Author Archives: Ileana Dascalu

Risk Assessment in Developing Countries

In the discussions on how to provide protection against risks in order not to compromise the ability of future people to enjoy a clean and safe environment, one distinction is of particular importance. It refers to the way in which developed and, respectively, developing countries should manage these risks for the benefit of future generations.

Taking this distinction seriously from a normative point of view, two issues are worth exploring:

1)      While in the developed world, the problem seems to be mostly one of optimizing risk management, or how to provide public safety by effectively minimizing natural risks, in developing countries, the main problem stems from a complex system of inter-related social vulnerabilities, which generates a number of separate, additional risks. Certain social and institutional problems specific to developing countries are so important in terms of their negative effect on public safety and environmental protection that they should be considered risks in themselves.

2) Secondly, developing countries display a characteristic which, at first view, may seem paradoxical. They are countries where societal risks are high, pervasive and self-reinforcing, but, at the same time, they are the least concerned to work for minimizing them. Instead, they seem to be focusing primarily on natural risks. On the contrary, developed countries with a tradition of concern for public safety take societal risks seriously, even in cases where these are (comparatively) much lower.

Take, for instance, nuclear energy. Except for particular conditions (for example, high seismic hazards), the natural risks are quite comparable across the two groups of countries using similar technologies.

However, risks of short-sighted or even contradictory policies resulting from institutional backwardness, corruptibility, non-compliance, are not so comparable. In some developing countries, far from being isolated factors, they are the daily background of decision-making.

Choosing a site for a waste repository or deciding on the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant are, therefore, fraught with a distinct set of problems: lack of coherent regulations, poor administrative capacity to take action in case of an accident (starting from overlapping responsibilities of institutions to insufficient buses to transport people from the community affected), or the shallow excuse that public policies should first mirror the immediate interests of citizens (welfare, development).

If this is how things look in some parts of the developing world, I would argue that such different situations should require different strategies. In my view, this would mean that developing countries should abandon the ‘reductionist’ fallacy, of equating risks with (only) natural risks, and take societal risks seriously. The fact that this would definitely be more costly for the time being should not affect the normative dimension of the problem. If we choose to rely partly on the analogy with the budget a person should manage to minimize a set of risks, then being poorer would not imply one should not save. On the contrary, being poorer is in many cases being more vulnerable, and saving could add some protection.

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

New Publication: Handbook of Risk Theory

A book of 1187 pages, like the one edited this year by Sabine Roeser, Rafela Hillerbrand, Per Sandin and Martin Peterson, would no doubt deserve a lengthier presentation than this blogpost. The reason I chose to refer to it here is that I find it definitely worth including on the reading list of researchers from many distinct fields of philosophy. First, the philosophical background of its editors helps shape the discussion as a theoretical framework in which risk is a central notion, with implications on many fields of research, as the 46 chapters indicate. Secondly, the structure of the book suggests possible routes of approach, at the core of many philosophical interests: the nature and epistemology of risk, decision theory, ethics, or sociology or risk.

With contributions from leading scholars, this anthology aims to discuss some major questions in the field of risk theory, such as: How should we conceive the relation between risk and safety, or risk and uncertainty? What mistakes do we make in measuring risk? How should we mitigate risks in fairness to future generations? What counts as morally acceptable risk? But there is equally fresh material in it which results from incorporating the discussion about risk into social justice theories, such as the capabilities approach, virtue ethics, trust, or particular cases of  responsibility, e.g. towards children.

If, at the end of the book, the reader finds herself/himself persuaded by some of the approaches defended, but still overwhelmed by the intricacies of risk theory,  she/he could perhaps find solace in the fact that there are enough risks left for each of us to explore in our everyday lives.

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (II)

In a previous  post, I indicated two particularities of the link between institutional trust and corruption in post-communist countries.

I would like now to mention a third one. It is more general and, though not a direct cause of corruption, it could be part of the self-reinforcing mechanism on which corruption thrives: the problem of simultaneity.

As Elster et al (1998)  have shown, transition countries with unconsolidated democracies must focus their efforts on three simultaneous tasks: building their economy, building functional democratic institutions and solving their national identity problems (ethnic conflicts, rights to minorities, etc).

One important consequence of not doing ‘one thing at a time’ is that legislation is often ill designed and incomplete, failing to incorporate goals from all three areas. The case of environmental regulations in Romania is instructive in this respect. Here are three examples:

–          For many high-impact environmental projects carried out by private investors, experts elaborating the reports are employed directly by the investors themselves, because environmental authorities lack either the prerogatives, or the funds to do so.  This has raised suspicions about the neutrality of these assessments, as well as about the division of responsibilities between the government and private companies.

–          EU environmental law is excessively transposed into domestic law by regulations which can be easily amended by administrative procedures (resolutions, emergency ordinances etc). One visible effect of this is the rising influence of lobby groups trying to keep this provisional system in place.

–          For major environmental projects with trans-border impact, ethnic divergences can be used to fuel a rhetoric hiding risks and deficiencies of such projects. This would be the case of the Roşia Montană mining project, to which Hungary has officially opposed, and to which all environmental ministers from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania refused to issue the environmental permit.

