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Rohingya crisis anniversary: four years of genocide in Myanmar, four years of protection failures in India

By Jessica Field, on 26 August 2021


Yesterday – 25 August 2021 – marked four years since the start of a brutal military assault against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which forced three quarters of a million Rohingyas to flee over the country’s borders. The deliberate, systematic, and extreme violence used by the Myanmar military to kill, sexually assault, and displace Rohingyas from their homelands and out of the country has rightly been documented as genocidal – i.e. violence ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Though this date isn’t the start of the persecution faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar (which has been ongoing for several decades), it was certainly one of the largest and most systematic of the assaults against the community in recent years.

August 2017 also marks an anniversary date for the deliberate scaling back of humanitarian protections in many neighbouring countries.

Over a million Rohingya refugees are living in increasingly challenging conditions in countries across Southeast and South Asia – denied rights, denied mobility, marginalised and – in several high-profile cases – refouled back to Myanmar, or prevented from making a safe landing to seek refuge. I have spent the last five years researching the humanitarian context for Rohingya refugees in India, and those years have been marked by a drastic breakdown of protection and basic humanitarian assistance.

Prior to 2017, Rohingya refugees in India – who number in the low tens of thousands – were able to register with the UNHCR India, receive refugee cards and visas, and were able to try to make lives for themselves while awaiting the opportunity for safe return to Myanmar. Then, in early August 2017, just a few weeks before the Myanmar military launched its latest large-scale assault on the community in Rakhine state, the Indian government declared Rohingya refugees within its own territory to be “illegal migrants”. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration of protection.

Image: The charred remains of schoolbooks. An entire Rohingya refugee settlement in Delhi burnt to the ground in June 2021. Photo credit: ROHRIngya June 2021.

 

India’s failure to protect and attempts to deport

In a recent Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) briefing I co-wrote with Rohingya activist Maung Thein Shwe and ISI’s Natalie Brinham, we documented that, since the beginning of August 2017, Rohingyas in India have faced:

  • refusals to renew or issue immigration documentation
  • exclusion from national ID cards that are essential for accessing basic services like health, education, and banking
  • discrimination in schools and healthcare facilities
  • denial from Covid-19 relief packages and vaccine drives
  • arbitrary dismissal from work and the withholding of pay
  • sustained hate campaigns from vocal sections of the media
  • discriminatory and inflammatory anti-Rohingya language by prominent politicians
  • precarious living conditions, including fires that have destroyed entire settlements
  • and a significant spike in documentation “verification” exercises and arbitrary detentions.

Also in August 2017, the Indian Government issued an order to authorities to identify Rohingya refugees in the country, and ready for their rounding up and deportation to Myanmar. Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Indian government deported a total of 12 Rohingyas back to the country, all of whom were denied access to UNHCR. In March this year, authorities in Jammu rounded up at least 150 Rohingyas for “verification” and to initiate deportation procedures. Then, in April, the government made a failed attempt to deport an unaccompanied 14-year-old Rohingya girl across the border.

Forced deportation of refugees to a country where they are experiencing an ongoing threat of genocide is an egregious breach of human and humanitarian rights that flouts not just customary international law, but protections enshrined within the India’s own constitution. Moreover, Myanmar has got more, not less, dangerous over recent months. The country experienced a violent coup d’état on 1 February 2021, and is now headed by the very military that have committed repeated atrocities against Rohingyas in Rakhine state over decades.

Parallel legal proceedings

Cases have been filed against Myanmar for the crime of genocide – The Gambia v. Myanmar – in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); for atrocity crimes in Argentina (under “universal jurisdiction”); and the International Criminal Court has authorised full investigations into crimes committed against the Rohingya that fall within the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression).

Cases have also been filed in the Supreme Court of India to block the Indian government’s attempted refoulement of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been slow, with many worrying statements littering its progression. During a recent hearing, the then-Chief Justice of India stated that “possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that”. This statement wilfully ignores the role that India’s deportations play in enabling atrocities.

Advocates working on behalf of the Rohingya community in India have also filed petitions to try and force the Indian authorities to provide the basics amenities that any human (let alone a refugee fleeing persecution) should be entitled to expect: e.g. access to running water, access to health and education services, basic public health facilities, and safe accommodation. Just as with The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case in the ICJ, these cases in the Indian Supreme Court are ongoing, and Rohingya safety and wellbeing in India continue to hang in the balance.

It is no coincidence that genocide in Myanmar and persecution and humanitarian failures in India are running in tandem. Amal de Chickera – co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion – remarked in a recent webinar that “this is a moment of impending crisis… the marginalisation of Rohingya is part of a deeper, longer term erosion of the democratic rule of law in India and elsewhere in the world”.

Rohingya refugees are being deliberately marginalised through hate speech and discrimination, and then that marginalisation is used to frame this refugee group as a security threat and justify repressive actions – eroding the rule of law in the process. Relatedly, humanitarian assistance and the provision of safe refuge are presented as “gifts” to be enjoyed by select communities on the basis of (often discriminatory) conditions, rather than as basic rights rooted in a shared humanity.

