Kathmandu’s Day Off

December 8, 2009

The 6th December will have been one of the clearest days in Kathmandu all year. The 6,500 metre Himalayan backdrop is usually almost never visible, hidden behind a smog layer trapped in the valley.

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But today there are no cars, no trucks or buses, no bikes, mopeds or tempos emptying their kerosene-heavy exhausts into the winter sky. The towering white peaks loom over the city. And without the vehicles, the usual soundtrack of the city, an incessant cacophony of horns, is absent. The quiet is somehow at once soothing and unnerving. Sunday is a work day in Nepal but without public transport, no-one is able to go to work. No shop or cafe is open either.

Yet it feels like the whole of Kathmandu is out on the street. People are enjoying the novelty of hearing the crows in the trees above and walking in the middle of the main distribution roads. The kids are certainly making the most of it, zigzagging on their bikes across the whole of what are usually gridlocked streets, their only danger arising from the armed police’s turreted pickups that unnecessarily speed by.

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On every street corner a couple dozen heavily armed police troopers lean against their shields, batons and rifles. But the mood here in Kathmandu is one of unexpected holiday. As New York sees its first snow of the winter, Kathmandu is having its version of a snow day.

Around a month ago the Maoists led a land grab in the buffer-zone between Bardiya National Park and Shuklaphant Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal, settling landless poor and setting up co-operative farms. Yesterday the armed police came in to remove the squatters. A fire fight ensued resulting in five deaths, including the brutal lynching of a police officer, and more than 50 injuries. Last night scenes of violent protest broke out across Nepal and a country-wide bandh – shutdown – was called by the Maoists for today.*

Nepal’s young democracy is going through crippling growing pains; the eight month long political deadlock periodically spills onto the streets, sometimes with inspiring scenes of mass protest, sometimes with ugly scenes of violence. Yesterday was a particularly grizzly example of the latter, but today was something still different: a day off.

But in a country where over 50% of the population live under the national poverty line one wonders for how many ‘a day off’ was really welcomed. For the struggling shop owner, tempo driver, store assistant, factory worker and rural farmer who really need that daily income and access to basic services to secure their fundamental needs, having to take part in the bandh out of solidarity or fear of reprisal is unlikely to feel like a holiday. The Maoists in their protests are likely hurting those they purport to speak and work for the most.

*Read more on Saturday 5th December’s events.

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Climate Change Information Mismanagement

December 6, 2009

Momentum is building in the development and environmental management sectors to integrate climate change considerations into programme design and implementation. In Nepal, the focus is firmly on building adaptation capacity, across sectors and at all administrative levels.

The Nepal government, in consultation with the United Nations and other stakeholders, is working on their National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), which promises to be a much more capacity-building exercise than the process in other Less Developed Countries. International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) with their local partners are also mainstreaming climate change adaptation into their high-profile programmes, and some are considering new adaptation-specific interventions. These INGOs include WWF, Practical Action, Oxfam, Concern International and Care International, and local partners include Resource Identification and Management Society Nepal (RIMS-Nepal) and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD).

Knowledge generation in the form of information gathering and management is playing a central role in these early days of climate change action in Nepal. Most of the current INGO projects are impact assessments. The NAPA process is similarly oriented, although also puts a strong emphasis on building institutional capacity for future intervention.

Most impact assessments take a participatory approach, stressing the importance of identifying socio-economic vulnerability to possible climate change impacts. Little time or effort is expended on considering the physical hazard context. There are many valid, practical reasons for this. In the case of localised scientific studies, such as regional hydrological and atmospheric simulation experiments and local ecological field assessments, these require technical expertise and financial resources often not available in Nepal.

However, there is substantial scope and feasibility for synthesis research of available information. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an obvious starting point for information on past climatic trends and future projects, and can be complemented by the wealth of disaster risk reduction and natural resource management knowledge available. Some such synthesis research is being carried out, by the NAPA team in particular, but it is not widespread enough. Synthesis of climate change-specific information such as that which is available from the IPCC is especially lacking, as the evidence of currently available impact assessments, and published presentations from important stakeholders, reveals. Reports often only begin with a short section on climate change in the context of Nepal, making unsupported statements about present and future hazard context changes, with only general reference to the IPCC, if any citation is included at all.

