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COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to focus on ‘productivity-during-lockdown-times’ and others who focus on ‘providing-food-for-their-children-and-having-a-home-during-lockdown-times’. For generationally disaster-prone or disaster-torn populations of India, this global pandemic is only widening the class gaps that have characterized local realities for the Indian society for centuries.


My husband and I recently witnessed thousands of daily-wage workers and families marching towards a bus terminal near our home in Delhi. From there, they would take buses to their hometowns. Many were travelling on foot, too, trying to make their way to their homes hundreds of miles away from Delhi after the entire country was placed under lockdown from 25 March. This involuntary exodus of workers from India’s many cities that has continued despite fatal consequences is an oxymoronic act that seems to oppose the social distancing measures prescribed by the WHO and related suggestions from developed nations. It is not that these workers are unwilling to keep safe—it is simply that a substantial part of India’s population, including these workers, cannot afford to do so, as has been emphasized repeatedly.

My current research looks at the everyday lives of families facing protracted displacement due to the disaster of riverbank erosion along Brahmaputra River in Assam, a state in India. The families I engage with for my research source their income from daily wages. As economic activity suddenly ceased in March, the small stream of income stopped. Consequently, many of the workers were not able to travel back to their families, as they usually would when on leave or a break period. Many male members of these families are currently trapped in the towns within Assam where they work. They were unable to travel to their homes, many miles away, not only because of the physical cost of walking or taking a bus home, but for a different set of reasons as well.

Conversations on care and health that are classes apart

Pic 11
Rita and her friends after collecting firewood for cooking from a neighbouring paddy field. February 2020

A few days after the Delhi exodus, calls from concerned families I work with increased significantly. “You should have just stayed back here with us,” Rita Saikia, a regular caller, often quips. “Come back to the village whenever you can.” Megacities like Delhi have much higher infection rates than rural places, as many of the rural inhabitants I work with recognize.

Besides the exchange of well-intended thoughts and mutual worries, these telephonic conversations are constant reminders of the class differences in the everyday lives of people that surround us, beginning with those of the researched and the researcher. Ironically, despite my power position over the families I work with for my research, they offered me what they thought I did not have in Delhi: a sense of safety they felt in the countryside. Here, thus, they were able to close the distance between the researcher and the researched. Nevertheless, the challenges that these families are facing are colossal in comparison to those I am facing, such as not being able to travel to my university in Europe or being anxious about my inability to work on my dissertation as effectively as I would have liked to from home.

Rita[1] is from one of my host families in one of the villages where I spent time conducting research. With no other choice, she has been managing the household and two children all by herself this entire period. Ajeet, her husband, is a construction worker surviving off daily wages. He is currently stuck at one of his work sites, around 100 kilometers away from his family village. For now, the family is surviving from its meagre savings. Rice has been provided by the children’s school and another one-time ration (of rice) provided by the local government. Quietly hiding away from the eyes of authorities, Rita, along with other women from her village, regularly goes to collect firewood behind their village in the dry paddy field. Refilling the cooking gas cylinder from their savings is a luxury they cannot afford right now.

Ajeet had left the family’s only mobile phone at home, so he calls his family once every three days from his co-worker’s phone. Last night, their younger child of four cried himself to sleep because his father’s call was disconnected before the child could speak to him. The mobile credit had probably run out. The older child of six years smiled and casually said to me, “you know pehi[2], Deuta[3] will not come home now even if the virus dies, but only later. He needs to bring the money home.” This understanding of the daily realities and hardships, and the acceptance of the hardships of life, contrasts sharply with how more privileged people experience the coronavirus pandemic, like any other disaster.

Amidst all of this, the annual season of extreme winds in Assam has begun. Homes of three of the research families have been battered by these winds. The families plan to complete the rebuilding process once the lockdown is relaxed, unable to do so during the lockdown. In addition, come June, the monsoon will make its appearance, inviting the annual visit of the floods, erosion of the banks of Assam’s rivers, landslides and associated socio-economic insecurities that are now compounded by those the lockdown has brought about. A slowing economy post-pandemic and consequential decrease in sources of income, along with exposure to the said disasters, will significantly push these already displaced families further to the brink of poverty.

Living through the intersections of inequalities

Poverty is both a driver and a consequence of disasters[4]. The year 2020 could become one of the most barefaced examples of this. Many socio-economically and politically insecure populations elsewhere in India and in the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia etc. are also disaster-prone or -torn. Once the world gets back on its feet post-COVID-19, these populations are set to face increasing human insecurities in their everyday lives arising due to the pandemic and its after-effects, like the families in Assam.

A society’s many aspects are unclothed in the aftermath of a disaster[5], which continues to reinforce social inequalities[6]. Disasters, therefore, including the current pandemic, hardly manage to break the walls of class structures – political, economic, social, and so forth. If anything, they increase the height and depth of these walls – between societies within a nation, between different nations, and, most definitely, between the researcher and the researched.

Pic 1
The Brahmaputra River at the backyard of one of the families’ home (from the research). January 2020

[1] All names of research participants have been changed
[2] Assamese word for paternal aunt
[3] Assamese word for father
[4] https://www.preventionweb.net/risk/poverty-inequality
[5] Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susanna M. Hoffman, eds. The angry earth: disaster in anthropological perspective. Routledge, 2019.
[6] Reid, Megan. “Disasters and social inequalities.” Sociology Compass 7.11 (2013): 984-997.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


IMG_20200215_155647About the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD Researcher at the ISS. Her research looks at the everyday lives of disaster-displaced people in Assam, a northeastern state of India.