Recognising all aspects of violence

The 25 August 2017 commemoration date must serve as a marker for all aspects of the violence faced by Rohingyas. It must continue to draw international attention to the persecution and suffering of Rohingyas by the Myanmar state as well as the Rohingya community’s need for justice, for citizenship in Myanmar, and for safe living conditions in their own country. This anniversary must also draw international attention to the huge humanitarian and protection failures of refugee host countries like India, where state-supported marginalisation, intolerance and anti-Rohingya hate speech are creating punishing living conditions and risk further facilitating genocide.


This blog is an adapted version of Jessica Field’s presentation at the 4th Rohingya Genocide Anniversary Commemoration event, hosted by Restless Beings on 25th August 2021 in London. 

For further reading, see briefs published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:

Tutorials

By David Alexander, on 16 August 2021

Professor David Alexander looks back on his experiences of tutorials in the 1970s.

 

The tutorial has a long history in education. In one sense it probably dates back to the days of Plato in the 400s and 300s BC and the schola, a semi-circular seat where, at the centre, the master would hold audience surrounded by the best of his pupils.

Weekly tutorials and consultations were a constant feature of my university education in the 1970s. As a new undergraduate, my first tutor was a Senior Lecturer who was nicknamed “Auntie Evelyn”. Tutorials involved a great deal of squirming, looking out the window and suppressing yawns. As soon as Margaret Thatcher’s university ‘reforms’ came into effect, she was pensioned off and disappeared into the mists of the Scottish Highlands, never to be seen again. My second-year tutor was the redoubtable Dr John B. Thornes variously of the LSE and King’s College London. For our first meeting he told us to report to the basement laboratory (we were three students of rather diverse backgrounds). We walked down the steps and found him bending over the mudflow experiment. His tie had become trapped in the mud churner and it was dragging him into the mud bucket by his neck. He extracted himself, squeezed the mud out of his tie, glared at us and shouted by way of greeting, “Take down this essay question: discuss the meaning of the following terms: shear strength, Bagnold’s dispersive stress, and modulus of elasticity.” As a tough, intellectual Yorkshireman, Dr Thornes could make his views known in no uncertain manner, but he loved to be contradicted as it led to the kind of sincere debate in which he revelled. In the second tutorial, he taught us to change THORNES to THOSNER using entropy modelling. Student’s tended to be terrified by his tutorials, although I gradually came to have great affection for him and profound respect for his insights.

Years later as a postdoctoral fellow I ended up doing tutorials myself at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge for two, three or four students at a time. This gave some leeway for experimentation. In some cases it was a matter of working out how to get them to say something – anything. In other instances, it was more a matter of how to shut them up. Often, one had to work hard to encourage them to think, or at least to articulate their ideas. It had to be done in a friendly, non-threatening way. One of my tricks was to give them a stone, a heavy, rounded piece of gneiss which I had picked up from a stream bed. I would ask them to describe it. It is remarkable what could be deduced from this smooth, grey bit of rock.

I found that the optimum size of face-to-face tutorials was three students. It was common to have one who was more articulate than the other two, but there were enough opportunities to divert the conversation to the others. I hope they learned something useful from me, but I certainly learned from them.

All in all, the tutorial has survived all manner of vicissitudes. In the 16th century a monk who taught at Salamanca University in Spain was arrested while in the midst of a discussion with his students. The Inquisition flung him into prison and there he remained for eight years. No doubt he was tortured and fed on gruel. Once released, he returned to the classroom, gathered his few remaining students together and started again with the words “As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted…”

 

Science Fiction and Disaster Risk Reduction

By Joshua Anthony, on 29 July 2021

Author: Nigel Furlong


I have been a fan of science fiction literature, TV shows and movies for as long as I can remember. I have worked in emergency management and planning for over 20 years and over the years I have found science fiction has been a useful tool in my critical thinking. It’s also supported my skill set. Who knew playing wargames and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Twilight 2000 would enable me to deliver tabletop and seminar exercises later in my career!

Before I go into this blog, I do wish to caveat that some of the works, authors and screenwriters are products of their time and by today’s standards may at best be considered twee and at worst misogynistic and racist. I do not endorse any political and social statements. They are used as examples no more, no less.

In the early 1990’s I attended a church service marking Remembrance Day at a small church in Greasby, Wirral. This was at the time that the country of Yugoslavia was imploding into civil war and the local army regiment, The Cheshire Regiment were deploying with the United Nations to Bosnia. The vicar gave his sermon which was very much about the war in Yugoslavia, and he said as part of his sermon (I am paraphrasing): “history is a hilltop in which we can look back but also look at the present and future”. It struck me then that science fiction can do the same. Some authors extrapolate trends, others create societies and ecologies and then add plots and story twists etc. This phenomenoncan be seen in the works of the author Robert Heinlein. He is accredited amongst other authors in inspiring a generation to become scientists and engineers who went onto work on the US space programme and various spinoff industries such as computing. Heinlein’s short stories and juvenile novels were heavy on engineering and science solutions. Some of his early works in the early 1940’s were classified and only released years after the end of World War 2 as they discussed atomic physics and the development of nuclear facilities and weapons. He saw the use of irradiated materials such as powder being used as a weapon – the dirty bomb.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of discussion over the movie’s “Outbreak”, “Contagion” and “I am Legend”, but the works of John Christopher are potentially more interesting as “Empty World” seemed a bit too close for home at one point in the early days of the pandemic. Christopher wrote a number of disaster novels, “A Wrinkle in the Skin”, “The Death of Grass”. The TV show “Survivors” both the 1970s and reboot 2008 Series took viewers through a pandemic and its aftermath. I find it fascinating to consider analysing the various pandemic disease disaster and post-apocalyptic novels and how they attempted to mitigate and control the pandemic and compare against real world actions!

