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Archiving border(ing) knowledge through networking

By Rita Lambert, on 20 October 2022

By Rita Lambert, Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou and Jessie Sullivan

Apart from legal categories and physical markers delineating the limits of nation states and transnational configurations, borders are also socially productive places (Green 2010) fostering experimentations with collaborative models of coexistence. These often develop through cross-cultural, agentive practices that shape, challenge and reconfigure their effects. What kind of knowledge is being produced in borderscapes and how can it support more inclusive and sustainable futures? How and why is it threatened? How can we collect and use this knowledge to inform better migration policies and refugee reception?

Given that population displacement due to conflict and climate change is increasing, a qualitative analysis of borderwork is imperative for future planning. In the Hotspot action-research project[1] we seek to answer these questions by drawing from the experience of five Greek islands close to Turkey, where the life of inhabitants has been shaped by the humanitarian reception crisis that developed within their shores. Following the arrival of over 1 million people escaping conflict, violence and unsafe living conditions in 2015, the islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos and Samos (Figure 1) were designated as ‘Hotspots’ by the EU, becoming one of Europe’s more securitized borderfronts. Approaching the five islands as a comparative interactive system and involving independent care practitioners working in them as project partners, we attempt to map the evolution of border processes and practices, using participatory research methodologies that focus on reflexivity and interconnection.

 

Figure 1: Map of five Aegean islands ( Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos) designated as hotspots

 

Bordermaking, innovation and displacement of knowledge

Bordermaking is a process in constant flux, marked by violence, enclosures, shifts in notions and practices of care and hospitality, of legal concepts and categories such as internationally defined rights, as well as by resistance and social innovation. As a new mode of governance in the Aegean, it has had profound social, political, and environmental consequences for local societies, and for the neoliberal management of migration more broadly. Historically, the Aegean islands have been loci of transnational encounter, and in the past seven years they have fostered multiple experimentations with innovative, sustainable, and re-humanising care practices in response to insufficient humanitarian/governmental aid and increasing bordering restrictions.

The care innovations that have been identified by our project partners in the research (Figure 2), share five key characteristics that are important for designing care provision in wider contexts : (1) inclusivity – connected with the ability to both provide for communities and include them in decision making; (2) equitable and fair participation of recipients in the care initiative; (3) embeddedness in the physical, economic, and social environment to benefit the local context – wellbeing, economy, and ecosystem; (4) capacity building, both short- and long-term of stakeholders involved; and (5) sustainability, by centring flexibility and adaptation capacity to overcome challenges and remain operative over time. Understanding how these characteristics are maintained within an increasingly hostile environment and how people in the Aegean experience and mitigate the effects of the EU’s evolving border policies, hold broader lessons for socially sustainable practices of living with migration.

 

Figure 2: Extract from selected initiatives in the island of Chios

 

Despite the depth of knowledge and experience that exists in this context, we observe that this valuable knowledge is being displaced. Analysing the interaction between top-down and bottom-up practices by plotting them on a timeline spanning from 2015 until now, the research evidenced how the institutionalisation of the hotspot approach goes hand in hand with increasing bureaucratisation and criminalisation of solidarity networks and other independent care initiatives. In parallel, we also observe that the presence of Frontex – the EU Border Agency – on the islands since 2015 has not prevented border-crossing deaths and illegal pushbacks, which have instead radically increased since 2019, highlighting the crucial role of independent practitioners in monitoring legal violations.

Prior to 2015, migrant detention facilities operated on some of the islands. Border-crossers were largely treated by authorities as illegal and were swiftly transported to the mainland, where they had a chance to apply for asylum, work undocumented until they were able to apply for residency papers, or continue their journey into Northern Europe at their own risk. While the islands acted as the physical EU border and entry point, the legal border defining the first country of entry in the EU as the one a person could legally claim asylum in was instituted in Brussels,[2] and was implemented in Athens.  Following the arrival of an unprecedented number of refugees in 2015, local authorities and the few international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) operating on the islands at the time, were unequipped and unable to effectively respond to their multiple needs (Rozakou, 2017). Civil society stepped in to provide emergency care, organising projects in solidarity with border-crossers, that further diversified with the arrival of international volunteers. Dozens, if not hundreds of independent non-profit organisations mobilised or were created for this purpose. The European Commission responded to this infrastructural gap with the introduction of the hotspot approach, coming into effect in 2016 with the opening of five Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) on Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos and Samos. It was coupled with the release of humanitarian funds through set contracts with listed INGOs and a selected number of national NGOs, that subsequently begun operating on the islands.

The hotspot was conceived as a camp structure and a legal mechanism for the registration of people on the move, where all relevant EU agencies – Frontex, EASO, Europol and Eurojust – were concentrated. While its proposed purpose was a more effective and humane approach to migration management, the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016 recognising Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ for the return non-Syrian nationals, imposed illegal geographical movement restrictions to incoming migrants, turning RICs into captivity devices and the islands into a liminal territory through the suspension of their rights (Papoutsi et al. 2018). This led to the subsequent entrapment of thousands of people in dehumanizing and lethal living conditions in camps such as Moria for indeterminate periods of time, paving the way for a systemic adoption of illegal pushback tactics[3], and more recently, for the construction of prison-like closed camp facilities.

 

Through state-enforced institutionalisation of care provision, the role of independent NGOs and civil society groups is intentionally diminished, though many recognised needs are still not covered. Moreover, several independent aid workers supporting refugees were criminalised as ‘human traffickers’. As a result of increasing criminalisation and restricted access to the new closed camps, many independent NGOs have recently stopped operating. These escalating hostile conditions have created an anti-social environment where migrants, volunteers, and local people on the hotspot islands have become less able to work together sustainably, with vital knowledge about service provision and the migration experience of the hotspot approach being ‘lost’ with each person who moves away or moves on.

 

Participatory archiving through networking

A qualitative analysis of the evolution of the securitization/care border nexus does not only salvage a piece of transnational world history, but also allows us to envision more sustainable futures rooted in the praxis of the present. Beyond documenting institutional and policy shifts, it is imperative to record the multiple perspectives and experiences of the social actors involved in them overtime, to recognise their long-term social effects. Archiving and critically analysing this transient knowledge can, in turn, inform the design of better policy and care provision. However, conducting research in situations in constant flux, such as this one, presents several methodological and ethical challenges. The continuous turn-around of people on the move and many of the care actors themselves, puts knowledge on innovative practices that carry important leanings, at risk. The increasing criminalisation of both refugees and independent civic actors adds extra pressure to an already volatile context, pushing us to think beyond the notion of ‘doing no harm’, towards devising methodologies that promote sustainable and supportive research practices.

Adopting an engaged, participatory approach to archiving that involves local actors as knowledge producers can help us identify knowledge gaps, co-design locally relevant research categories and produce spaces for collective reflection that are often lacking in emergency contexts. Research approached in this way can contribute to better archiving practices in rapidly shifting contexts and to processes of healing through collective remembrance centring marginalised voices. It can also support resilience, allowing for challenging experiences to be unpacked and reflected upon in a controlled and caring environment. This engaged approach to knowledge production can lead to the creation of sustainable practitioner networks by connecting actors through continuous knowledge exchange, action and advocacy coordination across islands, civic society, humanitarian and academic spaces.

Archiving through networking was a central research method from the start of the Hotspot action-research project; from the initial stage of identifying relevant analytical categories, through to data collection and analysis. The core research team network involved foreign and native cross-disciplinary academic researchers and independent care practitioners working on the five islands. The latter were selected based on the independent and holistic nature of the projects they worked in and their current knowledge of the bordering context. We subsequently met regularly online over several weeks to share experiences, ideas and epistemological lenses and co-establish the research framework. In order to document the evolution of the hotspot approach we adopted a longitudinal, essentially decolonising, method that materialised in the collective construction of a timeline spanning from 2015 until the spring of 2022, that included the different organisations that operated on the islands, alongside key local, regional and national events, policy and political shifts and human rights violations (Video 1).

 

Video 1: Extract from timeline showing main events in each of the five islands and the evolution of the hotspot approach and changes to RICs.

