Is disaster-related research and practice in the Global South unfavorably guided by Northern ideas?
Winners of the “best contribution” awards
The committee members (JC Gaillard, Carmen Mendoza-Arroyo, Gonzalo Lizarralde, and Faten Kikano) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. They determined that the winners are:
Vanicka Arora – First prize, best comments
Duvan Hernan – Second prize
Ekatherina Zhukova – Third prize
Congratulations to winners!
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.
هل هناك تأثير خطير وسلبي لأفكار الشمال في الممارسة العملية والأبحاث في مجال الكوارث وتغير المناخ في بلدان الجنوب؟
البلدان الفقيرة – التي تسمى أحيانًا بالجنوب العالمي – تعاني أكثر من غيرها من البلدان من الكوارث وآثار الاحترار العالمي. ومع ذلك ، يستنكر العديد من الخبراء هيمنة الأفكار العلمية التي طوًّرت في الشمال العالمي على الأبحاث والسياسات المتبعة في تلك البلدان في ما يخص دراساتالكوارث. فهم يعتقدون أنه سواء كان ذلك عن قصد أم لا ، فإن علماء دراسات الكوارث ينتجون شكلاً من أشكال الاستعمار الأكاديمي الذي يعكس علاقاتالقوة بين الشمال والجنوب. بالنسبة لهم، المعرفة المحلية غالباً ما يتم تجاهلها لصالح المفاهيم والثقافات الغربية. وهذا الأمر يؤدي إلى سياسات ومشاريع نادراًما تناسب احتياجات وتوقعات المجتمعات الفقيرة في الجنوب. علاوة على ذلك ، فإن التفسيرات المحلية التي تعكس الواقع بشكل أفضل غالباً ما يتم استبدالهابمفاهيم ونماذج غربية “كالمرونة” ، و”الاستدامة” ، والتكيف ، إلخ…، وهي مفاهيم غير مجدية، ومن المحتمل ان تسبب حتى بنتائج سلبية. لهذه الأسباب،يدعوا هؤلاء الخبراء إلى الإصلاح الفكري والأخلاقي الذي يبعد الأبحاث المتخصصة بالكوارث عن المفاهيم والأفكار الغربية
لكن، ليس جميع الخبراء موافقون. فالبعض يجد أن التركيز على مسقط رأس الباحثين أو جنسيتهم أو قربهم من المشكلة أمر خاطئ ولا يضمن صلابةأفكارهم وتحاليلهم وملاءمتها. بالنسبة لهم، تتعلق قيمة المعرفة التي ينتجونها على دقة أساليب البحث وعمق فهمهم للسياق قيد الدراسة. يعارض أيضا هؤلاءالخبراء فكرة الاستعمار الأكاديمي الغربي ، زاعمين ان الصين مثلاً تعد من أكثر البلدان انتاجاً لدراسات الكوارث. علاوة على ذلك ، يجادلون بأن التهميشالأكاديمي لا يوجد فقط في العلاقات بين الشمال والجنوب، فان اختلالات القوى تحدث أيضًا بين الباحثين في نفس البلد ، سواء كانوا أثرياء أو فقراء ، وسواءتواجدوا في المناطق المركزية أو في الأطراف الريفية المعزولة. البعض يجادل أيضاً بأن البعد الفعلي والثقافي بين العلماء الغربيين والسياقات التي يحققونفيها أبحاثهم تمكنهم أحيانًا من انتاج قراءات متعمقة للمواقف المحلية ، من خلال عدسات غير منظورة ومن زوايا غير متوقعة. يزعمون أيضاً ان بعضالأكاديميين الأجانب يستغلون بروزهم وشعبيتهم لكشف الظلم الاجتماعي والممارسات الخاطئة وللكفاح من أجل حقوق السكان المستضعفين في الجنوب. منوجهة هؤلاء الخبراء، العدو الحقيقي ليس “الاستعمار الأكاديمي” بل النموذج التنافسي السائد في الأوساط الأكاديمية في البلدان المتقدمة والنامية على حد سواء
إذن ، هل دراسات الكوارث تهيمن عليها المفاهيم والأفكار الشمالية؟ سيرد أعضاء فريق المناقشة على هذا السؤال ، ويقدمون حججهم الأكثر إقناعًا خلالالأيام العشرة القادمة. لكن نتيجة النقاش تقع بين يديك. لا تتردد في التصويت على الفور – يمكنك دائمًا تغيير رأيك. والأفضل من ذلك ، أضف افكارك إلىالمناقشة واشرح قرارك
¿Existe una influencia peligrosa de las ideas del Norte en la práctica y en la investigación científica en el área de los desastres y el cambio climático en los países del Sur?