Isaac Asimov is credited with creating the 3 rules of robotics, yet his Foundation Series of novels are a superb discussion of business continuity. William Gibson’s 1980s cyberpunk novels such as “Neuromancer” gave us the language used today in cyber security and some of the concepts as well.

Jerry Pournelle is another author who blended science and engineering onto novels. However, his novels include “Oath to Fealty” which is a great read and although set in Los Angeles has parallels with the Shard building in London. His series of novels and short stories about Falkenberg’s Legion focused on colonial era type military operations in far off solar systems by a mercenary force of soldiers. They have become required reading in the US military as they placed the protagonists in situations similar to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan type situations and operations. The books were written in the 1980s and 90’s.

Science Fiction covers many disaster scenarios: asteroid impacts, space weather, environmental/ecological collapse, Global Warming, global war, nuclear war and aftermath, social collapse, post disaster survival, Terrorist use of Weapons of Mass Destruction/CBRN. A particular theme to acknowledge is the “Zombie Apocalypse”. So popular is this theme, the Centre for Disease Control in the US produced a “Zombie Preparedness” plan to engage new audiences with the concepts of “All Hazards emergency preparedness”. This has been emulated multiple times including by Bristol City Council who produced a contingency plan for handling zombie outbreaks in Bristol.

History may be a hilltop, but science fiction allows us to identify potential events and play out the outcomes to gain insight into what could be probable, plausible, possible or a wild card!


Nigel Furlong is a Business Resilience Manager and Senior Security Advisor with the UK Atomic Energy Authority

Climate Hazards in the Northern Bolivian Altiplano

By Bayes Ahmed, on 14 July 2021

Written by Dr. Ximena Flores-Palacios, a Bolivian independent researcher and practitioner in sustainable development.

Tuni Condoriri Glacier. Photo: Leny Chuquimia, Página Siete.

The Northern Bolivian Altiplano is one of the most affected areas to the impacts of climate change and disasters. Vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities are the ones most at risk from climate hazards and are, in many cases, marginalized from socioeconomic progress. In order to prevent climate change and disasters from having further devastating impacts, it is necessary to close the development gaps that leave communities at risk. Without urgent action, climate change and disasters may push people deeper into poverty.

This region is located to the West of the Department of La Paz and covers an area of approximately 20,000 km² with a population of 2.5 million people (including the cities of La Paz and El Alto). A large part of this region is influenced by the presence of Lake Titicaca and the glaciers of the Cordillera Real mountain range. The altitude of the region ranges from 3,000 metres above sea level in the inter-Andean valleys to almost 6,500 metres above sea level in the peaks of the Cordillera Real, which is home to most of Bolivia’s glaciers.

The Northern Altiplano is particularly vulnerable to climate variability and the adverse impacts of climate hazards that threaten communities and ecosystems. The region is already experiencing not only increases in temperatures but also changes in rainfall patterns and the water cycle. This, in turn, will have consequences for biodiversity and high-altitude wetlands. Besides, the region is exposed to different threats such as changes in the precipitation regime, frequent droughts, hailstorms, frosts, and snowfalls.

The most visible impact of climate change in high mountain regions is glacier retreat. The IPCC reports that Andean inter-tropical glaciers are very likely to disappear in the coming decades, which will negatively impact water availability in the region. In addition to global increases in temperature, the greater frequency of El Niño in recent decades has contributed to rapid glacial retreat.

Pressure on water resources in the region is already high, with an increasing demand for domestic consumption, agriculture, and dams. Therefore any future changes in the hydrological cycle will have significant implications in the region. This aspect is crucial as the cities of La Paz and El Alto draw on water from several surrounding glaciers, and together these cities form a fast-growing metropolitan area that is home to more than two million people.

Aymara people have adapted to climatic variability and changes in their environment over centuries. In the process, they have developed essential knowledge about the local climate and the environment, and they have domesticated numerous crops that are vital to ensure food security around the world. People have lived subsistence lifestyles for a long time, and for them, there is nothing new about adapting to harsh conditions. What is new, however, is the extent of the changes and the effect these changes are having on an increasing number of people. Even though families have had generations of experience in creating mechanisms to cope with such variability, the impacts of these climate hazards are affecting them disproportionally and threatening their culture.

