What is the effect of natural disasters on political violence? Despite the widespread speculation about the possibilities for peace that typically occurs after a natural disaster strikes in a conflict zone, relatively little is known about the way disasters impact political mechanisms. In this project, I find that post-disaster strategic dynamics around control of disaster relief institutions are likely to impact levels of grievance and feasibility and thus have important implications for the likelihood of post-disaster violence. Using time-series, cross-sectional data, I find that post-disaster violence is more likely where pre-disaster institutional quality is relatively weak, as weak institutions create incentives for institution capture. A qualitative comparison of Indonesia and Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami suggests that post-disaster violence also depends on patterns of institutional control at the time of the disaster. The disaster results in a “lock-in” effect, accelerating and magnifying the material and non-material benefits of institutional control. These changes alter levels of grievance and the opportunities for rebellion.
This project makes two theoretical contributions. First, in contributing to the research on “disaster diplomacy,” it suggests that political variables are affected by natural disasters but not necessarily in transformative ways. Instead, natural disasters help lock-in and even accelerate political processes already in place in the time before the disaster. Second, viewing natural disasters as “crises” or “focusing events,” suggests that battles over institutional control can define and re-define the micro-foundations, and often the dynamic evolution, of intrastate conflict as much as they can define the endpoints of conflict. The material and signaling benefits of institutional control change the incentive structures of both rebels and states around rebellion.