Los países “pobres”, “en vía de desarrollo”, o aquellos que solemos llamar “El Sur”, son actualmente los más afectados por desastres y por los efectos del cambio climático. Pero paradójicamente, muchos expertos consideran que la investigación científica y las políticas para la reducción y mitigación de desastres están siendo dominadas por ideas desarrolladas por académicos y tomadores de decisiones de los países más ricos (“El Norte”). Para algunos de estos expertos, los investigadores interesados en desastres, cambio climático, y reconstrucción, reproducen (intencionalmente o no) formas clásicas de colonialismo intelectual. El trabajo académico es aún un fiel reflejo de las relaciones de poder entre El Norte y El Sur o entre las sociedades occidentales (consideradas más avanzadas) y las demás. El conocimiento local es muchas veces ignorado, y los estudios y trabajos científicos son generalmente demasiado contaminados por ideas del mundo “industrializado”, “desarrollado”, “occidental”. Tanto los investigadores como los agentes externos mas influyentes generalmente interpretan los problemas y realidades del Sur a través de sus propios prejuicios y valores. Esto conduce a que las políticas y los proyectos muchas veces no responden ni a las necesidades ni a las expectativas de las comunidades más pobres y marginalizadas del Sur. Muchos conceptos y definiciones locales, indígenas y vernaculares son sistemáticamente ignorados, o considerados inferiores, y remplazados por ideas y paradigmas extranjeros, como el de la “resiliencia”, la “sostenibilidad”, la “adaptación”, y la “informalidad”. Algunos críticos de estas “narrativas foráneas” consideran que muchos de estos conceptos son, en el mejor de los casos, inútiles, y en el peor de los casos, sencillamente peligrosos y contraproducentes. Según ellos, es necesaria una trasformación radical en el área de los desastres, el cambio climático y la reconstrucción para deshacerse de conceptos e ideas mal adaptadas a las realidades del Sur.
Sin embargo, no todos los expertos están de acuerdo con estos argumentos. Para muchos, enfocarse en el sitio de nacimiento, en la nacionalidad o en la proximidad con el caso de estudio del investigador es equivocado, pues estos factores no necesariamente garantizan la calidad o la pertinencia de las ideas científicas. El valor de las ideas depende mas bien del rigor científico, de los métodos de trabajo y de la profundidad de análisis del contexto estudiado. Muchos consideran que actualmente la misma idea del colonialismo intelectual de occidente es una distracción, pues países como China pueden ser incluso más prolíficos en los estudios de desastres y cambio climático que los países del Norte. Además, formas de marginalización académica y desequilibrio de poder existen no solo entre el Norte y el Sur, sino también al interior de los países más pobres; por ejemplo, entre los ricos y pobres, entre la élite (generalmente de piel más clara y estatus económico más alto) y los excluidos, y entre las mayorías y las minorías (indígenas, o negras, por ejemplo). Algunos expertos incluso consideran que cierta forma de “distancia” del problema social a estudiar puede ser positiva para producir lecturas e interpretaciones más objetivas, originales o inesperadas, a partir de perspectivas innovadoras y nuevos ángulos de análisis. Además, algunos investigadores y militantes extranjeros usan su influencia y conocimiento para denunciar injusticias sociales del Sur y opresiones locales, así como para defender la causa de los más pobres y vulnerables. Según algunos expertos, el verdadero enemigo ya no esta en el colonialismo académico Norte-Sur, sino en los sistemas políticos, sociales, y universitarios arcaicos que prevalecen tanto en países ricos como “pobres”.
Lo cual nos lleva a la siguiente pregunta: ¿Existe una influencia peligrosa de las ideas del Norte en la práctica y en la investigación científica en el área de los desastres y el cambio climático en los países del Sur? Dos panelistas tratarán de responder a esta pregunta en nuestro debate en línea; pero el verdadero resultado del debate esta en manos de los participantes, a quienes invitamos a escribir y votar en nuestra página.
