Natural Disasters and Political Engagement: Evidence from the 2010–11 Pakistani Floods

Natural Disasters and Political Engagement: Evidence from the 2010–11 Pakistani Floods

By C. Christine Fair, Patrick Kuhn, Neil Malhotra, Jacob Shapiro
May 31,2017Working Paper No. 3549

How natural disasters affect politics in developing countries is an important question, given the fragility of fledgling democratic institutions in some of these countries as well as likely increased exposure to natural disasters over time due to climate change. Research in sociology and psychology suggests traumatic events can inspire pro-social behavior and therefore might increase political engagement. Research in political science argues that economic resources are critical for political engagement and thus the economic dislocation from disasters may dampen participation. We argue that when the government and civil society response effectively blunts a disaster’s economic impacts, then political engagement may increase as citizens learn about government capacity. Using diverse data from the massive 2010–11 Pakistan floods, we find that Pakistanis in highly flood-affected areas turned out to vote at substantially higher rates three years later than those less exposed. We also provide speculative evidence on the mechanism. The increase in turnout was higher in areas with lower ex ante flood risk, which is consistent with a learning process. These results suggest that natural disasters may not necessarily undermine civil society in emerging developing democracies.