Columbia University Press, May 2010
160 pages, $15.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jennifer Ilo Van Nuil
Tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes, pandemics, global warming, and financial crises: lately, catastrophes have become part of a larger conversation about the varied nature of disaster and intervention. Bridging case studies of disasters from around the globe, the contributors to Disaster and the Politics of Intervention speak to the range of events that constitute disaster as well as the breadth of responses these events generate. The book’s essays provide insights into the categorization of immediate and prolonged catastrophic risk and ways in which interventions can be enhanced.
Disaster and the Politics of Intervention includes papers from five authors who each engage with questions regarding the management of risk and the roles and responsibilities of various actors in maintaining collective security. In “Beyond Calculation,” Sheila Jasanoff scrutinizes the concept of “risk” through the development of risk analysis as a disciplinary tool. Using the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina as examples, Jasanoff argues that risk, as a product of imagination, has transformed from a matter of management to a matter of governance. Patrick Roberts, in “Private Choices, Public Harms,” demonstrates the way politics shape preparedness and institutional responses to disaster by highlighting major organizational changes that have occurred within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In “Strange Brew,” P.W. Singer discusses the increased use of privatized military firms (PMFs) in humanitarian endeavors. Singer argues that the identity of humanitarian organizations as neutral entities may be threatened if these organizations hire PMFs to accompany employees in the field. In “Risking Health,” Heinz Klug, focuses on markets and claims to intellectual property of HIV/AIDS medications, making a case for changes to policy that would allow developing countries to have long-term, sustainable access to antiretroviral medications. In the final essay, “Constructing Carbon Markets,” Donald Mackenzie discusses global warming and the development of carbon emission markets as a way to control greenhouse gases. Mackenzie concludes that the only solution to slowing the process of global warming would require collaboration between the international community, individual nations, and the private sector.
Overall, Disaster and the Politics of Intervention is an informative collection that can serve as a resource for scholars studying problems that confront our world today. While individually the case studies in the book are compelling and could potentially offer new ways to conceptualize and manage disaster, the themes that tie the book together seem blurred by the specificity of each scenario. I had hoped to see the development of more intricate theoretical links bridging the essays and the building of a singular framework through which disaster could be discussed. The book raised several important questions about viewing HIV as a disaster in my own work on HIV interventions in Rwanda, but even more so about the response to epidemics––past, present and future. While labeling an event a disaster often mobilizes an immediate response, how long can “urgent” responses be sustained––or asked differently, when do urgency, sentiment, or social concern begin to erode? There are certainly long-term implications––both globally and locally––to labeling HIV as a disaster. Once a single event is “resolved” does that transformation in nomenclature also transform the imperative to act? How will countries maintain the long-term interventions? The momentum of interventions, policies, and programs may decline when the HIV “crisis” is no longer viewed as a “disaster.” If programs are not sustained, will HIV reemerge or become renewed as even greater disasters? The nature of response and the effects on the communities where the response is situated are necessary to consider. The local becomes of the utmost importance. Disaster and the Politics of Intervention opens important conversations precisely because there are very real and very powerful relationships between NGOs, governments, and the private sector, which not only impact the implementation and outcome of interventions, but also are themselves productive of the politics of intervention.