 

For data collection on each island, project partners mobilised active and former local care networks and networked across boundaries, acting as and reaching through other gate keepers, former care practitioners and displaced people, populating the timeline with multiple and diverse temporal accounts. In that way, the timeline acts both as a reconstruction of the evolution of bordering processes and as a space of shared memory for each island, including local voices and those of people that have lived and worked on them, that have shaped and have been shaped by the bordering experience. Although certainly incomplete, it allows for a cross-comparison between islands and a reading of the dialectical interaction between policy shifts and their on-the-ground effects over time, which can be analysed in several ways. For the purpose of this project, we focused on a qualitative analysis of the development of care provision, colour-coding data based on the type of care provided and their organisational form; solidarity, grassroots humanitarian, EU-funded, governmental, etc. This allowed us to understand the kind of needs that were identified by the different actors, the various ways that care provision was organised and how it was affected by subsequent policy changes.

The feedback on the method of collecting data and archiving through networking from each island, was overwhelmingly positive. New care providers had the chance to familiarise themselves with older practices and care actors, bringing them together into a fertile dialogue that validated previously ‘silenced’ experiences and allowed healing through collective reflection. An expanded network focusing on alliance-building across islands and partners was established during our physical workshops in Athens, where we invited academics from the Aegean Observatory into the conversation, that have the capacity to actively maintain and strengthen this alliance for the future. Our discussions focused on new learnings from collected data and on how we can work together to mitigate the effects of increasing bordering hostility through coordinated monitoring and advocacy.

 

Figure 3: April 2022 workshop in Athens with the five NGOs (Samos Volunteers, Zaporeak, Echo100 Plus, Glocal Roots and Refugee Biriyani and Bananas) to presenting selected initiatives in their island.

 

Conclusion

Exposing the unorthodox colonial practices that continue to disenfranchise refugees, local people and territories becomes pertinent, as displacement defines the future. Placing particular attention on how knowledge erasures occur unintentionally, but also as part and parcel of a bordering strategy that institutionalizes the hotspot approach, is key for exposing and understanding ‘colonial’ tactics and raising awareness on what is at stake. In the case of the Aegean islands, at stake is the loss of a wealth of knowledge for doing things differently – more humanely, equitably, and sustainably. Recovering, protecting and continuously learning from this knowledge requires methodologies that feed into live archives, fostering and strengthening knowledge exchange networks and the inclusion of multiple voices, especially of those that are typically excluded or less heard in decision making. Beyond drawing learnings for policy design and care provision, such methodologies can also better support the reconstruction of the long-term social memory of contested and multifaceted governance periods marked by violent separation, as well as by cross-cultural contact, collective resistances and social ingenuity. Equally important when conducting research in such contexts, is the need to move beyond ‘doing no harm’, by conceiving research processes as healing and empowering for the different actors dealing with the effects of bordering on a daily basis.

Notes

[1] The project is led by Dr Rita Lambert with Ioanna Manoussaki-Adampoloulou and Jessica Sullivan from UCL, in collaboration with the University of Deusto (Dr Edurne Bartolome Peral) and five NGOs working in Greece (Samos Volunteers, Zaporeak, Echo100 Plus, Glocal Roots and Refugee Biriyani and Bananas).  The project was funded by UCL Knowledge Exchange and Innovation grant and aims to support institutional memory and create a platform for transdisciplinary knowledge exchange between academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CBOs) working in/and from Greece on the refugee crisis.

[2] For a critical approach to the Dublin regulations, see https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/MPIe-Asylum-DublinReg.pdf

[3] https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/07/04/violent-and-illegal-migrant-pushacks-must-end-now-eu-warns-greece


References
 

Green, S. 2010. ‘Performing Border in the Aegean’. Journal of Cultural Economy 3(2): 261–278.

Papoutsi, A., Painter, J., Papada, E., and Vradis, A. 2018. ‘The EC hotspot approach in Greece: creating liminal EU territory’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, pp.1-13. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1468351

Rozakou, K. 2017. ‘Solidarity humanitarianism: The blurred boundaries of humanitarianism in Greece’.  Allegra Labhttps://allegralaboratory.net/solidarity-humanitarianism/

Tren Maya: high hopes and contested development in the Yucatan Peninsula

By Naji P Makarem, on 24 September 2021

Authors: Naji Makarem, Étienne von Bertrab and Alessio Koliulis

This year our students in the MSc Urban Economic Development embarked on our Overseas Practice Engagement (OPE) by focusing their attention on the Tren Maya project in Mexico, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s flagship development project. The Tren Maya project is poised to connect and develop 19 towns and cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, the South-East region of Mexico. Students were split into six groups, with two student groups focusing on the potential impact of the train on three distinct locations: Mérida, one of the region’s largest cities, San Francisco de Campeche, a smaller port city with a run-down economy, and Xpujil, a small community planned to become an urban centre.

Students found themselves immersed in literature about Mexico and the Tren Maya as well as primary research in the form of stakeholder interviews, conducted with our partners at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana – Xochimilco, a prestigious public university in Mexico City. They also participated in a series of professionally-interpreted live sessions with stakeholders based in Yucatan and Mexico City. This allowed live interaction between our international students and stakeholders without language being a barrier.

Current route of the Tren Maya and proposed stations. As with the overall project, the route is having modifications as excavations reveal valuable archaeological sites, technical challenges are reassessed, but also as the project meets social and political resistance in some locations. Image: FONATUR

What makes this research particularly interesting is the wide spectrum of stakeholders we engaged with, from indigenous Mayan and environmental activist groups concerned about the social and environmental impact of the project, to government and international development representatives who believe the project is unique in Mexico’s history with its pro-poor approach. AMLO, who is originally from the region, claims that this project is different to past development projects that have been widely seen by the people as exploitative and destructive of the environment. Will this project be any different? This question to a great extent has shaped the research of UED MSc students at the DPU.

In San Francisco de Campeche, the organisation Colectivo Tres Barrios has opposed the relocation of their homes and brought successful appeals. A recent decision to relocate the station means the train will no longer enter the heart of the city and hundreds of residents will continue to live in their traditional neighbourhoods. Photo: Arturo Contreras (Pie de Página)

 

It became very apparent that Mexico’s contested history has left its mark on the region in the form of dis-trust of the government and economic actors, including trans-national corporations, and for good reasons: the development model has so far benefitted only a few and the territory has been significantly altered at the expense of local communities, affecting traditional ways of life and of seeing the world. While the government aimed to have (for the first time in the country) an indigenous consultation process for the project in late 2019, it did not meet the standards to ensure a prior, free, informed and culturally adequate consent. Subsequently, the decision to involve the army in its construction, and in the running of the train, has triggered further concerns. The government claims the decision aims at impeding a privatisation of the train in subsequent administrations, something that can be understood considering the country’s troubled past with highly corrupt and problematic privatisation of infrastructure and services.

Some indigenous communities are concerned about losing their lands and communal ways of life, and others are concerned about environmental devastation which they anticipate from a reduction in transport costs for commodities in the region, through the unsustainable extraction of finite natural resources and unsustainable agricultural practices that cause deforestation and pollute the land and waters with toxic chemicals such as synthetic pesticides. Another concern is the anticipated growth in tourism which in the region’s main tourist centre, Cancún, has brought a significant increase in crime and inequality. The question of development for whom and how became a cross-cutting concern of all six research groups.

Will the Tren Maya project simply perpetuate the inequality, violence, and environmental degradation characteristic of past tourism-led development projects in the region, or is this indeed a new era for Mexico where development is aligned with the needs of people and the environment? Anti-capitalist movements such as the Zapatistas (the EZLN) would argue that all state and corporate interventions in the region disrupt their autonomy and are by the very nature of the capitalist system exploitative and violent. They want to expand horizontal models of self-determination outside the domain of state institutions. Other indigenous groups and community organisations echo these concerns which at some level resonate with many Mexicans but are open to engaging with the project to ensure it respects and promotes their way of life and their environment and that it creates meaningful opportunities for their communities.

While sceptical in a context of high levels of distrust in government and corporate institutions, interviews with community leaders shed light on their cautious optimism as they imagine ways they and their communities could benefit from the Tren Maya and the opportunities it may bring to them. The people in the region are predominantly in favour of the Tren Maya when framed as a yes or no to the project in principle. This the government argues is proof of support for the project.