La recherche et la pratique dans les études des catastrophes dans le Sud Global sont-elles dominées par des idées du Nord?
Les pays pauvres – désignés collectivement comme les pays du Sud – sont ceux qui souffrent le plus des effets des catastrophes et du réchauffement planétaire. Or, comme le déplorent de nombreux experts, la recherche et la pratique dans les études des catastrophes sont dominées par des idées développées par des chercheurs et des décideurs du Nord. Ils croient que, intentionnellement ou non, les études sur les catastrophes reproduisent une forme de colonialisme académique, reflétant les relations de pouvoir entre le Nord et le Sud. Pour eux, les connaissances locales sont délaissées à l’avantage de l’influence de concepts académiques et culturels occidentaux. Cela conduit à l’adoption de politiques et de projets qui répondent peu ou mal aux besoins et aux attentes des communautés locales. De plus, des concepts et paradigmes occidentaux inutiles, voire dangereux, tels que « la résilience », « la durabilité », « l’adaptation » et « l’informalité » remplacent des explications locales pouvant mieux traduire la réalité. Ces experts plaident pour une réforme intellectuelle et morale qui éloignerait la recherche sur les catastrophes des concepts et des paradigmes occidentaux.
Cependant, tous les experts ne sont pas d’accord. Certains trouvent que se focaliser sur le lieu de naissance, la nationalité ou la proximité à long terme du chercheur est une erreur, la proximité des chercheurs avec les situations analysées ne garantissant pas la qualité et la pertinence de leurs idées. Selon eux, la valeur des connaissances produites dépend de la rigueur des méthodes de recherche et de la profondeur de la compréhension du contexte à l’étude. Ils contestent les allégations de colonialisme académique occidental et notent qu’actuellement, la Chine produit le plus d’études sur les catastrophes. En outre, ils font valoir que la marginalisation académique n’existe pas uniquement dans les relations Nord – Sud, mais également entre les chercheurs d’un même pays, selon des relations hiérarchiques entre le centre et la périphérie, ou bien entre les riches et les pauvres. Certains experts prétendent même que la distance qui sépare les chercheurs occidentaux des contextes sur lesquels ils enquêtent leur permet parfois de fournir des lectures innovantes et inédites des situations locales. Certains utilisent leurs connaissances et leur visibilité pour révéler les injustices sociales et les mauvaises pratiques et se battre pour les droits des populations vulnérables du Sud. Du point de vue de ces experts, le véritable ennemi n’est pas le “colonialisme académique”, mais plutôt la concurrence académique qui prévaut dans les universités, tant dans les pays développés que dans les pays en voie de développement.
Les études et les pratiques en matière de catastrophes sont-elles dominées par les concepts et les idées du Nord? Nos panélistes répondront à cette question en présentant leurs arguments les plus convaincants au cours des prochains jours. Mais l’issue du débat repose entre vos mains. N’hésitez pas à voter immédiatement. Vous pouvez toujours changer d’avis. Mieux encore, une fois que vous avez voté, ajoutez vos commentaires au débat et expliquez votre décision !
JC 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-Arroyo 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-Arroyo is an architect and a PhD researcher in Urban Design and Planning. She is an Associate Professor and an Assistant Director at the School of Architecture of the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC Barcelona). She is the director of the Master in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture. Her research reflects on how the separation in the study of the social and physical environments has caused a schism in the understanding of space, place, and social order. Her most recent research includes urban reconstruction and resilience in the field of emergency architecture as well as urban integration strategies for displaced populations and refugees. Carmen has published articles and book chapters, and edited a number of books.
The proposer’s opening remarks
In 1976, when ‘Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters‘ by P. O’Keefe et al. was published, only two social science journal articles referred to the concepts of ‘disaster’ & ‘vulnerability’ to frame their argument. However, according to the Scopus database (see figure), the same concepts were used by 2940 articles in 2018 (Figure 1). This sharp increase reflects how popular these two concepts have become and how widespread they now are in all sorts of contexts across the world. Yet ‘disaster’ and ‘vulnerability’ are two concepts of Latin etymology that do not translate well into many languages of different etymologies. Their hegemonic use in ‘disaster’ studies, at least those which are published in English (not only a clear bias but also a reflection of the dominance English has in contemporary academic circles), within and beyond their original contexts, thus reflects the dominance of a particular understanding of and approach to disasters over others. This debate is thus one that centres on ontologies, epistemologies and power relations.