Rural people in this region rely on natural resource-based livelihoods. They are engaged in high-altitude agriculture and livestock, and the communities around Lake Titicaca also partake in small-scale fishing. Families keep and store a part of their production for their own consumption and sell the rest. However, frequently and due to poverty-related causes, farmers have to sell their produce which in some cases affects their food security. Non-farming activities and migration are risk management strategies that also help to diversify income.  Human mobility due to climate change has been rising in the last decades, as some people move in anticipation or adaptation to environmental and climate impacts, and others are displaced due to extreme events. 

Rural livelihoods are highly vulnerable to climate change and disasters in terms of agriculture and food security, water supply, biological diversity, the environment, health, and infrastructure. This vulnerability is worsened by (i) very low levels of investment in climate-responsive agriculture, (ii) inequalities in land tenure, with the exacerbation of smallholdings as land continues to be divided resulting in the overexploitation of soils and vegetation, (iii) high dependence on climatic variables in agricultural production, with the majority of farmers without irrigation systems, who depend on rainfall, and are highly susceptible to hailstorms, frost and snowfalls; (iv) accelerated agro-ecosystem degradation processes, and (v) water pollution by mining, industry, and solid waste.

Despite the enormous challenges associated with poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, disasters, and now the effects of COVID-19, people in the region are making every effort to thrive in their own environment, and to build the resilience of their communities to climate and other shocks. For these people, resilience is rooted in traditional knowledge, as their capacity to adapt to climate change and disasters is based on an in-depth understanding of the environment, social organizations and networks, and cultural values and attitudes.

Rural people are responding to climate change and disasters in unique ways:

  • To cope with climatic variations, people change and adjust their livelihoods. They diversify productive activities and continue to improve plant varieties and animal breeds, which provide a buffer against risks in uncertain environments. The ability to access multiple resources and rely on different land-use patterns contribute to their capacities to manage climate change at the local level. However, farming practices may also be forced to change as a result of reductions in water availability due to less rainfall and melting glaciers.
  • Traditional weather and climate forecasting are still used by Andean communities to make decisions on the management of their farming system and climate change adaptation. However, the intensity, frequency, and extent of climate impacts are challenging people’s traditional knowledge. It is necessary to promote community disaster risk management and early warning systems to mitigate the negative effect of climate change.
  • Traditional systems of governance and social structures are in place, and strong community networks are crucial for community resilience to climate changeLocal organizations together with municipal governments are central actors in territorial development. Public policies must ensure that climate action is designed in a participatory manner that enables the participation of indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. 
  • People are using migration as an adaptation strategy. There are high levels of internal migration from rural to urban areas of the country and international migration, especially among men and youth. Rural areas are populated by women and older adults who face difficulties in terms of access to land, reduced productivity, fragmentation of land tenure, and the effects of climate change, further increasing vulnerability. Although migration is now a new phenomenon in the area, climate change seems likely to become a major force for future population movements, probably mostly through internal migration, but also to some extent through international migration.

Although Bolivia is making progress towards sustainable development, the impacts of climate change and disasters remain serious problems. In order to address these challenges, it is necessary to deepen understanding of climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation in the Northern Altiplano and to enhance the adaptive capacity of Andean communities.

Leveraging traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies is not only essential, but it is key to increasing the resilience of communities facing the impacts of natural hazards and environmental change.

In addition to health impacts, COVID-19 threatens to further affect the livelihoods of Andean communities dependent on agriculture. Investment in rural agriculture is needed to help people become more self-reliant, mitigate the impact of severe events and increase the resilience of communities.

Acknowledgement: This blog article is part of the project “Climate change and migration in times of COVID-19 in Bolivia” supported by UCL Global Engagement Funds 2020-21. Special thanks to Alejandro Mamani and Cloe Barbera, the research assistants of this study. 

The double affliction: conflict and natural hazard – the importance of tackling disaster risk amidst insecurity.

By Mark Weegmann, on 28 June 2021

This blog is also posted on The Anticipation Hub.


In January 2015, Storm Huda brought heavy snow, torrential downpours, and strong wind across the Levant. For Gaza and the West Bank in occupied Palestinian territories this resulted in the death of three children and one adult, almost 2,000 households newly evacuated or displaced, and extensive damage to fields, greenhouses, and livestock affecting 9,000 farmers (IFCR, 2015). It triggered a state of emergency and an international response effort. Whilst localised damage was reported in Israel, having similar exposure, the scale and impact were not comparable.

Storm water fills the streets of Shati’ Refugee Camp (Beach Camp) in Gaza, where 82,000 refugees are living. (© ICRC / il-e-01841, 2010)

Disasters and conflict

An unhappy confluence exists between states experiencing fragility, conflict, and violence suffering heightened disaster risks from natural hazards. Disaster deaths are 40% higher in these settings (Marktanner, et al., 2015) and they disproportionately rank ‘highly at risk’ to disasters and crises (EC, 2021). This is not surprising given our understanding of the social conditions that contribute to transforming hazard into disaster. Evidence demonstrates how conflict exasperates vulnerabilities, undermines resilience and coping capacities, increases exposure through displacement, and can even heighten hazard risk through environmental degradation (Harris, et al., 2013). The result of this compounding conflict and disaster risk is a concentration and exasperation of human suffering.

