private interests in sectors such as urban development, construction, agribusiness, and tourism. These interests may offer strong disincentives for investing in DRM. For instance, agribusiness may want to privatize water resources, and governments may see this as a way to increase agricultural productivity and generate foreign exchange. The result, however, is to transfer agricultural drought risk to subsistence farmers. This is because privatizing water resources may lead to their overuse by wealthy agribusiness enterprises, exacerbating scarcity and invariably raising their market price. That in turn squeezes small holdings that haven’t the financial resources to buy the water they need, converting agricultural drought into a disaster for them. It also makes it much more difficult to regulate water use, as was mentioned above with regard to privatizing public services generally. Effective DRM would require keeping water resources, as well as many other public services, entirely within the public sphere, benefitting rich and poor alike.

The people most in need of government help in this regard, poor farmers and marginalized portions of the community, have a very difficult time making their concerns heard in the upper reaches of political power. On their own they are rarely in a position to do so. The pressure required to break this stranglehold must therefore begin with collective action among various communities, in concert with expert institutions and civil society organizations that include some NGOs. Networked communities and their allies can create leverage, first of all to bring the concerns of the marginalized strongly into governmental focus, and even more importantly to organize local initiatives and generate government support for them. Sometimes the space for these initiatives must be carved out by organizing community-network resistance to economic projects that add to disaster risk, but the overall purpose is not negative. The point is to substitute risk-neutral or even risk-mitigating development for risk-generating economic activities.

This will entail a shift in perspective at the community level concerning regulation of private investment. The belief system promoted by global capital has increasingly penetrated the consciousness of people all around the world, at least until fairly recently, and dominates the thinking in rich countries as well as in the rich sectors of countries that are not rich. It holds that virtually all regulation of business is bad not only for business profits but, through them, for society as a whole. GDP growth, which is basically a measure of private capital accumulation, is taken to be the gauge of a country’s economic health. Anything that limits GDP growth, especially government regulation, must be avoided at all costs so that ‘the miracle of the marketplace’ can do its work unfettered.

That does not mean that private enterprise is against all regulation. Only regulation imposed from outside the private sector is to be eschewed. Voluntary regulatory frameworks are acceptable because they have been devised by the companies that are willingly submitting to their jurisdiction. Since the interests of private capital accumulation are stipulated to be harmonious with the good of the entire community, if not identical with them, business self-regulation creates the best of all possible worlds. Any problems are thus taken to be exogenous, including disasters.

This has been the prevailing ideology since the 1970s, but it is quickly losing its lustre. In any case, outside the dominant economic and political circles across the globe it was never wholeheartedly accepted by most people except insofar as they harboured dreams of becoming rich and powerful themselves. In recent years, of course, the 2008 financial meltdown, which has become an economic and social meltdown as well, has brought the concept of government regulation of business out of the shadows. The more general principle of government intervention in the marketplace was revived through the myriad of ongoing bailouts of moribund financial institutions, along with government assurance of their profits and bonuses, and so many people are now asking why regulation cannot, in fact, be imposed. Nonetheless, the ideology of the ‘free’ market still forms a serious obstacle to effective government action, as do the after-effects of policies installed during its hegemonic period.

For instance, among many low- and middle-income countries, so-called structural adjustment programmes, imposed as a condition for IMF loans, were used as a vehicle to compel governments to remove all regulatory barriers to investment and growth; to reduce government spending on social services and health; and to ensure debt servicing. In order to compete for investment, governments have done these same things on their own initiative and have in addition sold off public industries and services to private investors. Governments have thereby taken on the role of business promoters and facilitators of private investment.

Financial, labour, and property markets were deregulated, tariffs on trade were reduced or eliminated, and incentives were arranged to attract business investment. In some countries, national institutions for development planning were either weakened or closed down. In such circumstances it was difficult to see government as an ‘honest broker’ between competing interests, because it acted explicitly as the handmaiden of private accumulation no matter what the cost to the welfare and safety of the general population, especially of the most vulnerable and politically powerless.

Despite the growing acceptance of the need for governments to regulate private investment, countries have not been very successful in achieving economic risk-sensitivity, even though national governments and local administrations are best placed to devise and implement investment frameworks. That is why political and social pressure from the grassroots is needed in order to focus government attention on risk-generating development and to provide political incentives for government to play its necessary role in addressing the underlying drivers of disaster risk. Without this kind of pressure, the field is left open for private enterprise to make its case unanswered and for national policies, institutional frameworks, and legislation on DRM to remain largely peripheral in the struggle to weaken those drivers.

In short, legislative frameworks and the like are little more than weak palliatives if they are not accompanied by genuine implementation and rigorous enforcement. However, governments have not provided adequate disincentives to the kind of business investment that generates disaster risk. In this context, organized community pressure offers the best possibility of holding governments accountable for what they have committed themselves to do, and to counterbalance pressures from powerful economic interests aimed at making sure that laws mandating risk-neutral investment remain toothless.

This means that the political will of the community must become the political will of the government. Since the incentives for disaster risk reduction are strongest at the community level, it is possible for popular pressure to arise even though many people may initially feel, on the basis of their lived experience, that nothing can be done. The first thing necessary for this to come about is to make extensive disaster risk visible and recognize its importance, for it is extensive risk that affects communities, especially poor ones, most directly in their daily lives.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.OrnexFrance

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