Many national and transnational companies are involved in the project, considered the largest ongoing infrastructure development project in Latin America. The winning consortia for building the trains themselves ensured these will be built with significant national components in Mexico, in the impoverished state of Hidalgo. Photo: Government of Mexico.

 

What the community organisations have done is carve a wedge between this black or white approach and shed light on the all-important question of how. It is not simply a question of building the train line or not, it is a question they argue of whether the project will ultimately benefit the people or not, which is determined by the intentions and plans and ways of thinking of those implementing the project and its associated development strategies and initiatives.

Our students quickly understood the significance of their engagement and sought to bridge gaps of understanding and dialogue between indigenous community and environmental groups on one hand and the government institutions and their international development partners such as UN Habitat, on the other.

UED will continue its OPE working on the Tren Maya project for the next few years, as it accompanies the project and hopefully contributes to achieving its noble stated aims.

 

We want to thank all our team: Professor Violeta Núñez, Rocío Itzel Sánchez, Rodrigo Migoya, and DPU alumna Sofía Fernández, in Mexico, our translator, DPU alumnus George Azariah-Moreno, Jing Zhang, and each of our students in the cohort 2020-21, for their meaningful engagement despite the remote nature of this first year of the OPE. They are listed below in alphabetical order: Aisha Abdi,  Aya Aboelenen,  Ellen Ahn,  Izzudin Al Farras,  Saad Alsabah,  Abdullah Arshad,  Juliano Cavalli De Meira,  Mao Chen,  Qingya Cheng,  Chung Ching Lo,  Armando Espitia Arevalo, Tanyeli Guler,  Heesu Jeon,  Tanya Kasinganeti, Adha Khazina Kazmi,  Tatsunari Kubonishi,  Fasheng Liang,  Hope McGee,  Consolata Ndungu,  Yasin Omar Ashley Richardson,  Hoodo Richter,  Amin Rirash,  Qi Ru,  Yasmeen Safaie,  Shamira Sendagala,  Shuqi Su,  Genevieve Sundaresan,  Alia Tolba,  Yan Xu,  Jiaying Xue,  Xinyue Yi,  Binyu Wang,  Siyu Wang and  Dixuan Zhao.

How Research Creates More Inclusive Spaces: Bar Elias, Lebanon

By h.baumann, on 12 November 2019

Co-authored by Joana Dabaj

Originally published by UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

It is not every day that academics plant trees, paint pavements, or install park benches. But that is exactly what I, and other researchers from the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and other parts of UCL, did when we recently completed a project in Bar Elias, a refugee-hosting town in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

Our project was a long-term collaborative engagement with local residents that resulted in tangible changes to the local urban fabric. Along the main road at the entrance to the town, we enhanced pedestrian safety, mobility and accessibility for all, created child friendly spaces suitable for gathering and sitting in the shade, and rehabilitated a dilapidated public park. Based on participatory research with the community, this “spatial intervention” aimed to address problems articulated by Lebanese residents as well as Palestinian and Syrian refugees, found in their urban space.

A Town Transformed

Located half way between Beirut and Damascus, and only 15 km from the Syrian border, Bar Elias has been transformed by the influx of Syrian refugees – gradually turning it from an agricultural village into a city. In addition to increased construction inside the town’s urbanising space, over one hundred informal tented settlements now dot the outskirts of the city. Tensions have increased since the number of refugees has risen to the point that they outnumber local residents. But on the other hand, international aid has started to bring several positive changes too, with a hospital, a dispensary and a new solid waste sorting and treatment plant, built in recent years.

Our partner, London-based, non-profit design studio CatalyticAction, has been implementing participatory projects enhancing community cohesion in the Beqaa for over four years. Their long-standing engagement with the community and the trust they had already built with local actors and the municipality was a key asset in making this project happen, especially in the relatively short project time frame of 23 months. It allowed them to bring on board all relevant local actors and negotiate successfully between them.

Participatory Planning

One of the first things CatalyticAction did in this project was recruit a team of highly motivated Citizen Scientists from the Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian communities of Bar Elias. These local researchers in Bar Elias were trained in basic spatial and social science research methods as well as research ethics (skills they first applied during the Development Planning Unit’s SummerLab in 2018 – a workshop in Bar Elias, 2018 – which focused on questions of public space in the town).

The second phase of our work with Citizen Scientists was a participatory workshop on the links between infrastructure and vulnerability conducted in October 2018. The participants, who ranged from age 18 to 69 and represented all nationalities living in Bar Elias, learned and applied research methods including participatory mapping, semi-structured interviews, and street observation in order to analyse the infrastructural challenges of the town and propose ways of addressing them.

Following the workshop, CatalyticAction gave participants’ ideas shape by translating them into a specific design. In December, the draft design was presented to participants and the public for another round of feedback. CatalyticAction also presented the findings and proposals to the Bar Elias municipality and negotiated conditions of implementation that took their existing plans into account. For instance, the municipality had planned to turn the dilapidated public space behind the hospital into a parking lot. At the same time, the revitalisation of this neglected area was a key aspect of the workshop participants’ vision for a city centre that was safe, welcoming and inclusive. By devising a new design in which only a smaller portion of the area was turned into parking space, we were able to reach a compromise that worked for everyone.

Implementation

After a long and wet winter in Lebanon, which did not permit construction work, the implementation took place in May 2019 along the road from the Clock Tower marking Bar Elias’ central square to the main road’s intersection with the Beirut-Damascus Highway.

Public spaces for gathering: A large circular seating area was built on a wide pavement next to the medical dispensary, where patients often wait for their appointment but do not have shade or benches. To change this, we discouraged cars from parking on the pavement through the removal of ramps and the creation of parking spaces behind the dispensary. To create sufficient shade, we installed a metal screen to cover the seating area. We laser-cut the aluminium panels in such a way that the shadows created spells our phrases highlighted as important by the local researchers and the community members who participated in the October workshop. They showcase values and hopes for Bar Elias such as “Bar Elias – the mother of strangers, cleanliness and togetherness”. While the benches themselves are made of concrete, and involve play elements for children, they are also covered in colourful mosaics made by two artists – sisters Nour and Amani Al-Kawas, whose mother is from Bar Elias. These were made from leftover ceramic tiles collected at a local tile shop. Beyond this main seating area, several blocks for resting were added along the road together with smaller shades. In addition, we planted trees creating much-needed shade for pedestrians and shopkeepers, as well as shades made of recycled materials.

(c) CatalyticAction – before/after image of seating area

(c) CatalyticAction – shade from recycled materials

 

Accessibility and safety: The sidewalk along the Bar Elias main road is up to 60cm high in some places, making it very difficult to navigate. Because of this, and because cars often park on the pavement, many pedestrians walk on the road, exposing themselves to speeding cars. In order to facilitate better access – especially for the elderly, those with mobility impairments, and parents pushing strollers – we put in place a total of 15 pedestrian ramps onto the pavements.

(c) CatalyticAction – woman with stroller using newly installed ramp

In addition, we installed three speed humps in key locations of this area used by many pedestrians throughout the day. The location of the speed humps was agreed together with the municipality. To encourage children to use the sidewalks, we painted floor games along the sidewalks, adding colours and playfulness. Along the road, street signs were added to locate important areas: showing the Dayaa’ / town centre, the taxi stand with its new benches, the rehabilitated public park, as a sign marking the main shaded seating area, which we named Dar or Abode. We also installed spotlights overlooking the Dar and the public garden.

(c) CatalyticAction – signage point out the Dayaa’/town centre

Rehabilitated park: A public green space just off the main road that had once served as an important public space for the town had fallen into disrepair with the construction of the hospital and the new medical dispensary. We organised a collective clean-up session to free the area of rubbish and hired gardeners to remove the overgrowth, revealing some beautiful trees and bushes. Then we planted additional trees including an olive tree, and plants including rosemary. Together with the Citizen Scientists, we also installed three wooden benches, which were painted in collaboration with children and made at a local carpenter’s shop.

