Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pillars, Papers and Practicality

Thank you again for taking the time to read my blog. I realize that much of my last couple entries have been devoted to inane babble about New York (New York is pretty awesome), so I appreciate you bearing with me. For this one, I want to try something a little more focused. I realize that the vast majority of my friends are educated, intelligent and experienced in a variety of fields, and I would like to take advantage of that as well, and run a couple ideas past you guys. I will also edit this time. I have recently realized that I never regret editing, and I should really incorporate it into my life more. Not just in writing. One of the things I’ve been trying to do while I’m here in New York is find some contacts that I can use to do research for my Major Research Paper (which is like a Thesis, but I don’t have to defend it). I want to do something that will be useful for people working in “The Field”. (The Field is an abstract location where you interact directly with the beneficiaries of projects and programmes you are working on, rather than just reading the progress reports or looking at the pictures in a glossy booklet you stole from the UNDP office. For the record, I don’t steal.) Now, as a research parameter, “useful in the field” is clearly very broad (What is useful? What is “The Field”?), so let me try to narrow it down a bit more. I am interested in how international organizations manage human-caused disasters (intentional, civil, or political disasters; read wars, organized crime, terrorism, riots), especially in fragile or developing contexts. By studying the successes and failures of international efforts, and by applying concepts of disaster and emergency management, I want to be able to make recommendations for the management of future situations. When I explain this idea, many people’s first reaction is “Oh, that’s not what we do here.” Most people don’t think of conflicts, etc, as “disasters” (they think disasters are natural: earthquakes, famines, floods) and therefore managing them is not thought of as “disaster management”. I’ve had this discussion a bunch of times. Here is an, I hope, elucidatory quote from a book on social vulnerability and structural violence called "At Risk": "Disasters, especially those that seem principally to be caused by natural hazards, are not the greatest threat to humanity. Despite the lethal reputation of earthquakes, epidemics and famine, a much greater proportion of the world’s population find their lives shortened by events that often go unnoticed: violent conflict, illnesses, and hunger – events that pass for normal existence in many parts of the world, especially (but not only) in less developed countries (LDCs). Occasionally earthquakes have killed hundreds of thousands, and very occasionally floods, famines or epidemics have taken millions of lives at a time. But to focus on these (in the understandably humanitarian way that outsiders do in response to such tragedies) is to ignore the millions who are not killed in such events, but who nevertheless face grave risks. Many more lives are lost in violent conflict and to the preventable outcome of disease and hunger. Such is the daily and unexceptional tragedy of those whose deaths are through ‘natural’ causes, but who, under different economic and political circumstances, should have lived longer and enjoyed a better quality of life." So when an estimated five million people die in Congo as a result of poverty, rape, and hunger, as well as violence directly resulting from the ongoing conflict, that is a disaster. 5 million deaths, I would argue, is a bigger disaster than pretty much anything since World War II, including a large number of epidemics, tsunamis and hurricanes. Before that, the last comparable disaster was probably the bubonic plague. Don’t quote me on that please. 2 million people have died in the Sudanese Civil War that resulted in the recent creation of South Sudan. 500 000 plus have died in Somalia since that Black Hawk went down. Those are only deaths, too. Tens of millions have been displaced, lost their families, their livelihoods, been injured, raped, etc. And clearly, my focus here is central Africa, but this says nothing of ongoing civil/political disasters in Syria, Palestine, Mali… I don’t think anyone can argue that these are not disasters. So now that we agree on that (and thank you for still being here, those who agreed from the start), I think we can also agree that what the UN does, and the African Union, NATO, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, etc, etc, in conflict areas is absolutely disaster management. And indeed, it even fits the model of comprehensive emergency management (CEM). CEM, FYI, is a combination of Mitigation, Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery (look at that Paul I learned from you!). For emergency management to be successful, these five things should ideally occur at the same time. What that looks like practically is that while a community recovers from a disaster, they should be simultaneously mitigating, preventing and getting ready for the next one. To use a local (for me) example, instead of just building another Twin Towers, New York is building an uber hella bomb proof Liberty Tower, amping up the police and fire personnel in the city, and making everyone go through crazy customs on their way through the airport, all of which are designed not just to help the city recover from 9/11, but also to prevent and prepare for another attack, and reduce the potential for harm if another attack occurs (mitigation). (I should disclaim here that there is a huge series of debates among emergency managers about the idea of “homeland security”, the least of which is that mitigation and preparedness should not focus on the disaster that just happened but on the