The spread of Latin-based disaster-related concepts such as disaster and vulnerability but also resilience, adaptation, capacity/ies, etc., mirrors the influence of Western ontologies and epistemologies within disaster studies. While these are very diverse, they still share a common legacy inherited from the Enlightenment. The issue here is therefore not the ontologies and epistemologies themselves but their widespread adoption out of their original context which reflects and perpetuates both colonial and neo-colonial histories. To use Edward Said’s language, it promulgates an ‘Orientalist’ view of disasters.
In the meantime, large disasters, which capture the attention of most researchers, are occurring more frequently in regions of the world where people share very diverse and different worldviews. Many of these worldviews have unique scientific traditions that build upon epistemologies that are as rigorous and meaningful as those inherited from the Enlightenment. However, they are often overwhelmed by alien understandings of disasters as if, to echo Frantz Fanon, adopting approaches of the West was a symbol of elevated status and more rigorous values.
The hegemony of Western ontologies and epistemologies in disaster studies has underpinned a normative agenda for disaster risk reduction. It has sustained decades of international policies that have encouraged the transfer of experience and resources from the West to the rest of the world, thus further skewing the relationships between the powerful and the less powerful. On the ground, these have often materialised in standardised practices that filter disaster risk assessment and reduction initiatives through the lens of concepts of Latin and cognate etymologies that often lack the ability to fully capture the reality of people’s everyday life in dealing with what researchers commonly call ‘hazards’ and ‘disasters’.
An obvious example of such skewed practices are the so-called Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA) toolboxes. These toolboxes rely on taxonomic categorisations of people’s resources and identities according to age, gender and physical abilities. These categories, often associated with quantitative and/or demographic indicators and pre-conceived ideas of people’s everyday lives, often appear as boxes to fill in. In the case of gendered approaches to assessing and reducing disaster risk, this perspective has proved inappropriate to capture non-binary and liminal identities that are common in many regions of the world.The hegemony of Western ontologies and epistemologies ultimately contradicts the very essence of the paradigm put forward in ‘Taking the Naturalness out of Natural Disasters’ and its associated commitment to people’s participation in reducing disaster risk. We nonetheless often claim to embrace this paradigm when we frame our studies with concepts such as disaster and vulnerability. This constitutes an intriguing incongruity that may be to the detriment of local and indigenous perspectives.
The opponent’s opening remarks
“The challenge for professionals – national and local, not only international – is how to engage with the majority of construction that happens as non-engineered structures in informal, unplanned settlements. This is where the major risks and vulnerabilities are.” Graham Saunders
(From the symposium ‘Creation and Catastrophe’ held at the RIBA, 2016).
I would like to begin with this quote by the wonderful humanitarian architect, Graham Saunders. In this line of thought, it is important to underscore that the vast majority of reconstruction is carried out by families and local builders, and it is this capacity that needs to be developed to achieve safer buildings. In other words, the first and most important requirement is that local communities in affected regions be seen as active collaborators, rather than ‘helpless beneficiaries of aid relief’. Hence, our work must create opportunities for capacity building so that local professionals can assume complex processes, and this be seen as a priority to be addressed before disasters occur. Likewise, one of the major challenges of our profession is the co-creation of knowledge, knowledge sharing, and its translation into local building codes in disaster prone countries, in order to introduce better and safer construction processes.
The reason disaster studies and practices are questioned for being ‘over-influenced by Western concepts’ and dominated by ideas developed in ‘rich countries’, is that we very often forget that Architecture must promote the uniqueness of a place and, in order to accomplish this, we must keep its culture alive. From this perspective, our drivers to create resilience and to adapt to disaster, is to work with the causes, the history and the cultures in which we intervene. The local culture will facilitate work or it will inhibit it if our work is counter to the culture. When a sense of place is reinforced in the efforts to reduce disaster risk and recover from disaster, the possibility for autonomy will emerge, despite the implementation of ‘technical western concepts’.
