This article presents an alternative framing of disasters as a form of structural violence resulting from the unequal distribution of structural power between various groups, organizations, institutions, and states in the contemporary global political economy. The article utilizes a theoretical framework that combines Johan Galtung’s typology of violence and Susan Strange’s conceptualization of structural power to open up new space for analysis in the disaster politics nexus. The article applies its framework to explore how an understanding of disasters as a form of violence problematizes trends within mainstream disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies. Specifically, the article examines the integration of financial risk-sharing mechanisms into the disaster politics nexus through new public–private partnerships between insurance and reinsurance firms, international financial institutions, and governments to transfer catastrophic risk to global capital markets. The article seeks to repoliticize these changes and bring questions of power back into the larger conversation surrounding DRR policies.

The year 2017 was notable for the number and severity of disasters that it witnessed; disasters routinely captured daily headlines around the globe, with numerous earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires competing for our attention. According to the world’s largest reinsurance companies, 2017 is estimated to have witnessed 330 separate disasters, which together caused global economic losses of roughly U.S.$353 billion (Artemis, 2017). These events impacted a massive number of people, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria alone estimated to have killed more than 200 people and affected over 6 million (Wallemacq, 2017). Climate change and shifting patterns of development have changed the number and types of vulnerabilities of people and property to a variety of hazards, both natural and technological, that when combined result in disasters (Aon Benfield, 2018, p. 3).

In the aftermath of disasters, such as the days and weeks following Hurricane Maria’s ravaging of Puerto Rico, the impacts of these events are not felt or distributed equally, with some peoples and populations bearing far heavier burdens than others (Klein, 2018; Vinik, 2018). The disparate responses to these disasters are evident in their aftermath, with certain populations or areas receiving more funding and attention than others, largely for political reasons, such as Puerto Rico’s lack of representation within the U.S. Congress (Vinik, 2018; Garrett & Sobel, 2003). This article explores questions relating to the disparate impacts of disasters, political economy, violence, and power. Specifically, the paper endeavors to better understand the relationship between disasters and violence and whether the disparate impacts of these increasingly powerful events can be seen as a result of structural inequalities within the political economy and therefore as a form of violence.

The paper seeks to problematize the common conceptualization of disasters as spontaneous events or “acts of God” that can be prepared for but are separated from larger questions of power in the contemporary global political economy. There exists a large body of literature that challenges the “naturalness”’ of disasters.1 This literature provides important analyses of the political, economic, and social elements of disasters and raises questions in terms of the current focus of disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies and increasing calls for the closer integration of capital markets and financial instruments into those policies (Hannigan, 2012, pp. 6–17; Johnson, 2011). Building on critiques of the dominant view of disasters, which understands these events as fundamentally technologically and scientifically based problems rather than social ones (Hewitt, 1983, pp. 5–8),2 I seek to present an alternative framing of disasters as events that are a form of structural violence supported by the unequal distribution of structural power between various groups and actors in the contemporary global political economy.

By utilizing a theoretical framework that combines Johan Galtung’s understanding of violence and Susan Strange’s conceptualization of structural power, I argue that new space for analysis of the disaster politics nexus and the impacts of DRR policies is opened up. The paper’s theoretical framework facilitates new questions on the policies forwarded by various organizations and actors, such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). A closer exploration of the connections between, on one hand, everyday relations between humans, society, and the environment, and on the other, disasters becomes possible by viewing the disparate impacts of disasters as structural violence. A focus on structural violence highlights the connection between the disparate impacts of disasters and the disparate distribution of power within the contemporary global political economy, especially the power to affect the distribution of resources among groups of people.3 This leads my analysis to larger questions as to the types of policies that are being forwarded to address disasters and their relationship to the production and reproduction of structural power.

I will first lay out the paper’s theoretical foundation, based on Johan Galtung’s binary conceptualization of peace and violence and Susan Strange’s theorization of power within the global political economy. The paper will then utilize this composite theoretical framework to explore how the disparate impacts of disasters can be included within an understanding of violence that is structural in nature. I will then turn to an elaboration of DRR initiatives and policies, specifically the newest policy document: The Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction: 2015–2030. This section will focus on the direction of current DRR policies and the integration of alternative risk management mechanisms such as insurance linked securities (ILS) and catastrophe bonds (cat bonds) as new neoliberal policy tools to conduct disaster governance within the contemporary global political economy. The final section of the paper explores what my theoretical framing reveals about contemporary DRR policies. I conclude with some observations about disasters and structural violence and what a conceptualization of disasters as structural violence means going forward for DRR policy as well as the disaster–politics nexus more broadly.

Theoretical foundations, part 1: structural violence

Johan Galtung, in Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, discusses the connection between peace and violence in a society and understands these concepts in a binary manner, holding that fundamentally “peace is the absence of violence” (Galtung, 1969, p. 167). Galtung’s point is that the terms are intrinsically linked and that “peace” and “violence” constitute each other through their presence or absence at any particular point in time. This binary understanding of peace and violence, with the presence of one defining the absence of the other, makes the definition of what constitutes the presence of peace or violence central to his work. For Galtung, violence is “present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). The key to ascertaining whether violence is present, and therefore peace absent, is through an evaluation of the difference between the actual and the potential in terms of people’s lives.4 This understanding of violence directs us to examine the circumstances that surround the difference between the actual and the potential.

