The natural disasters of recent years have provoked extreme and undeniable devastation, especially in those countries ill equipped to deal with them. On July 13, 2007, the InfoShop helped launch “Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace” in a book seminar co-hosted by the InfoShop, Worldwatch Institute, and World Bank Institute (WBI) at the Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to bring together experts to examine what happens when natural disasters hit conflict-ridden areas. After studying the devastation of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and Indonesia, experts suggested that there is a silver lining to disaster: the possibility that under specific circumstances, natural disasters in conflict-ridden zones can create a very unique opportunity for peace. .
The event was introduced by Rakesh Nangia, Acting Vice President of the World Bank Institute. Saroj Kumar Jha, Program Manager of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery for the World Bank, gave the opening remarks. He pointed out the need to treat disaster and conflict not only as a humanitarian concern, but also to place them within a framework of development issues.
Zoë Chafe, co-author of the new Worldwatch Report "Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace" and Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, pointed out the recent drastic increase in the number of natural disasters occurring worldwide. While these disasters are mostly out of human control, she explained that environmental degradation plays a major role in increasing their impact. Chafe also made the case that the poorest part of the population, along with women and children, are more severely affected when disaster hits. Finally, she stressed the necessity to plan for disaster, so that relief efforts do not divert funds from development projects occurring in the countries.
Michael Renner, the other co-author of the report and Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, suggested the possibility that a rare opportunity for conflict resolution can come out of this devastation. A disaster of great magnitude can create a temporary surge of goodwill and compassion across societal divides. Although this is short-lived, he said, if the opportunity is seized it can generate communication among hostile groups. Often this is dependent on the timing of the disaster—namely, at what stage in the conflict it strikes. Ideally, political leaders must be ready and assertive in promoting negotiations among opponents, and international actors must also encourage efforts for peace. He carefully illustrated how there were varying degrees conflict resolution in Aceh, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir following the tsunami.
Eric Schwartz, Executive Director of Connect US, and previously the United Nations Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, commented on the impact of disaster on broader political issues. He mentioned the need to more effectively administer foreign aid, which is often unevenly distributed, and as a result exacerbates social inequalities. Ian Bannon, Sector Manager of the Fragile States, Conflict and Social Development Unit of the World Bank, commented that the ideas presented by the speakers are not entirely new, and that more focus should be placed on how to implement them.
In the question and answer session, participants asked about the potential of disasters to disrupt, rather than promote, peace and political stability. They mentioned the need for a more analytical framework of how to take advantage of the “window of opportunity” that opens after disaster. Also, they addressed the possibility of aid mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility as negative effects of the recovery effort.