Tag Archives Research

Amid increasing disinformation and the silencing of speech, scholars must strive towards speaking truth

Amid increasing disinformation and the silencing of speech, scholars must strive towards speaking truth

With the rising assault on free speech and with disinformation being used as an instrument by states to undermine dissent, the role of researchers has become pivotal. Scholars need to ...

From balloons to masks: the surprising results of doing research during the COVID-19 pandemic

From balloons to masks: the surprising results of doing research during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that ensued caused disruption in every possible dimension of life, including the way in which academic research projects were conducted. In this article Wendy ...

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen Hintjens, Joy Melani and Karin Astrid Siegmann) reflect on this question based on our experience with the PEER approach, a participatory research methodology, that we used in a study on undocumented people’s access to healthcare in the Netherlands. The answer? We posit that the claim that social science methodologies can directly transform social realities, may be raising expectations too high, at least for the PEER approach. Yet, dissolving barriers between academic and non-academic knowers might be useful in itself, leading to greater respect for, and the amplification of the voices of marginalised people.

What is PEER?

PEER stands for Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation and Research. The participatory aspect stems from the involvement of members of marginalised and stigmatised communities as co-researchers. It is used in contexts where it is essential to build trust, where new insights are needed, and where the underbelly of sensitive topics can be exposed through mostly non-directive (open-ended) interviews with hard-to-research and marginalised groups in society. Examples of such topics include research on sexual health, sex work, the illicit or informal economy, and refugees on the move.

 

PEER research on undocumented people’s access to healthcare

We used the PEER methodology to understand the puzzle of why undocumented people in the Netherlands rarely access healthcare, despite their health rights being formally guaranteed in Dutch and EU regulations. Our research team consisted of people based at universities, like Helen, Karin, and our colleague Richard Staring, and non-academic experts from a group of undocumented peer researchers, including Joy and Jack. Interview questions were developed within the team, with peer researchers knowing best how to address sensitive issues with other undocumented people. Once interviews were concluded, debriefing meetings with the peer researchers formed the starting point of our data analysis.

The benefits of the PEER methodology for accessing and learning from people, who have good reasons to remain under the radar, came out clearly in our study. Joy highlights trust as the main advantage of reaching out to fellow undocumented persons for an interview: “Undocumented people cannot trust anyone. But if we interview them, they know that we are undocumented, and they can open up easily. They can tell the real story, their own emotions, and experiences. Because they know, having the same situation, you can understand them, how they feel, their thoughts.”

Time constrains were tough for peer researchers for whom research came on top of their normal working day. Working as a domestic worker full time, Jack recalls: “I worked as a full domestic worker that time. I started my work from the morning until 6 in the afternoon. Attending workshops and meetings during the whole period of PEER research project were a challenge to me. Usually, I rushed to the evening meetings at ISS [International Institute of Social Studies] after my whole day work. This made me physically and mentally a bit tired to participate in the discussion and share my ideas. Sometimes, I came late due to extra work. But I ought to do it as part of my commitment to the project.”

Two PEER researchers simulating an interview during training, August 2014, The Hague

So can the PEER Methodology change minds, influence policy?

Contributing to social change clearly motivated Jack:

“First, I believed that the project was for the well-being of the undocumented migrants in the Hague. This was about a health issue which was vital for the interest of the undocumented migrants whose access to medical care had been hindered by lack of information, discrimination, and ignorance of some medical professionals about the existing health policy of the government.” But what is the actual potential of such collaborative research to transform the injustices that undocumented people experience? Jack soberly concludes that any broader impact depends on the political context: “Absolutely, a rightist government is against migrants. Any outcome of the research based on a PEER approach would not actually convince the rightist government to take initiatives to change their policy in favour of migrants.”

This suggests the practical limits of what one can realistically achieve with academic research under an illiberal dispensation. On its own, without a shift in attitudes, social research cannot shift policy parameters. As the saying goes, one can take a horse to water, one cannot make it drink! Yet PEER research does break down barriers. The status-quo that segregates undocumented people from the rest of society is challenged, as PEER researchers open doors to long-concealed stories of undocumented life in the midst of plenty. Those without status are respected experts in self-organisation, and can be supported to negotiate access to rights and services. In conclusion, one can highlight the vital transformative role played by migrant self-help organisations like Filmis and others, whose solidarity work has stepped up since the start of the COVID pandemic.