As Galtung explains, the circumstances surrounding a person who dies of tuberculosis in the eighteenth century would be difficult to understand as characterizing violence, since his or her death is likely inevitable (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). According to Galtung’s logic, this is so because there is little difference between the actual realization, death, and the potential realization, death (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). However, those same circumstances transported to our contemporary setting can be understood as characterizing a form of violence, given the general availability of modern medicine and treatments for tuberculosis (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). In this revised case, the actual realization of death from tuberculosis, is worse and therefore lower than the better and higher potential realization of not dying from tuberculosis, and so violence can be said to be present.5 According to this understanding of violence, when an actual physical or mental realization is lower than its potential for an individual or group of people, and the situation is unnecessary, violence is present.6

Further complicating Galtung’s framework is the distinction he draws between personal/direct violence and structural/indirect violence.7 This distinction is based on whether or not there is a subject who is responsible for the violence. Galtung refers to violence where a subject commits the act as personal/direct violence and violence where there is no immediately identifiable subject as structural/indirect violence (Galtung, 1969, p. 170). It is the presence or absence of a subject that is key. In both cases, individuals can be manipulated by incentives and disincentives to action as well as being injured or killed; what distinguishes personal from structural violence is whether it is committed directly by an actor or indirectly through a structure (Galtung, 1969, pp. 170–71). Thus, structural violence can be understood as the unnecessary lowering of the actual physical and mental realizations of human beings as compared with their potential realizations, committed indirectly through larger social, political, and economic institutions, organizations, and processes.8

While Galtung utilizes the presence of a subject who is responsible for the violence to draw his distinction between personal/direct violence and structural/indirect violence, one aspect that he does not speak to in his typology of violence is that of viciousness.9 The vicious aspect of violence addresses the manner in which the action is taken, often in a cruel way.10 However, the viciousness of violence should not be conflated with intentionality, as this would mean that structural violence could not be considered vicious in nature, given a lack of intentionality. Galtung considers intentionality an element of direct violence and key to determining the guilt of actors committing violence, but this is problematic in that it fails to capture structural violence, which is better understood by focusing on the consequences of actions rather than on intentions (Galtung, 1969, 171–72).

The vicious aspect of violence is also camouflaged in the case of structural violence, due to issues of visibility. Attention is naturally placed on personal/direct violence, as it results from the actions of an actor, whereas structural/indirect violence can be made invisible in a society (Galtung, 1969, p. 173). As Galtung observed, “personal violence shows . . . [it] represents change and dynamism—not only ripples on waves, but waves on otherwise tranquil waters. Structural violence is silent, it does not show—it is essentially static, it is the tranquil waters” (Galtung, 1969, p. 173). Since individuals and institutions are submerged, structural violence becomes virtually invisible to them. Thus, particular processes or policies within society can be seen as natural or normal, yet at the same time reproduce and replicate violence.11

Returning to the example of the tuberculosis victim, violence is present in the second scenario, but so too is viciousness. In this case, viciousness is present in the circumstances that surround the lack of access to modern medicine or treatment for tuberculosis, for example, the lack of universal health insurance or personal resources to pay for medical treatment and the underlying reasons that the individual is not covered or does not have the resources to pay.12 Structural violence, viciousness, and visibility are intrinsic to processes and policies related to addressing disasters and disaster risk within the contemporary global political economy, including the academic study of disasters, an aspect that will be expanded upon below.

Based on this review of Galtung’s distinction between personal/direct and structural/indirect violence, how is structural violence constituted and what elements compose it? Unfortunately, he provides an incomplete answer here. For Galtung, “violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969, p. 171, my emphasis). Galtung utilizes the concept of power but without providing analysis as to the underlying components that produce power.13 He does provide a limited discussion of power, but eschews a deeper analysis of the concept in order to focus on what he views as a more significant point: “that if people are starving when this is objectively avoidable, then violence is committed, regardless of whether there is a clear subject–action–object relation, as during a siege yesterday or no such clear relation, as in the way world economic relations are organized today” (Galtung, 1969, p. 171). To operationalize Galtung’s concepts and apply them to the disparate impacts of disasters within and between societies, a theorization of power that analyzes the way that power is constituted and how an unequal distribution of that power is established is necessary. This is lacking from important earlier analyses of disasters and structural violence such as those found in the work of Dennis Soron (2007), which emphasize structural violence but not the power discrepancies underpinning it.

Theoretical foundations, part 2: power

An explicit theorization of power as it relates to structural violence is necessary to supplement Galtung’s categorization of structural violence and move beyond earlier works. In order to do so, I draw insight from the field of international political economy and the work of Susan Strange—specifically, her observations on the constitution of power within society in States and Markets, where she provides a comprehensive and detailed theorization of the sources of relational and structural power within the contemporary global political economy.

A fundamental aspect of Strange’s typology of power is her distinction between relational and structural power.14 According to Strange, relational power falls within the more traditional understanding of power found within political science and international relations, namely: the power of actor A to get actor B to do something he or she would not otherwise do (Strange, 1988, p. 24). This definition of relational power provides a reference point against which Strange’s concept of structural power is juxtaposed.15

Structural power represents the ability to shape the structures within which actors A and B operate—the ability to determine how things are done and shape the architecture within which actors operate, relate to, and understand one another in the global political economy. Effectively, structural power is the ability of an actor or set of actors to shape and structure the rules of the game, which both define and constrain the possible actions and choices of other actors. Structural power affects the relationship between actors within the system; in Strange’s own words, “the relative power of each party in a relationship is more, or less, if one party is also determining the surrounding structure of the relationship” (Strange, 1988, p. 25).

For Strange, structural power’s source is located within four separate yet interrelated aspects, which, when combined, produce a particular expression of “structural power.” Strange visualizes their relationship as a four-faceted pyramid composed of four planes or triangular facets, each of which touches the others and secures them into the shape (Strange, 1988, p. 26).16 Each facet represents one of the four aspects of the contemporary political economy that undergird and give shape to structural power, comprising control over security, control over production, control over credit, and control over knowledge, beliefs, and ideas (Strange, 1988, p. 26).

