Making Disciplined “Risk Capacity”: The adaptive politics of sovereign disaster insurance

Authors: Leigh Johnson*, University of Oregon
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Development, Political Geography
Keywords: adaptation, insurance, aid, disaster
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 15
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In an era of changing climate risks, governments in the Global South are increasingly pressed to develop financial safety nets to cushion vulnerable populations facing extreme weather events. This paper considers one such program, the African Risk Capacity (ARC) agency. ARC is a mutual insurance organization housed within the African Union and celebrated as an exemplar of how remote sensing and financial technologies might facilitate African-owned disaster management, risk-sharing, and climate adaptation on a continental scale. Yet ARC’s modus operandi far exceeds “adaptive capacity building”. Rather, it is an institutional technology to discipline the unruly zone of public disaster finance in the Global South, ostensibly characterized by inefficiencies, rent-seeking, moral hazard, and corruption. Insurance-like mechanisms for disaster relief are advanced as timely and objective ways to insulate state relief payments from patrimonial capture or “leakage”. Drawing on interviews and official operations documents, I find that this surveilling and disciplinary design constrains the nature and temporality of activities that can be financed with insurance payouts and advances a particular formula for the identification of beneficiaries. This paradoxically limits member nations’ ability to use insurance payouts to fund relief activities with long term potential to decrease exposure or sensitivity to extreme events. If sovereign disaster risk insurance is understood as an attempt to intervene in distributional politics at subnational levels, it is government bureaucrats – not final beneficiaries – who are the subjects of this adaptation. This highlights the growing salience of disaster risk finance as a contested terrain of postcolonial sovereignty

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