 

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Jacob Apostol is the co-founder and the current president of the Filipino Migrant in Solidarity (FILMIS) Association. He is a human rights advocate.

 

 

 

 

Helen Hintjens has been interested in pro-asylum advocacy for about 40 years now. She is inspired by the self-advocacy of those confronting current deterrence-based policies on migration and asylum.

 

 

Melanie (Joy) Escano is the Vice-President of Migrant Domestic Workers Union. She is also the co-founder and the current public relation officer of the Filipino Migrant in Solidarity (FILMIS) Association.

 

 

 

 

 

Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

 

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Addressing threats to scholars on the ground demands proactive measures from Academic institutions: Notes from fieldwork in Kashmir

Addressing threats to scholars on the ground demands proactive measures from Academic institutions: Notes from fieldwork in Kashmir

Fieldwork is the most critical, and perhaps, the most demanding component of research, especially in difficult and hazardous contexts such as active conflict zones or nations with authoritarian regimes.I started ...

Hope, Play, Relate: Changing narratives for greater solidarity and open civic space

Hope, Play, Relate: Changing narratives for greater solidarity and open civic space

Narratives or the stories we use to set our perceptions and experiences in a larger context of meaning are powerful tools for both supporting civic space and engagement and oppressing ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs or foreign researchers conduct fieldwork on behalf of more senior researchers; and in doing so, they also take over the risks that fieldwork poses. The practice of ‘risk and ethics dumping’ that was discussed at a roundtable session on safety and security for researchers at the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference should end, and research institutions and senior researchers should start feeling greater responsibility toward those they work with or employ, write Linda Johnson and Rodrigo Mena.

Balaji Srinivasan (Unsplash)

A quick glance at who is out collecting data in ‘the field’, including in remote and sometimes hazardous environments, is enough to make our point clear: the main executors of in-situ research (also known as fieldwork research) are local researchers and research assistants, sometimes together with junior or PhD researchers from research institutions in the Global North. These groups are being systematically and disproportionately exposed to safety and security issues linked to field research.

Senior and more experienced researchers from these institutions are not likely to be doing hands-on field work. Instead, they often lead projects, supervising those doing the fieldwork and providing advice on to how do fieldwork while keeping a safe distance from ‘the field’ itself. In cases where senior researchers do engage in field research, they usually do it with adequate resources and strong social and professional networks at hand. This protects them from the hazards of doing fieldwork.

Moreover, universities feel compelled to protect themselves from liability, but not their researchers from harm. University managers often approach security with the objective of protecting the university from liability. This means that entire countries and sometimes even continents can become inaccessible to international researchers, mainly by being declared off-limits due to a broad-brush approach in response to hazards identified, but not well understood, by ministry officials and/or university administrators. In reality, such hazards can often be geographically limited to relatively small areas, and relatively safe travel to much of the areas considered off-limits would be feasible, if only more detailed analysis of the actual situation were used in the risk assessment process, and a sound risk plan were developed.

A lack of concern

In her introduction to the topic at the roundtable on “Safety and security for university staff, students and research participants” that formed part of the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference, Thea Hilhorst from the ISS warned about  “risk dumping” on a large scale and discussed some of its dimensions. Risk dumping, which means that risks are diverted to others or simply ‘dumped’ on them, often takes place unintentionally, she argued. She also mentioned that junior staff, PhD candidates, or local researchers are less likely to be insured against risk or trained in risk mitigation, which makes it more difficult for them to identify, mitigate or confront the hazards they come across in the field. Such an insurance policy and appropriate training would also include potential risks for research participants and collaborators. Hilhorst thought that the following four things were crucial for improving the security and safety of researchers:

  1. Safety guidelines. These are essential for ensuring that researchers have a basic knowledge of risks in the field and how they can limit exposure to these.
  2. Safety training. Guidelines without training do not serve much purpose. Researchers with experience of hazardous contexts can help others understand some of the risks better.
  3. Strong safety and security support structures. Universities and research centers need to develop adequate protocols and structures to prevent and manage safety and security risks.
  4. Good insurance cover (including protection against so-called acts of God, i.e. natural hazards and conflict). Both international and local researchers, and those who work with them locally, should be protected in this manner.

What other panellists had to say:

Local researchers are often overlooked

Vagisha Gunasekara from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies argued that research policies rarely pay attention to the role of local researchers and enumerators, and the main researchers (principal investigators) fail to recognise that there are ethical issues to be resolved in this respect.