Strange’s conception of structural power provides an expanded understanding of power that pairs well with Galtung’s concept of structural violence: specifically, how both structural violence and structural power are obfuscated from view in everyday relations between individuals, organizations, and institutions in society. Strange points out that as opposed to relational power, those exercising structural power are “able to change the range of choices open to others, without apparently putting pressure directly on them to take one decision or to make one choice rather than others. Such power is less ‘visible’” (Strange, 1988, p. 31).

Given that the genesis of structural violence is the unequal distribution of the power to distribute resources within society, and this power is based on the mutually reinforcing control of the four facets of structural power, an analysis of structural violence must pay close attention to the underlying distribution of the components of structural power. I conduct such an analysis of disasters by integrating Strange’s concept of structural power and Galtung’s theory of structural violence. I use this hybrid theoretical framework to explore how the disparate impacts of disasters as a form of structural violence are linked to ongoing policy shifts in contemporary disaster risk reduction: specifically, the integration of alternative risk transfer mechanisms such as ILS and cat bonds.

Disasters as structural violence

This section engages with how the disparate impacts of disasters are viewed as falling within the category of structural violence. I begin with an overview of the scholarly literature detailing the competing viewpoints on the disparate impact of disasters. I then discuss how a focus on structural power and its composite facets supplements the debates within the scholarly literature on the disparate impacts of disasters and disasters as structural violence.

According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the secretariat mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to coordinate global disaster policies, a disaster is “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (UNISDR, 2009, p. 9).17 Disasters include earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, pandemics, wildfires, and many other events that are commonly associated with the term. The impacts of disasters include death, disease, and injury, as well as negatively affecting human social, physical, and mental welfare (UNISDR, 2009, p. 9).

Similarly, disaster risk is defined as the possible losses that are a result of the impacts of a disaster (UNISDR, 2009, pp. 9–10). Potential losses include lives, assets, livelihoods, and health, among other common metrics (UNISDR, 2009, pp. 9–10). Exposure to disaster risk is mapped using knowledge of prevailing hazards and patterns of socioeconomic development, as well as population growth (UNISDR, 2009, p. 10). Effectively, the manner in which different individuals and groups are exposed to and experience disaster is largely dependent on their social, political, and economic positions within society. Disaster risk reduction is “the concept and practice of reducing disaster risks through systematic efforts to analyse and manage the causal factors of disasters, including through reduced exposure to hazards, [and the] lessened vulnerability of people and property” (UNISDR, 2009, p. 10).

Mainstream understandings of disasters, disaster risk, and disaster risk reduction are largely informed by behaviorism and center on the individual as the unit of analysis; they lack larger scope in terms of historical, political, and economic evaluation (Fordham, 2003, p. 59). The behaviorialist theoretical perspective is effectively apolitical and, as Mark Pelling points out, “concentrated . . . on understanding the ways in which individuals and groups responded to disaster events . . . downplay[ing] the role of social structures . . . [those] that shaped everyday development experience . . . in shaping vulnerability” (Pelling, 2003, p. 9). This puts forward a temporally and spatially isolated understanding of disasters that does not consider questions of structural power or structural violence. As Maureen Fordham observes, “research workers in the hazards field have tended not to challenge or extend the fundamental theoretical base, but rather to make incremental changes within the [existing dominant] paradigm” (Fordham, 2003, p. 58). Researchers and academics working in the field of disaster studies are as restricted by the structures and by those influencing power over those institutions as are individuals working within government bureaucracies and other organizations in the global policy field of natural disasters (Hannigan, 2012, pp. 18–22). These mainstream understandings of disasters led scholars and practitioners to create policy largely focused on disaster response and recovery due to a myopic focus on the human influence on disaster events (Pelling, 2003, p. 9). Significantly, the visibility of structural power plays an important role here in shaping the kinds of research and analysis that scholars have undertaken, as well as how disasters are framed and understood by academics, policy makers, and the public more broadly. Structural power enables the analysis of disasters to be shaped in particular ways to avoid the actual aspects that lead to disasters as well as those needed to facilitate risk reduction of those aspects.18

With the publication of work by Kenneth Hewitt and others, a sustained challenge to the dominant view within hazards research was launched and spawned the rise of an alternative understanding of disasters known as the “vulnerability approach” (Fordham, 2003). Most significantly, Hewitt challenges the “social scientist to consider seriously whether the dominant view has not got the whole problem of disaster back-to-front” (Hewitt, 1983, p. 25). In line with Galtung and Strange, the underlying social structure of the contemporary political economy is more causally important in the production and governance of disasters than the responses to the disasters are.19

This work puts forth more diverse understandings of disasters. Nandini Gunewardena points out that “political economy approaches to disaster . . . emphasized the inequitable power relationships between the developed and developing world that propelled processes of impoverishment, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of marginal populations in the global South” (Gunewardena, 2008, p. 6). These more critical works constituted what Fordham called “the most prominent and long-lasting, alternative perspective [in disaster governance]” (Fordham, 2003, p. 59). Effectively, the vulnerability perspective has “an acknowledged political stance which more ‘traditional’ hazards researchers have tried to refuse or downplay . . . its major focus [rests on] the ‘social geography of harm’ . . . on the underlying, socio-political, root causes of hazardous places and disaster processes, rather than physical hazard agents or superficial symptoms” (Fordham, 2003, p. 59).