By the time Storm Huda reached Palestinian territories, there were still 100,000 people displaced and 18,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged from the outbreak of fighting in Gaza Strip the previous summer (ICRC, 2015). Damage to the energy, water, and sanitation infrastructure meant that much of the area had only partial running water and electricity for parts of the day. When a second winter cold wave hit in February, this had deadly consequences. The use of unsafe heating to stay warm, like open fires or electric heaters, caused a 16-month-old child in Northern Gaza, a 22-year-old mother and her 2-month-old baby in Nablus, and three children of the same family, aged 3, 4 and 15, to die from fires breaking out in residential homes and temporary shelters (UNICEF, 2015).

When an estimated 1.5 billion people today live in fragile and conflict-affected states (EC, n.d.), and 80% of total international humanitarian needs are focused in these areas (World Bank, 2021), disaster research and disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts must account for this confluence if our efforts towards the sustainable development goals (notable SDG 11) are to be realised. DRR is, however, notably absent in these contexts ($1.30 spent on DRR for every $100 spent on response (Peters & Budimir, 2016)). There is a moral imperative to reduce suffering, operational advantage to decrease costly humanitarian interventions, and practical benefit lessening the humanitarian burden, to develop effective approaches and tools to change this.

Acting early: reducing disaster impacts

Anticipatory Action approaches – defined as “a set of actions taken to prevent or mitigate potential disaster impacts before a shock or before acute impacts are felt. The actions are carried out in anticipation of a hazard impact and based on a prediction of how the event will unfold” (IFRC, 2020. p. 351) – can provide one such tool. It can be useful because it is implemented through humanitarian actors who are already operational within these contexts, target vulnerabilities which are shown to have been exasperated by conflict, and the short lead times of the intervention enable a highly targeted response that alleviate specific needs that have a high probability of occurring (Wagner & Jaime, 2020). Yet, despite some initial pilots, Anticipatory Action is not fully functional in conflict situations yet. Evidence in non-conflict settings demonstrate Anticipatory Action’s ability to reduce operational costs, improve project design, and reduce negative disaster outcomes for affected communities (Weingärtner & Wilkinson, 2019).

Given the low baseline for DRR – including Anticipatory Action – in conflict-affected contexts, there is need to invest in understanding the unique and contextual interactions between disaster and conflict risks, how these inter-relate, and what the consequences are. A key component for implementing Anticipatory Action interventions is to understand not only what the weather will be, but what the weather will do to at-risk communities (Harrowsmith, et al., 2020). This is understanding how hazard, exposure, and vulnerability affect people living in conflict, and in what way the conflict compounds these disaster risks. With this, building blocks for appropriate interventions can be built.

For example, in the West Bank, houses close to the separation wall have experienced frequent flooding during heavy rain due to the wall impeding the proper flow and drainage of the rain. Drainage pipes running under the wall often get blocked but clearing them is often challenging due to access constraints. With advanced forecasts of rainfall, pre-positioning water pumps in these localities could prevent rainwater accumulating and flooding the surrounding homes.

Niger Red Cross implementing early action protocol to successfully reinforce part of the embankment holding back the flooded River Niger (CRN / Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2020)

Scaling up Anticipatory Action to conflict-contexts

Understanding these risks exacerbated by conflict is therefore crucial for Anticipatory Action. This research aims to build on the evidence base around the impacts that the double vulnerability has on populations affected by armed conflict (Peters, et al., 2019) by conducting a comprehensive historical review of disaster impacts in conflict affected settings. This is focused on the Palestine and Darfur regions & the three protocol areas of Sudan as case studies. It builds on the ICRC and The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre’s research agenda of Climate and Conflict 2020, and particularly key research questions about Anticipatory Action in situations of conflict (IFRC, 2020).

It seeks to establish a database of the impacts that disasters caused by hydro-meteorological hazards have had in Palestine and Sudan since 2010, understanding 1) who were affected, 2) how they were affected, and 3) in what way the conflict context relates to the disaster impact. This impact analysis is conducted through collating ‘grey literature’ (needs assessments, situational reports, operational updates of humanitarian organisations) supplemented by academic research.

Generating a picture of historical disaster impacts is critical for exploring which Anticipatory Action interventions can reduce the impacts of future disasters. The output will be used to present a scenario of the types of disaster profiles – and their impacts – that these case studies are likely to experience in the future. For this, a review of potential actions will demonstrate how and why certain activities might be relevant. Interviews with practitioners holding expert academic, sectoral, or contextual experience will provide field-based insights. Combined, the challenges of Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts will be explored, along with their opportunities to provide a practical analysis aimed ultimately at improving DRR in states affected by conflict and instability.

This research will feed into wider work being done aimed at reducing disaster risks by using Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected areas. In Palestine, this could mean that the cold waves and heavy rainfall that struck six out of the past ten years, do not consistently result in mass displacement, shelter destruction, injury, and fatality. With three days advanced warning of extreme low-temperatures, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society could distribute winterisation items – like blankets and safe heaters – along with information & educations campaigns as to how to safely heat household to those living in tents and unprotected shelters. As a result, further loss of life could be prevented. Given the recent flare up in violence – damaging an additional 17,000 shelters (2,000 extensively) (OCHA, 2021) – reducing disaster risks remains an imperative.

