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Flood in Bangladesh: is Amartya Sen smiling?

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  • mahathir of bd
    http://www.newagebd.com/fb.html Flood in Bangladesh: is Amartya Sen smiling? While millions of people in Bangladesh were suffering from the dreadful
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2007
      Flood in Bangladesh: is
      Amartya Sen smiling?

      While millions of people in Bangladesh were suffering from the dreadful devastation of recent flood, while concerted and spontaneous relief efforts were short in supply, while politicians’ disincentives for getting involved in disaster management were outweighing their patriotism and while local governments were in complete apathy, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, sitting in Harvard’s economics department, was probably smiling – his theory on the role of democracy in disaster mitigation may have proved right once again.
         The basic tenet of Professor Sen’s argument is that the politicians don’t have to be ‘patriotic’ in a functioning democracy to mitigate or avoid disastrous effects of catastrophes. In order to win elections, the politicians have strong incentives to undertake measures to avert or lessen the loss of disaster, be it natural or man-made. Democracy ensures people’s participation and government’s accountability so that the government takes proactive steps to adapt to such shocks and to mitigate their impact when they do occur. Non-democratic countries are more susceptible to natural disaster and damages are likely to be higher than the countries with functioning democracy.
         Politicians, pursuing their own goals, respond to the emergency as quickly as possible and mobilise financial resources and volunteers for their constituencies. Since they are the most informed persons of their locality, they can perceive and assess the extent of loss better than any government officials. Moreover, using their popularity and charisma, they encourage and persuade their voters in getting involved in various stages of disaster management. We know that Bangladesh is an internationally acclaimed success story in managing natural disaster and the politicians are possibly the protagonist of this story.
         Academicians have empirically tested the impact of democracy, good institutions and governance on the death toll and financial damages of natural and man-made disasters. A recent study (Kahn, 2003), based on annual deaths from disaster in 48 countries from 1980 to 1999, shows that one percentage higher score on the Polity Index (an index for democracy) is associated with 13 per cent less death tolls. It also shows that one point increase in the index has the same ‘death reduction’ effect as if the country’s GNP per capita was $2430 higher. In layman terms, a low-income country can act as a medium-income country if well functioning democracy is present in mitigating the adverse effects of disasters.
         Academicians have also linked the quality of disaster management with decentralisation of government. One of the preconditions for well-functioning democracy, where people’s preferences are well reflected, is decentralisation of government. Three types of decentralisation –– political, fiscal and administrative –– all enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of government. A government needs to be more responsive and efficient in the face of natural disaster than the normal situation and only a well-functioning democracy with substantial decentralisation can ensure these.
         The situation in Bangladesh provides a good opportunity for us to ponder over the possible nexus between democracy, decentralisation of government and management of disaster, to examine if Professor Sen really has something to smile about.
         Dr Kazi Iqbal
      Consultant, World Bank,
         Washington, DC, USA
         (Views expressed here have nothing to do with the World Bank.)

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