The underlying social, political, and economic causes of the impact of disasters are of central importance and implicate both structural power and structural violence. Disasters are intrinsically connected with development through economic, political, and social policies (Gunewardena, 2008, p. 6). These policies are important, as they are created within the preexisting structures of the contemporary global political economy and represent structural power;: they affect the distribution of resources, the life chances of individuals, and their exposure to disaster risk.

It is well established within the literature that the effects of disasters are not universal and represent different impacts on various groups of differing vulnerabilities in societies suffering them (Gunewardena, 2008, p. 6). The literature points out that the “human consequences of environmental harm have generally been shown to be unequal and non-random, with exposure to harm clearly being a function of race as well as income” (Freudenberg et al., 2008, p. 1017). Disaster research highlights that not only are the impacts of disasters non-random and unequal with regards to race, income, citizenship status, and gender, but that exacerbation of these impacts through social stratification is part of a pattern that has evolved over time within the contemporary global political economy (Freudenberg et al., 2008, pp. 1017–18). According to the UNISDR, “between 1980 and 2012, 42 million life years were lost in internationally reported disasters each year . . . over 80 percent of the total life years lost . . . [were] spread across low and middle-income countries” (UNISDR, 2015a, p. v).20 This example of the disparate impacts of disasters demonstrates the importance of harnessing Strange’s concept of structural power in the analysis: disasters affect the potential and actual physical and mental realizations of individuals and groups and negatively impact their life chances; as earlier work has argued, disasters are a form of structural violence (Soron, 2007).

It should be noted that this is a contentious conclusion and one that Galtung did not agree with. Galtung’s definition of violence, as the difference between the actual and the potential, between what could have been and what is, led him to focus on whether the current situation was “avoidable” (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). Galtung uses this distinction between avoidable and unavoidable to determine whether violence is present. He makes the same argument with regard to earthquakes, holding that an analysis of earthquakes in terms of violence is not warranted because they are unavoidable and cannot be prevented from occurring (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). This is why a focus on the underlying facets of structural power is necessary to supplement and expand Galtung’s analysis of structural violence with respect to disasters: while it is true that earthquakes cannot be prevented, Galtung’s understanding comes from an equality-of-impact viewpoint quite similar to the dominant perspective within the disaster literature. He does not differentiate, as the literature now does, between hazards (i.e., living in a tectonic fault zone) and vulnerability to hazards (i.e., living in a shoddily built house in a tectonic fault zone). Questions as to the nature of those vulnerabilities and whether the vulnerabilities are avoidable become possible by differentiating between hazards and vulnerability when considering structural violence and structural power.

What is of central importance is that the social order that produces these vulnerabilities to natural hazards due to ethnicity, income level, citizenship status, and gender is not unavoidable and is the result of an unequal distribution of power within society. Disparate power is not limited to these particularly vulnerable groups within society; all residents of a geographical area that is at risk to particular hazards can be harmed through the policies and actions that increase their exposure—this includes the wealthy and the elite. The social order and the unequal distribution of power that undergirds it are predicated on unequal control or influence over the facets of power that produce structural power.21 The disparate impacts of disasters can be viewed as avoidable and as a form of structural violence.22 Those who suffer violence in this regard are those whose harm, either intentional or unintentional, benefits those exercising control over the various institutions in a society and their patrons.23 The following section expands my analysis by bringing contemporary DRR policies into the discussion.

Disaster risk reduction: an overview

DRR focuses on reducing exposure and vulnerability to hazards. This is significant, given the connection between the disparate impacts of disasters and structural violence. DRR aims to reduce the disparity of the impacts of disasters and therefore can be understood as trying to reduce structural violence. The unequal distribution of losses from the impact of disasters operates at a variety of scales, including the losses of developed versus developing states (UNISDR, 2015a, p. xv). Disasters affect the life chances and potential of individuals and groups “between regions and countries, within countries and inside cities and localities” (UNISDR, 2015a, p. xv). Indeed, low-income individuals, groups, and states often suffer a poverty penalty in the aftermath of disasters that affects the losses they suffer (Button and Oliver-Smith, 2008, p. 134). For example, following Hurricane Katrina, working-class and working-poor households were most vulnerable to suffering economic loss; over half of households “with an annual income below $10,000 lost all salaried jobs in the household” (Button and Oliver-Smith, 2008, p. 134). Losses such as this serve to further weaken the ability of the vulnerable to recover, as well as to effect change and exercise power in the disaster politics nexus.

DRR is a comprehensive approach to disaster risk advocated by the UNISDR. It is a systematic process that focuses on reducing disaster risks through methodically analyzing and managing factors that result in disasters by lowering the vulnerability of people and property as well as reducing exposure to hazards (UNISDR, 2009, p. 10). DRR utilizes a variety of tools—administrative directives, organizations, and operational skills and capacities—to reduce the disparate impacts of disasters and their likelihood of occurrence (UNISDR, 2009, p. 10). These include land and environment management practices as well as enhanced preparedness (UNISDR, 2009, p. 11).

The central policy document that represents the UNISDR’s current global policy recommendations is the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030. The Sendai Framework is the successor to the first disaster risk reduction policy document within the UNISDR system, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disaster (UNISDR, 2007, p. 5). DRR recognizes a continual need for the identification of best practices in the implementation of disaster governance policies. The Sendai Framework and the UNISDR promote the use of a wide variety of mechanisms to manage the disparate impacts of disasters.

