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Crisis and the politics of neglect

Measuring up post-earthquake, Nepal

Communities often step in where the state fails to do so; here, measuring up post-earthquake in Nepal. Thomas Ballandras under a Creative Commons Licence

Crises – what are they good for? While I hate to ruin a perfectly passable song-related introduction as much as the next person, I’m afraid the call-back this time isn’t ‘absolutely nothing’.

There’s a well-known saying: ‘never let a good crisis go to waste.’ For all the human misery they create, crises are, at the same time, seen as an opportunity. The resilience discourse would have it that this opportunity creates space to ‘build back better’: when it materializes, a crisis tells us something important about the way we used to do stuff, generating an emancipatory moment in which the problems of existing practice become clear.

States also have something to gain from crisis. When something terrible happens – the capsizing of a boat full of people in the Mediterranean, an earthquake in Nepal, the outbreak of a deadly virus in West Africa – it becomes a moment for states to prove themselves. The academic literature on state legitimacy (and how it might be generated) frames such events as an opportunity for states to demonstrate legitimacy; to come good, as it were.

The argument I want to make here is that around the world – and definitely not just in the ‘Global South’ – states are faring pretty miserably against this metric. Time and time again, they’re not coming good. What’s happening instead is that responses to crisis are being outsourced to actors other than the state, often civilians and communities. It’s British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ on a global scale – and we have good reason to be concerned.

All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others

There is something else which crises generate insight on: the way in which powerful national and global authorities treat different classes of people. When the financial industry crashes in London, the government funds a huge rescue operation. When people drown off the coast of Italy, the same government doesn’t care. When the Ebola virus spreads across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the world barely bats an eyelid. That is until one of ‘our own’ gets infected. Then it’s all hands on deck.

We are told that all human beings are equal. But in reality some human beings are more equal than others. Unfortunately, just how equal you are depends on things that are largely out of your control: who your parents are, what kind of community you are born into, which country you ‘belong to’.

Crises are brutal in their exposure of who matters and who doesn’t; in their public uncovering of individual worth. The clearest recent example of this is Ebola. It was not just that national and global authorities were slow to respond back in mid-2014. It was also that these countries’ health systems were quite simply incapable of dealing with the outbreak by themselves. Years of foreign aid attempted to build capacity in these systems, but when it came down to it, Ebola still demanded a massive international intervention (absorbing more money than all those years of aid).

Paul Farmer and others have argued that the West African Ebola crisis is the manifestation of a ‘pathology of chronic neglect amid broad global inequalities’, in which particular places and particular sectors lose out to others (West African health systems are a great example of this). And when you consider a couple of related statistics, it is easy to see why. Prior to the outbreak, the government of Sierra Leone spent around $16 on health for each person per year (Norway spends almost $8,000). The global pharmaceutical industry uses more R&D funding to fight male baldness and erectile dysfunction than it does to figure out solutions to obscure haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola.

Ebola is linked to the Mediterranean’s sinking vessels in its stark reveal of political neglect. And like Ebola, the Mediterranean problem is not simply one of muted response and feeble action in the present. The circumstances surrounding it are chronic, generated by the historical interests, decisions and behaviours of states, particularly those occupying the world’s spaces of wealth. The story of each boat that sinks, of each person that drowns, plays out against a set of structures which have been several years in the making.

Those spaces of wealth have become more exclusive, cordoned off with fences and barbed wire. Increasingly oppressive forms of border control have expanded, penetrating both the internal, everyday space of the ‘destination country’ and the ports of ‘source’ and ‘transit’ countries through a gradual offshoring of migration management. Legal migration channels have contracted (for certain people). And the relentless juggernaut of neoliberal capitalism (re)produces, as it always has, huge global gaps in wealth and opportunity, inevitably forcing the continuous moment of people en masse.

What we are left with is, in effect, multiple layers of structural violence, which first push (certain) people into precarious places and positions – sometimes grinding down community resilience through decades of repeated and systematic marginalization, as we see in Baltimore – and which then fail to do anything about their newly animated vulnerability.

Is this what the ‘Big Society’ actually looks like?

Crises and states’ responses to them constitute the lines of global inequality, the boundaries around which spaces of inclusion and exclusion are formed. But what happens to the people unfortunate enough to fall into the latter camp, for whom the formal response systems often fail to materialize?

There is a common thread to several of the crises of the last year: in the absence of the state, responsibilities are displaced to communities. Mare Nostrum, a major European Union (EU) search-and-rescue operation in Mediterranean waters, was recently defunded. Amid frothing calls from many EU member states to send the boats back, Greek civilians are rescuing shipwrecked Eritreans, while care for those who have made it is provided by migrant advocacy groups and ‘host’ communities themselves. Inadequate and inappropriate government measures seeking to control the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia were counter-balanced by remarkable community autonomy: as an article in The New Yorker described earlier this year, ‘Neighbourhoods have mobilized, healthcare workers have volunteered, and rural villagers have formed local Ebola task forces.’ Following the late April earthquake in Nepal, it was local women’s organizations and diffuse networks of individuals who were often the first responders: according to one report, a guesthouse in Kathmandu ‘emerged as the hub of a vibrant guerrilla aid operation run by a handful of young people armed with little more than Facebook, open source mapping technology, local knowledge, and some anti-establishment verve’.

It might be tempting to see these kinds of community responses as examples of organic grassroots action to be celebrated. But that would be to strip them of their political context. They exist because they must, having emerged as a specific result of a longer, broader process of state dismantlement. Today, core state functions are outsourced to others. When the function is deemed important enough, it gets contracted out to corporations like Atos, Serco or G4S (for whom national borders and their securitization is a huge source of revenue). When the function matters less – protecting the poor from disasters, say – the state doesn’t mind as much about who picks up the tab.

The widespread displacement of responsibility and care onto the shoulders of communities and civilians suggests that the Big Society is alive well. And not just in Britain, but around the world. David Cameron would be proud. But I’m not sure that chronic, intensifying neglect is something we should be celebrating.

Rich Mallett (@rich_mallett) is a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, the UK’s leading think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. He is currently working on a study into the journeys of people from Syria, Eritrea and Senegal into the EU. 

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