PhD researchers are worth their weight in gold…

Rod Mena from the ISS reminded us that PhD researchers play a vital role in collecting and analysing data for research projects led by more senior academics. He stressed this by asking the participants to imagine a research landscape without PhD researchers: huge swathes of research would never happen without them. However, he said, “although they are clearly vital for research, the approach to their safety is often cavalier at best”.

…but they are forced to put themselves at risk

Mena also pointed to the fact that most PhD researchers have limited resources to conduct fieldwork, thus making it necessary for them to opt for the cheapest options in terms of transportation, accommodation, and even food. This necessity to skimp on costs often increases risks, including to their safety and health.

The implementation of guidelines is important

Eric Beerkens from the Dutch funding division WOTRO Science for Global Development pointed out that his organisation requires adherence to the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, which is a step in the right direction, but feels that funding organisations like WOTRO could do more to ensure the implementation of regulations and to raise awareness about the possible risks involved in fieldwork and the need for protective measures.

Researcher exploitation reveals a colonial mindset

Finally, EADI president Henning Melber said that there is clear evidence of colonial mindsets in academia that lead to asymmetric power relations and unashamed exploitation of both PhD researchers and local researchers.

Collectively taking responsibility

All panellists agreed that it is time to end the (often unintentional) risk and ethics dumping in the field of development studies and to self-critically assess our policies and practices. Only by taking responsibility as an academic community can we ensure that important research in the future will be conducted according to high ethical standards and under safe conditions for all involved. The recent letter to the European Commission from many rectors’ conferences and university umbrella organisations in Europe on ‘Enhancing Research Excellence at African Universities through European/ African Cooperation’ signals an intention to collaborate more intensively on research with partners in the Global South. The need to improve our practices has never been greater.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.
Rodrigo Mena is assistant Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Governance.  Mena is Board Member of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and as convener of the Peace and Ecology in the Anthropocene commission at the International.

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Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto ...

Disasters, Dilemmas and Decisions: Notes from a monsoon fieldwork in Assam, India

Disasters, Dilemmas and Decisions: Notes from a monsoon fieldwork in Assam, India

Taking an ethnographic route to study disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards ...

Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Scholars taking notes during a lecture
Credit: IHSA

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

Participatory evaluation has been praised for engaging vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities (PwD). However, the inclusion of this group can be challenging and even self-defeating if carried out ...

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for ...

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.


Mausumi ChetiaAbout 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.

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Sometimes our research takes us to unexpected places. I spent the last weeks gluing my friends to fossil fuel corporations, getting lifted up and “bureaucratically displaced” by riot police, and ...

Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists ...

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises may move beyond humanitarianism. This article details the problematic of the application of certain research terminology and calls for a changing of lexicons in war-to-peace transitions.


Over the last two decades, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crises’ have come, one after another. There was eastern Congo, then Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, and Syria, now Yemen, and more are in between. These are indeed man-made disasters and emergencies, causing untold suffering. But in 2007, David Keen advised that care should be taken when applying the word “humanitarian” to these crises, because, first, it implies that the solution lies with humanitarian relief. Though humanitarian response may alleviate suffering, it will not solve problems. Second, the word ‘may prejudge the motives of interveners as altruistic, when they can be much more complicated’ (Keen, 2007: 1).

Other terms are increasingly less applicable these days. Take “civil war” or “internal war” – does it still apply to the growing number of conflicts today with no clear front lines, where protagonists are not internal to any single country, and with no clear beginnings and possibly no definite endings, too? A war is aimed at a political or military victory, or at gaining control of territory in the conventional sense. Yet many of today’s “wars” are different – in some, protagonists have even developed an interest in instability as they profit from the war economy. There are more cases today of peacebuilding efforts failing, but not because of the complex constraints faced by peacebuilders. Rather, certain powers want them to fail.

Battles today are fought not just by armies with chains of command, but also by all sorts of irregular militias, criminals, or armed civilians with little discipline or no structure at all. “Soldiers” today include children kidnapped from communities with disintegrating social networks or youngsters peer pressured to join armed gangs.

The “end” of civil wars did not necessarily mean an end to violence. Rather, it merely marked a shift from militarised to other forms of social violence, as disputes over land, resources, and local rule continued. Severine Autesserre, who documented the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the peace agreement has been signed, is intensely critical of the widespread use of the term “post-conflict”, because it obscures the primacy of land and other micro-level issues causing violence and producing anguish that were kept invisible and never resolved by the peace talks. She unpacks the methodological shortcomings of peacebuilding in the DRC that led to serious policy failures (Autesserre, 2010: 2).