While illustrating sensitivity toward the disparate impacts of disasters based on ethnicity and gender as well as the production of vulnerability, DRR policies have continually emphasized the need for the further integration of powerful institutions and actors who exercise structural power within the contemporary global political economy and are responsible for the vulnerability of various groups within it (UNISDR, 2015b, pp. 18–27). These institutions and actors include those pushing alternative risk transfer mechanisms to help address disaster risk, such as international financial institutions (UNISDR, 2015b, pp. 18–27). A focus on the role of multilateral cooperation and bilateral agreements has been part of DRR policy since its earliest forms. For example, the report from the 1994 World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan highlights the need for international cooperation to reduce disaster risk within the context of a globally interdependent world (United Nations, 1994, p. 16). The report advocated the integration of disaster prevention and mitigation into development projects financed by the multilateral financial institutions and the development banks (United Nations, 1994, p. 17).

The integration of financial institutions and capital markets became more focused as DRR policies became more refined. The Hyogo Framework for Action, agreed upon in 2005, directly emphasized the importance of developing “financial risk-sharing mechanisms, particularly insurance and reinsurance against disasters” within DRR policies (UNISDR, 2007, p. 11). It also advocated the establishment of “public–private partnerships to better engage the private sector in disaster risk reduction activities . . . [as well as the] development and promot[ion of] alternative and innovative financial instruments for addressing disaster risk” (UNISDR, 2007, pp. 11–12). A brief discussion of insurance and reinsurance is necessary before continuing my analysis.

Reinsurance companies provide insurance to primary insurance companies and have historically operated on an explicitly geographic business model in order to spread their risk exposure to a variety of different areas (Federal Insurance Office [FIO], 2014, p. 3). Effectively, reinsurers operate by buying up risk from primary insurers; in the language of the industry, the primary insurers cede risk to reinsurers in exchange for a share of their premium income (General Accounting Office [GAO], 2002, p. 41). These contracts are traditionally made on a year-to-year basis and act to indemnify the primary insurer against certain risks, usually against disaster risk, such as fire (Reinsurance Association of America [RAA], 2016, p. 64).24

Reinsurance companies help primary insurers mitigate their exposure to fire and other catastrophic risks by spreading that risk to an explicitly global level. Risk is spread through a contractual responsibility of reinsurers to pay for some of the losses a primary insurer incurs if a fire or other disaster occurs (Alvarez, 2015, pp. 9–14; RAA, 2016, pp. 3–11). Reinsurers assume this risk in return for a portion of the premium incomes that the primary insurers earn off of those policies (RAA, 2016, p. 1). Reinsurers also generally have larger pools of capital than primary insurers and specifically cultivate global risk portfolios to distribute the risk widely (Johnson, 2011, p. 18), making them some of the first explicitly globally focused firms to come into existence (Keucheyan, 2018, p. 487). Reinsurance companies help to address some of the cyclicity of insurance market pricing, providing protection and more underwriting capacity for primary insurers and therefore reducing the price of insurance for policy holders. Reinsurers have been predominantly located within Europe for the majority of their history, though the establishment of firms in Bermuda and other tax havens as domestic domiciles for new reinsurers and dedicated ILS and cat bond funds has changed this historical pattern (FIO, 2014, pp. 4–5).

The continued integration of IFIs and capital markets within DRR policy frameworks is largely premised on the expansion of insurance and reinsurance and on alternative risk transfer mechanisms, of which ILS and cat bonds are the best known (Artemis, 2015).25 Cat bonds are a method of transferring disaster risk to capital market investors through the creation of special-purpose high-yield bonds (Alvarez, 2015, pp. 29–39; World Bank, 2011). Effectively, the bonds act as a form of insurance for the sponsoring institution, which pays bond holders higher rates of interest to compensate them for the increased riskiness of the bonds (World Bank, 2011).

Cat bonds function through the establishment of specific trigger conditions upon which the issuer has the right to withhold repayment of the principal or further interest payments on the principal due to the occurrence of a specific event, that is, a disaster (Alvarez, 2015, p. 37; Banks, 2005, pp. 113–14). In these cases, if the predetermined trigger conditions of the bond have been met, the issuing institution or government keeps the principal and uses it to offset the costs associated with the impact of the disaster. Cat bonds typically mature after a three-year period, and they were created to address the increased capacity needed by insurers and reinsurers within the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake in 1994 (Banks, 2005, pp. 111–24). Shortly after these two “game-changing disasters,” influenced by climate change and changing patterns of development, the first cat bond was launched in the United States in 1997 (Banks, 2005, pp. 112).

Originally intended as a tool to be utilized by primary insurance and reinsurance firms to further offset and spread their exposure to disaster risk, ILS and cat bonds are now being incorporated into official DRR strategies.26 The integration of alternative risk transfer mechanisms, and ILS specifically, is being promoted by IFIs such as the World Bank’s MultiCat Program, as “a catastrophe bond issuance platform that gives governments and other public entities access to international capital markets to insure themselves against the risk of natural disasters” (World Bank, 2009). This integration is being promoted by the UNISDR through policy documents such as the Sendai Framework. While ILS and cat bonds are not mentioned directly by name, the Sendai Framework does assert that in order to achieve increased disaster resilience for communities,27 it is necessary to “promote the development and strengthening of disaster risk transfer and sharing mechanisms and instruments in close cooperation with partners in the international community, business, international financial institutions and other relevant stakeholders” (UNISDR, 2015b, p. 20). This position is in keeping with previous policy documents agreed upon through the UNISDR, such as the Hyogo Framework for Action.

