Disaster diplomacy: friend or foe?

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Yesterday, Albania experienced the most destructive earthquake in the last 30 years. The death toll is still rising and hundreds of injured are being treated. The EU, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Turkey have all sent help to Albania. Many other countries announced their readiness to help shall it be needed.

This kind of aid in cases of natural catastrophe is not uncommon. Even when those countries are at a cold or a very warm war. Disaster diplomacy deals with exploring how and why disaster-related activities influence diplomatic relations between countries.

An example of disaster diplomacy is the Iranian-USA relationship. In 1990, a huge earthquake killed more than 35,000 people in Iran. Although Iranian government refused help from the West, shortly after the American Red Cross and AmeriCare were providing help in Iran. Twelve years later, after another disastrous earthquake in Iran, the US sent help again, although Bush declared Iran part of ‘Axis of Evil’. Both countries wanted to cooperate but with no strings attached. This had no impact on USA-Iran relationship. However, Israeli help was not accepted – because this would likely hinder the chances of government’s re-election. In addition, following the denial of the UN representatives to access the nuclear power plants, Iran had to project a cooperative image at the international level. So it’s not only about human lives.

Demolished building in Albania following the earthquake in November 2019
REUTERS/Florian Goga

Another example are relations between Greece and Turkey. In 1999, more than 17,000 people died in an earthquake in Turkey. Greece sent financial aid as well as special forces, to help the Turks. Only three weeks later, an earthquake hit Greece and although Turkey itself was still managing the catastrophe, it responded to the needs of Greece and sent help. These moves were followed by a series of bilateral agreements between the two countries.

Kelman however states that disaster diplomacy sometimes yields further cooperation and sometimes further conflict. He states several important factors for disaster diplomacy to be successful: already set grounds for cooperation prior to disaster, focusing on disaster instead of diplomacy, building informal networks, working at multiple levels, reciprocity. Disaster diplomacy fails when diplomacy is avoided, relations are dependent on disaster, there are other events overwhelming disaster, and disaster is used as a weakness of the enemy.

Disaster diplomacy can be a powerful means for setting ground for future cooperation. Effective disaster diplomacy has to be followed by official conflict-resolution efforts led by governments. Or else, beware the helpers.

We at the World Youth Academy send our condolences to Albania and we wish you as quick as possible recovery from the catastrophe.