(c) CatalyticAction – rehabilitated green space

To mark the entrance to the newly-revitalised park, a Jasmine arch was installed along the main road and a pathway was paved to make it accessible. This way, users of the hospital and medical dispensary as well as visitors and staff will be able to easily recognise a space they can use to relax and gather, shielded from the traffic and noise of the main road. While passers-by interviewed by Citizen Scientists about their expectations expressed concerns about the maintenance of the rehabilitated green space, the municipality has already agreed to take responsibility for its upkeep. During construction, the municipality of Bar Elias had already shown its support for this work, sending trucks and workers to remove the rubbish and water new plants. Two weeks after the space was inaugurated, the municipality also built a water well for the park. Employees of the medical dispensary were so happy with the new benches and path that they expanded the intervention themselves to include additional benches and planters along the new path.

During the implementation of this project, different community activities took place. For example, collecting and reusing plastics to form the smaller shade structures, painting the benches and painting a mural. The mural, in collaboration with The Chain Effect, an initiative aiming to encourage cycling in Lebanon, transformed a previously rough wall into a colourful wall at the entrance of the road.  The spatial intervention was inaugurated on a busy Ramadan evening through an interactive performance by The Flying Seagull Project , near the main seating area where children and parents joined in for a fun and memorable night.

(c) CatalyticAction – mural painting

Knowledge transfer:  An important aspect of the intervention was the joint learning, as well as sharing skills. The intervention has built the capacity of the Citizen Scientists and other residents to analyse problems, has encouraged other members of the community to participate in this work, think about diverse identities, and negotiate collective solutions. This project has led to the creation of a social infrastructure which is a public good for the entire city. There are also examples of local members of the community using this project to share knowledge elsewhere. One local Syrian researcher who worked as a school teacher in Bar Elias before moving back to her hometown in Syria implemented workshops with Syrian students at a local school. The children learned about the importance of recycling, reusing and taking care of the environment. Through discussion and arts and craft, they learned how to make a beautiful tree out of plastic and other discarded material. They also reflected on uses of the streets and how they would like to change them.

Next Steps

Now that the spatial intervention is complete, we will focus on monitoring its impact on the way Bar Elias residents turn this public area into a social space. Over the coming months, they will monitor the usage of the new spaces at regular intervals. This will allow us to track the impact of the participatory spatial intervention and make adjustments in the future if necessary.

Currently, a project funded by UCL’s Grand Challenges programme on Migration & Displacement is enabling the Citizen Scientists to further develop their skills. Through a partnership with CatalyticAction and  Salam Ya Sham, an arts organisation founded by Syrian refugees, local researchers are learning to use film-making as a research tool. They are now in the process of making several short films about the infrastructural challenges facing Bar Elias.

(c) Salam Ya Sham – Citizen Scientist Moayad Hamdallah filming at the Bar Elias waste sorting plant, July 2019

In addition to ensuring maintenance through the municipality and other actors, CatalyticAction have also been in discussion with a local NGO about working together on further development of the public space and its activation. Thus, although the British Academy-funded project ends this month, our ongoing engagement with the town – and especially the Citizen Scientists we’ve worked with for close to a year now – will be enabled through the RELIEF Centre, whose Vital City research stream will also trial small-scale spatial projects to pilot urban improvements for both refugees and hosts.

(c) CatalyticAction – new shaded seating area with mosaic


Further Reading:

Find out more about the participatory research process that led to this intervention: Collaborative team from IGP and DPU facilitate a participatory spatial intervention in Lebanon, 8 January 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL

A blog by Professor Caroline Knowles, the Director of the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure programme about witnessing the participatory spatial intervention in Bar Elias: Creating Inclusive Urban Space in Lebanon, 2 June 2019, Medium

A blog about our recent concluding symposium: Blog: Symposium – Vulnerability, Infrastructure and Displacement, 5 July 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL

To learn more about the IGP’s work with Citizen Scientists:

What is Citizen Science? London Prosperity Board

Launching a Citizen-Led Prosperity Index, Bartlett 100

IGP-led team wins funding for Citizen Science project exploring local botanic knowledge in Kenya, 29 January 2019, Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL

The Better to Break and Bleed with: On Research, Violence, and Trauma

By Ariana Markowitz, on 19 December 2018

NB: This post contains graphic content.

In March 2018, I interviewed a Salvadoran artist who lives in the United States about his work on violence. As we discussed a project, he recounted seeing the body of a teenage girl that had been disinterred, raped, and left on the ground of the cemetery where she had been buried the previous day. “I remember the colour of her dress, the texture of the fluids on her body,” he told me. There was an anguished pause. “I’ve only told my partner, a friend, and you. It’s been years and I still see her.”

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries on earth, so I knew going in that I would be speaking with people who have experienced trauma about that trauma. Unlike a mental health professional or a faith leader, however, I entered these conversations for information, not to directly support recovery and healing. Fearful that my questions could cause harm, I sought guidance from friends who work with asylum seekers and survivors of sexual assault. Despite that preparation, I still struggled to respond to the artist in the moment, shunting aside my own reactions to ensure that he felt heard and that our conversation remained centred on him. Afterwards, overwhelmed with disgust and unease, I told myself that what the artist described had to be an aberration—an exceptionally violent incident, even in an exceptionally violent place.

But then, in the following weeks, I heard versions of the same story about different bodies in different places from different people. I came to understand that these stories were more about tactics than necrophilia: Salvadoran gangs use the rape of a corpse to taunt or exact revenge upon the family and community of the victim, tainting and deforming their grief and ratcheting up the ongoing conflicts amongst the gangs, and between the gangs and the Salvadoran state. A play I saw in San Salvador depicted this tactic, though I failed to recognize it for what it was, assuming the victim was drugged or unconscious. Now, months later, I was realizing that the rest of the audience, for whom this violence was part of their reality, did not make the same mistake.

All of this heightened my awareness of and sensibility to violence, and the more time I spent in the field, the more the stories and images of violence piled up. I had nightmares that turned into sleepless nights, and despite being exhausted I remained unable to rest. I took impulsive decisions to regain some agency amidst circumstances that felt beyond my control. Normally an extrovert, I often preferred to be alone, and apart from an occasional thrill of warmth or wonder, the luster of the world around me faded.

My agitation pursued me back to London where I took two months off. Once I tried to watch a film to distract myself, but the film’s negative foreshadowing unsettled me and I had an agonizing night struggling to keep my mounting panic at bay. When I got my hair cut, the stylist commented that my hair had grown during the months I was away and asked how my trip went. Without meaning or wanting to, a torrent of horrific stories streamed out of me. I watched people’s eyes widen behind me in the mirror.

Other academics and practitioners who work on similar topics reassure me that all of this is par for the course. I have heard about nightmares, insomnia, compulsive exercise, benders of all kinds, addiction, and the straining and splitting of relationships with friends, relatives, and lovers. Some people abandoned researching violence altogether, with one explaining simply that, “The work damaged my spirit.”

Despite the prevalence of trauma in the field, however, I received little formal guidance related to research challenges in violent contexts prior to beginning my fieldwork. Throughout the world, university ethics protocols for all disciplines draw primarily from biomedical research that prioritizes physical over mental harm and research participants over the researcher. To that effect, I was asked to consider earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mosquito-borne illnesses, crime, and more, and I wrote thousands of words about them in my risk assessment because they were valid concerns that I needed to take into account. I also read Salvadoran legislation on data protection, determined that the GDPR was more robust, and spelled out the measures I would take to protect my research participants’ personal information, per GDPR requirements. I sought advice from friends on how to talk about trauma because I identified it as a crucial skillset that I needed and lacked, not because an ethics committee alerted me to my potential for inflicting mental or emotional harm on my participants.

Social science methodology literature likewise comes up short in this regard. Most often, texts discussing research about violence neglect to mention the researcher at all, treating us as just the instruments for doing research. More reflexive pieces tend to focus on four topics: the ethics of working with victims and victimizers, difficulties accessing people and places, the absence or unreliability of data, and threats to researchers’ physical health and safety. As with the concerns above, these topics pose real challenges to the successful undertaking of fieldwork and merit serious debate and consideration.

But none of that illuminated any path that I could see towards feeling whole again, returning to the field, and finishing my work. Eventually, finally, I came across work that addressed the gaps. The scholars who produce it, most of whom are anthropologists, contend that shame around mental health in general, and concerns about bias and subjectivity in academia in particular, silence our ability to engage with what we see, hear, do, and feel as we gather information. More progressive criticism faults researchers for focusing on ourselves while the people we study are the ones who are actually suffering. Plus, unlike the privileged researcher, our participants may have few avenues to alter their circumstances.

