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 is also an Associate Dean at the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland. He graduated in geography from Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, and obtained his PhD from Université de Savoie in Chambéry. Since 2015, he became an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Economics and Finance at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He is also a visiting Professor at Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier. From 2008 till 2010, he held the position of a Visiting Professor in the departments of Geography and Anthropology at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Since July 2010, he is a permanent Member at UMR Gouvernance, Risque, Environnement et Développement (GRED), Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France. His research interests include Disaster Risk Reduction; participatory tools for DRR; marginalization and DRR with focus on ethnicity, gender minorities, children, prisoners and homeless people; small and neglected disasters; livelihood assessment and strengthening in DRR; and post-disaster resettlement. Gaillard has published many articles in prominent journals and coedited a number of books among which The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction and the Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, both published in 2012.
David Alexander argues that research and practice in disaster risk reduction and reconstruction in the Global South are not unfavorably guided by Northern concepts and ideas
David Alexander is a Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London (UCL). He graduated in geography at the London School of Economics and obtained his PhD in Mediterranean geomorphology from UCL. From 1982 until 2002 he taught geomorphology, physical geography, natural hazards and disaster studies at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst (USA). Over the period 2003-2007, he was the Scientific Director of the Advanced School of Civil Protection of the regional government of Lombardy. As a Professor at the University of Florence (2005-2011), he was a leading member of the team that launched and taught Italy’s first Master of Civil Protection course. Alexander is a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Bournemouth and Northumbria (UK), Coimbra (Portugal) and Lund (Sweden), and a Research Fellow at the Global Risk Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has conducted research on disasters since 1980. His main fields of interest are emergency management and planning, earthquake science, disaster epidemiology, and theoretical issues in Disaster Risk Reduction. Alexander’s book Natural Disasters was published in London and New York in 1993 and has frequently been reprinted. His subsequent books include Confronting Catastrophe (2000), Principles of Emergency Planning and Management (2002), Recovery from Disaster (with Ian Davis, 2015), and How to Write an Emergency Plan (2016).