This exposes serious methodological weaknesses. Firstly, the onset of climate change is generally assumed as a starting point of impact assessments rather than confirmed as part of the assessment. This leads assessment teams to begin their participatory socio-economic assessments without a firm grasp of data-confirmable historical trends. The result is that trends in physical hazard context are assessed using inappropriate approaches such as participatory tools.

Secondly, consideration of downscaled simulation models is omitted, their assumed limitations at the local level used as a convenient excuse to avoid exploring what value they might have despite weaknesses. This is no doubt driven by a lack of confidence on the part of assessment teams to invest into understanding the complex and diverse uncertainties of numerical modelling.

Lastly, because of the two issues above, reports find themselves with precious little to report in the introductory sections that are meant to provide a concrete basis for their assessments. The IPCC is broadly referenced as a stop-gap, leading to the mystification of the Panel, and only adding to the confusion that shapes the climate change debate in the public and political spheres.

Kima the HIV-positive Muppet on South African Sesame Street

December 1, 2009

I found this blog published in a Nepali English language newspaper. Thought it was brilliant.

Sesame Street certainly has a place in my heart. I remember it used to run at 12:30 in England and my mum used to tape it. We had dozens of Sesame Street VHS recordings, which I watched when I was ill from school…

Forest Management and Child Labour

November 5, 2009

The tracks out of the forest near Nepalgunj in south western Nepal are very busy today with people carrying large bunches of firewood. The vast majority are women and children. It’s Friday, the only day of the week communities are allowed to forage dead wood, as designated by the local Community Forestry Coordination Committee.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old carrying a bunch of wood that probably weighed over ten kilograms. Later, I asked another girl who was resting from carrying a bunch that wouldn’t have passed long-haul flight baggage restrictions her age: 10. (Nearby I saw a large group of teenage boys and men playing cards. When I passed again an hour later, they were still playing.)

Rishi Bastakoti, of Resource Identification and Management Society (RIMS) – Nepal, explains that the one-day-a-week regime is intended to make communities use fire wood more economically. When locals could collect wood every day they tended to stock pile the resource and over time increase their consumption of it due of perceptions of abundance. The one-day-a-week system allows households to collect enough wood for the week but not stockpile, curbing the consumption increase trend.

Mr. Bastakoti also says that the regime has led to a shift to the use of other fuels for cooking and heating, such as kerosene, further protecting the sustainability of the forest. It must be said however that in three weeks of field work in rural Dang and Banke districts, I not once saw the use of alternative fuel.

In addition to the effectiveness at managing the tension between livelihood needs and ecosystem sustainability, the success of a natural resource regime must also be measured on its wider social impacts, such as child manual labour.

The one-day-a-week system creates a labour-time management bottleneck. Households must fit all their wood-collecting labour hours into a single day. If the labour hour demands exceed those providable by able-bodied adults, children will be mobilised. In contrast, if households could spread the wood-collecting hours across the whole week, the hours could in principle be allocated entirely to adults without needing to resort to child labour.

Child labour is often determined as much by labour-time management constraints as economic pressure. This is well documented in long term farming cycles. Child labour is often mobilised during harvest when labour shortage is common. At these times, school attendance drops sharply, and often school holidays are scheduled to coincide with harvest time to address this problem. The example of community forestry practice suggests that time management and labour hour shortages can have the same effect in much shorter cycles too.

Holistic ‘community-based’ or ‘co-management’ approaches to forestry popular with international non-governmental organisations promise to strike a balance between protecting ecosystem sustainability and safeguarding livelihoods. But if the cost of these systems is taking steps backward in social development it is arguable that priorities should be rethought. Certainly the sight of an eight year old missing school because her parents need all the hands they can get fetching firewood on Fridays invites considerable disillusionment in the new grass-roots empowering, integrated sustainable development paradigm.