Humility, perspective, prudence, and grit are essential in this type of work, but they do not change the fact that researching violence implies experiencing it. Breaking the silence around researcher trauma, rather than being unscientific or self-indulgent, permits clarity in the theories, concepts, and methods we develop to make sense of violence as a social phenomenon.

In January I am organizing a workshop at UCL called “Fortify and Heal: Researching Sensitive Topics and Violent Places” that will be the starting point for a collective process of seeking and finding guidance and support. The workshop will bring together students and staff for sessions on defining and managing trauma, supervising sensitive and violent research, and recalibrating risk and ethics protocols. Many researchers lament the external barriers to researching violence—earlier this year a charity rejected my funding application because “the successful candidates are carrying out less risky fieldwork”—so this is an opportunity to explore our individual and collective needs and how our institutions’ can comply with their duty to care such that more people, not fewer, feel able to research violence. Outside scholars will facilitate each session so that our ideas and debates reverberate around other campuses.

Jeff Hearn, who studies men and masculinities, writes about finding a paradoxical positiveness in violence from the possibility of change to non-violence. Engaging with our trauma—bracing ourselves, finding comfort, rejuvenating each other—is a first step.

“Fortify and Heal” will take place at UCL on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 January 2019 from 14:00 to 17:00 each day. For more information or to attend any or all sessions, please contact Ariana at ariana.markowitz.15@ucl.ac.uk by Sunday 6 January 2019.

Ariana is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining parts of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.

Lessons from Kampala on Reflexivity in Development Practice

By Yasmine Kherfi, on 20 July 2018

The international field trip is an integral component of the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). After months of desk-based research in London, our cohort traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to understand how development initiatives are formulated and implemented in a specific context.

DAP students visiting the Decent Living Project, supported by the Shelter and Settlement Alternatives.

 

What is “the field”?

Before embarking on our trip, we were challenged to question our assumptions and conceptions of “the field”. While the term in itself is a construction rooted in anthropology, sites of fieldwork largely remain overlooked and taken for granted in the discipline’s methodology and practice (Gupta & Ferguson, 2013). Similarly, the way we come to know “the field” remains under-researched and seldom questioned in literature on international fieldtrips (Patel, 2015). Our group reflections stemmed from a pedagogical need to address the lack of attention given to dominant narratives that underpin fieldwork research. In much of the literature on fieldtrips specifically, “the field” is still evoked through an orientalist lens, as a place designed “to produce exotic encounters” to maximize students’ learning experience (Patel, 2015).

 

While students and researchers are temporarily interjected in “the field”, frequently treating it as a neutral place, we should not disregard its politics, history and context, in our quest to find answers (Patel, 2015). Given the thematic focus of development programmes, fieldtrips inevitably introduce students to development initiatives that address social inequalities, which often involve working with vulnerable and marginalized communities (Patel, 2015). For practitioners committed to ‘development’ fieldwork, it is important to understand the different power structures and dynamics in the local context, as well those that stem from the history of fieldwork practice. Our module ‘Development in Practice’ served as a space for collective inquiry on our positionality, research ethics, as well as assumptions, stereotypes, and behavior that we wanted to avoid perpetuating. The assigned readings and conversations with peers also prompted me to reflect on the different kinds of institutional partnerships in the field of development.

 

DAP students walking during the city orientation tour, in Kampala.

 

Team Work Experience

Our class was divided into seven groups, each focused on learning from a specific initiative implemented by an NGO or CBO in Kampala. Our team partnered with Action for Community Development – Uganda (ACODEV-U), a CBO that focuses on community empowerment through a wide range of programmes. We chose to learn from ACODEV’s comprehensive adolescent sexuality education project, ‘Keep It Real’ (KIR), which ran from 2013 to 2015, and addressed the lack of reliable information on sexual and reproductive rights.

 

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. Our group was curious about the different pedagogical approaches available to support Kampala’s youth in accessing information about sexual health. I also wanted to learn more about the ‘projectification’ of public health in the field of development, considering the relationship between foreign aid and the country’s management of health epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS. Overall, ideas about public health, development, and planning, fermented in my head during the trip, and what I learned in Kampala helped inspire my dissertation topic. I benefited from evening lectures delivered by development practitioners and academics, and gained important insights from Peter Kasaija, a researcher at the Urban Action Lab of Makerere University, who supported us throughout the trip.

 

We conducted interviews with different project stakeholders and beneficiaries, who drew attention to the strengths and weaknesses of KIR’s implementation, with school students and out-of-school youth. Interviewees included a teacher from the Old Kampala Secondary School, current and former ACODEV employees, as well as staff members of SOMERO, a youth community centre located in the neighborhood of Bwaise in Kawempe. Interviewees welcomed us to their respective work spaces, and explained different aspects of their experience with KIR. They addressed the impact of various power dynamics on the transfer of knowledge between different actors involved in the project, the difficulties in maintaining KIR’s sustainability, as well as challenges that arose from intra-organisational structures. Fieldwork did not always go as planned, and we did not get the chance to meet everyone we wanted to interview. This experience taught us how to adjust our plans and expectations, given our time limitations.

Our team with ACODEV staff members.

 

After working with my team members intermittently in London, and daily throughout the trip, we became more open and comfortable with each other. We were able to constructively voice disagreement, frustrations, as well as share and reflect on personal and collective moments experienced during the trip. The conversations I had with teammates sometimes related back to how we navigate our privilege as students coming from the United Kingdom, and explored how we made sense of our multi-layered identities in relation to the new geographic context we were in.

The Role of Reflexivity in Development Practice

 

I was committed to documenting my reflections every day in the fieldwork diary, in an attempt to bear the fruits of radical vulnerability; “to write vulnerably in the service of creating new understandings” that would ultimately benefit me and the people I interact with (Norander, 2017). This personal assignment required us to engage in reflexive practice – a mental exercise that operates on two levels, in which the person writing is the unit of analysis (Cunliffe, 2016). First, the exercise corresponds to the process of examining our assumptions, actions, and feelings that social interactions prompt in us (Cunliffe, 2016). Secondly, the practice requires us to think critically about the broader structures of power and knowledge that inform how we think (Cunliffe, 2016). Most importantly, critical reflexivity is characterized by a relational understanding of the self –the ways in which I not only relate to others, but also how others relate to me (Cunliffe, 2009). It is an exploration of the implications of this two-way process (Cunliffe, 2009).

 

While often overlooked, reflexivity ought to play an integral part in research, and should be foregrounded in development practice. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of team dynamics throughout my group project, as well as the importance of effectively deconstructing the mystique of “the field”. I learned how to be more proactive in questioning my assumptions, and adjusting my behavior accordingly. While no one is immune to mistakes, reflexive practice allows us to better account for our positionality and strive towards a higher caliber of research quality and integrity.

 

References:

Cunliffe, A.L., 2016. “On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner” Redux. Journal of

Management Education, 40(6), pp.740–746.

 

Cunliffe, A.L., 2009. The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity—A

Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), pp.87–101.

 

Gupta, A. & Ferguson, D., 2013. Discipline and practice: “the field” as site, method and location in anthropology. Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 6, pp.3–44.

 

Norander, S. 2017. Embodied moments: revisiting the field and writing vulnerably. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(3), pp.346–351.

 

Patel, K. 2015. Teaching and Learning in the Tropics: An Epistemic Exploration of “the Field” in a Development Studies Field Trip. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 39(4), pp.584–594.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Yasmine Kherfi is a Master’s candidate in Development Administration and Planning, at the Development Planning Unit. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Toronto, and is a recipient of the Bartlett’s Refugee Cities Dissertation Fellowship at UCL. Her current research looks at the adaptation of systems of health governance to protracted displacement.

 

 

The field research – Learnings beyond the research itself

By ucfuarl, on 7 July 2017

While only lasting for a few weeks, the field research trip is an intense experience that provides in-depth learnings that go beyond the research outcomes themselves. One of the key highlights for me was how a good field research technique is about combining learnings from human interactions as well as using planning and organisational tools to reduce the uncertainty that surrounds field research.