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences about social capital and post-communist countries.

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (I)

Many theories on institutional confidence emphasize the importance of social capital for the creation of a functional institutional structure. According to a classical definition, social capital is a public good ‘which refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993, p. 167).

One of the arguments developed by such theories is that there is a strong connection between trust in institutions (and especially in the legal system) and interpersonal trust. More specifically, some researchers have argued that the institutional framework and the system of public policies in a country influence the level of social capital, namely that corrupt public officials generate mistrust among ordinary citizens. Conversely, it is argued, taking efficient steps against corruption will result in increasing the levels of interpersonal trust.

As a national of a former communist country, I agree that high levels of corruption and a strong social capital cannot go together. However, I would like to highlight two particularities of post-communist countries, which should add a nuance to the causal mechanisms between interpersonal and institutional trust:

  1. The distinction between high-level and petty corruption is still fundamental in some of these countries, to the extent that in many cases only the former is perceived as ‘real’ corruption, whereas the other is ‘getting by’, i.e. deceiving ‘the system’. Though many people fall prey to this latter mechanism in everyday situations and complain about it, they have also come appreciate the usefulness of ‘not standing in the queue’ when a shortcut is possible. Therefore, petty corruption is generally perceived as a necessary evil, and people tend to be more tolerant towards this phenomenon as compared to high level corruption. Consequently, widespread petty corruption does not proportionally shake interpersonal and institutional trust. Further, in countries where high level corruption is rampant, people become somehow inured to it, and anti-corruption measures have a much slower impact on trust than in consolidated democracies. For an interesting analysis of this issue, see Uslaner, 2008 (chapters 5 and 6).
  2. Secondly, I think the idea of ‘trust in institutions’ is less clear in countries that experienced communism. At empirical level, the Romanian example shows a gap between citizens, on one hand, and the state and its institutions on the other. There is a consistent collective perception of the state as a monolithic, immobile entity, and it is difficult to think of institutions as the result of a negotiated partnership translated into public policies. Also, unlike consolidated democracies, where criteria for assessing the performance of public institutions are clearer and ordered, in countries like Romania, there is a mix of criteria leading to sometimes paradoxical conclusions. For instance, a 2010 opinion poll revealed that three out of five respondents believed that human rights are not respected in Romania, half of the respondents said they would vote for the reintroduction of death penalty, and the Police (55%) was significantly less trusted than the Church (80%) or the media (61%).

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences regarding trust and institutions in post-communist countries.

Gold Mining at Roşia Montană: Will Lobbying Overshadow the Debate over Intergenerational Duties?

There is much talk these days in the Romanian media about the start of the gold mining project at Roşia Montană, a small community northwest of the country.

Over the past 15 years, the project has generated intense controversies and, recently, strong political pressure. That Roşia Montană is high on the political agenda is also confirmed by the intensive lobby which in 2010 reached the European Parliament aiming to persuade politicians that cyanide extraction of gold poses no threat to the environment. Opposition to the project has sometimes been criticized as a thin form of ecologism fuelled primarily by the high stakes of the project, and not by genuine environmental concerns.

However, what has so far been missing from the public debate is a serious discussion of the uncertainties surrounding this project, which are relevant for our duties to future generations.

Politicians who support the project (including the incumbent President) emphasize the stringent need of jobs for the locals and the urgency of making a decision in this case. This position has attracted equally categorical statements from other MPs, which claimed that ‘all still left as property of the Romanian state’ would thus be ‘sold’ and suggested that Ministers opposing the project were forced to resign.

In this context, the former Prime Minister’s recent statement, suggesting the unfairness of condemning a community of 5000 people to poverty ‘because we are thinking of what may happen’  should set the scene for different arguments.

Discussing the project in these terms is misleading. Even if the benefits it brings were as certain and substantial as its advocates argue, this could not justify brushing the remaining uncertainties off the debate.

For one thing, these uncertainties regard the environment:

– The fact that some states have not banned cyanide extraction of gold, while others have, does not necessarily show that this technology is safe rather than unsafe, as those in favour of the project argue. It may show that different countries have different protection mechanisms against risks or that they weigh and even afford risks differently.

– Some argue that this project is the unique opportunity to repair the environmental damage caused by mining under the communist regime. However, until the costs of such a repair are completely known and agreed on, massive unemployment in the area would not suffice to make it legitimate. Could we be confident that future generations would be better equipped than the present generation to protect themselves against the consequences of the potential, yet irreversible damage this mining project would cause?

– Finally, downplaying opposition to the project as ‘political ecologism’ exaggerating environmental concerns may have some appeal for those claiming Romanians do not have an ecologist conscience. Though this latter stance may be tenable, the environmental hazards invoked are a mix of uncertainties and social perception (amplification) mechanisms, and they should be compensated for by similar (i.e. environmental and institutional, not primarily employment related) guarantees.

This blog entry relates to research carried out under the ‘Rights to a Green Future’ project, WG4