In Central America, the end of militarised conflict often meant the beginning of criminalised violence. Monitoring by local and international groups such as the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Violence suggest that two countries with UN-brokered peace agreements in the 1990s – El Salvador and Guatemala – have more people dying today from violent crime (homicide and murder) than those killed in combat or incidents related to fighting during these countries’ civil wars. “Post-conflict” El Salvador suffers more violent deaths today than conflict-affected Iraq. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for a country that is officially not at war.

In addition, over 10% of the violent deaths recorded each year around the world are also attributed to manslaughter – a figure that includes the thousands of refugees and migrants from post-conflict countries who drown or are killed in attempts (labelled “illegal”) to move across territories, or to escape the transitions that are supposed to make life better for them.

So perhaps a first step in better framing war-to-peace transitions is to improve the lexicon in use. Caution is necessary when applying the terms so far listed. But more importantly, assumptions need to be seriously questioned. The expression “senseless violence” for example is a misnomer that divorces acts of violence from its context and ignores the telling details. Violence makes sense to its perpetrators – it could bring reputation, status, and meaning, not just utility.

Mark Duffield once posited that more recent examples of violence could simply be new and innovative ways of projecting political power. As Keen pointed out, famine and hunger, too (not just wars), could be politically manufactured to serve political and economic ends. Hence, violence is anything but pointless. Keen also rejected defining large-scale violent conflict in terms of a “breakdown of authority”. Citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he pointed out that ‘the problem was not so much that authority had broken down; rather, it was being imposed with ruthless and vicious efficiency.’ Hence, he argues that to automatically claim that authority has broken down where large-scale violent conflicts take place could be extremely damaging because it risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments that have cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions (2007: 2-3).

Changing lexicons is not just a matter of semantics. Dropping some terms and using new ones can help frame the problems, and the responses, differently. A report on “Challenges in the Sahel” by the development agency Christian Aid, published in late 2017, used the term “perfect storm” to refer to that extraordinary combination of poverty, violent conflict, corruption, criminality, and climate change that drive the crises in the region. This implies that stand-alone security interventions not coordinated with development actors or other state actors, and vice versa, may not deliver desired results, or can even cause inadvertent outcomes. Solutions need to be smarter.

Also introduced was the term “unusual actors”, to characterise politicians who are corrupt but nevertheless get genuinely elected, or smugglers hunted by the law that may be the only providers of employment in disintegrating local economies. They may also spoilers of the peace who are predators to some but are protectors to others. “Unusual”, because though they may be “bad guys”, they are somehow tolerated, or even considered “good guys” by others. It posits that dilemma – how should humanitarian and development agencies deal with “unusual actors”?

To conclude, working differently on war-to-peace transitions may require changing lexicons, or at least requires more circumspection in the application of certain terms. We need to become better at bracing for perfect storms, and in preparing for, or at least recognising, the presence of rather “unusual actors”. Finding more comprehensive solutions means laying all options out, including decisions to walk away at certain moments.


Image credit: ECHO/H. Veit



About the author:

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher at the ISS. 

 

Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

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During a recent field trip to South Sudan, a question haunted me: How can I tell the story of this place accurately without reducing in my research the lived experiences ...

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ISS hosts 16th Development Dialogue for early-stage researchers

The Development Dialogue, an annual event organized by and for PhD researchers, this year welcomes over 80 participants. The conference theme is “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticitzing Inequalities”. Does this sound intriguing, and do you want to know more? Perhaps you’re interested in attending some of the panels? This article provides a short summary of the conference.


The Development Dialogue (DD), an annual event for and by PhD students from across the globe, is taking place on 1 and 2 November 2018 at the ISS. It will bring together two renowned scholars and over 80 participants to share scholarly works and reflect on ideas and views around the topic “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticizing Inequalities”.

The 16th Development Dialogue will offer PhD students and other early-stage scholars working within the broad field of Development Studies the platform and space to revisit and bring back politics into the inequality debate in particular and development discourse in general as a way of advancing the course of global social justice.

What’s in a name?

This year’s focus finds resonance in the global call to tackle inequalities, which has intensified in some parts of the world, and hence, has undermined the attainment of a dignified and just society. In view of this, this year’s DD is focusing on the repoliticization of inequalities as a pertinent and overlapping issue in the development studies debate and in struggles for social justice.

