Natural Disasters, Unnatural Consequences

December 1st, 2009  |  Published in Journal  |  33 Comments

CutlerCamilla Cutler

In this essay Camilla Cutler analyses the remaking of world order in the wake of natural disasters to question whether ‘disaster capitalism’ will ever be relegated from an unfortunate reality to a historical theory.  Since obtaining a joint honours degree in Politics and Theology from Bristol University Camilla has begun a law conversion course at the London College of Law.


The New Generation needs to acknowledge that current global world order is one reflective of the prevalence of neoliberalism, plagued with a desire for relentless profit and corporate benefit, which is often executed at the expense of the developing world. This is apparent through an examination of the ways that countries are affected by natural disasters. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 had an unprecedented effect on Sri Lanka, and the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008 has revealed the entrenched socio-political shortcomings of government officials and institutions in China. This article provides an analysis of the socio-political consequences of natural disasters in relation to Naomi Klein’s theory of ‘disaster capitalism’ and the relationship between neoliberalism and post-disaster reconstruction in the developing world. In the last thirty years crisis opportunism has become pervasive, affecting all corners of the globe and potentially leaving further disaster in its wake.

Naomi Klein maintains in The Shock Doctrine (2007) that capitalist nations ‘cash in’ on both man-made and natural disasters in order to help support their own Western economies. Economic liberalisation relies on crises in order to thrive. People become extremely vulnerable in times of tragedy, allowing more developed economies to sweep in unnoticed. ‘Disaster capitalism’ is the process through which ‘elites opportunistically exploit the chaos and destruction caused by social and natural catastrophes to reconfigure previously public spaces and functions in accordance with the demands of capital’ (De Lissovoy, 2008). Klein maintains that there are two forms of shock which constitute ‘disaster capitalism’. The initial shock is the disaster itself, and the second shock that is imposed by corporations who exploit vulnerable nations in times of crisis for capital gain.

Every natural disaster is unlike its predecessor, creating different cultural, political, and social consequences for all those affected. The number of natural disasters that occur each year is increasing at an astonishing rate; ‘in the past decade over 2 billion people were affected by disasters, a tripling over previous decades’ (World Bank, 2004, McKendry, 2007). Natural disasters have become worryingly frequent, as have their consequences. As the world population grows, increased numbers of people are being exposed to these disasters, while there is also growing global media coverage of such events increasing the awareness and impact of the catastrophes themselves. While increased exposure to natural disasters in the last decade has had a devastating impact on all those so affected, it is sobering to reflect that external forces have contributed to the vulnerability of developing nations and their inability to redevelop effectively in the wake of a crisis.

Drawing on experiences in Sri Lanka and Sichuan Province in China, it is apparent that the way a country responds to disaster is wholly indicative of the wider socio-political ramifications established both before and after the disasters. An analysis of the reconstruction of post-tsunami Sri Lanka provides substantial evidence in support of Naomi Klein’s theory of ‘disaster capitalism’. Crisis opportunism has prevailed in Sri Lanka through the introduction of ‘buffer zones’ into the most devastated coastal regions. These controversial measures have been a result of a desire for corporate expansion prompted by an aspiration to be further integrated into the global economy. This has undoubtedly been executed at the expense of local communities; livelihoods have been shattered, local citizens have been excluded from the reconstruction decision-making process, and thousands are still displaced, all as a result of this cataclysmically ‘natural’ phenomenon.

Although ‘disaster capitalism’ appears to have predominantly affected Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tragedy by creating a ‘second tsunami’ (Rice, 2005), the situation in Sichuan was very different. Neoliberal economic policies had already caused construction standards to reach a dangerously low level in China before the earthquake struck, due to a desire to maximise profit and speed up development, thereby accelerating the extent of the damage caused.  Due to the unique political milieu that currently governs China, similar socio-economic principles are governing the speed and quality of the reconstruction effort such that a similar tragedy cannot be ruled out in future should another earthquake strike the region. It is clear that ‘disaster capitalism’ affects nations both before and after natural disasters occur.

This phenomenon presents an issue which needs to be addressed by the New Generation. It is our duty to acknowledge the fundamental challenges associated with applying neoliberal economic policies to the developing world in the aftermath of natural disasters. The problems encountered need to be resolved if there is any hope of ‘disaster capitalism’ shifting from an unfortunate reality to a historical theory.