Private Capital to Finance Climate Change

November 3, 2009

The latest World Bank calculations of the cost of climate change mitigation and adaptation confirm previous studies by the UN, and the recent IIED report, that there is a crisis in climate change funding. Even if the global economy were in a healthier shape, the challenge of covering the costs of weaning it off greenhouse gas emitting technologies and adapting to the already changing climate would be enormous.

Developing countries are facing the most acute difficulties. More socio-economically vulnerable to climate change than industrialised countries, and with less financial and technical capacity to adapt, developing countries also face the greatest barriers to changing their carbon-dependence to a more sustainable, yet still developmental, course. Again, lack of financial and technical capacity play a fundamental role.

Diverse stakeholders in the development and environment sectors have made their opinions heard in the lead up to Copenhagen. Governments must make unprecedented commitments to increase climate change funding to developing countries. But given the figures – WB estimates mitigation costs in developing countries at $140 – $675 billion and adaptation costs at $75 billion (an underestimate according to IIED’s report), while presently available funding stands at $8 billion and $1 billion respectively – it seems futile to expect public finance to be able to cover these costs.

The potential for private capital to play a leading role is not only seemingly necessary but, maybe surprisingly, it looks feasible. Given the right incentives by inter-governmental policy, private investment in clean technology development (for mitigation) and alternative economic activities (for adaptation) could make for an attractive profit-making proposition. A strong commitment to tax dirty businesses and possibly also dirty investment across borders, multi-laterally guaranteed bonds hedging otherwise risky clean investment (in otherwise risky countries), and the widespread adoption of a ‘green rating’ akin to credit ratings to help with signaling are all instruments that governments could agree on in December to push their limited public coffers to stimulate private capital not only to foot the bill, but also turn a profit.

In any case, a desperately needed first step to stimulate privately financed climate change mitigation and adaptation is a firm commitment signal from leaders in December. Policy over-shooting is probably a good way of sending that signal, though it must avoid regulation that might constrict the formation of mainstream green markets.

Adam Smith Avoids Extortionate Bus Fare

October 5, 2009

‘Adam Smith’s’ eyes glimmer with triumph as the frustrated bus conductor climbs down from the roof of the bus as it swerves down the pot-holled mountain road towards Pokhara Bazaar, in Nepal. The great economist has just dodged his fare.

“Good economics?” I facetiously ask the tenth grade economics student who introduced himself as the 18th century father of modern economics. He and his friends grin, their faces lit up by the mid-day September sun. Because it’s Dashain, Nepal’s biggest and most important festival, the local bus companies have raised their fares by over 100% to benefit from the increased, inelastic demand for transport, the young Smith explains.

In response, he and his friends have started using a variety of methods to avoid the extortionate rates: arguing with the conductors until they give up, producing student I.D. cards and claiming tenuous special rates, or as I saw Smith do, simply ignoring the conductor until he leaves.

There is evidence that price hikes are not limited to transport. It is traditional for families to sacrifice goats and other livestock during the festival. The market value of live goats during Dashain this year has fallen significantly due to high imported supply and decreased demand due to early departure of migrant workers (which make up half of Kathmandu’s sometime population). Cash shortages amongst consumers have also contributed. In the capital this has often left intermediary livestock dealers struggling to shift at profit, their stock bought at high import prices before the start of the festival, in expectation of higher consumer prices.

But outside the capital, stronger monopolistic power of the marketing Nepal Food Corporation (NFP) and greater inelasticity of demand – possibly due to more rigid cultural and religious norms – have led many rural families to pay NFP set prices, above market value. Many of these rural families pay for such celebratory purchases with funds informally borrowed at interests rates sometimes as high as 10% per month.

The comment sections of some of the papers call for national and local government regulations to prevent temporary, festival-time price hikes, and that’s what the 15 year-old Adam Smith said should happen. It is unclear what the 18th century Scot would think.

Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children

September 30, 2009

Pema Chodon and Sangmo Sherpa apologise for the non-existent mess in their flat – they are preparing for a celebration tonight. What’s the occasion, I ask. I’m told that there is no need for one.

