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?

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