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Reconceptualizing the Social, Environmental, and Political Hazards Associated With Conflict-Induced Displacement in the Republic of Georgia  

Suzanne Harris-Brandts and David Sichinava

Following the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s, Georgia entered several ethnic conflicts with its autonomous regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought unilateral secession. In total, over 300,000 people—primarily ethnic Georgians—have been forced to flee, finding refuge in other areas of Georgia, and becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). To date, displacement in the country has largely been framed as a conflict-induced phenomenon tied to several acute periods of violence. Yet the hazards IDPs face do not end following their initial displacement. Up to 45% of IDPs have found refuge in vacant, non-purpose-built buildings—so-called collective centers (also referred to as organized resettlement facilities for displaced persons, “დევნილთა ორგანიზებულად ჩასახლების ობიექტები” in Georgian)—including former factories, kindergartens, hospitals, and hotel-sanatoria. There, they are exposed to mold, contaminated soil, sewage, and other environmental hazards. Government mobilization to improve collective centers or relocate IDPs elsewhere has been slow, in part due to weak state institutions and a lack of resources, with the state heavily reliant on international aid. Historically, the state also had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of precarious IDP housing given that the right of return is interconnected with Georgia’s sovereign territorial claims. The hazardous environmental conditions of IDP collective centers have, therefore, been politically weaponized by the government, showcased to domestic and international audiences alike as evidence of the urgency in unifying Georgia’s territory. Since the late 2000s—decades after initial displacement—the government has finally shifted its approach and IDPs are incrementally being granted tenure or being resettled in purpose-built housing. Yet this, too, has prompted a reconceptualization of the social, environmental, and political hazards associated with displacement. In the early 21st century, the environmentally hazardous living conditions of Georgia’s collective centers are being used to justify IDP forced evictions in areas prioritized for urban redevelopment. The result is secondary displacement and an erasure of IDPs’ local histories. In these ways, environmental hazards have become deeply entwined with the social and political aspects of internal displacement in Georgia. The loss of collective centers in prime real estate areas links to a different aspect of post-hazard reconstruction yet one also deserving of attention. IDP identity is embedded within these spaces and should not be simply erased by future development. In such situations, there are socioeconomic and political complexities beyond the acute and pragmatic needs of securing humanitarian shelter away from violence. Thus, the line between displacement-induced hazards and political and environmental ones is blurred, making distinct categorizations less useful. Understanding these interconnections relative to issues of governance, resettlement, housing provision, and urban renewal is crucial to effectively support Georgia’s IDPs.

Article

Corruption and the Governance of Disaster Risk  

David Alexander

This article considers how corruption affects the management of disaster mitigation, relief, and recovery. Corruption is a very serious and pervasive issue that affects all countries and many operations related to disasters, yet it has not been studied to the degree that it merits. This is because it is difficult to define, hard to measure and difficult to separate from other issues, such as excessive political influence and economic mismanagement. Not all corruption is illegal, and not all of that which is against the law is vigorously pursued by law enforcement. In essence, corruption subverts public resources for private gain, to the damage of the body politic and people at large. It is often associated with political violence and authoritarianism and is a highly exploitative phenomenon. Corruption knows no boundaries of social class or economic status. It tends to be greatest where there are strong juxtapositions of extreme wealth and poverty. Corruption is intimately bound up with the armaments trade. The relationship between arms supply and humanitarian assistance and support for democracy is complex and difficult to decipher. So is the relationship between disasters and organized crime. In both cases, disasters are seen as opportunities for corruption and potentially massive gains, achieved amid the fear, suffering, and disruption of the aftermath. In humanitarian emergencies, black markets can thrive, which, although they support people by providing basic incomes, do nothing to reduce disaster risk. In counties in which the informal sector is very large, there are few, and perhaps insufficient, controls on corruption in business and economic affairs. Corruption is a major factor in weakening efforts to bring the problem of disasters under control. The solution is to reduce its impact by ensuring that transactions connected with disasters are transparent, ethically justifiable, and in line with what the affected population wants and needs. In this respect, the phenomenon is bound up with fundamental human rights. Denial or restriction of such rights can reduce a person’s access to information and freedom to act in favor of disaster reduction. Corruption can exacerbate such situations. Yet disasters often reveal the effects of corruption, for example, in the collapse of buildings that were not built to established safety codes.