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ISA — Katrina’s Legacy

February 25, 2010

I’ll have more to say about the ISA conference in a few upcoming posts, but let me begin with some comments on the host city. ISA was held in New Orleans, in part, to provide a lift for the city after Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Somewhere around 5,000 folks descended on the city with cash in hand to help the local economy. The conference started the day after Mardi Gras and came less than two weeks after the Saints’ Super Bowl victory. A lot of locals commented that the previous two weeks really were the best two weeks for the city in years. Indeed, walking around the French Quarter, it was easy to forget about Katrina.

But, I joined Leslie Vinjamuri, Stephen Hopgood,and Lise Howard for the Grey Line bus company’s Katrina tour (check out the video in the link). It’s a bit uncomfortable being a “disaster tourist,” but all four of us have done work on humanitarian relief and recovery, post-conflict transitions, and state building in other countries. It was eye-opening to see similarities here in a US city to many of the things we study abroad.

The city still bears serious scars of the disaster. Five years after the hurricane, there remains extensive devastation (abandoned and heavily damaged houses and businesses) and limited rebuilding in parts of New Orleans (notably the lower 9th Ward). I have traveled and worked extensively in the Balkans over the past fifteen years. There was less lasting devastation and more rebuilding in Sarajevo and even in Mostar by 2000 (five years after the war) than there is in the poorer districts of New Orleans five years after Katrina — though neither Sarajevo nor Mostar were picnics.

Whether its disaster recovery or post-conflict reconstruction, the story is really how to go about building institutional capacity to create appropriate incentives for populations to return, to alleviate poverty and develop mechanisms to ensure a base-level distribution of wealth, to facilitate functioning (and functional) markets, and to establish conditions for local communities to govern and adjudicate competing claims on authority. In New Orleans, there is a still a significant lag in all of these. About one-third of the city’s pre-Katrina population left and likely will not return, poverty is rampant, property rights remain in flux, institutional mechanisms to encourage and protect investments are absent (i.e., available credit and sufficient insurance pools against catastrophic loss), and economic development and employment opportunities are largely stalled.

I don’t want to overstate the parallels between post-Katrina New Orleans and cases of post-conflict transition (there are significant differences) but I think New Orleans is worth a closer look for anyone working on international cases of reconstruction, development, and state-building.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.