Pema and Sangmo are seniors at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children, located in the Buddhist suburb of Kathmandu. The 17 and 16 year olds are on a ‘gap year’, working as special assistants to the director of the school, having finished tenth grade the previous year. Next year, they may join the few but growing number of teenagers from the school securing scholarships to complete high school abroad. But as Sangmo explains, with so many complications, not least ethnic discrimination on the part of the Nepali government against Himalayan youths, she will not get her hopes up until the plane takes off from Kathmandu International.

Shree Mangal Dvip School was founded in 1987 by eminent Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche as a place for northern highland Nepali children to get the opportunities that the national government fails to provide in their home region. Culturally and linguistically Tibetan, and Buddhist, Nepali highlanders are one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society. Villages in the mountains have no roads, electricity, telephones, sanitation, hospitals or schools. Even relative to the rest of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, highlanders’ lives are exceptional precarious.

By any standard, Shree Mangal Dvip School is outstanding. Taking in the poorest Himalayan boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 22 the school teaches them maths, science, English, Nepali, social studies, IT, and Tibetan to international standard (IB in some subjects). Class sizes are between 15 and 30. Boarding rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The school also provides health and dental care for all in the school community.

The school also has a strong emphasis on Buddhist teaching, with the children taking part in prayer and meditation every day. Transferrable life skills are also instructed along the way through innovative programmes such as the senior ‘gap year’ whereby older students work as teaching, health care and administrative staff in the school.

Notice boards of the various student clubs and societies skirt the basketball court. At the time of our visit, the young monks of the nearby monastery who come here for lay teaching, donning dusty old Brazil and Chelsea shirts, were scrapping around across the football pitch.

Canadian Shirley Blair, director of the school, explains to us that things are going well at the moment, with strong support from international private donors, many of them Buddhists influenced by the teachings of Thrangu Pinpoche.

But she remembers a time when the school experienced black-outs for 18 hours every day, broken windows were left unmended due to lack of funds, and basic schooling equipment was in serious shortage. Necessarily hard-headed and thick skinned, Shirley also several times faced off against maoist would-be extortionists wielding metal bars. The school’s walls are now cemented with nails and broken glass for protection. Shocked by one occasion where Shirley stood up against the thugs on her own the students mobilised themselves to set up a website, and promised that they would protect their school from intimidation themselves in future. “The thugs would not beat kids, it would be all over the international news”, they explained.

The school has big plans to build a new ecological campus away from the bustle of Kathmandu, but this depends crucially on the support of Thrangu Rinpoche, his followers, and other donors.

During my visit I was struck by the quality of the school and the opportunities given to the 650 odd under-privileged children, despite significant adversity. Clearly the religious charity model works well in this case to provide substantial working capital for the school. More distressing is the size of the waiting list for entry at the school, which runs into two packed ring binders, and the reality that a dysfunctional state system makes this type of charity school, whose long-term sustainability is always uncertain, the best chance for Himalayan children.

Websites:
www.himalayanchildren.org
www.voiceofhimalayankids.org

A Short History of Community-Based Practice

August 17, 2009

Participatory community-based paradigm for micro-development has a theoretical and practical history dating back to the critiques of modernisation theory and colonialism of the 1950s and 1960s. Gandhian small-scale development and Paulo Freire’s arguments that the losers of modernisation, the “oppressed”, should unite and forge their own destinies influenced a first-wave of participatory development in the 1950s and 1960s. Predominantly focused on rural development, the paradigm involved villages meeting with community development specialists to discuss their ‘felt needs’, uniting at community level and implementing ‘self-help’ programs.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of doldrums for community-based development management, accounted in part by the wide influence of the collective action sceptics and property rights theorists who were pessimistic about the ability of community to work together for sustainable development outcomes. The lot of people at the micro-level was not entirely ignored at this time however, with then World Bank president Robert McNamara’s call for Western donors to reorient towards “basic needs”. But reflecting the centralized ideology of the time, the problems of poverty and malnutrition were integrated within large scale rural agricultural development efforts, rather than tackled from the community up.

