1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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"Disaster Citizenship" and Opportunities for Transformation: An Urgent Plea for Eco-Social Policies

18 May 2017

  • Author(s): Ayesha Siddiqi

This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are the part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

From the cold wave in North India to the avalanches in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the earthquakes in the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of people have already been affected by natural hazard-related disasters since the beginning of 2017. These disasters are not simply ‘natural' events but are fundamentally the result of local dynamics of power and privilege that leave people vulnerable in the face of dangerous climatic and geological hazards. Contemporary disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies therefore need to reimagine the very political system within which such disasters occur, instead of focusing on leaner, meaner technical interventions and better ways of "doing" DRR. As pointed out in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report Policy Innovations for Transformative Change, "development policy is at a crossroads, in between palliative interventions targeted at the most vulnerable, and bolder transformative policies with the potential to change socioeconomic and political structures. The latter more ambitious approach speaks to the transformative vision of the SDGs."

Disasters put the state-citizen relationship under strain by testing whether the citizenship contract is respected in a citizen's hour of need; and in this moment they also open opportunities for change. When they demonstrate "manifest failure in the social contract" disasters create political space for renegotiating the values and structures in society. Carefully planned development and disaster policy can result in a transformative evolution of the social and ‘political contract’ making it possible to effectively manage environmental risks. My own research has repeatedly shown that this requires policy innovation and policy integration in equal measure. An "eco-social turn" is not only desirable but imperative to ensure disaster resilience delivers transformative outcomes in the long term. The UNRISD Flagship report says "cash transfer programmes are powerful as an emergency response". The case of universal and unconditional cash transfers in the aftermath of large-scale flooding in Pakistan complicates this idea. It shows their potential to make a transformative impact, while at the same time illustrating that this potential cannot be fully realized in the absence of an enabling and supportive "eco-social" policy environment.

In recent years, the Pakistani state has made significant advances in formalizing and universalizing citizenship through the digitization of citizenship numbers. 96% of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens have a digital identity card and a unique citizenship number. The state in Pakistan successfully used this digitization of citizenship to reach out to its citizens in the aftermath of a large-scale climatic disaster in 2010 (and 2011). The Citizens Damage Compensation Programme (CDCP), a universal cash transfer programme, used citizenship numbers to identify and then provide ATM cards to those domiciled in affected regions. Empirical research I did on the ground in southern Pakistan within two years of the disaster revealed that this resulted in a new and emerging form of ‘disaster citizenship’ in the region.

The fact that this was a universal and direct transfer from G2P (government to person) and no household was required to prove their worthiness or show the extent of their damage to access this money, made people believe that simply because they were citizens they were entitled to this disaster relief from the state. On the ground therefore, it was common to see an understanding emerge among citizens that these cash transfers were a ‘responsibility’ of the state to be provided to everyone who had a legal entitlement to citizenship, in this case a citizenship number. The CDCP resulted in people interpreting this cash transfer as an informal right of citizenship and an emerging ‘disaster citizenship’ in the region.

On the one hand these unconditional cash transfers became the instrument around which a negotiation of the social contract between the state and citizens took place, highlighting the transformative potential of such a social protection policy. On the other hand, my research also showed that most people were unable to ‘see’ this important and transformational shift improving their relationship with the state. While the policy went some way to address social and economic vulnerabilities, people also saw themselves as vulnerable to flooding in the first place as a result of bad environmental policy planning, making them ambivalent about the programme.

Indeed, unsuccessful drainage and irrigation projects in the affected area were widely believed to be the reason why extensive rains turned into dangerous floods in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, an unrepresentative political system uncaring of people’s demands in the region was also regularly blamed for the devastation caused by the floods. Within a framework of damaging environmental policies and an unequal political system, even a social protection intervention that could have had a revolutionary impact on state-citizen relations was not able to achieve its full potential and had mixed results. Recognizing that social, economic and environmental policies need to be both innovative and integrative for transformative change is not just desirable but urgent and necessary for future development planning.

Ayesha Siddiqi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the Royal Holloway University of London.

Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development (Creative Commons 2.0)

This blog post draws on two forthcoming papers to be published later this year.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.