The Profits of catastrophe

As the title of Indian journalist P Sainath's book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, suggests, disasters are lucrative for the relief bureaucracy and its retinue of supply contractors and distribution agencies. The financial scope that disasters offer for the diversion of public funds into private accounts through various administrative channels is the single biggest impediment to the adoption, in South Asia, of disaster prevention and vulnerability reduction perspectives. The stubbornness of the prevailing orthodoxy, which swears by the inevitability of disaster and hence emphasises the indispensability of relief, can in fact be attributed more to the profits of catastrophe than to ignorance of alternative views.

Among one of the purposes of Disaster Communicaton: A Resource Kit for Media, is to discuss in detail the available alternatives to this official vision of disaster management. Its first chapter is devoted to an extensive analysis of the differences between the prevailing approach and the alternative approach. The former is piecemeal and post-facto because it can, by definition, swing into action only after disaster has taken place on a scale sufficient to draw attention and funds to itself. By contrast the latter is a comprehensive strategy that looks to a community-based prevention and mitigation programme, in which development has a central role to play in reducing the vulnerability of marginal groups to adverse circumstances.

Through a series of empirical illustrations the chapter makes a convincing case for redefining disaster as the necessary prelude to dealing with it effectively. It demonstrates how resource differentials determine the extent to which families are affected by such events as cyclones and droughts. Barring those who are compelled by partisan financial considerations to believe otherwise, there is unlikely to be any objection from anyone else to the view that disaster is a function of underdevelopment, and that the magnitude of destruction and loss is a reflection of just how many people are unable to withstand the stress it unleashes.

After having made this point very successfully the book loses its way. The problem with the book begins a little before it reaches the second chapter. While "risk", "disaster", and "vulnerability" are defined to give it a functional relevance to the holistic, community-based approach, the authors omit to provide any definition of what a 'community' is, let alone one that is consistently unambiguous both practically and theoretically. The idea of 'community' is amoebic since the same group of people often constitute multiple communities with different and sometimes contradictory interests. Unless defined in a very precise way, the alternative approach can flounder in the very community through which it looks to salvage disaster management. For instance, the typical village 'community' is caste and class differentiated and lowest in the community are those most vulnerable. Taking this into account, does the alternative approach redefine community to mean only those most adversely affected? If so, how is it then to overcome the obstacles placed by the exploitative relationships in the existing 'village community'? If not, then how will it bring the oppressive institutions of the existing community to reorient itself into taking an interest in the welfare of the very people who they have themselves reduced to poverty.

The other serious problem in the early and more persuasive part of the book is that it abstains from going into the real reason why the traditional attitude to disaster management persists in public policy. Not all of it can be explained by ignorance, which is what the book aims to dispel. If the line departments of the government have a financially incentive in sticking to a discredited paradigm, will providing a strategy for effective communication make any difference to the future of people who will continue to be affected by disaster under a rent-seeking regime? Until that question is answered, the possibility of an effective strategy is precluded since some way has to be found to undermine the pecuniary enticements that sustain the orthodoxy.

In the course of the next four chapters, which elaborate on the role of the media in disaster communication, the book meanders through an arcane information and communication theory that is distinctly counterproductive if the aim of the book is to improve the South Asian media's coverage of disasters. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are devoted to a miscellany of themes which do not necessarily go well together. There are cub reporter guidelines on the structure of a succinct report, journalism school abstractions about 'objective' reportage which are in real life often subverted by editorial diktats to the contrary, simplified capsules on how stories happen in the media, and prescriptions on how disaster is ideally reported. All of this is interspersed with excellent material on the precise dynamics of disaster news as it is currently disseminated.

Had this media section of the book abandoned communication theory in favour of more of this kind of a sociology of the media, the book would have made excellent progress in finding and prescribing ways in which an effective disaster communication system can eventually be established outside and against the current set off vested interests in the bureaucracy and the media. To work out such a system it is necessary to dissect the anatomy of the mass media and identify its limitations for the purposes of disaster communication. That, unfortunately, the book fails to do. It is a matter of some curiosity as to why a book that has in it all the potential for collating and packaging a critique of the mass media, ends up dissipating itself in the process of trying to look sophisticated. This is the main weakness of the book; its authors know right from wrong, but do not seem to know to whom the truth must be revealed. Is it the lay public, is it the experienced journalist, the cub reporter, the development professional, the policy maker? It has something for everyone, but not enough for each.

But there is a saving grace. The tepid critique of the mass media and the implicit faith in its potential to address problems of disaster are more than compensated for by excellent documentary material to illustrate various media responses and motivations throughout the world. It does appear that a more uniformly empirical critique, at which the authors of the book clearly excel, would have served a useful purpose in equipping publicists of the alternative approach with additional information. This is so obviously the function of the last section of the book, which is a disaster dictionary cum statistical abstract of disasters in South Asia.

The amount of information packed in this book, though scattered randomly, is a clear enough indication that it is publications like this, rather than the mass media, which are to be relied on as the first source of information, the dissemination of which will call for the establishment of co-ordinating mechanims for bringing together existing modes of mass communication that do not belong to the mass media industry (locality, town and village networks of information that exist but which are not co-ordinated). Reliance on the mass media is a guaranteed assurance of failure. The only things that the mass media takes up are well funded pulse polio, hepatitis B and AIDS awareness campaigns. Notice that all of them are preventive campaigns to avoid disaster. Money makes all things happen.

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Himal Southasian