The main motivation behind this year’s topic “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Re-Politicizing Inequalities” lies in the fact that although advances have been made in addressing various inequalities, the world is experiencing backlashes both at the national and global levels, on partial account of the emergence and/or convergence of multiple crises on the economic, environmental, humanitarian, and political fronts among others.

Moreover, responses to inequalities have largely been technocratic and simplistic, as they have repeatedly skirted around structural and institutional factors, which are at the core of these challenges. Therefore, the call to repoliticize inequalities challenges the overuse of the inequality rhetoric and demands a deeper inquiry and interrogation of the existing power relations, and the structures and institutions of (re)distribution that have engendered and sustained the disparities and divisions between and amongst societies.

It is an invitation to engage in the crucial debate on how to secure a world where the vulnerable and disadvantaged are able to obtain a fair share of the public good, claim their voice, and attain a secured sense of dignity.

What’s happening at the DD16?

Responses to the call for papers have been overwhelmingly as a good number of abstracts from PhD students and young scholars were received. We are expecting to host around 80 participants from at least 25 different countries. The scientific works to be presented will be put in fourteen different parallel panel sessions.

You can view the conference programme here

In addition to the parallel panel sessions, this year’s DD will host two renowned scholars as guest speakers: Prof. Barabara Harris-White of the University of Oxford, and Prof. Dzodzi Tsikata of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana and CODESRIA, who will both present keynote addresses during which they will share very exciting views on the topic in two different plenary sessions.

Professor Barbara Harriss–White is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College of the University of Oxford. Her research interests include the political economy of India and poverty and social welfare, particularly on the issues of destitution, disability, malnutrition, and gender-biased development in South Asia. She has a long-term interest in agrarian transformation in Southern India and has tracked the economy of a market town there since 1972. She held academic posts at the University of Oxford since 1987 until her retirement in 2011. She has been an adviser to the UK’S Department of International Development (DFID) and to seven UN organisations, as well as a trustee of the International Food Policy Research Institute and of Norway’s Institute for Environment and Development.

Professor Dzodzi Tsikata Dzodzi Tsikata is Research Professor and Director of the Institute of African Studies, (IAS) at the University of Ghana, Legon–Accra. Prior to assuming her current role, she was Professor at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), also at the University of Ghana. Since 2015, she has served as the President of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), after she was elected to that role at the 14th general assembly meeting which took place between 8-12 June 2015. Her academic interests include gender and development issues, as well as gender equity policies and practices.

The session of Prof. White will take place on 1 November at 09:00 in Aula B, and the session of Prof. Tsikata on 2 November at 11:00 in Aula B.

Together with the parallel panel sessions, the two plenary sessions therefore offer the intellectual platform and space where scholars can share their work with peers in a very friendly and relaxed environment. Indeed, participants can be assured that they will walk away after the DD not just with great feedback and an enhanced network of personal friends, but also with a sense of community with people coming from all over the world, and with whom they can continue to share and benefit from new ideas on development research.


 

The DD16 Organizing Committee would like to acknowledge the financial support received from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the European Association of Development Research and Training Institution (EADI), the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Erasmus Trustfonds. A special word of appreciation further goes to all individuals and institutional structures, particularly to the PhD community; ISS faculty members and administrative staff for the great sense of involvement, participation and support lent to the DD16 Organising Committee throughout the entire process of organizing the conference.

Authored by the DD16 Organizing Committee: Ana Lucía Badillo Salgado, Ben Yiyugsah, Emma Lynn Dadap-Cantal, Mausumi Chetia and Natacha Bruna.

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Economic diplomacy: bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change by Peter A.G. Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons

Economic diplomacy: bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change by Peter A.G. Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons

Economic diplomacy, although perceived as marginally important by neoclassical economists, is a highly relevant topic first and foremost because it works in practice, but also because it provides an essential ...

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year in office. However, his careful words hid an agenda that is hostile to most of us, and to academics in particular. As scholars, we have a responsibility to take notice, and to speak out. 


The SOTU Address – Trump’s doublespeak

During much of his SOTU address, Trump made an effort to reach Americans, beyond his more familiar, albeit dwindling ‘base’ of support, composed of evangelicals, the elderly and whites without a university degree. His presentation was peppered by American proverbs and even managed to come across as compassionate.

