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Institutional Capacity for Natural Disasters: Case Studies in Africa

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Natural hazards, such as floods, drought, earthquakes, and tropical cyclones, do not necessarily result in disasters, but they present a clear policy challenge for national governments: how does a country prepare for the often unexpected? This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that natural shocks have the potential to impose significant economic costs and loss of life. These dynamics have resulted in national governments often adopting diverse natural disaster management strategies. This report details the findings of a research initiative under the Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) program to explore the causes of variation in government policies to reduce the risk of, prepare for, and respond to natural disasters. The discussion focuses on the African continent and ten case studies within Africa, but the findings of the analysis should be relevant to a broader set of cases, particularly developing countries.

While natural disasters are a frequent risk around the world, and national governments play a key role in disaster management, often intermediating between local and international actors, analysts have little leverage for understanding why national governments take, or fail to take, a particular stance toward investment in activities that should reduce the overall vulnerability of their countries to natural hazards. This lack of knowledge regarding the drivers of government behavior is not due to a dearth of theoretical insights into the potential causes of variation in natural disaster policies. Indeed, recent academic literature has developed a range of potential explanations for observed variation in the ways in which governments do, and do not, prepare for and respond to natural disasters. But a key current limitation is the lack of empirical testing to evaluate which of these individual hypothetical explanations, or which combination of hypotheses, provides the greatest leverage for explaining particular policy outcomes. Without evaluating the relationship between theory and reality on the ground, there is little basis for making practical recommendations for strategies to improve disaster management policies in general.

The goals of the project presented here, then, are two-fold. The first goal is to provide a current assessment of natural disaster management capacities in a set of African states. This effort emphasizes the role of national policies in providing a framework for all actors engaging in natural disaster-related programs and shaping the environment in which these activities occur. The second is to offer the first comprehensive empirical test of arguments regarding the incentives of states to invest in disaster management activities. Based on an extensive literature review, the research documents the range of hypotheses in the social science literature on the potential factors influencing government policies regarding natural disaster management. These hypotheses are then tested, using case-based evidence from ten African states.

In order to achieve these goals, this project takes a wide-ranging perspective and uses a qualitative pairedcase study design. In doing so, the analysis provides evidence both for and against a number of theoretical hypotheses while also offering a more nuanced perspective on the ways in which the hypothetically important characteristics of states interact to affect policy choices and institutional robustness. This has important implications for understanding the relationship between national governments and both bilateral and multilateral aid agencies in the face of natural shocks. Both domestic and international actors need to know which kinds of precursor conditions must be supported in order for risk-reducing institutions to be able to thrive in a challenging new century. Are resources and attention best spent: building up the institutional bureaucracy in disaster management directly, supporting the personal and financial commitments of political leaders to facing natural hazards in a structured way, or contributing to the improvement of underlying economic and political realities that can be assumed to generate good disaster institutions spontaneously? This report attempts to shed new light on these questions and to inform debates over the most appropriate and efficient uses of aid and national resources for dealing with natural shocks.