Monday, 9 June 2014

Natural Disasters and Opportunities for Action

This week, doctoral researcher Lauren Traczykowski, discusses the ethics of intervention for natural disasters and opportunities for action.

My work focuses on the ethics and appropriateness of intervention in the aftermath of natural disasters. Intervention is necessary because sometimes a national government doesn’t respond by themselves – either because they are unable or unwilling - which leads to unnecessary suffering and death. We can blame response failure on poor planning, lack of situational awareness, and more bad weather or natural disaster that compounds the problem. We even know that extreme poverty exacerbates the effects of natural disasters.

The part of natural disaster response and intervention I am interested in, though, is the ethics that drive our decision-making. I focus on two political issues which have ethical components. First, sovereignty. Governments assert that sovereignty must be observed, and thus consent to intervention must be granted, in all natural disaster scenarios and in order for an intervention to take place. But ethically, sovereignty shouldn’t be a barrier. In fact, sometimes intervention on behalf of the people affected can be seen as intervention in support of the individual’s sovereignty. Second, the human right to welfare – food, shelter, emergency medical attention, and basic security. However, governments upholding this right and assume the associated duty inconsistently. There is also very often an inherent bias as to who governments will deliver the right to welfare. I argue that we need to look beyond sovereignty and accepted norms of welfare desert. We must consider what our ethical responsibility to intervene is when people are suffering from the effects of a natural disaster.

My research obviously keeps me entrenched in atrocity and surrounded by disaster, disease and death. And of course many of you, like me, often feels helpless. Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, wrote “the feeling one has of one's own utter inadequacy in such extraordinary and solemn circumstances is unspeakable” (Dunant, 1959, p. 72). Despite our feelings of inadequacy in saving those affected by natural disasters, though, we are ethically responsible for those affected by a natural disaster. With that, we need to do our best to make effective, appropriate and ethical policies before disaster strikes.

I will not dwell on the horrific nature of natural disasters and the unethical policies that prevent us from intervening. Instead, I want to use this week to show you that we as individuals are not powerless to make important contributions to those affected by disaster. If you feel like addressing the needs of those millions affected by natural disasters is too big to tackle on your own, you are not alone. But small actions can make a big difference. If you don’t care about this because you don’t care about helping – fine. I am not going to convince you. But you should care and you should be aware of the effects of natural disasters, the duties your governments usually fail to fulfil and what the international community is doing, if for no other reason than that you could be next. Natural disasters, unlike politics and economics, do not care about borders, race or religion. They don’t care who you are - but I would guess you do care about your own life. And so keep reading… tomorrow.

Dunant, H (1959) A Memory of Solferino, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva.

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