As professionals and academics we must understand the relationship between what we know as it relates to our expertise and what we do not or cannot know, so as not to create relationships of dominance or imposition. Furthermore, working professionally is vital, as well as acknowledging that local communities need active support in devising their own recovery and in building in a safe and efficient manner. Another important point to consider, which reinforces the need to draw social, technical and community aspects into urban based crisis response, is that today architecture and built design professionals have to accept that the disaster field is merging with other areas, such as climate change adaptation and increasing displacement and migration, all of which are changing the field substantially. This constitutes a working field which is more and more complex. This complexity requires a multifaceted, comprehensive view on different scales of the built and natural environment, much more resources, as well as greater expertise.
Finally, one of the constant factors that amplify or mitigate risk is perception. Risk perception closely connects to culture and ideology. If the perception is that the work is being done to serve the people, it can have a positive influence; if the perception is that it is at the service of vested interests, the influence will be a bad or corrupt one. As such, a ‘foreign’ perspective can offer the proper distance to the root causes of risk and introduce a comparative view and broader scope.
In summary, it is important to recognize and increase the capacity of local groups and professionals by providing a ‘horizontal’ learning experience between local organisations and the broader professional institutional collaborations, as well as by strengthening global professional networks.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
The debate has partly shifted from ontologies, epistemologies and power relations to researchers’ positionality and power relations. Both are obviously inextricably linked however, as researchers are those who carry out the research that contributes to the hegemony of particular ontologies and epistemologies in disaster studies that then filter down into policies and practices geared towards reducing the risk of disaster.
Skewed power relations amongst researchers lead to concepts such as disaster and vulnerability to be rolled out of their original regional, ontological and epistemological contexts. This ultimately leads to understandings of ‘disasters’ that may misrepresent the reality as perceived by those who actually deal with the so-called ‘hazards’. This was brilliantly demonstrated by M. Bhatt in his seminal essay on vulnerability.
A recent survey of the papers published in the journal Disasters makes it clear: 84% of authors are associated with institutions located in countries of the OECD (an imperfect proxy for the West), which are less affected by large disasters. The imbalance is particularly evident when looking at ‘high-profile’ cases such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake or the 2015 Nepal earthquake (see figure). Research on disasters is therefore largely dominated by researchers who come from the ‘outside’.
The situation is, however, not black and white as places of residence and affiliations do not preclude to be ‘grounded’ in places where disasters occur, i.e. the ‘inside’. Some Haitian and Nepalese researchers based in Europe, Northern America and Australasia have been conducting studies in their homelands. In most cases, though, they rely upon Western ontologies and epistemologies centred on concepts such as disaster and vulnerability, just as some ‘local researchers’, including some affected by these disasters, have done as well. This very observation perfectly reflects J. Ranciere’s idea of intellectual submission to, in our case, ontologies and epistemologies inherited from the Enlightenment.
These unequal power relations between researchers are sustained by a coincidence of interests. Principal investigators located in Western countries and their allies, where most research funding is available (China being the most notable exception that confirms the rule here), may give up some funding and consider suggestions from co-investigators based in institutions close to places affected by disasters. In turn, the latter gain opportunities to develop collaborations, access expensive equipment and publish in international journals with colleagues familiar with Anglophone academic writing, thus advancing their own careers.
Both the intellectual submission and coincidence of interest between researchers are crucial to understanding the hegemony, in A. Gramsci’s terms, of ontologies and epistemologies inherited from the Enlightenment in disaster studies and their influence on disaster risk reduction policies and practices. Disaster scholarship clearly has a core and a periphery, or an inside and an outside to use J. Blaut’s words.
Such unequal power relations between researchers, as well as the ontologies and epistemologies that underpin the studies they conduct, are similarly obvious within countries, including those where such approaches are alien. Scholars affiliated with universities located in capital and other large cities, who are often better resourced and connected to the rest of the academic world and, henceforth, permeable to the hegemony of the Enlightenment, commonly exert the same control over institutions and scholars at the periphery. This reflects the Westernisation of and, as D. Alexander rightly emphasised, increasing ‘competitivity’ within the academia. These can both be seen as colonial and neoliberal heritages.