Increased focus of DRR policy on alternative risk transfer mechanisms is problematic, given that “pre-existing inequities are often reinforced and exaggerated after a disaster occurs (Button & Oliver-Smith, 2008, p. 134). DRR is intended to reduce the exposure and vulnerability of populations to disasters. Given that those who are most vulnerable are also often the most powerless, critical questions need to be raised about how the integration of alternative risk transfer mechanisms such as ILS and cat bonds affect DRR for those individuals and groups. A focus on the disparate impacts of disasters as structural violence allows these questions to be linked to the underlying power discrepancies that create those vulnerabilities in the first place. This focus also allows an analysis of the role that structural power plays in shaping both the disparate impacts of disasters and the policy responses to them. DRR policy should actively work to reduce structural violence caused by the disparate impacts of disasters by reducing the factors that result in vulnerability. That is, it should seek to reform the power imbalances, institutions, and other elements that facilitate structural power and the production of structural violence. The integration of insurance, reinsurance, and alternative risk transfer mechanisms into DRR policy and the disaster politics nexus more broadly must be evaluated with structural power and structural violence grounding the analysis.

Disaster risk reduction, structural violence, and power: revisiting Galtung and Strange

Given the purpose of DRR and its focus on creating resiliency through a variety of methods, including the closer integration of global capital markets into these policy frameworks, the role of power within these processes needs to be analyzed. While this paper views the current trajectory of DRR policy through a critical lens, this does not mean that the Sendai Framework and its predecessors are not significant steps in reducing the structural violence that results from the disparate impacts of disasters. The Sendai Framework contains suggestions that are necessary to address aspects of the inequality underlying this violence. For example, one of the guiding principles of the Sendai Framework is that DRR “requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted” (UNISDR, 2015b, 13). These are important policy objectives that target the production of vulnerability due to unequal distributions of power.

Yet, despite these guiding principles, applying the concept of structural violence as undergirded by structural power, I challenge whether contemporary disaster risk reduction policy frameworks such as the Sendai Framework actually address the underlying facets of structural power that shape and reproduce structural violence, understood as the disparate vulnerabilities of individuals and groups to hazards and the impacts of disasters. Calls for an integrated “all-of-society” approach act to depoliticize disaster risk and further camouflage the already difficult-to-see elements of structural power affecting the disaster politics nexus.28 I also question whether and how DRR policy frameworks address the unequal distribution of resources and access to power which produce and reproduce structural violence. The focus on the Sendai Framework serves a twofold purpose in this regard. First, it recognizes the need for shared responsibility for the disparate impacts of disasters, with a particular focus on incorporating previously disadvantaged stakeholders into disaster risk reduction frameworks.29

Second, the framework pushes for international cooperation and support for developing states in order to address some of the power imbalances that produce and reproduce vulnerability to disasters. These power imbalances are a result of the underlying four facets of structural power that Strange highlights with regard to DRR policy (UNISDR, 2015b, p. 23). The Sendai Framework seeks to accomplish these goals through the integration of various groups for whom the impact of disasters is disproportionate, as recognized by the UNISDR, as well as through greater implementation of DRR policy globally. Yet my analysis demonstrates that integrating traditionally disadvantaged groups into the existing structure of the disaster politics nexus is not enough.

Understanding disasters as structural violence reveals a tension between what can be accomplished through DRR and the focus on alternative risk transfer mechanisms as a way to address vulnerability and financial exposure of states and other entities to catastrophic risk. This tension is manifest through the contradiction of attempting to mitigate the impacts of disasters through the very facets of structural power and institutions that have produced the disparate vulnerabilities and exposure to hazards in the first place. This is particularly evident with regard to the further integration of IFIs and global capital flows into DRR policy, since it decontextualizes and depoliticizes how vulnerabilities are produced in the contemporary global political economy. A focus on structural violence and its underlying causes problematizes mainstream DRR strategies.

DRR policy must be contextualized within the larger processes of the contemporary global political economy that shape the way in which political, economic, and social development occurs and the vulnerabilities it produces. This lacuna is evident within mainstream disaster policy, in that it misses an examination of “the big questions associated with disaster response, namely the broader political context in which strategies of recovery are implemented” (Gotham & Greenberg, 2008, p. 1040). These larger connections link the trends in DRR to larger processes of social, political, and economic change taking place at the same time: namely, the trend toward neoliberal disaster policy and the further integration of private actors, as well as a larger focus on public–private partnerships (P3s) in response to disaster risk. There is an inherent conflict of interest created when P3s are forwarded to address disaster risk, particularly in relation to the integration of ILS and cat bonds into public disaster insurance schemes. This conflict of interest manifests in the problematic situation of private for-profit entities being entrusted to put the needs of at-risk populations in front of the interests of their stockholders and boards of directors.30 This conflict of interest reproduces the conditions of structural power that perpetuate structural violence that is beneficial to some and disastrous for others.

Understanding the disparate impacts of disasters as structural violence allows DRR to be situated as part of processes of expanding neoliberal governance within the contemporary global political economy. The call for greater reliance on P3s, private capital, and market-based solutions to disaster risk is a significant shift in DRR policy that is setting precedents for how catastrophic risk and future disasters are handled (Gotham & Greenberg, 2008, p. 1040). This shift can be understood as advocating “a minimalist government [role] so as to make post-disaster rebuilding more flexible, efficient and cost-effective . . . [essentially a] new market-centered orientation of . . . disaster response [connected to processes of] neoliberalism” on behalf of the private sector (Gotham & Greenberg, 2008, p. 1040). It also acts to reinforce the current distribution of structural power within society, emphasizing the need to better integrate those organization and institutions that already exercise great influence and control into the disaster politics nexus.