one that is most likely to happen next – so the Liberty Tower should really be stopping global warming and curing Ebola instead of resisting bombs. This was just a simplified example, so please don’t get carried away with the comments anyone). Back to my point: conflict management = emergency management. So what I have been exploring here in the big apple is how the UN manages complex humanitarian emergencies that involve human-caused disasters. I have met with a few very interesting people, and am planning to meet more, and I am gaining an idea of what is done, what can be done, and what “should” be done by the international community when it comes to managing human-caused disasters. It is very complex and incredibly broad. Everything from capacity building in conflict or fragile contexts to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, to military intervention is arguably part of the comprehensive emergency management of human-caused disasters. Even addressing injustice and inequality is part of it, because without injustice, wars wouldn’t start in the first place. In fact, some would say that addressing injustice is the MOST important. I would say, just as in CEM theory, all these things need to happen at the same time, as they are all pillars of an effective emergency management strategy. So here’s the problem: What should I study? I can’t say “the international community should do everything”. That would be either an incredibly short or an impossibly long research project. If I narrow my focus to the effectiveness of one certain intervention (say, for example, I study how effective reintegration of child soldiers by DPKO has been in western Congo) is that actually going to make a noticeable contribution? How much would this one little piece of knowledge strengthen the portico that is disaster management? Would it even do much for one pillar? In reality, my little contribution would probably just be a grain of sand mixed into the concrete that made the pillar. Of course, some research can be incredibly significant. If my hypothetical paper is a grain of sand, then I might argue that some research projects are more like rocks that got mixed into the concrete, so they bear a bit more of the weight of the pillar. Some bigger rocks, some smaller. That experiment with the dogs that salivated when the bell rang – that was definitely a huge rock in a psychology pillar. I mean, so huge and obvious that it probably disfigured the pillar. Same with that experiment with the people that got designated as prison inmates and the guards and they internalized their roles. I’m obviously not arrogant enough to think that my research could be a disfiguringly huge rock in an emergency management pillar, but it would be nice if it was noticeable. Or useful, I suppose. Structural. Like maybe a golf-ball-sized rock that is part of the foot at bottom of the pillar; you don’t see when you walk by it but it helps hold the thing up. Ok, that pillar thing got out of hand. Suffice to say that I am struggling with focusing my research ideas because I want my paper to be practical. Any insights or advice?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Happened to January?

So it’s been more than a month, and I suppose it is about time I write another blog. I have to make time for it apparently because I am so busy. Right now, I’m trying to fit it in between going for brunch/a snowy walk around Central Park with one of my co-interns John who in addition to interning at UNDP is also a spokesperson for UNICEF and Ono, who if I remember right is the country director of Save the Children in Pakistan, and meeting a group of Swahili students and native speakers at an African themed coffee shoppe in Manhattan called Bourbon Coffee. I am still loving life in New York. I feel like I always have a hundred things to do, and there is just not enough time in the day to do it all. When I have (much needed) downtime, I worry that I could be using the time to go see the Empire State building or visiting other interns or networking. Sometimes it can be tiring, but mostly its fun. This coming weekend, I have the option of going to Boston for a conference, going on a ski trip with some of the interns, or volunteering with Hurricane Sandy relief. So many great choices. Everyday at work I have been trying to go for lunch with people and go to interesting meetings or seminars in different parts of the UN. In order to finish my work, I often stay late, provided I don’t have some commitment after work. On Monday, I’m doing a kickboxing class (I desperately need to start exercising again – 99 cent pizza is killing me). Tuesday is my intermediate French Class and Wednesday is Debate Club. Thursday is one dollar drafts at McFadden’s pub. I usually spend at least nine hours a day at the UN, then hang out after. It’s a good night when I get home before midnight and then my alarm goes off at 6:30 for work. I almost never have a chance to cook, hence the 99 cent pizza, but I have been pretty good about eating breakfast and I usually have a stash of vegetables to eat in the fridge at work for when I don’t have time to go to the cafeteria. Everyone here is very career oriented. It is strange sometimes how much weight is placed on your academic background and your qualifications. And everyone is constantly networking. Interestingly, that does not make things unfriendly. We all want to have a good time, but we also all want to get the most out of their short time here. It’s not a competition; we support each other. When you meet a new intern, everyone goes down through the same list of questions: What’s your name? What country are you from? What department are you interning at? How long are you here for/have you been here for? What is your degree in/what school do you/did you go to? What do you want to do for your career? If you know someone that would be a good contact for that