Global FEMA?

by Peter Spiro

As a thought experiment, prompted by this week’s experience with Hurricane Sandy: should management of disaster relief migrate to the supranational level?

There seem to be two major justifications for a national disaster relief apparatus (a surprisingly recent innovation — think Carter era, not New Deal). First are the economies of scale: money and expertise. A small state may not have enough to cover a major disaster. Nor does it make sense for each state to have the equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Second are what might be grouped as interdependencies. When bad stuff happens in New York and New Jersey, it’s going to have serious material spillover effects in Utah and California. Setting disaster relief at the national level facilitates optimal prioritization. But there is also social interdependency. When bad stuff happens to people in other states, we all feel it in such a way that makes us accept burden sharing.

Most of these justifications now map out globally. Economies of scale are no longer defeated by the friction of spatial distance. Economic interdependency is clear. But even social interdependence plays out transnationally. Natural disasters everywhere are absorbed and responded to by everyone elsewhere.

Long term (and I mean very long term), that should point to a global disaster apparatus. The emergence of some global norms relating to disasters (noted by Kristen below) is a starting point. The increase in private transnational disaster relief (which I suspect has been dramatic) is another. Transborder disasters (most are) are increasingly seen in global perspective. Some are noting that Sandy’s impact in Haiti has been much more grave than suspended subway service in Manhattan.

Of course, there’s a downside to scaling disaster up. There are greater possibilities for fraud (see today’s NY Times on endemic problems at FEMA on that score). There are also externalities in shifting costs away from those who cause them. Compensate folks for building houses on floodplains or sand dunes and they’ll just build them again. These problems would presumably be compounded at the international level.

So maybe the endpoint is more in the way of today’s state-federal partnerships than in the way of world-government FEMA. FEMA itself is starting to do some thinking vaguely along these lines; here is a news item from earlier this week about an EU-IOM-Namibia agreement that institutionalizes disaster relief in advance. Other such arrangements will surely follow.

One Response

  1. Does not the corruption in international organizations and especially the problems reflected in the ‘disaster relief’ effort in Haiti indicate that would not be a good idea?

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