When the disparate impacts of disasters are understood as structural violence, policy measures and tools that seek to address disasters and catastrophic risk should be primarily focused on addressing the factors that produce and reproduce structural violence, namely, addressing structural power imbalances and the institutions and organizations that perpetuate them within society. This tension exists between seeking to address the disparate impacts of disasters and vulnerability by pursuing an all-of-society approach focused on traditionally vulnerable groups and at the same time pushing for more flexible forms of DRR policies and financing through alternative risk transfer mechanisms such as ILS and cat bonds that reinforce the structural power of organizations and institutions operating within the disaster politics nexus.


As my analysis has made clear, a focus on structural violence emphasizes the role that structural power plays in shaping the disparate impacts of disasters. A focus on structural violence as undergirded by the four facets of structural power allows a direct linkage to be drawn between the disparate impacts of disasters and social justice, equity, and human rights issues. DRR policy must address issues of social injustice and power discrepancies; based upon this conclusion, I argue that an all-of-society approach is not enough. Disaster policy and efforts to address catastrophic risk must be explicitly repoliticized. It is clearly important that traditionally disadvantaged groups and actors must be integrated into the disaster politics nexus and DRR policies should integrate a diverse range of perspectives, including gender, age, disability, citizenship status, and culture, amongst others. However, a focus on the individuals leaves the larger structural aspects out of the discussion; or as Galtung put it, is like “catching the small fry and letting the big fish loose” (Galtung, 1969, p. 172). Given the increasing integration of neoliberal policies, such as calls for more flexible market-based disaster risk solutions such as the integration of alternative risk transfer mechanisms and P3s into DRR policies, change at the structural level where powerful institutions and organizations operate within the disaster politics nexus is critical to addressing the structural violence of disasters.

Current DRR policy frameworks reproduce and reinforce the structural power of actors and institutions in the contemporary global political economy that have resulted in the current state of structural violence, expressed as the disparate impacts of disasters on vulnerable populations. These frameworks are part of neoliberal global disaster governance and are a product of the structural power of powerful firms, organizations, and states that actively shape and define the rules of the game in the disaster politics nexus. DRR policy must not simply push for greater integration of marginalized groups and actors within their frameworks, but also critically question the underlying aspects of structural power that act to reproduce those vulnerabilities to disasters on a daily basis.

DRR policy must move beyond surface-level aspects of vulnerability and begin to address the underlying inequality in structural power through an understanding that the problems are fundamentally structural in nature. This means that particular policies or prescriptions should be reevaluated in light of this new understanding. It also means that DRR policy prescriptions should be historically contextualized within ongoing processes of social, political, and economic change and linked with currents of expansionary neoliberal policies. While we typically discuss neoliberal policy transformations in relation to other areas of governance, such as health care or social security, DRR is not exempt from these overarching currents, which are reshaping the manner in which states and other stakeholders operate within the contemporary global political economy. The trends surveyed in contemporary DRR policy, such as the turn to P3s and capital and insurance markets as a way to address catastrophic risk and disasters, actually exacerbate the underlying structural issues that undergird the disparate impact of disasters and the production of vulnerability that reproduces the structural violence of disasters.


Early drafts of this article were previously presented at the annual meetings of the International Studies Association, as well as of the Canadian Political Science Association. I am grateful for many insightful comments, questions, and suggestions made by a variety of colleagues who attended those panels or read earlier versions of this work. In particular, I would like to thank my anonymous reviewer, as well as Dr. Christopher C. Leite and Dr. Mary Bartram, for their helpful and important contributions. I would also like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Susanne Soederberg, Mandy Pasch for her proofreading skills, Dr. Jessica Merolli for her clarifications on citizenship terminology, and Dr. J. Marshall Beier for introducing me to the work of Professor Galtung in the first place. Many thanks as well to my friend and colleague Marie Gagne for her kindness in alerting me to this opportunity to share my work. Any errors or omissions are my own.



See Kathleen Tierney (2007) for a more in-depth survey of the evolution of disaster literature as well as Nandini Gunewardena (2008) on dismantling the “naturalness” of disasters.


Kenneth Hewitt first coined the term “dominant view” in his 1983 work Interpretations of Calamity. The understandings of disasters that fall under Hewitt’s category of “dominant” are those that see disasters and their solutions as fundamentally technological and scientific problems (Hewitt, 1983, pp. 5–8).


This is a central observation for Galtung with regard to the dynamics of how structural violence itself operates within and between societies.


Galtung notes that this may be a problematic definition but holds that it is a necessary one, given his need to create an expanded definition of violence (Galtung, 1969, p. 168).


This violence could be seen in the form of lack of access to medical care or medication that would have prevented the individual’s death by tuberculosis or other treatable diseases.


Galtung’s focus on a situation being, in his words, “avoidable”, as a primary determinant of whether violence can be attributed to a particular situation is of central importance to his framework. This observation leads Galtung to disqualify people dying from earthquakes as a part of the constellation of violence due to earthquakes being largely unavoidable (Galtung, 1969, p. 168). This is precisely the point I am trying to establish and will provide a deeper engagement with Galtung’s observations regarding earthquakes later.


Galtung classifies six different distinctions that constitute his typology of violence (Galtung, 1969, pp. 169–74). The distinction between direct and indirect violence, based on the initial question as to whether there is a subject who acts to create the violence, is Galtung’s fourth distinction (Galtung, 1969, p. 170).


It is important to note that not all scholars understand or use the terms “structure” and “structural” in the same way. However, for the purposes of my argument, Galtung and Strange are understood to use the terms in a similar enough manner to allow a commonality in their meaning to be assumed; both authors use “structure” to refer to the institutional and normative underpinnings of elements within society. This commonality will become clear through the paper’s discussion of both Galtung’s and Strange’s understandings of power.