By the mid 1980s, disillusionment of centralized, ‘big’ development (and common pool resource management), pre-empted by Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, not least notoriously in agriculture, led to a second-wave of interest in community-led development and management. Community-based development management theory has since then mushroomed, influenced by Chambers’ participatory development movement, Ostrom’s empirical critique of the collective action sceptics, and Cernea’s recommendations for the World Bank to systematically work at local level. In parallel, our understanding of poverty has deepened and broadened significantly, led by the work of Amartya Sen on “entitlements” and “capabilities”.

In practice, since the 1980s community-basis of micro development management has proved conveniently complementary to the neo-liberal macro-developmental orthodoxy. At first shifting the locus of agency for local level socio-economic change downward towards the community freed up government to reduce its budget in line with Washington Consensus recommendations and structural adjustment conditionalities. Now, and since the emergence of the post-Washington consensus in the late 1990s, community-based development, and in particular the participatory element of it, has not only been implicitly encouraged by the macro-economic orthodoxy, but explicitly promoted. In 1999, poverty alleviation was explicitly mainstreamed into the multi-lateral debt-related lending conditionalities. The production, IFI (the World Bank and the IMF) approval, and implementation of a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) were made mandatory parts of the second Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC II). Community-driven development, for its part, is seen as an effective tool to capture the central participation, local ownership and sustainability focuses of the PRSPs:

“Community-driven development [is] a mechanism for enhancing sustainability, improving efficiency and effectiveness, allowing poverty reduction efforts to be taken to scale, making development more inclusive, empowering poor people, building social capital, strengthening governance, and complementing market and public sector activities” (Mansuri and Rao, 2004, paraphrasing the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Sourcebook).

Further reading:
Mansuri and Rao’s critical review of community-driven and community-based development (2004)
Staatz and Eicher’s historical perspective of agricultural development ideas (1998)

Amartya Sen on Justice – An Introduction

July 31, 2009

I was not at Amartya Sen’s lecture at the London School of Economics where he launched his new book The Idea Of Justice (on Monday 27th July). Nor, from what I can gather, were many who wished to be. Around eight hundred email requests for tickets were made within five minutes of the website opening a week earlier.

I was however able to watch the live webcast, and the podcast is available for anyone who is interested here.

It seems appropriate that, 250 years after Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, and formally professor of philosophy at Harvard (now professor of economics at Cambridge), release a book espousing a theory of justice reaching back to Smith’s work.

During the lecture Sen distinguished between two broad schools of thought regarding justice which chair Nick Stern called the contractarian and comparative approaches, but which Sen prefers to relate to using the Sanskrit words ‘Neethi’ and ‘Niya’.

‘Neethi’ Sen explained, is used to refer to rules, institutions, and behaviour, while ‘Niya’ is used to say things like “the world is going justly”. As became clear during his lecture, ‘Neethi’ should be understood more procedurally, but also referring to a state of transcendental justice, of perfect justice. ‘Niya’ should be understood more consequentially, but also allowing for comparison between situations: “which situation is more just?”.

Tracing schools of thought about justice in Europe from the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Sen described an orthodoxy which is concerned with what constitutes a perfectly just society. Starting with Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory, and including Locke, Rousseau and Kant, this historical orthodoxy is still dominant throughout the contemporary works of Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and John Rawls, despite their differences.

In his Theory of Justice for example, Rawls’ describes a set of perfectly just institutions from which the perfectly just society can emerge. Get the rules right, and everything else, including human behaviour, will follow; that’s a central vein of Rawls’ theory.

Disconcertingly, Thomas Nagel asserts that for there to be such a thing as global justice, there must be a global sovereign state, since, according to the orthodox perspective, justice is something to do with rules and institutions of a single society. So until we buy into the idea of a global sovereign state, which Nagel (and Sen) certainly doesn’t, there can be no such thing as global justice!

And this is when Amartya Sen describes the other school of thought, of which he is part, the school of ‘Niya’, which in European philosophy he traces back to Adam Smith.

Adam smith was concerned with particular injustices: famously, unjust government legislation, but also poverty, relative deprivation, illiteracy. Along with Nicolas de Condorcet and followed by John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, these thinkers worried more about making society a more just place, little by little, eliminating particular injustices, than trying to attain the chimera of a perfectly just society.