Part 1: Learnings from the people – Disillusionment in the periphery

View from the community of Villa Lourdes Ecológico (VMT)

I’m standing here on the dark distant slopes of Villa Lourdes Ecológico, a settlement without water, sewerage or electricity access, looking down at the city of Lima that stretches as far as the eye can see. We have just had a focus group using headtorches with a group of mostly women, their kids playing at their feet. They came to meet us with hope, a hope to be listened to. They feel forgotten and right here, in this dark spot, I can relate to this disillusionment.

Since arriving in Lima, I have heard many heartfelt sentences from people who have lost hope and no longer believe in the transformative change we came here to seek. Vicente Chavez, a leader of the fog catcher initiative from this community, wants to move back to Cusco instead of “waiting here, hoping for the water to come from the sky”.

A few days before, at a march on water access, I came across the slogan “stop fighting is to start dying”. Whilst extreme for effect, I do believe that when people feel disheartened about their situation, they stop engaging and driving change.

 

Without pressure on decision makers, they may well be forgotten.

I can already observe the direct negative impact of the lack of hope. With the fog catchers project, people lost hope in official support and decreased engagement to the point that they were not making use of a solution that was already available to them. Some community members did not even know that they were entitled to a piece of land to cultivate using water from the fog catchers.

And yet, people’s support and buy-in are rarely mentioned in policy briefs as a key prerequisite to foster participation. It appears critical that our recommendations consider how to help restore people’s hope in the potential for transformative change in order to ultimately foster their participation and make them instrumental in their future.

Two crucial factors to regain this confidence from the people: transparency and action. Communities explicitly asked for “no more lies” about their situation. They need to understand better the short to long term plans to organise and decide accordingly. Not knowing often means that they linger in the fear of taking action that could damage their current situation. They also need to “see proofs” that improvements are made whether in the form of electricity access or small-scale infrastructure work such as stairs. When projects reach their community, people feel heard and that change is possible thereby increasing their likeliness to engage.

This gave me an additional purpose and some guidance for our research. As future planners, we have the duty not only to bring to light these forgotten realities but to also deliver recommendations that aim at overcoming people’s disillusionment when requiring their participation. In other words, the role of a socio-environmental planner is to make sure that no one is left out in the dark without hope.

Water march board

Part 2 – Learnings from the process – Networking, my ally for achieving holistic research

As Lima was my first field research trip I was aware that data collection would be the most challenging phase of the research process. As a project manager, I am used to things being planned from A to Z before a project even starts. As a result, I was fearing data collection as I viewed it as uncertain and unpredictable. Thankfully, I discovered a great ally that changed my perspective and allowed us to bring structure to data collection: networking.

I understand networking as interactions with a system of interrelated primary and secondary connections that hold different roles, views and power about a given topic. To have a holistic data gathering, it is important to network with a diverse range of actors of various opinions. However, not all stakeholders play the same role in data collection. In the field, when time is limited, it is vital to be flexible and to learn to also rely on secondary connections. While they may provide a smaller share of information, these connections can be more engaged and transparent. In our case, we met with an engineer working on the ecosanitation project from Sedapal who could be considered as a secondary connection given his operational clout in the project. His insights, provided anonymously, proved even deeper than information provided by the key project partner AguaEcosan.

Having recognised the importance of networking, it became critical to integrate it in our research process as a key planning tool for data collection. Recognising that these connections may not always happen organically, it is important to have the methods in place to foster networking and adapt it constantly in the field. Clear research objectives and actor-mapping were critical to  framing our networking. By knowing the data we needed, the current gaps and the existing actors we could interact with, it became easier to prioritise connections and make the required substitutions when needed, understanding the implications for our research.

Actors mapping

The role of networking as a planning tool for data collection was critical in achieving our research objective to understand better the eschemas model, a publicly-driven city-wide framework from Sedapal to provide water and sanitation services to 100% of the population. Making a direct connection within Sedapal had not yielded any result so we mapped potential actors that could help us gather similar data and decided to network upwards from the communities. We leveraged our existing relationship with the NGO Peruanos sin Agua to connect with a leader from an eschema committee at a water protest march. While the march itself had little importance from a data collection perspective, the contact had the potential to be the missing link we needed to connect with Sedapal as the march was organised in collaboration with the worker union from Sedapal. This allowed us to achieve our initial research goal.

First, these key learnings about the methods to network efficiently allowed me to overcome my fear of data collection by understanding that data collection can be planned and is not as uncertain as I saw it originally. Furthermore, recognising the existence of this system of interrelated primary and secondary connections enabled me to use networking as a key ally to engage with these connections and collect data in a holistic and efficient way. Ultimately, this ultimately has a positive impact on the quality of our research outcomes.

 

Conclusion

It is undeniable that pre-research plays a key role in research trips as it allows to gain deep knowledge about a given field of analysis and form initial hypotheses to verify during the research. However, once on the ground, the reality can challenge assumptions and reshape priorities… but after all, research is about ‘trusting the process’. While tools such as networking should be used to help reduce uncertainty, planners should remain flexible and embrace the research journey to gather findings that go much beyond pure research outcomes.


Florie Arlegui is a product strategy lead studying for a MSc Environment & Sustainable Development as a part-time student (2015-2017) in order to pursue a career change. She is particularly passionate about sustainable mobility in cities.

MSc Development Administration and Planning 2017 Fieldtrip. Recount of the visit to the Bujjuko Low Cost Housing Demonstration

By ucfulsc, on 15 June 2017

The international field trip is an integral part of the MSc Development Administration and Planning Programme (DAP) and this year, the students travelled to Kampala, Uganda for their field trip.  This is the second year running that the MSc DAP programme has been working with development partners in Kampala, Uganda. This year, the MSc DAP programme partnered with eight NGOs and CBOs which included; Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI), ACTogether, Community Development Resource Network (CDRN), Children’s Rights and Lobby Mission (CALM Africa), Living Earth, Uganda, Kasubi Parish local Community Development Initiative (KALOCODE), Action for Community Development – Uganda (ACODEV- U). The 8th partner, Shelter and Settlement Alternatives (SSA), gave a site visit in which they showed the students one of their current projects – The Decent Living Project.

 

Cover pic

 

Development in Practice

The city of Kampala is experiencing rapid urbanisation. A city, which was originally built on seven hills, has now expanded to that on more than twenty hills, with informal settlements sprawling up in different parts of the city.  Infrastructure in the city has not expanded on par with the rapid urbanisation and access to amenities is a challenge for the millions that inhabit or the thousands that troop into the city for employment. The city of Kampala is also going through massive regeneration and this is visualised through the many construction works going on in the city. As developers and inhabitants contest for the urban space, those who cannot afford to live in the city are forced to move to peri-urban areas and some are even forcefully evicted. However, some of the community members are establishing cooperatives and also working with non-governmental organisations to have access to land.

The central theme for this years’ field trip was examining how a development intervention is planned and implemented in Kampala, and the MSc students worked with their partners in understanding how Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) in Kampala, Uganda, approach the planning and implementation of ‘development’.

One of the projects that the students visited was the Bujjuko Low Cost Housing Demonstration, which is a component of the Decent Living project implemented by Shelter and Settlements Alternatives SSA.  The beneficiaries include the Kwefako positive living women’s group, who were previously living in an informal settlement in Kampala city centre and ended up being displaced. The group were living under poor conditions and with the fear of eviction before they were identified as a potential partner. The group were encouraged to form a cooperative because it was the best way to have the community organised. SSA and WaterAid initiated to assist the group. Hence, the Kwefako Housing cooperative was conceived and registered in 2014.

Pic 1

Participatory approach

Participatory approaches have been heralded in the development discourse as crucial in achieving sustainable development (Parfitt, 2004, Cleaver, 1999). However, it has also come under criticisms and raised questions about its effectiveness in truly empowering those in the grassroots (Parfitt, 2004).