Again, there are incongruities in how disaster scholarship have been shaped. Many of us seem to embrace the paradigm that, forty years ago, challenged the then dominant and hazard-driven understanding of disasters. At the core of this paradigm was the leading role of local researchers and local people, outside of the academic silo, so that studies be grounded in local ontologies and epistemologies. In practice, however, it seems evident that such an approach has not (yet) flourished.
The opponent’s rebuttal remarks
From the insightful contributions of the participants and that of JC Galliard, I think we can all agree that there are certain policies, practices, handbooks, and others that have encouraged the transfer of standards and experience from the West to the rest of the world as rigid guides for recovery, excluding the local adaptive capacity when it comes to disaster recovery. However, that’s only part of the issue at hand.
I was born in Bolivia and lived my formative years in various Latin American countries. These Latin American roots and culture are central to me. I acquired my professional tools and methodologies in both Latin America and Barcelona. All this enables me to develop my research in both continents allowing my epistemologies and methodologies to be nurtured by both ‘worlds’. Therefore, I truly believe the present debate shouldn’t be solely or specifically circumscribed to the geographical origin of these polices or concepts, but also consider just how impossible it is to blankly adopt standardized assessments and recovery frameworks overall given the diversity of governments, cultures, levels of development and the access to resources of regions striving for recovery.
In this sense, we can agree that effective and culturally relevant recovery is linked to localized adapted frameworks of response instead of global approaches. However, regarding the question of ‘universal shelter standards vs. national standards’, Walker, (1996) introduces an interesting argument when he sustains that despite the fact that the Sphere Standards (Sphere Project 2011) were implemented without consultation to national governments and were consequently alien to local cultural or economic factors, their value resides in providing and establishing minimum standards in the area of shelter and housing which have had an educational value and, if they hadn’t been implemented, there could have been much substandard work resulting in hardship for survivors.
Post disaster recovery is high on the agenda of communities, but there is no certainty that disaster risk reduction is. Therefore knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels is necessary to strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response. When it comes to international donors, —which are frequently the ones implementing recovery— the discussion is really an issue of ‘accountability and trust’ rather than the exercise of control. The ‘trust-control dilemma’ presented by Davis and Alexander (2016) based on Charles Handy’s model (Handy, C. 1995) affirms that when this model is applied by international agencies in their agendas and frameworks, they tend to reflect a desire to control at the expense of trust. From this perspective we can say that the real issue is the perception of the level of governance and trust in national and local governments from donors, which influences and shapes their recovery guidelines.
Finally, I would like to reinforce that post-disaster reconstruction is a social process as much as a technical one, and recovery has to be professionalized so that the technical response is suitable.The impact of ‘natural’ disasters is always local, and so should the response.
The proposer’s closing remarks
The momentum around this online debate shows that the time is ripe for a critical reflection upon disaster studies and how these studies inform policies and practices devised to reduce disaster risk. More than 300 people have already expressed their agreement with the recent disaster studies manifesto ‘Power. Prestige & Forgotten Values’ that calls for such reflection. The document, authored by a team of 24 scholars and practitioners from around the world, suggests three particular areas of reflection to meaningfully inform disaster risk reduction: who research what and how.
1. Research on disaster should focus on whatever is needed and deemed relevant locally. E. Quarantelli and R. Dynes have long taught us that disasters are local issues. Of course, they result from and reflect broader processes that underpin the root causes of these disasters – processes that have been extensively researched over the past four decades. However, understanding what disasters are, their impacts and how people deal with them, most often requires local grounding.
2. Local grounding requires local ontologies and epistemologies so that studies be framed from the most relevant perspective(s). We should therefore be critical of the sole concepts and methodologies inherited from the Enlightenment out of their context. As R. Jigyasu once wrote, ‘our understanding of disaster needs to be turned inside out and not the other way around, as it tends to become, thanks to the “expert” notions of what is a disaster’. It is henceforth essential to engage in this ‘revolution in thinking about disasters’ expected by B. Wisner and colleagues back in 1976.
3. We should ultimately support local researchers, who know best local contexts and who are likely to be familiar with local ontologies and epistemologies. They should take the lead to study local disasters. Local scholars should become principal investigators of projects and lead authors of articles and presentations, favouring local outlets and venues to best inform local policies and practices. Local researchers should also include local people through genuine participatory research to answer R. Chambers’ famous call for putting the last first.