I am grateful to the reviewers for highlighting the significance of this aspect of violence to me. Viciousness is intrinsically part of a violent process regardless of the entity committing it or the intentionality of the actions. Galtung himself addresses intentionality of violence as the fifth distinction in his typology of violence, but does not explicitly address viciousness, though he does allude to many other aspects of violence that he has not touched upon (Galtung, 1969, pp. 171–72).


This point was especially stressed to me in comments on earlier drafts of the article, specifically with regard to structural violence and the actions or nonactions of institutions and organizations. Indeed, the vicious aspect of violence can be seen in the actions of an organization that ignore the organization’s responsibilities, such as reducing the suffering of disaster victims. Further, viciousness can be seen in the lack of perception of organizations tasked with helping disaster victims but that ultimately reproduce structural violence instead.


These processes and practices can include a wide array of activities within a society, especially with regard to the distribution and allocation of resources. As was pointed out to me in earlier comments, Galtung’s description of structural violence is not sufficient in its description of violence as the difference between the actual and the potential realizations of individuals. Viciousness must be included in the analysis, especially in cases where it manifests, as a reviewer described it, as “rationalized coldness and inhumaneness.”


I am indebted to the reviewers for emphasizing this important aspect of the implementation of structural violence in a society.


Galtung is not silent on the subject, as evidenced by his discussion of Marxist and liberal critiques of power. Importantly, he points out that “not only is it difficult to present any measure of dispersion of power, it is difficult enough to measure power at all, except in the purely formal sense of voting right” (Galtung, 1969, p. 188). I attempt to flesh out the concept of power with regards to structural violence by leveraging the work of Susan Strange.


Strange mirrors Galtung’s distinction between personal and structural violence in this regard.


Strange argues that while many readers may disagree with her theorizing of power as either relational or structural, it provides a framework through which the operation of power within the contemporary global political economy can be better understood (Strange, 1988, p. 28; see also Germain, 2016).


It is important to note that Strange does not privilege one facet over another; they are all equal in terms of their relationships to one another, as well as to the larger structure of “structural power” (Strange, 1988, p. 31).


While I utilize the UNISDR’s definition of a disaster for the purposes of my argument, it should be noted that debate still exists over terminology, particularly with regard to drawing distinctions between a disaster and a catastrophe (Montjoy, Farris, & Devalcourt, 2010; Quarantelli 2006).


I am grateful to the reviewers for challenging me on this point: that the academy itself is a component of structural power. Indeed, this is an observation that Susan Strange herself makes with regard to the facets of control over structural power, that facet being control over knowledge, beliefs, and ideas (Strange, 1988, p. 30).


Hewitt recognized the significant contributions that the dominant scientific and technocratic perspective on disaster governance has made, but calls for an expanded understanding of the causes of disasters (Hewitt, 1983, p. 25).


The UNISDR has advocated the metric of human life years as a way to better describe the impacts of disasters. According to the UNISDR, measuring impact in terms of human life years “describes the time required to produce economic development and social progress; time which is lost in disasters . . . that goes beyond conventional metrics such as mortality and economic loss” (UNISDR, 2015a, p. xix).


Those four facets are the security structure, the production structure, the finance structure, and the knowledge–beliefs–ideas structure (Strange, 1988, p. 26).


This is an observation that Galtung makes; he points out that while earthquakes are unavoidable and therefore do not warrant an analysis in terms of violence, “if a social order is such that some people live well in solid, concrete houses and others in shacks that crumble under the first quake, killing the inhabitants . . . even if the natural disaster is unavoidable, differential social impact may have been avoidable. This may certainly justify the use of the term ‘structural violence’ for such differential housing standards” (Galtung, 1969, pp. 186–87).


As commentators on earlier drafts stressed, particularly with regard to disasters, violence is not solely limited to vulnerable groups but can be and is perpetrated against the powerful as well.


Reinsurance contracts originated as a mechanism to transfer fire risk in the mid-nineteenth century, but have expanded to cover a wide variety of life, property, and casualty (P&C) risks (FIO 2014, 3). P&C reinsurance had since evolved and expanded to provide contracts that cover a wide variety of risks, including earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, mudslides, pandemics, typhoons, and windstorms (Barrieu & Albertini, 2009). ILS and cat bonds are innovations in the insurance and reinsurance sector to spread disaster risk through securitization and transfer to global capital markets.


Another significant proponent of this approach is the World Bank through its Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), specifically its MultiCat Program. The MultiCat Program is intentionally designed to facilitate access of governments and other public entities to international capital markets to transfer their catastrophic risk exposure through securitization (World Bank, 2009).


The most prominent example is that of the government of Mexico, which was the first sovereign state to partner with the World Bank to launch the MultiCat Program in 2009 (World Bank, 2009). The call for ILS and other forms of alternative risk transfer integration into disaster risk reduction policy frameworks has been sustained under the Hyogo Framework’s successor document, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: 2015-2030 (UNISDR, 2015b).


Resilience is defined here as “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions” (UNISDR, 2009, p. 24).


The depoliticization and assumed apolitical nature of disaster policy are brought into relief when the concepts of structural power and structural violence are considered (Hannigan, 2012, p. 10).


Specifically, the Sendai Framework highlights those disadvantaged stakeholders as women, children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, indigenous peoples, and migrants as part of its all-of-society approach (UNISDR, 2015b, p. 23).


This point is especially important in the context of neoliberal disaster policy and the evolution of ILS and cat bonds within the disaster policy nexus. It also echoes the literature on disaster capitalism (Gunewardena, 2008). I am thankful to the reviewers for pushing me to be clearer here.


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