Is disaster-related research and practice in the Global South unfavorably guided by Northern ideas?
The moderator’s opening remarks
Poor countries—sometimes termed collectively the Global South—suffer the most from disasters and the effects of global warming. And yet, as many experts deplore, research and policy in disaster reduction and response are dominated by ideas developed by decision-makers and intellectuals from rich countries—the Global North. They believe that whether or not it’s intentional, scholars of disaster studies reproduce a form of academic colonialism. Scholarship mirrors power relationships between the North and South, the West and the Rest. For them, local knowledge is overlooked, and disaster studies are over-influenced by Western concepts. Foreign researchers and decision-makers too often filter the reality of developing countries through their own culture’s assumptions and values. This leads to policies and projects that rarely fit the needs and expectations of poor communities in the South. Moreover, local and indigenous explanations that may better reflect reality are often scorned and replaced with imported concepts and paradigms like “resilience,” “sustainability,” adaptation, and informality. Critics of these narratives claim that alien concepts are at least useless, and at worst dangerous. They argue for an intellectual and moral reform that moves research away from Western concepts and ideas.
Not all experts agree, though. Some find that focusing on researchers’ birthplace, nationality, or long-term proximity to the problem is wrong. Researchers’ proximity to the people and situations being analyzed does not guarantee the quality and pertinence of their ideas. The value of the knowledge they produce depends on the rigor of their research methods and the depth of their understanding of the context under study. They also contest the allegations of Western academic colonialism, and note that presently, one of the most prolific producers of disaster studies is China. Moreover, they argue that academic marginalization does not exist solely in relations between the North and the South; power imbalances also occur between researchers within the same country, whether wealthy or poor, and are grounded on unequal center-periphery relations. Some even argue that the distance between Western scholars and the contexts they investigate sometimes enables them to provide insightful readings of local situations, through original lenses and from unforeseen angles. Some foreign academics also use their knowledge and their prominence to reveal social injustices and wrong practices and fight for the rights of vulnerable populations in the South. From their perspective, the real enemy is not “academic colonialism” but the competitive model prevailing in academia both in developed and developing countries.
So, are disaster studies and practices being dominated by Northern concepts and ideas? Our panellists will reply to this question, presenting their most persuasive arguments over the next ten days. But the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.
Jean-Christophe Gaillard argues that research and practice in disaster risk reduction and reconstruction in the Global South are unfavorably guided by Northern concepts and ideas
JC Gaillard is an Associate Professor at the School of Environment of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He graduated in geography from Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, and obtained his PhD from Université de Savoie in Chambéry. He was then successively a member of the faculties of the University of the Philippines Diliman and Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble. His research interests include Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR); participation and inclusion in DRR; participatory tools for DRR; small and neglected disasters; and post-disaster resettlement. JC has published many articles in prominent journals and coedited a number of books among which The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction published in 2012.
Carmen Mendoza Arroy argues that research and practice in disaster risk reduction and reconstruction in the Global South are not unfavorably guided by Northern concepts and ideas
Carmen Mendoza Arroy is an Architect and a PhD in Urban Design and Planning. She is an Associate Professor at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya UIC-Barcelona at the School of Architecture. She is the co-director of the Master of International Cooperation Sustainable Emergency Architecture program, a unique MSc degree that prepares architects to develop and rebuild communities affected by rapid urbanization, poverty, conflict and natural disasters. She is a co-founder of the firm DAC Arquitectura, Rehabilitació i Urbanisme, which specializes in developing urban projects and the design of open spaces and social facilities. Her research is focused on the physical and social regeneration of degraded neighborhoods in the Metropolitan Region of Barcelona and informal settlements in South America.