Pic 2

 

 

The visit to the housing project offered an opportunity to understand how the beneficiaries influence the planning and implementation of development project from the start of the project to its completion. According to the SSA project assistant, participatory process was utilised in all phases of the housing project from the planning to the implementation stage. The project assistant stated that there were several consultations with the members of the cooperative on several issues ranging from what they wanted as a group to the location of the housing. On the question of location, a feasibility study was conducted with the input of the members of the cooperative. The members were then brought to the site of the proposed housing to see for themselves. The members agreed in relocating to the area because of its proximity and accessibility to markets, schools and places of worship. There are 34 members in the cooperative. 24 families are presently occupying the houses and 10 houses are going under construction for the remaining 10 members.

The Cooperative members were also given the ‘liberty’ to draw their dream homes and after several consultations, came up with the current design.  Not only did they come up with the design, they also constructed the houses themselves using the blocks that they made. Each Unit costs 26 million UGX to build. The residents pay an upfront of 10 million UGX and then 70,000 UGX monthly giving them about 30 years to complete the payment. However, they can pay up before the 30 years period. The amount they pay for these homes were said to be similar to the rent they paid in the informal settlement.  On defaulting in payment, the group stated that if a month’s payment is defaulted, members could go to SSA and come up with a payment plan agreement.  Although, the residents stated that paying is a challenge, they have several sources of livelihoods such as making and selling crafts. SSA was also said to have carried out some capacity building workshops with the cooperative members and trained them in different income generating activities. And according to the residents, future plans of generating income include acquiring machines to make and sell blocks and also, start giving training workshops.

 

Pic 3 House Plan 1 unit

 

Pic 4 House plan for 2 unit

 

Transferring ownership. The cooperative members stated that members could not just sell their houses to anyone. There are agreements between all of the members when it comes to the transfer of ownership, especially if it is through selling of the house. To sell a house, a member must go through the following regulation:

  1. The person buying must be a member;
  2. The person selling must consult all the other residents and members of the cooperative;
  3. A member can buy

 

Appropriate Technology Transfer

Apart from capacity building, SSA also engages in appropriate technology transfer with the group. For instance, the interlocking soil stabilizing blocks that were used to construct the houses were made from the soil in the land. Further, the materials they use in sifting the soil is mostly made from local materials.

 

Pic 5 Appropriate technology

 

It was also mentioned that cultural and social issues were taken into consideration for this project. The use of interlocking soil stabilizing blocks was appropriate technology, which was suitable for the members. The site of the housing was suitable for the members and did not alter their social lives, rather enhanced it as they stated.

 

Residents now enjoy amenities that they did not previously have. Each house has a water tank and each family pay what they use.

 

There have also been other benefits from the project such as the national water extending water pipe to the community that the project is located in.

 

 

 

 

References

SSA: UHSNET Newsletter 2016.

 

Demonstrating Decent Living – A Publication of Shelter and Settlements Alternatives and Uganda Human Settlements Network.

 

Cleaver, F. (1999) Paradoxes of participation. Questioning participatory approaches to Development. Journal of International Development. Vol 11. No 4. Pg. 597

 

Parfitt, T. (2004) The ambiguity of participation: a qualified defence of participatory development. Third World Quarterly. Vol 25. Issue no 3


Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.

Playing with goldfish: Engaging people through games in the age of the falling attention span

By ucfunlc, on 11 November 2016

Research in the age of the falling attention span

There is undeniably a great amount of social science research produced around the world. In the field of development, much of it aims to inform the public, perhaps even with the expressive aim of changing behaviours. Yet how can one produce engaging content when it is well documented that the general public cannot focus for more than seconds at a time? There has been substantial research on people’s decreasing attention span. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman advanced his thesis that television and the emphasis placed on entertainment has altered the way people consume information, and decreased their ability to concentrate on issues they do not find pleasurable[i]. Nicholas Carr focused his study on the advent of the Internet, arguing that our use of the Internet not only makes absorption harder, it actually impacts our ability to be engrossed in written material both online and offline[ii][iii]. Statistics seem to concur with this thesis. A 2008 study found that Internet users spent 10 seconds or less on any given page over 50% of the time, while the average time for a stay on a page was placed between 2-3 seconds[iv]. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that overstimulation through the Internet and smartphones has decreased our attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, jokingly compared to the attention span of a goldfish[v].

 

The evidence is all around us: news videos online last on average under 3 minutes. In development, the trend is very much the same. Most organisations – including DFID, WaterAid and ODI to name a few – now produce a mix of short videos and infographics to present their material. Information is distilled in bite size pieces which audiences can easily digest.

 

Conversely, when people are engaged, they can focus for longer. And this is where things get interesting. Coming up with engaging ways to communicate information can make all the difference. And what better way to engage someone’s attention than turning the subject into a game? Playing games de facto retains the player’s attention, and, for that reason, they have long been used in education. Whether it was through educational board games or through the use of computer games in school for math or physics modules, most of us were exposed to learning in game format.

 

Games can therefore be a great communicative tool, especially for complex information. Openspace, the organisation I am currently working with in Bangkok, has teamed with Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome from the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, to translate the results of a 5-year international research project of the Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR) on urban resilience into a game.

The Urban Resilience Board Game

The Urban Resilience Board Game

 

Urban Resilience and the CCaR research

Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR): Building Adaptive Capacity for Managing Climate Change in Coastal Megacities is a research project financed by Canada, looking at climate change and urban resilience, with respect to flooding in Vancouver, Lagos, Manila and Bangkok. CCaR uses modelling through the VENSIM program, using data derived from City System Dynamic model, to input known variables and produce future scenarios for these cities. Interestingly, the causes of flooding are different in each city, which allows for a broad field of study.

 

Urban Resilience refers to the capacity of a city to bounce back after a shock. The most widespread definition, coined by the Community and Regional Research Initiative on Resilient Communities (CARRI), defines resilience as the “capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy, and national security”[vi]. As evidenced by this definition, urban resilience has adaptability and complexity at heart. It views cities as adaptive systems, where the interactions of a wide set of factors need to be taken into consideration. Moreover, preparedness is key to achieving urban resilience, as anticipating potential future threats to urban settings allows for greater adaptability. This becomes ever more significant given the looming threat of climate change, which already brings an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme weather phenomena around the world. While urban resilience involves more than natural disasters, these are considered a central aspect of the threats that need to be countered.

 

In Bangkok, it is very intuitive to focus on flooding. Bangkok floods severely every couple of years, and, with climate change, the intensity is worsening. 2011 witnessed the worst flooding in decades; the year remains engraved in people’s minds and imagination, and routinely comes up in conversation as the benchmark for all subsequent flooding. The numbers are staggering: 884 people died, while a further 13.6 million were affected. 65 provinces were classified as disaster zones, and the World Bank estimated the total economic losses at $45.7 billion, making it one of the five most costly natural disasters in history[vii][viii].

 

To a lesser extent, Bangkok floods semi-regularly. For example, it only takes a heavy night’s worth of rain during the rainy season to flood Lat Prao, the area where I live. The CCaR research concludes that flooding in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) will intensify as both the intensity and frequency of heavy rain will increase.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, the prevalence of flooding has not been linked to climate change or urban resilience, be it at policy level or in people’s minds. It is also telling that there is no government agency responsible for dealing with it. “It ranks low on the scale of political priorities, far behind questions of economic and social development” remarks Dr Marome, the leader of the CCaR team for Bangkok.

 

Dr Marome stresses the importance of preparing society. “While investing in infrastructure can be very useful, it can only ever represent 70% of dealing with climate change. The remaining 30% needs to be done by people themselves, through preparedness. Japan is a great example of that. The state provides different measures to mitigate earthquakes, from law and regulations to earthquake resistant structures, but society has also adapted. Children are being taught from a very young age how to prepare for earthquakes”.

 

Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

Dr Wijitbusaba Ann Marome, Faculty of Architecture & Planning, Thammasat University

 

In Bangkok, there is clearly a gap between the people who have the relevant information on the one side, and the wider public and government agencies on the other. The Urban Resilience Board Game tries to bridge this gap, by making information easily accessible to a wider public, beyond the scope of academics and people in the field.

 

The Urban Resilience Board Game

The game is played by 4 or 6 players, each the mayor of a Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) – Bangkok Metropolis, Nakhon Pathom, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, and Samut Sakhon – and a facilitator. Each region has distinct characteristics and conditions, all based on the CCaR research findings: some are more developed, some have issues with waste management, some have issues with social cohesion, or environmental protection. Overall, there are six different urban futures, each affected by four different drivers: socio-economic factors, housing and land use, environment and health, and flood management.

