The secret of social change after disaster

Peace & Security10 Dec 2009Thea Hilhorst

Do people become selfish or altruist in the face of disaster? The broker online presents a very interesting contribution to this question in a review of “A Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit. The myth that people become selfish looters after disaster has been debunked many times. What is interesting about Solnit’s analysis is that she points to the important role of elites. Their fear of the social unrest that may follow disaster and can arouse mobilization of a crowd that acts in a sphere of post-disaster solidarity, makes them repressive towards disaster victims.

Solnit analyses cases where elites capture the room for manoeuvre that opens up after disaster (see also the compelling “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein) but also presents a minority of counter cases where disaster has led to reordering of political power. The question is, of course, in what cases disaster may lead to change towards more inclusion or protection of vulnerable people? What are the conditions that make this hopeful scenario unfold and turn disasters into tipping points for social change? This question is taken up by Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill (Progress in Geography 2009, pp 1-17. Their research of a number of disaster cases, mainly in developing countries shows that the most important factor is the long-term process of social change and the dynamics of the political context in which disasters occur. Hence, social and political processes long before, during and after disaster are much more important to explain the nature of change than the psychology of disaster victims.