The drawbacks of the orthodoxy are plenty and Sen mentioned two. Many would disagree with any proposed perfectly just society, depending on personal views regarding the tension between liberty and equity. Secondly, vested interests aside, cultural contexts likely prejudice theories.

Smith and Sen’s approach avoids these difficulties. With no need of defining perfect justice, it is much easier to come to an agreement about at least some injustices. And taking one step at a time, injustices can be realistically addressed.

The Making of Disaster

June 16, 2009

“This week we’ve all been humbled by the awesome powers of Mother Nature”, George W Bush – 3 September 2005… “Today, America is confronting another disaster that has caused destruction and loss of life. This time the devastation resulted not from the malice of evil men, but from the fury of water and wind”, George W Bush – 10 September 2005.

One wonders whether Bush was acquainted with National Geographic Society’s 1986 publication ‘Nature On The Rampage: Our Violent Earth’, or whether he was being advised by lawyers versed in the common legal term ‘Act of God’.

These ‘natural disaster’ narratives share in their view an uncontrollable nature, sometimes even alluding to the divine, as the primary cause of disaster. They minimise, or even exclude, the role of human agency as a central determinant of vulnerability to natural hazards, and thus causal factor in the making of disasters.

The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)’s Emergency Events Database, in collaboration with USAID, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and UNDP amongst others, define a disaster as a (national) event which satisfies at least one of the following criteria:

  1. Ten or more people are reported killed
  2. One hundred people are reported affected
  3. A declaration of a state of emergency is made
  4. A call for international assistance is made

A little thought about these criteria reveals two components essential to an insightful conception of ‘natural’ disaster, and disaster risk. On the one hand there is no doubt that aspects of the natural hazard, such as frequency and magnitude, play a crucial part in determining the severity of a disaster. But on the other hand, the criteria of disaster can only be satisfied subject to particular patterns of human geography, demography, society and economy: Most clearly, people are only killed if they are present in or near the hazard impact zone at the time of the impact and are unable to protect themselves. Furthermore that people are affected by a hazard impact (defined as needing immediate assistance) reflects a failure in their preventive and mitigation efforts and a breach in their coping capacity. A call for international assistance reflects these same failures and limitations at a national level.

A further two perspectives on hazards can be contrasted. ‘Environmental determinism’, popular in theory until the late 1970s. takes into account human patterns in hazard assessments, but does this with a serious air of inevitability. The immanent behemoths of industrialisation, urbanisation, population growth and natural resource degradation are factored into models of risk, alongside spatial and temporal aspects of natural hazards. This, in its time, created an arena for heated debate between the triumphalism of modernisation theory and catastrophism of neo-Malthusianism and environmentalism. Surprisingly the deterministic, apolitical aspects of this perspective endured in practice well into the mid 1990s, halfway through the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

It has only been in the last  fifteen or so years that political economy and political ecology ideas first introduced in the late 1970s have played an increasingly central role in the way we understand the making of disasters. This ‘politico-centric’ perspective strives to identify root political determinants of the geographic, social and economic causes of disaster. Put an other way, the causes of vulnerability are finally being considered and addressed in disaster reduction strategy.

In terms of policy, this ‘politico-centric’ perspective aligns disaster prevention and risk reduction with the broader human development efforts. At the micro-level, NGOs and centres traditionally working on disaster prevention have increasingly been using sustainable livelihood approaches to help strengthen local capabilities, while at the macro level, the research literature exploring the relationship between the political economy of development and vulnerability to natural hazards is expanding.

Further Reading:

  • Wisner et al., ‘At Risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (Second Edition)’, 2004 – An introduction to the ‘politico-centric’ perspective and sustainable livelihood approaches to micro-level vulnerability reduction
  • Asian Disaster Preparedness Center – Community-based programmes amongst other projects
  • Khan, M., ‘The death toll from natural disasters: the role of income, geography, and institutions’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 87(2): 271-284, 2005 – Macro econometric study