Review: Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters affect peace and conflict by Ilan Kelman

By Jessica Mercer - 14 August 2012

Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters affect peace and conflict by Ilan Kelman. London: Routledge, 2011. 184 pp, £85.00 (hardcover). 978 0415679930

Disaster Diplomacy is the first publication to provide a detailed, in-depth review incorporating the topics of disasters and politics within a disaster-diplomacy framework. The author sets out his goal from the outset to examine: ‘how and why disaster-related activities do and do not reduce conflict and induce cooperation’ [p4]. Neither arguments for or against disaster diplomacy are impressed upon the reader, rather a balanced approach on disaster diplomacy is presented. This is achieved through examination of multiple, diverse case studies from the developed and developing worlds. Targeted primarily at applied researchers, policy and decision makers within disasters and politics, this book also provides essential reading for professionals within international NGOs, the UN and other aid agencies. For graduate students interested in the field of disaster research the book provides essential reading on the origins and development of disaster diplomacy.

The book contains twelve chapters with a number of tables provided to assist the reader’s understanding. Chapters 1-3 set the books foundations through providing a brief history of disaster diplomacy and its evolution. The author discusses the books approach and limitations in detail within Chapter 2. Chapter 4 utilises a wide variety of case studies to test hypotheses outlined in Chapter 3. Chapters 5-7 use the case study material, providing further evidence to explain disaster diplomacy through quantitative and qualitative approaches. Questions of how and why disaster diplomacy succeeds, is made to succeed, fails and is made to fail are explored in depth. Chapter 8 discusses additional case studies in the form of disaster diplomacy spinoffs – environmental diplomacy and para-diplomacy. Chapters 9-11 summarise limitations of disaster diplomacy research and application, principal lessons and future work needed to overcome gaps identified. Finally, Chapter 12 refers back to the initial chapter exploring ‘the origins of disaster diplomacy’ through indicating ‘the future of disaster diplomacy’.

Given this is the first book specifically on Disaster Diplomacy, it represents a highly significant contribution to the disaster and diplomacy-related fields of study. The book narrows its scope to building upon one specific series of investigations (Kelman and Koukis, 2000), yet it does not neglect the vast depth of work which has gone before it, as evidenced by the in-depth reference list. Disaster Diplomacy is well organised with a logical flow which is easy to follow and understand. The author provides practical and well balanced arguments supported by a diverse range of case studies covering the Asian, African, North American and European continents. These will be of extreme benefit to applied researchers, policy and decision makers within the disaster and politics fields. There is clearly a bias towards the disaster field of ‘disaster diplomacy’ which may not sit well with those focused more on the ‘diplomacy’ side. However, the book successfully presents a balance of arguments, whilst outlining gaps and limitations needing further exploration. As the author himself outlines – ‘disaster-diplomacy outcomes are never certain’ [p149], a statement which in itself necessitates further investigation and study. This book provides a pivotal contribution and a generous baseline upon which further exploration of the disaster-diplomacy field can develop and expand.

Kelman, I. and Koukis, T. (eds.) (2000) ‘Disaster diplomacy’, special section in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 95(386): 561-74.

Dr Jessica Mercer is currently working as an independent consultant with Secure Futures. Prior to this Jessica has worked within both academia and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the fields of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

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