16 March 2011

Providing incentives to prevent humanitarian catastrophe

We have fairly well-developed markets to insure against financial disaster. Catastrophe bonds, for instance, as well as conventional insurance policies. But financial resources rarely correlate with human life and well-being. So incentives to prevent or alleviate humanitarian disasters are left to the caprice of well-intentioned (usually) governments, or superb charitable organisations, which respond quickly and efficiently to crises. Unfortunately, these efforts are unsystematic. There is probably less emphasis on prevention than there should be and there are no systematic efforts to maximise the humanitarian benefit per dollar spent.

Disaster Prevention Bonds could be one way of bringing the prevention of human suffering into the market, and so injecting efficiency into that goal. Markets these days are associated, rightly, with grotesque income and wealth inequalities, and the pursuit of private goals at the expense of social and environmental amenity. But markets can be made to serve the public good, and the Social Policy Bond principle would be one way of harnessing the market's incentives and efficiencies in the service of society's needs. The contrast between the insurance available for financial disasters as against human disasters is stark and quite tragic. But it is not inevitable.

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