Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In an era of changing climate risks, governments in the Global South are increasingly pressured to develop financial safety nets to cushion vulnerable populations facing extreme weather events. Multilateral institutions and the insurance sector frame public disaster finance in the Global South as an unruly zone of inefficiencies, rent-seeking, and corruption, championing “insurance-like” mechanisms for disaster relief as timely and objective ways to create reliable safety nets and insulate state disaster relief payments from patrimonial capture. This paper chronicles an ambitious attempt to finance drought safety nets by insuring a pool of African sovereign states: the African Risk Capacity Ltd. (ARC), a mutual insurer designed by the World Food Programme, co-owned by African states, and reinsured by global reinsurance capital. ARC fashions itself a model of pan-African solidarity, promising “African solutions for African challenges” and huge cost savings via geographical diversification of the pool. Yet nearly all of ARC’s members have withdrawn from the pool since 2015, drawing the existence of the organization into question. How might we understand ARC’s decline? Drawing on ethnographic and documentary evidence from Kenya and Malawi, I demonstrate how technical efforts to commensurate the drought vulnerability of heterogenous populations and production systems for global reinsurance markets failed. These same techniques simultaneously generated critique and resistance within state agencies and finance ministries. Giving voice to these critiques illustrates the growing salience of sovereign disaster risk finance as a contested arena in which debates over Western expert technical systems, postcolonial sovereignty, and financial autonomy play out.