 

All players are allocated an initial budget, to be used for future investments. The players roll the dice to advance on the board and get handed an event that they need to deal with. Events range from anything between a drug problem among the area’s youth to the construction of a fast train linking this area to its neighbours. The player needs to identify the risk, the opportunity, and, where necessary, invest to deal with the event. Points are allocated for correctly identifying each, and all need to be relevant to the specific area’s profile. This urges players to link different issues and eventually identify necessary investments in the short or long term.

 

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

Rolling a six or completing two rounds triggers a flood round. Flood intensity varies each time, and affects each region differently. An area’s resilience ultimately depends on preparedness stemming from investments in the previous rounds. For example, should an area have a serious garbage problem, investment in clean up prior to the flood round would increase resilience, as refuse not only obstructs drainage, thus worsening the flood, but also spreads diseases. During the flood round, all investment proposals need to be voted on by the mayors of the other regions: players need to argue their case to seek approval. The game ends when any participant reaches the end of the board; the player with the most points wins.

 

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

In action: Playing the Urban Resilience Board Game, June 2016

The Urban Resilience Board Game thus has a double role: first, it raises awareness about flooding and resilience, allowing people to think about urban resilience and find linkages between different issues. Second, it brings people from different backgrounds together and opens a dialogue that would not otherwise be happening, and certainly not under these conditions. In June 2016, Thammasat University and Openspace organised a workshop with academics, policy makers and representatives from the local government, specifically from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Many participants had no experience with these issues but all played the board game for two hours. The feedback was extremely positive, as they found the game both informative and entertaining. Interestingly, the game seemed to transcend political red tape, allowing people to consider flooding and urban resilience without the backdrop of the sometimes charged political considerations that happen in Thailand.

In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

In action: The Urban Resilience workshop, June 2016

The appeal for planners is evident. The game opens a platform for people to discuss complex issues in an informal way. Instead of being confined by the structure and convention of a meeting or conference, participants can let their guard down and engage with the material in a new way. More importantly, the subject matter becomes accessible to people with no prior experience. In the guise of explaining the rules and aim of the game, facilitators are actually presenting the basic information for people to understand the core ideas of urban resilience. Yet all of this remains unthreatening; at the end of the day, it is only a game. The players are then pushed to really think about the issues, and see the connection between investments in infrastructure and cooperation with other regions, and achieving urban resilience. Their output is then fed back to the CCaR team and Openspace, who collect the documented actions that players took during the flood round. This is crucial, as it allows for a feedback loop into the research in a very direct way.

 

In the next months, more workshops will be organised. Moreover, Dr Marome and Thammasat University plan to train members of the public to be facilitators, allowing for greater exposure, perhaps even spilling to other Thai cities in the North. They are also working on having a workshop with urban policy planners from across Asia to play the game. The possibilities are endless, because who would not like to come play with us?

 

[i] Postman, N. 2005 [1985]. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. London: 2005 Penguin Books

[ii] Carr, N. 2008. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”. The Atlantic. July-August 2008

[iii] Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: W. W. Norton & Company

[iv] Weinreich, H., Obendorf, H., Herder, E. and Mayer, M. 2008. “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use”. ACM Transactions on the Web, Vol. 2, No. 1

[v] Mcspadden, K. 2015. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish”. The Times, May 2015. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

[vi] Wilbanks, T. 2007. The Research Component of the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI). Presentation at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado- Boulder; as quoted in C. E. Colten, R. W. Kates, and S. B. Laska. 2008. Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved in September 2015 from http://www.resilientus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FINAL_COLTEN_9-25-08_1223482263.pdf

[vii] Emergency Operation Center for Flood, Storm and Landslide. 2012. Flood, Storm and Landslide Situation Report. Retrieved in October 2016 from http://disaster.go.th/dpm/flood/flood54/news/news_thai/EOCReport17JAN.pdf [in Thai]

[viii] Impact Forecasting LLC. 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods: Event Recap Report. Retrieved in September 2016 from http://thoughtleadership.aonbenfield.com/Documents/20120314_impact_forecasting_thailand_flood_event_recap.pdf

 


Nausica is a DPU MSc Environment and Sustainable Development alumna. She is currently completing the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. All images taken by Nausica Castanas

Shifting Perspectives – A reflection on the use of video in the field

By ucfudmc, on 23 August 2016

The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).

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Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.

Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.

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The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.

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The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.

 

My final advice:

 

Think, record, then think again.


David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.

Anthropocene and social diversity: an important research agenda

By ucfuari, on 19 May 2016

While there are a number of debates on its actual beginning, academics and media have embraced the concept of Anthropocene. The Anthropocene presents humankind as the major geological force contributing to environmental change. This representation of humanity as a single agent produces a compelling narrative about the urgency of global collective action to limit dangerous environmental changes, particularly climate change. This narrative has been effectively used by political leaders to build political capital for global negotiations and efforts aimed at introducing global governance measures on environmental issues.

Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

Lovbrand et al. (2015) points out how the merging of social diversity into a single and universal “human agent” produces a ‘post-social ontology’ which fails to analyse unequal social relations. Environmental risk and vulnerability are unequally distributed across the world and so are the responsibilities for ecological destruction and consumption beyond the biosphere carrying capacity.

Deterministic narratives of apocalyptic futures if no action is taken are coupled with the idea of a unified and single global response led by green economy investments and techno-scientific solutions. This is a paralysing and depoliticised narrative which hides winners and losers, conceals social relations and dynamics, and delegates responsibility even further, resulting in a concentration of power in the name of avoiding a global catastrophe. (Some would say entrusting with additional power those institutions and mechanisms that led to the ecological crisis in the first place).

By bringing a social diversity perspective into the analysis of global environmental change – which considers gender, ethnicity, class, age, ability, etc. – it is possible to repoliticise the Anthropocene by shifting the focus on the agency of different groups of women and men, the analysis of power relations, and emphasising the centrality of local politics. Critical social science analysing practices and social relations can deconstruct hegemonic narratives, which silences multiple voices, and identify situated practices and the diversity of ways in which women and men engage with environmental challenges.

Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

At the same time, the dominant narrative around Anthropocene builds on an epistemology that maintains the nature/humans dichotomy and sees the latter as the masters of nature, separate from it and therefore able to apply a technical fix. Social sciences, and particularly Science and Technology Studies, have criticized this approach, highlighting the social construction of nature and dismantling nature/social boundaries. By highlighting the situated characters of all knowledges, including agroecological, literature on local knowledges in development (Agrawal 1995) has also criticised this distinction. Therefore, a critical engagement with the Anthropocene demands collaboration with other sciences, refuses to see nature as external to society, and calls for a broadening of the “social” in relation to diversity.

By conceiving social and environmental justice as intrinsically inseparable and by working in an interdisciplinary manner, the DPU is well placed to embark on this agenda and open to more collaboration with other sciences. In particular, the expertise of the DPU’s research cluster Diversity, social complexity & planned intervention is highly relevant. For instance, this new research agenda would benefit from previous analysis of the constraints to the participation and voice of groups and individuals and their unequal access to policy-making spaces. Moreover, it could build upon the insights from the work on relational poverty, particularly the idea that people are poor “because of others” and the need for a wider analysis of the political economy and of the processes that create poverty.

Being that the Anthropocene is the central conversation of our time, the question is not whether to embark on this research agenda but how. It is about a reflective and reflexive practice in which we cannot escape a critical view of the impact of our behaviours and life choices. The Anthropocene challenges our academic practice and interrogates the legitimacy of a consumption of nature several times beyond our individual fair share (and often hundreds times the one of the communities we co-produce knowledge with). Our ‘professional expertise’ is used to justify our overconsumption (e.g. uncountable intercontinental flights) in the process of knowledge production, implicitly, and perhaps unintentionally, implying the superiority of our knowledge input.


Andrea Rigon is a lecturer on the MSc Social Development Practice course at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit of University College London. He researches and teaches about social diversity, poverty and inequalities. His recent work analyses how social and political conflicts among different actors shape the implementation of development interventions.