This alternative approach to researching disaster calls for some sort of subaltern studies as pioneered by Guha and Spivak in South Asia. Many fields of studies, such as indigenous studies and psychology, have shown us the way. For disaster studies to follow their path we need to break the hegemony of ideas inherited from the Enlightenment and the intellectual submission it entails. This requires consciousness, in Freire’s terms, then emancipation, in Rancière’s, amongst the ‘subalterns’, that are here researchers whose native worldviews differ from those associated with Western perspectives.
Importantly, though, this approach does not preclude outside researchers to collaborate, especially when they have built trust with local peers. As much as possible, the latter should lead and the former support, recognising that, in some contexts, the voices of local researchers may be filtered by state power. Similarly, ontologies and epistemologies influenced by the Enlightenment are not to be ditched all together. They are still important in their original contexts and may be useful to uncover global processes associated with the root causes of disasters and the related normative disaster risk reduction policies.
In summary, disaster studies are not to become exclusive at the detriment of any ideas. It is about diversity, dialogue and co-existence to make sure that the most appropriate ontologies and epistemologies are used to understand disasters and inform policies and practices geared to reduce risk in both local and global contexts.
The opponent’s closing remarks
I would like to start by saying that this has been an excellent debate with very thought-provoking argumentations. The original question of this debate shifted to tie into larger reflections that went beyond the geographical perspective towards understanding that unfavorably guided disaster related research and practice happens due to unsubstantiated ideas, unequal power relations (national and international) which overlook culture and local knowledge and practice due to various factors, like corruption or inequality.
I have argued that local populations must be the backbone of the sustainable improvement of their built environment, since they hold the key to their own capacity, knowledge, resilience, and ultimately their reconstruction. Despite the fact that most of the reports, guidelines or manuals in the past have advocated for standardization, the discussion in recent INGOs reports is centered around the failure of culturally foreign guidelines, and enhance context-adapted, ‘situated solutions’, proclaiming that ‘assessment is the foundation for appropriate response’, (D. Sanderson and B. Ramalingam,2015:15) both for housing (World Bank/GFDRR, 2012), and urban areas (Currion, 2015). It has become clear that the most important factors for recovery are not only the provision of appropriate technical answers, but the need to adjust to existing local, social, technical, and financial organizational capacity.
With regard to how foreing aid exercises power in post-disaster recovery, the ‘Four C’s model’ (Mitchell, 2014 in Sanderson, Kayden and Leis, 2016: 9) offers an interesting perspective: Comprehensive (where there is no local capacity, as in the earthquake in Haiti); Constrained (where operations are limited, as in the Syrian crisis); Collaborative (where agencies ‘fill in the gaps’ the government can’t cover, as in the Pakistan floods 2010-2011); and Consultative (support to strong local governments as in the 2010 Chilean earthquake). Roughly 50 % of aid spent to date has gone to the Comprehensive, and less than 5% has been spent on the Consultative (Mitchell, 2014). We would probably all agree that an appropriate response would be to only adopt Collaborative and Consultative approaches such as giving support, building skills and enhancing existing resources, however that is not always feasible.
I began this debate sustaining that culturally based approaches which embody traditions and practices need to be implemented and understood better as it relates to risk reduction, and in the IFRC world disasters report the identification of culture and its importance in urban disasters is also gaining importance (Cannon and Schipper, 2014). However, as the case of the populations living in the slopes of La Paz, Bolivia, shows, embracing this argument alone is not enough. Despite the community of the slopes being co-organized to ensure that they don’t live on risk prone land, these settlements have ‘overwhelmed urban planning and as a consequence, disasters have increased, with loses of life, houses and livelihoods’ (Cannon and Schipper, 2014:71). Therefore, in countries where resources are limited and where policy, planning and delivery mechanisms are weak, we must support people and their culture providing them with the resources to make better choices, as well as support their advocacy efforts for laws and planning codes that protect them. Finally, reconstruction projects must build on a change of perspective achieved by understanding situated social and physical strengths and dynamics as the key ethical approach to design in the humanitarian field.
The moderator’s closing remarks
A core and a periphery in disaster-related research and practice
Research and practice in the disaster field still replicates power imbalances among and within nations. Radical change is needed.