Palestinian Red Crescent Soceity distributing NFIs to Beouins close to Ramallah (PRCS / IFRC, 2015)


This study is conducted as a Master’s Thesis for the MSc Risk and Disaster Science course at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (supervised by Prof Ilan Kelman). It is done in collaboration with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (supervised by Catalina Jaime, Climate and Conflict Manager), as a contribution to their work on scaling up Anticipatory Action in conflict-affected contexts. For more information, you can contact Mark Weegmann, graduate student an UCL and Junior Research at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

This work is supported by the Danish Red Cross with funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark.

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives

By Jessica Field, on 11 June 2021

Ahead of the G7 and COP26 “Global Britain” reneges on humanitarian commitments, costing lives


Authored by: Jessica Field


The IRDR annual Humanitarian Summit is almost upon us. After the developments of the last few months, there’ll certainly be a lot to discuss next Wednesday.

Today, leaders of the world’s seven largest ‘advanced economies’ will descend on Cornwall for a G7 meeting to discuss pressing issues, not least COVID-19 recovery and strengthening of the world’s health systems. While ‘Global Britain’ is celebrating its leading role as host for this important event (and the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow), its recent actions instead show a retraction from global leadership and responsibility – particularly around humanitarian action.

In September 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago in these stretched-out pandemic months), the UK’s Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – a vehicle for apparently more aligned development and diplomacy. Commentators were worried about what this would mean for the UK’s world-leading role in overseas development assistance. And they were right to be.

Sign for the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Photo: FCDO/2020, Creative Commons Licence. Available on FCDO Flickr.

 

Just two month later, in November 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the UK government was going to renege on its global commitment – and legal obligation – to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance (ODA). The new 0.5% amount means a £4.5 billion ‘black hole’ in the humanitarian and development budget compared with 2019 figures. The effects of this have been immediate and catastrophic for many essential programmes across the world, and will have damaging ripple effects for many years to come.

Devex’s Will Worley has been tracking the cuts in a handy timeline. Seeing them listed one after the other, week after week, exposes the huge scale of the UK’s retraction from its obligations. Some of the more devastating include a 60% reduction in funding to Yemen, which is seeing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises as a result of conflict, mass displacement and famine-like conditions. After announcing this cut in March, the UK government admitted “we haven’t done an impact assessment”, putting millions of lives at risk as well as completely undermining its credibility as a donor.

That same month, the UK slashed its Global Challenges Research Fund almost in half, leaving a £120 million gap. This meant dozens of research projects and programmes (which were years in the making and based on long-standing partnerships) were decimated or closed, virtually overnight, rendering people jobless and halting research previously deemed essential for tackling the climate crisis, displacement, human rights violations and other global challenges. Again, with no impact assessment. Even basic communications about the cuts were incoherent, lacked basic guidance and were branded “a shambles” by those affected.

A Rohingya woman pictured at a World Food Programme food distribution supported by UK aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, October 2017. Photo: DFID/Anna Dubuis, Creative Commons license, DFID Flickr, 2017.

 

In May, the UK announced it would cut its contributions to the Rohingya crisis response by 42%, reducing its £47.5 million pledge from 2020 to £26.7 million this year. Aid organisations working with Rohingyas – in what is the world’s largest refugee crisis – have described the consequences as “catastrophic”, and expect Rohingya children to be particularly affected.

The list goes on.

But there has been a fight back – from within the ranks of the Tory Party, as well as humanitarian and climate crisis advocates.

This reduction in 0.7% spending was not debated or approved in Parliament, and Boris Johnson has faced a rebellion about it among his own MPs. In recent weeks, a group of Conservative MPs have been vocal about the damage the government was doing to vital programmes overseas, as well as the UK’s reputation as a world leader in ODA. On Tuesday, Tory rebels tried to secure a vote on the aid cuts – convinced that if a vote was allowed, the government would be defeated. These efforts failed on this occasion, and the Prime Minister reasserted that there was no plan for reversal, nor to give MPs a vote on the matter.

These rebel Conservative MPs have plans to force the government’s hand in other ways, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll make much headway. Nonetheless, as this national debate collides with the G7 summit today and preparations for COP26 – censure might come from other ‘world leaders’ and global organisations, too.

Whatever happens, these issues will make for lively debate at next Wednesday’s IRDR Humanitarian Summit. One of our timely panels is on the different risks and challenges facing the humanitarian sector and humanitarian studies – political and financial, as well as from conflict and COVID-19. Join us and contribute to discussions. Sign up here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/irdr-humanitarian-summit-2021-interrogating-changing-risks


Jessica Field is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

 

A Short Collection of IRDR MSc Student Research Previews

By Joshua Anthony, on 1 June 2021

A Short Collection of IRDR MSc Research Previews

This article is a short collection of ideas, inspirations and plans for a research thesis as summarised by IRDR Master’s students.


