Panel 5 – The cultural processes, institutions, geographies and relationships that shape ethics and accountability in local and transboundary disaster governance

Conveners: Paolo Cavaliere (University of Delaware) and Femke Mulder (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Abstract: Practical constraints often force responders to make difficult moral choices in their efforts to prevent and address disasters. For example, deciding when there is enough information to act, is not just a practical matter but also an ethical one. After all, both rapid action and purposeful delay can result in people being harmed (but not the same people). To give another example, using surveillance in disaster management has the potential to greatly enhance overall operations, whilst at the same time putting the lives of certain individuals at risk. As such, it raises ethical questions about the right to privacy. Funding also raises ethical issues. For example, the performance of accountability is not just shaped by donor intentions. Indeed, the field of disaster governance is marked by significant power imbalances and a plurality of perspectives. Therefore, even the act of defining and operationalizing the concept ‘accountability’ entails significant ethical challenges. The same goes for defining and addressing the idea of ‘abuse of power’. Indeed, even deciding who to invite to a disaster management meeting and who to leave out can have significant moral implications.

So, what is the best way to make sense of the complex accountability and ethical challenges that mark disaster governance? Prevention, relief and recovery efforts are now often multi-scale, inter sector, involving public, private and nonprofit actors. In their combined efforts to prevent and alleviate human suffering, the practices and interests of these different agents intersect. Collectively they can be conceived of as a megacommunity, which is a public sphere in which organizations and people purposively join together around a compelling issue of shared importance following a set of practices and principles (i.e. institutions) that are shaped by the relationships, cultures and geographies that mark the setting.

Panel topics: accountability and ethics in disaster governance, as shaped by organizational typologies, geography, scale and the interplay between societal, corporate, bureaucratic and legal governance cultures, institutions and relationships. Chairs: Kees Boersma; Paolo Cavaliere; Femke Mulder.

Long Abstract:Practical constraints often force responders to make difficult moral choices in their efforts to prevent and address disasters. For example, deciding when there is enough information to act, is not just a practical matter but also an ethical one. After all, both rapid action and purposeful delay can result in people being harmed (but not the same people). To give another example, using surveillance in disaster management has the potential to greatly enhance overall operations, whilst at the same time putting the lives of certain individuals at risk. As such, it raises ethical questions about the right to privacy. Funding also raises ethical issues. Funding also raises ethical issues. For example, the performance of accountability is not just shaped by donor intentions. Indeed, the field of disaster governance is marked by significant power imbalances and a plurality of perspectives. Therefore, even the act of defining and operationalizing the concept ‘accountability’ entails significant ethical challenges. The same goes for defining and addressing the idea of ‘abuse of power’. Indeed, even deciding who to invite to a disaster management meeting and who to leave out can have significant moral implications. From a philosophical perspective, these challenges can be framed in a number of ways. Established moral theories include the Kantian approach, which would analyze them in terms of moral imperatives or duties. By contrast, the utilitarian lens would zoom in on outcomes. Social contract theory would frame them in terms of actors’ need to submit to governmental laws, whereas virtue ethics would understand them in terms of actors’ moral dispositions. When it comes to understanding how ethical challenges come about in the first place, social science is in a strong position to complement philosophy. It offers multiple useful lenses for understanding a field that is increasingly multiscale and inter-sector.

So, what is the best way to make sense of the complex accountability and ethical challenges that mark disaster governance? Prevention, relief and recovery efforts now often involve public, private and nonprofit actors. They encompass both formal and informal forms of organizing and include established as well as emergent actors. Indeed, the actors involved are extremely varied in nature, ranging from NGO consortia, to (inter)governmental agencies, to community-based organizations, to grassroots networks. In their combined efforts to prevent and alleviate human suffering, the practices and interests of these different agents intersect. Collectively they can be conceived of as a megacommunity , which is a public sphere in which organizations and people purposively join together around a compelling issue of shared importance following a set of practices and principles (i.e. institutions) that are shaped by the relationships, cultures and geographies that mark the setting. The role specific organizations take on during a crisis will be influenced by their own organizational cultures, relationships and geographical linkages as well as by the wider societal expectations, administrative frameworks and response networks that mark the megacommunity in which they operate. As such, they are multi-scale. Scale is further important, as perspectives regarding ethics and accountability change depending on the level at which actors operate. This can result in friction between international and local actors involved in disaster management.

The aim of the panel is to bring academic and professional perspectives together in order to further the debate on accountability and ethics in disaster governance and critically evaluate current practices. The panel welcomes papers that address one or more of the topics outlined below.

Panel topics: accountability and ethics in disaster governance, as shaped by organizational typologies, geography, scale and the interplay between societal, corporate, bureaucratic and legal governance cultures, institutions and relationships