Another area which needs to be cautiously considered by the New Generation is the idea that neoliberalism is an inherently ‘violent ideology’ (Klein, 2007). Neoliberalism has been described as ‘an ideology in which ends are often more important than means’ (Holmes, 2006). It is a fundamentally global project which is widely accepted by political elites throughout the world. Unfortunately the strongest advocates of neoliberalism have by and large failed to acknowledge that it has ‘been applied inconsistently and opportunistically and has departed from its theoretical rhetoric’ (Palley, 2004). This assertion of ‘violence’ has reinforced social and political inequalities, lowered national construction standards and increased tendencies towards bribery and corruption. It has also aided the displacement of thousands, increased vulnerability to natural disasters, and allowed crisis opportunism to prevail in the developing world.

Futhermore, given the problems identified, the way that aid is being distributed in the wake of natural disasters needs to be significantly revised if these problems regarding post-disaster reconstruction are going to end in the near future. Evidently there is a ‘huge mismatch in where the money goes’ (Oxfam, 2009). Further research should be conducted to examine how more legitimate policies could be introduced in order for this phenomenon of crisis opportunism to be overcome. It has also been observed that ‘agencies distance themselves from intractable issues, such as basic needs in temporary shelters, and complete what can be done rather than what should be done’ (Vaux, 2005). This is a further issue which the New Generation needs to contemplate if there is any change of ‘next shock’ being avoided.


  1. Liam says:

    December 6th, 2009 at 8:16 pm (#)

    The problem with your article is you say a lot but reveal very little. Unsurprisingly, it’s a problem you share with Naomi Klein and her work on the ‘Shock Doctrine’
    The core error is a failure to define your terms (such as neo-liberalism) and as such this allows you to widen the tent as it were and change what they actually entail into something different. This allows it to be used in the pejorative and hope we won’t notice the bait-and-switch as you conflate neoliberalism with corruption, fraud and coercion.

    It follows from this that you are free to make broad generalisations about a countries political economy without backing up your argument with any real statistics or a wider contextualisation on the effects of these ‘neoliberal’ restructuring. Such generalisations ignore the difficulties a developing country faces and is ultimately reductionist and thus uninformative.

    You say ‘Economic liberalisation relies on crises in order to thrive’, but the trends of both countries in recent decades err towards the opposite.
    Take Sri Lanka, even before the tsunami a halt of neoliberal privatisations was underway, market orientated policies had been in effect since the late 70’s. In 2004 a left leaning coalition government was slowing them down. Post-tsunami the civil war that has plagued Sri Lanka for so long re-emerged again into conflict. Political instability on such a scale is unattractive even to the most bullish multinationals. Unstable regions can seriously damage your wealth and are an unattractive option for foreign investors. it’s also led to a reduction in foreign aid. The previous 30 years of non ’shock’ based liberalisations in the Sri Lankian economy fly in face of your conclusion. 1990 – 2000 saw growth from the liberalised economy skyrocket to a 5.3% average (with the odd setback from internal strife). The economy diversified and allowed the population to move away from merely farming. Their position on the Human Development Index continues to rise. Their distribution of wealth isn’t too bad either. Unemployment is low. Election after election saw pro-reform members elected to parliament with a mandate for such liberalisations, all this devoid of the shocks it supposedly requires. They didn’t need to be forced to integrate into the global economy, they were gunning for it full steam ahead. No build zones have little to do with disaster capitalism, it actually prevents it’s progress.

    The Chinese government had to 146 billion USD rebuilding the Sichuan province after the earthquake, that’s hardly a profitable return no matter how lax building codes led to cheap construction. A lot of the damage was inflicted on government owned infrastructure and schools. It wasn’t neoliberalism that fueled the construction of poor quality schools, it was the corruption inherent in the one party state which has been endemic to the system since it’s ascent to power. They didn’t cut corners, they just squeezed the budget through embezzlement. The result of course was a tragedy. The astounding rise of China has yet to spread from the gold coast to the rural or central provinces, I’d be unsurprised if the unfortunate people rendered homeless lived in homes built before the 1976 building codes for earthquake protection were brought into force or if they even followed the regulations at all. As a side, the ‘neoliberal’ reforms didn’t even begin until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping instituted dual-track pricing and privatisation.

    The only country i can think of that failed in every way with a neoliberal program would be Russia, and that was for a plethora of reasons not wholly related to foreign western imperialism.

    With regards to foreign aid, it’s a sentiment i share. Disaster relief and internal development aid is extremely important but is often squandered instead of building the important and stable institutions needed to make globalisation work for everyone. It’s a problem endemic to NGO’s, rewarding big public works instead of grassroots assistance in the projects that would have the highest returns for the poorest in the world. Proper institutions matter, and without them the poorest countries will continue to flounder and can even be hurt with a liberalised economy; but what you labelled neoliberalism in the rest of your article is an entirely different motive, that of incompetence and corruption.

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