Joshua Wilson — Environmental Risk in Seaweed farms, Kwale County, Kenya

Kwale County, Kenya, is not somewhere I had heard of this time last year but I’m now in the early stages of in-depth study into the seaweed farms within the region. Following communication with Plan International UK, facilitated by the IRDR, I learnt of their recent work promoting the practice in order to empower local women, both socially and economically. This effort fits within Plan’s larger goal of addressing the ‘triple jeopardy’ of poverty, climate change and nature in the region where they have also focused on mangrove planting, responsible fishing and awareness raising within schools.

Changing environmental conditions due to climate change has negatively impacted seaweed production in some areas through heavy rainfall and storm surges. Using knowledge gained from Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis and key informant interviews, I will attempt to assess the environmental risks at current seaweed farms whilst looking for suitable sites for relocation. I also aim to explore the socio-political factors that shape the site selection of seaweed farms. Through this research I hope to contribute to supporting the sustainable practice of seaweed farming in the long-term, promoting women’s inclusion and agency whilst encouraging pro-poor responsible value chains [1].

[1] Ambrosino, C., Hufton, B., Nyawade, B.O., Osimbo, H. and Owiti, P. (2020) Integrating Climate Adaptation, Poverty Reduction, and Environmental Conservation in Kwale County, Kenya. African Handbook of Climate Change Adaptation, pp.1-18.

Joshua Wilson | joshua.wilson.20@ucl.ac.uk


Kleoniki Theodoridou — Flood Risk in Mandra, Greece

As a geologist, I have always been intrigued by the occurrence of extreme natural phenomena worldwide, let alone in Greece, which is one of the most geologically active countries in Europe. Since, the devastating flash flood that occurred in the region of West Attica, in the town of Mandra, in 2017 led to the tragic loss of 24 people. This flood was one of the deadliest in the country; however, the flood prevention work is still incomplete due to bureaucratic issues. This means that the area is at high risk of a similar event in the future, and that could jeopardize many lives.

For that reason, I was genuinely interested to investigate and assess the potential flood risk in this particular region using the Copula theory, which is a multivariate statistical method. In that way, we could understand the probability that a flood event of a particular intensity will occur over an extended period, and thus, make the right decisions to protect the public from an imminent disaster; considering that, prevention is better than cure.

Kleoniki Theodoridou | kleoniki.theodoridou.20@ucl.ac.uk


Lydia Brown — The compound impacts of hazardous events and COVID-19

Covid-19 has brought new challenges to the disaster context, with disaster managers having to consider the combined impact of a global pandemic and hazardous events (storm surges, tropical cyclones, tsunamis etc). Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) must now incorporate activities which minimize the risk of the virus transmission.

This includes establishing safe work protocols and re-designing activities considering “social distancing”. This is particularly important in emergency shelters, where a large number of residents gather in a confined space which only aids the spread of COVID-19.

Disaster first-responders have been collaborating and coordinating in order to share lessons and be best placed to help people in need. However, efforts are futile if residents perceive the risk of contracting Covid-19 too high to evacuate to emergency shelters.

My dissertation will entail understanding how evacuation behaviour and decision to evacuate is affected by the fear of contracting COVID-19. To understand evacuation behaviour is essential as any person that does not heed the warning poses a perennial problem; these people sustain severe preventable injuries, put the rescuers unnecessarily at risk, and fill hospital beds at medical centres. The primary concern is that fear of contracting COVID-19 during the disaster response phase will cause an increase in the number of residents staying in their homes and being exposed to injuries and hazards.

Lydia Brown | lydia.brown.20@ucl.ac.uk


The IRDR Master’s Programmes facilitate research in a wide variety of topics.

Thank you to our student contributors,

Joshua Anthony, Editor at IRDR blog.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk | Please get in contact if you would like to contribute to this blog.

 

Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

By Joshua Anthony, on 24 May 2021


In times of crisis, it is common to see the union of communities overcome the unique challenges that each disaster brings. Following the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, neighbours and relatives were rescued from building debris by locals immediately on the scene, while others set up temporary shelters for those in need. Independent tech-wizards during the 2010 wildfires in Russian built an online ‘help-map’ which pin-pointed danger zones and platformed aid-requests and -offers during the event. Most notably reported by the media, the Occupy Sandy group, which emerged in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could boast an impressive twenty thousand meals a day delivered to those in need.

Now, as the world collectively lives out a disaster, through the course of which its citizens have been told to socially distance and clinically vulnerable individuals advised to stay indoors at all costs—even for shopping and pharmacy visits—it is now that the power of and need for community action has become increasingly evident.

Figure 1. “In this together.” Marked under CC0 1.0. (Creative commons licence)

23rd March, 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the start of England’s first nationwide lockdown. By the next day, NHS England had launched their “rallying the troops” campaign, urging the English people to help their neighbours and families who were shielding with medication pick-ups, hospital visits and over-the-phone support. Such a call-out from the national healthcare service suggests it is ordinary people who are acknowledged to hold the power to tackle these wide and unique circumstances. Short of a Braveheart-esque ignition of national pride, one can commend the efforts of NHS to recognise and utilise the dormant community resources—but Community had already gotten there.