person, you let them know, and they do the same for you. Then the conversation usually finishes with something like “do you know about the trip to the Museum of Modern Art this Friday?” I’m now a member of the UN Interns Social Committee and an admin on both the UN Interns NYC facebook group and the UN Interns Discussion Group, so I’m often the one telling people where the next event is. Who knew I was so social. In addition to networking, partying and going to lunch, I have been doing a lot of work with the Development Account. We have some very interesting projects that we are reviewing right now that work with governments in developing countries to help them gain the capacity to handle potentially detrimental issues they face like poverty, lack of housing and infrastructure, statistics, macroeconomic policy, etc. Actually, Ian Lewis, you would absolutely kill this job. I’m looking for a replacement in April, so if you want to come work at the UN, for free, let me know and I can put in a good word. It’s really fun. If anyone else is interested, also let me know. I’d love to help someone I know get this opportunity. Anyway, we still have review group meetings almost every day and I take notes and help prepare funding proposals. I have learned a lot about proposal writing, which I think will be quite helpful in the future. There is really an art to project writing, as one woman said in a recent meeting. She was telling my supervisor that the Development Account really ought to do some training courses on project writing so that they don’t have to get tons of e-mails back from the DA complaining about how they have “excessive budgetary reliance on outside expertise” or “an illogically formulated problem tree”. They talk a lot about “log frames” in the review group meetings, which I have come to understand very well. I believe it is short for logical framework, and is essentially the logical way that the objective, expected accomplishments, indicators of achievement and activities work together to make a cohesive project. It is all very academic in way, and I spend the large part of my work day sitting at a computer and drinking coffee. But it is very invaluable for someone interested in the kind of career that I am. Now those of you who know what my degree is might well ask how this all relates to Emergency Management. I have definitely asked myself that question. I would say that, and I will need to answer it in an essay if I want to get credit for this work experience. So I would argue that directly, it doesn’t. Indirectly, good governance is the only way that developing countries can be expected to take responsibility for disaster mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. For example, the new governments in South Sudan and Somalia need help with disarmament and reintegration of combatants, and conversion of the government from one that relies military authority to one that is able to provide justice, healthcare and education. These kinds of programs are not only capacity building but also emergency management. Along the same lines, one of the biggest factors in the impact of a disaster (whether its an earthquake, a war or global warming) is the structural vulnerabilities of people affected. Capacity building projects help reduce this vulnerability, and therefore the effects of disasters, by giving governments, civil society and other stakeholders the tools they need to reach the people in the most vulnerable positions and increase their resiliency. So there. Rant over. Before I go, let me think if there have been any other noteworthy stories lately. I went to the Museum of Natural History and saw the dinosaur bones. And I think the place where Ross and Rachael hooked up on their first date. Shut up I know it’s fiction. Shanthi, an intern from India/Dubai and I ended up getting lost from everyone so we went for dinner just the two of us and had a nice time. She is very interesting, and she loved my Africa stories. We also had a couple of excellent party-type outings in the last few weeks, including one amazing night where McFadden’s went crazy and people were dancing on the bar and stuff. Christine, my Swedish co-intern is an incredible dancer. Seriously, Christine, you have a talent! It was also the night that I hung out with some New York City Fire Fighters, for those who have seen my facebook wall post. They were all quite nice looking. One was talking to me and Kara and Christine and said that all our English was really good. Considering I was from Canada and Kara is Australian and Christine is Swedish. Christine was like, “you know that comment only applies to me, right? Because they speak English in Canada and Australia.” He didn’t know that. It was quite hilarious for us. Last weekend I went out with John and Yuki and a couple of John’s friends, Annie from Australia and Jasmijn from Holland, and some of Yuki’s New York friends, including the first guy I’ve met who is actually from New York. We went to some really fun places they knew in the lower east side and had a really good time there as well. Last night Yuki and John and Annie and their new roommate Jeremy all hung out and had a few drinks and chatted. It was all us lofty UN types and then Jeremy who is a high fashion photographer. So he was an interesting wrench in our self-congratulatory idealism. He said that he used to want to be a war photographer, but then he realized that humanitarian photography is just as voyeuristic as fashion photography, and at least they don’t pretend otherwise in the fashion world. The ethics of humanitarianism are very interesting to me, so we had a good conversation. Shade, I talked to him about you. I’m sure you can imagine how that conversation made me think of you. Well, I think that’s all the major bullet points. Time to move on to another one of my many pending tasks. Hope you are all having a wonderful winter. Georgia