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The role of public and private sectors in disaster capitalism: an international overview

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Summary

At the outset, this study affirms that disasters provide opportunities: for some, this can mean positive societal change; for others, it is the ideal time for profit, resource extraction, and reinforcing the business-as-usual status quo. The latter has in recent years become known as ‘disaster capitalism’. This paper demonstrates that disaster capitalism manifests through the interplay between neoliberal reforms, practices, and disasters, and it is prominent in public and private sectors alike. There has been limited exploration of the role and the contribution of the public and private sectors in the (re)production and accumulation of disaster risks from a disaster capitalism optic, both in the academic literature and in the policy realm. This study responds to this gap and provides a preliminary international overview of the root causes, behaviours, and consequences of disaster capitalism, its contribution to disaster risk creation, and its role in the systemic nature of risk. The study analyses diverse ex-ante and ex-post experiences of disaster capitalism in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States, within a timespan that goes from European colonial times until the current Covid-19 pandemic. This is done through secondary data sources and literature review, grounded in a social constructionist approach to disasters. We show that, when disasters are not addressed with strategies for positive social change, the space is occupied by self-interested actors who pose a challenge to all disaster risk reduction and resilience efforts made by citizens, national and local governments, and international organisations. Moreover, interconnected neoliberal reforms and practices, such as profiteering from the disaster affected people in Chile, privatisation of essential public services in Italy, or deregulation of environmental protection in Brazil, to name a few, may instead lead to an exacerbation and creation of new risks. Through the series of disaster capitalism experiences around the world we indicate why we must be very cautious when designing solutions without challenging the pre-existing socio-cultural and politico-economic conditions that helped to create the problem in the first place.