Commentary

Man Has a Hand in Natural Disasters

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Marketplace on May 21, 2008.

The poverty that exposes people to nature’s dangers also kills. And that kind of poverty is no inevitability. It requires a human hand.

Back in the early 1950’s, Burma was the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia. But today, after a half-century of socialism and authoritarian rule, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.

When a regime mows down a gathering of political protestors, we sit up and take notice. But when it actively impoverishes its people with economic policies long ago proven harmful, we’re too willing to see this not as a choice to which men may be held accountable, but as a natural fact, under no one’s control.

So it wasn’t fated that tens of thousands of Burmese would have so little shelter from the storm. They could have been richer, safer.

In 1995, an earthquake rocked wealthy Kobe, Japan, ranking as the most expensive natural disaster in history. Yet only 6,400 lives were lost.

Compare the Sizchuan earthquake. Catastrophe modeling firm AIR estimates total damages will exceed $20 billion, only about one-tenth the economic loss of the Kobe earthquake. But the human toll is over five times greater.

China, thankfully, is on its way up the growth path to higher ground. Burma? Well, it’s a tragic illustration that natural disasters are all disaster, and only part natural.

Economic growth creates roofs that don’t blow away, walls that don’t crumble, hospitals to tend the sick, and generators to keep to the ventilators on. The self-dealing thugs that botch the institutions of growth don’t just keep their people poor. They keep them vulnerable, exposed.

Media Appearance Will Wilkinson discusses man-made poverty’s role in exacerbating natural disasters (May 21, 2008) [MP3]

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.