In our latest online debate, about 70 percent of participants consistently argued that there is a form of colonialism and Northern intellectual hegemony in disaster research and practice. Both sides of the debate agree that change is urgently needed. Disaster-related research and practice should focus on local needs, expectations, knowledge, and resources, with an emphasis on preserving traditions, values, and the “sense of place.” Importantly, local researchers and practitioners—familiar with the context and local ontologies and epistemologies—must be trusted and supported.
But panellists’ and participants’ opinions on whether disaster studies and practices are unfavourably guided by the North raise additional questions and seem to require certain distinctions. In particular, two main challenges were exposed.
The first challenge concerns the source of ideas. Whereas it is relatively easy to identify the origins of military and political colonialism and imperialism, it is harder to determine the origin of disaster-related ideas, epistemologies, and methodologies. Duvan Lopez rightly reminded us that intellectual hegemony is generated from “power imbalances that occur between nations; but also, inside countries, neighbourhoods and households.” Participants also asserted that some influences are rooted in power relationships that transcend the classic relationships between the North and the South, the West and the rest. In this vein, we explored South-North and South-South influences, pointing to examples in which the transfer of ideas occurs in more than one direction. Some participants argued that unequal power relations exist between researchers and practitioners, regardless of their countries of residence and professional affiliations. Power inequalities are based on a number of elements, such as core-periphery political relationships, connections to professional networks, funding, visibility, and access to social media.
There seems to be a consensus that some form of complicity sometimes exists between “external” researchers and practitioners in the disaster field and political and economic agendas. Are these influences a form of systematic international colonialism, or just ordinary stupidity and corruption? Answering this question also proved difficult. Disaster capitalism, for instance, is imposed by foreign leaders and corporations, but it is also imposed by local politicians and companies that, attracted by the lure of financial profit, often disregard the root causes of vulnerability. Other forms of domination, based on local political partisanship, for instance, also neglect the affected populations’ needs and aspirations, local practices, cultural beliefs, meanings and values.
The second challenge concerns the classification of researchers and practitioners. Whereas it is easy to agree on the need for new methods and frameworks based on insiders’ knowledge and practices, it is more difficult to determine who should be considered an “insider” or “outsider.” Several problems arise when the discussion moves from the existence of Northern/Western ideas to whom, exactly, embodies those ideas. Most of us find it easy to label ideas as “Northern,” “external,” or “alien,” but we sometimes find it more difficult to classify researchers and practitioners under local/external dichotomies. Can researchers and studies be classified according to geographic locations? Can we ignore the uniqueness of each researcher and the complexity of their personality, background, ethics, values, and methods in the name of a fight against scientific imbalances?
Aren’t we mistakenly labeling individuals when we claim that there is a need to support local researchers and let them take the lead to study “their” local disasters? Aren’t we, as Vanicka argued, proceeding to an “othering” of sorts, by presenting the “local” researcher as free from global influence and a non-political actor? Vanicka also rightly pointed out that the common assumption that “the local exists as independent from the global, is wrong. It is also mistaken to demonize the North and assume that, in opposition to it, “there exists a cohesive ‘local,’ which is less prone to inequality, corruption and power dynamics.”
Despite these challenges, the majority of participants agree that intellectual elitism in research studies and practices is real and dangerous. But whereas statistics show that most disaster studies are products of the North, the dominance of concepts and paradigms is not only a North-South phenomenon. Like any other form of social injustice, power imbalances in disaster-related research and practice are rooted in differences that exist among nations, but also within countries, cities, communities, and organisations. A paradigm shift is indeed needed, and disaster studies and practices must originate from knowledge, understanding, and respectful consideration for the context under study.
Like all our previous online debates, this one proved to be a popular success. The online site was visited almost 1600 times from about 700 people in 60 countries. This 9th debate, organized by Oeuvre durable and i-Rec, received over 100 votes and 90 comments. The opening remarks were posted in four languages.
I want to thank J.C and Carmen for their thoughtful ideas and their contribution to this debate. I also want to thank Faten for her ideas, her help in organising the activity, and translating my opening remarks into French and Arabic. Special thanks to Ilan, who provided excellent sources and references for this discussion. Finally, thanks to Vanicka, Duvan, Mercedes, Damiana, Ekatherina, Georgia, Syed Harir, Sujata, Muhammad, and everyone who participated for sharing their comments and pertinent ideas.