continued from French heatwave disaster of August 2003

Denial of Interpretation. With all available data, governments may be selective in how they define a situation. During and after the heatwaves in Chicago and France, both governments just considered the deaths as ‘natural’, as if hot weather was the only factor. Governments can likewise misinterpret their choice of options: the United States or Belgium could have intervened multilaterally or unilaterally in Rwanda with a token force or even just by jamming the radio broadcasts that coordinated the Hutu death squads, but instead officials presented the choices as being either doing nothing or a heavy and costly military commitment. In France there was virtually no use of the mass media to simply warn people of the dangers during the heatwave, a strategy if applied earlier might not have required Plan Blanc.

Denial of Implication. A wedge is placed between the ‘outcome’ and ‘consequence’ risk links : the problem doesn’t hurt us, so why worry ? It would be unethical and politically unpalatable for governments to explicitly deny implications as it would imply life as a price. Denial of Implication is thus rarely used when dealing with human losses, and was not apparent after either heatwaves. Instead it might be used when a government, facing heat over the financial losses of an ill-conceived project (such as the Collins class submarines) points to positive externalities (sometimes using statistics of dubious validity) to deny that there are no serious implications overall. If there is the need to give the impression something is being achieved, Power noted that governments consoled themselves with ‘mini-victories’, by concentrating on achieving symbolic objectives like saving key Rwandan persons or establishing refugee camps - manifestly inadequate in the circumstances. Mattei opened a hotline at a time when recalling doctors would better suited the circumstances.

Denial of Denial. Power describes this as governments deliberately preventing policy makers from retrospectively analysing the disaster and making politically-harmful comments. Removing the outspoken Abenhaim was one example.

One might extend Power’s typology to include a fifth element:

Denial of responsibility. NATO, the OSCE, the European Union and the United Nations all disagreed that they had partial or complete responsibility to the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia. Likewise in the heatwave responsibilities were unclear between different jurisdictions and people, and thus political actors sought to absolve themselves of taking responsibility during the disaster, or accepting blame afterwards. The French government at the federal level should have taken responsibility to clear the ambiguity and coordinate operational responses with provincial and local level governments, and provide services where gaps remained. Unfortunately, while taking initiative means shouldering additional risk, doing nothing and appearing blameless is politically tempting when one’s responsibilities are not clearly articulated.


Preventing non-prevention
Power identified three concepts that helped allow the Rwanda genocide occur unchallenged (2003b). A policy practitioner hoping that future disasters are not ignored should aim to address these problems in the administrative structures that they work in:

Poor leadership
Politicians should be prepared and able to delegate responsibility where ambiguity and buck-passing exists between jurisdictions and bureaucracies (2003b:508-9). They should centralise and coordinate resources which are not responding effectively in isolation. And just as instructions need to be delivered from the top downwards, governments need to ensure information from the coal-face at the bottom is disseminated upwards. leadership is required at the ‘environmental’ link of the risk chain, when causality is vague and the absence of any foreboding signs encourages complacency.

One may extend Power’s definition of leadership to include being willing and able to entice public cooperation, despite the possibility that this burden intrudes into private sphere values (perhaps people dislike anti-racism campaigns more than racism, since they feel it is their own sole prerogative to form an opinion). For the government to exercise this leadership, it has to behave by example - Chirac’s belated call for greater public ‘compassion’ was regarded as fatuous. The public servant should have the fortitude to advise politicians appropriately, even if this means exposing any incompetence or negligence committed by either party.

Inappropriately Framed Situations
Rwanda and Bosnia were conveniently interpreted more as a civil wars where any attempt of intervention would be fruitless, rather as a humanitarian crisises which could have been resolved if governments were prepared to risk sending their troops in (2003b:383-5). Likewise the heatwaves were framed by both the government and media (when they gave it attention) as mere hot weather, inevitable and unstoppable. The media needs to consider a situation from different perspectives and apply judgement in choosing how it should be reported.

The state for its part should analyse situations correctly and thoroughly, although this is only going to be as effective if the government is prepared to consider intervention. Governments should be alert for a vicious cycle emerging if policy analysts (or a dominant sub-group within) approach a problem with a negative or risk adverse mindset which makes them conclude that the situation is beyond salvation, buffeting their original prejudices.

Lack of Imagination
Power uses this word to describe the ability people have to appreciate the true nature of a situation, based on whatever scant knowledge they have (2003b:504-6). Imagination allows people to visualise how environmental factors can lead to dire consequences within the risk chain..

There was little support for intervention in Rwanda in the United States since few Americans had much comprehension of the country (especially when there was almost no television footage), just as people are more likely to associate hot weather with beaches and recreation than danger. People took for granted that nursing staff would always be available; unaware of the dry fact that medical professionals take holidays too.

A New Kind of Disaster ?
Unlike terrorism or Y2K, the French heatwave disaster was caused by an ordinary system being unable to serve a sudden spike in demand due to ongoing, politically entangling structural issues (labour laws, bureaucracy, planning regulations etc.) that the state had failed to address. It is harder to assure accountability when information asymmetry exists between the public and the government, who may selectively interpret disasters and respond in whatever way is a politically advantageous, especially if the victims are marginalised.

The elderly of tomorrow will be more numerous, live longer and will physically heavier, and have perhaps less claims to nation building than the generation that saved more, fought Hitler and assured post-war prosperity. The working population will be proportionately smaller, ethnically more different and more likely to believe government services should be ‘user pays’. One hopes that governments can tackle disasters not just as they emerge, but also have the courage and foresight to address less obvious environmental factors beforehand.

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