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Donor-driven agendas and the need to move beyond a capacity building focus in Myanmar’s research ecosystem by Jana Rué Glutting and Anders Lee

Localization has become a buzzword among promoters of development aid following a recent shift in focus to the sustainability of development projects after the withdrawal of donors from contexts where projects have been initiated. But why don’t aid interventions also focus on the localization of research? This blog post intends to stress the importance of critically assessing the localization strategies of the international community in the research space in Myanmar, requiring an honest introspection in how social science research is being conducted and funded, and who are the actors at play and its implications.


The localization of aid has gained considerable attention in both the humanitarian and development spaces over the last few years (Kumar 2015). The conventional definition has been criticized for being too narrow, centred on channelling more aid directly to local state and non-state actors without a focus on supporting their capacity to effectively absorb and manage more aid. While donor and UN agencies have been pursuing greater localization of their funding, in practice, it has merely been operationalized as a set of best practices for them to better engage with local stakeholders.

With the renewed engagement of the international community since its 2010 democratic transition, Myanmar research actors have been catering to the rising demand for donor-driven knowledge production. Recently, we completed a study with the Global Development Network, funded by the International Development Research Centre, to assess the social science research ecosystem in Myanmar. The study found that the vast majority of donor-funded research places little decision-making power in the hands of local research actors, where local researchers are often relegated to liaisons or assistant roles in research projects. It is mainly justified on the grounds of allocating roles based on current levels of expertise, and few Myanmar researchers have experience to match the required level of expertise or experience.

The need to critically assess localization efforts in the development industry is important and urgent. Similar to the debate within humanitarian aid, more direct funding from donors into local research systems can contribute to increased capacity, promote independent research that produces longer-term research studies, and shape ‘big ideas’ of the country. At present, the research ecosystem in Myanmar can only be optimistically described as nascent. Its current state is the result of deliberate actions undertaken by the successive socialist government and military rule (following the 1988 Uprising, initiated by university students) to dismantle the higher education system.

Universities today are severely under-resourced – teaching is based on top-down rote learning, while professors are poorly paid and have little financial support or incentives to undertake independent and high-quality research. What further compounds the issue is ‘anade’, a sociocultural value still prevalent in Myanmar that prevents students from speaking out or raising questions to their professors in fear of offending them. These factors severely limit the development of analytical and critical thinking skills among young graduates.

The gap left by universities in research production is then filled by international NGOs, think tanks, development consultancies, and market research firms, which are largely funded by donors. In fact, donors have been very successful in controlling the ‘value chain’, guiding what is problematized and which research is commodified in the marketplace of ideas (McCombs & Shaw 1993). While the abovementioned dynamics could be considered successful localization practices, understood in the conventional sense as practices to channel direct aid to local actors and a focus on capacity building, this reality also shines light on the complexity of these collaborations.

In Myanmar, we have found that funding is often concentrated on specific areas that are in line with the priority areas that donors deem important for the country’s development. During our in-depth interviews, local researchers frequently complained about the lack of power in deciding the research topic and research design. They stressed that they were often relegated to positions of boots-on-the-ground or local partners, typically as data collectors, translators, or liaison officers. On the other hand, analytical tasks and report writing were assigned to bigger international NGOs or international consultants.

Amid the lack of supply of experienced researchers in Myanmar[1], donors have focused on building capacity to meet the standards required for the localization of aid, mainly by adding short-term capacity building workshops in their projects. However, such an approach is myopic because it merely focuses on enhancing research skills sufficient to contribute to their commissioned studies. Moreover, power dynamics inherent in the aid-donor relations accord considerable leverage for the uptake of these donor-driven research studies, which can reduce the space for local researchers to explore thematic and methodological options in their pursuit of their research endeavours. Instead, local researchers are constrained in providing single-minded policy responses to overstretched policymakers. As aid practitioners, we have to critically assess these approaches and ask, how “local” is “the local”?

At present,  social science research continues to be driven by the international community who sets its own agenda, with localization merely a tick on the checklist to ensure that the local context and participation are acknowledged. Such research is not co-developed or nationally owned, nor does it incentivize the government to pursue a longer-term strategy to build up the research system.

The discussion presented here does not suggest that donor-funded research cannot contribute to the development of a stronger research and policy-making environment. Rather, we argue that the narrow definition and application of the localization principle when it comes to pursuing research agendas is overly focused on achieving targeted narrow programmatic outcomes. This has been justified through partnerships with and training of local researchers to contribute to the strengthening of overall research capacities of Myanmar.

[1] According to UNESCO UIS, Myanmar had 29.07 full-time equivalent researchers (per million inhabitants) in 2017 (UNESCO UIS n.d.)


References
Capie, D. (2012). The Responsibility to Protect Norm in Southeast Asia: Framing, Resistance and the Localization Myth. The Pacific Review, 25(1), 75–93.
Kumar, R. (2015). What’s new with localization. [online] Devex. Available at: https://www.devex.com/news/what-s-new-with-localization-86094 [Accessed 17 Jan. 2020].
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda-setting research: Twenty-five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of communication, 43(2), 58-67.
UNESCO UIS. (n.d.). Data for Sustainable Development Goals – Myanmar. Available at: http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/mm?theme=science-technology-and-innovation [Accessed 16 Mar. 2020].

 

About the authors:

JanaJana-Chin Rué Glutting is a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic and Social Development. She is an MA graduate in Economics of Development Studies at The Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University. She is interested in industry policy research in Myanmar, and currently engaged in various projects related to the garment sector, trade and macroeconomic research, and social research systems.

Anders

 

Anders Lee is a researcher at the Centre for Economic and Social Development, and Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. He is currently working on research projects looking at political violence in China and Hong Kong, and internal and international migration in Myanmar. He holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.