But gaps and contradictions blatantly revealed Trump’s doublespeak. While Trump refrained from referring to countries as “shitholes” as he had done a few weeks earlier, his contempt for foreign nations was evident. He praised the Iranian peoples’ “struggle for freedom”, while failing to mention the travel ban in place against all Iranians.

Trump also praised his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision condemned by most nations in the United Nations General Assembly. Trump said that “friends” of the US would receive support, while “enemies” would not. While these were not explicitly specified, there was a clear reference to how nations voted at the UN concerning Jerusalem.

Capping off a dizzying array of international law violations, Trump insisted that the notorious detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, associated with torture and indefinite detention without trial, would remain open. He affirmed that the US military would continue its operations in Afghanistan, ominously, under unspecified “new rules of engagement”.

So how is this all relevant for scholars?

The overall response from media commentators to Trump’s SOTU address was disappointing. Most focused on its tone rather than its content. In the Netherlands, some even referred to Trump’s address as “brilliant” and “politically, very clever”. The NRC Handelsblad offered perhaps the best commentary, emphasising its ‘polarising’ content, but this was an exception.

The fact remains that a significant majority of Americans have consistently disapproved of Trump’s job as president. There has been a public outcry in countries around the world, particularly after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So why have there been so few critical analysts, particularly in the mainstream media?

In my own observations at academic gatherings in the US and abroad, since Trump first came to office in January 2017, it appears that most academics tend to dismiss Trump, rolling their eyes, ignoring his statements, mocking him, or even suggesting that he doesn’t really have all that much power. A handful of academics have even openly supported him.

There are, of course, notable exceptions. Those in the immigration law field have written persistently on the Trump administration’s persecution of immigrants. Apart from the alternative media, such as Mondoweiss, Democracy Now and MSNBC, The Conversation has produced in-depth articles by scholars condemning the Trump administration’s policies. But even critical media outlets, such as De Correspondent in The Netherlands have acknowledged that, while news outlets have tended to reflect daily indignation, they have rarely produced sustained resistance to the policies of the Trump administration.

A position of ambivalence in these circumstances is not tenable. As Professor Harris Beider has poignantly observed: “we live in an age of volatility and scepticism … As academics we find ourselves in the dock of public opinion too … we as universities and academics can also be part of the problem”.

Accordingly, with the rise of ethno-nationalist administrations in the USA and the United Kingdom, Beider has issued an appeal to academics to be less self-absorbed and “to question received wisdom and follow the people rather than expect them to follow us”.

What Trump says publicly should matter a great deal to us, if only in view of the vast military and nuclear arsenal at his disposal and the message to other world leaders that Trump’s behavior should in any way be regarded as acceptable.

Trump’s specific threats to academics

Alongside general concerns around Trump’s policies, there are at least three specific examples that are pertinent to academics worldwide.

First, Trump’s travel ban on nationals from specific countries has made it impossible, and even dangerous for academics from these countries, some of whom are regarded as scholars at risk, to share their knowledge and in extreme cases obtain safe refuge in the United States. Several vice chancellors (rectors magnificus) of Australian universities have protested Trump’s travel ban, joining thousands of other scholars worldwide.

Second, while Congress has so far pushed back on Trump’s proposals to slash health research, Trump’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus concerning a link between carbon emissions and climate change is having a devastating global impact in restricting access to crucial research funding. Research funding cuts in other areas are also likely.

Third, the harassment of scholars by right-wing groups has been steadily rising against scholars, particularly following the election of Donald Trump. Such harassment is even described as “becoming normal” by the American Association of University Professors, which has set up an on-line platform for reporting incidents of harassment.

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Picture Credit: Newtown grafitti

This would not be the first time scholars have stood up in protest against regimes whose policies have threatened society at large, and academics specifically. This includes South Africa’s persecution of non-whites and critical scholars in the 1980s, the persecution of scholars by the government in Turkey and Israel’s persecution of Palestinian scholars.

Whether as scholars of climate change, international law, race relations or many other related areas, we should all be shocked. Alarmed. Indeed, appalled at Trump’s SOTU speech. And we should speak out at every opportunity, particularly outside our close-knit community that largely holds the same views we do.


Also see: Scholars at risk: precarity in the academe by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart


Picture credit: DonkeyHotey


JeffHandmakerISS_smallAbout the author:

Jeff Handmaker teaches law, human rights, development and governance and conducts research on legal mobilisation at the ISS. He is also an associate member of the Faculty of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal on Human Rights and a member of the EUR INFAR Project.