As early as the 12th March—before Matt Hancock’s address to parliament on the 16th March advising people to reduce “unnecessary” social contact—locally-led, self-described “Mutual Aid” support groups had begun to form across London. They offered a wide range of assistance for everyday needs such as grocery shopping, medication pick-up, and providing information and advice, and emotional support; and more bespoke aid was provided, including: technological repairs, online ordering, facemask distribution and flower deliveries—though, this list is surely not exhaustive.

By the sheer speed and timely nature of this community action, one is left wondering whether inadequacies within the institutional emergency response frameworks are what spurs communities on to take the direct action seen here.

Previous research shows that the emergence of new crisis response groups, the “emergent group” is the result of fresh challenges for which adequate facility to resolve them is not present or immediately available within existing institutions. In many disasters, this is a common feature that occurs at the early stages of the disaster cycle [1]. Uniquely, it appears as though some mutual aid groups, which in line with the emergent group research, formed at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020, have either maintained support or reactivated as the situation progressed and further lockdowns were imposed. This sustained activity is indicative of an environment whereby the needs of society have been continually supplemented throughout the crises by the work of grassroots groups.

To facilitate their operations, mutual aid volunteers were making posters, leafleting, researching information, translating, coordinating other volunteers, managing community finance pools and running phone-in services. And though there was some seeming structure of administration and coordination, an important principle that underpins much of these groups’ organisation was that they were non-hierarchical, independent and self-organising. More generally:

Mutual Aid as a mode of organisation refers to a horizontally structured relationship between voluntary participants from which help or aid are available mutually and free-of-charge between parties, at each’s own discretion, in the face of adversity—most commonly a shared one— unsanctioned by an overriding authority.” [2]

Figure 2. Mutual Aid finds it roots in Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”, exploring concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation within societies. The text is widely cited within anarchist literature. “Mutual Aid Mural” by eshutt is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Groups existed at the Borough scale down through the town, ward and even residential building level, with each scale of locality maintaining independence through to the volunteers themselves (see Figure 3 for a schematic diagram). Each group was unique: some welcoming new members immediately, while others were more guarded and required postcodes and reasons for joining; some had clearer organisational structures with dedicated officers and coordinators; group admins contacted for questionnaires surveys varied in their willingness to allow researchers access to the groups, some feeling a duty of care towards their group members. Responses have helped shed some light on common themes of organisation and activity between groups [2], but it is their anarchistic and amorphous nature, which makes them so hard to track and study, that could be their key strength in fighting an emerging and changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3. Chain of Mutual Aid group formation displaying spontaneous formation at all geographical levels, Borough, Ward and Neighbourhood, with horizontal autonomy at each group level down to individual volunteers [2].

Despite a rich history of such emergent groups surfacing during disasters worldwide, no provisions in recent British pandemic-influenza response plans were made to include such groups. Though unfortunate, this is not surprising when observing the UK emergency response framework, which operates largely under a command and control structure [3], and is incongruent with the non-hierarchical and seemingly counter-establishment structure of mutual aid groups [2]. This is evident in the tensions that have arisen when councils have interfered and ‘micro-managed’ Mutual aid efforts [4].

All emergency response is local in effect, even when filtered through a centralised system: it is those on the ground that sort through the rubble, build the shelters and cook the food, not the ministers and policy makers. Mutual aid groups are no different, except that they have bypassed the centralised aspect of the emergency response chain and affected direct action. Looking at the impact they have had, it would be unwise to suggest that a rational integration of mutual aid groups and institutional emergency response would involve the placing of such groups within a hierarchical chain; rather, those in positions of power should acknowledge the legitimacy of their efforts and empower them through outreach and communication.

Fortunately, reaching out has been made possible through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp, which have given Mutual Aid groups operational power by allowing both those in need and able to help to communicate and coordinate online. Where the emergence of citizen groups typically relies on prior social networks [5], online networking has facilitated the quick establishment of community ties while also conforming to social distancing guidelines. Additionally, for interested researchers, a surprising benefit of online group presence is that group information and membership numbers were made accessible (in most circumstances), allowing for the gathering and analyses of emergent group data that could otherwise be too transient or chaotic under regular disaster conditions.

Analysis of borough-level mutual aid Facebook groups reveal that membership numbers are somewhat correlated positively with the percentage of those aged 25-34 years of age, and negatively with borough crime rates and the percentage of those classified by Government statistics as BAME (black and minority ethnic) [2]. However; explanations for these results can only be speculative. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that the predominant ages of volunteers generally tends to fall within the bracket of 65-74 years of age, while those least likely to volunteer were in the 25-34 bracket; however, the risks posed to the older populations from COVID-19 is likely to have turned this balance on its head. Similarly, research has suggested that ‘BAME’ community members could be at a greater risk to COVID-19 [6], which, alongside key factors such as involvement in key worker jobs and family caring responsibilities, could limit availability for participating in mutual aid group activity.

Other independent Borough socioeconomic factors such as the index for multiple deprivation, household earnings, and internet usage did not produce significant correlations, but the analytical power of the modelling approach is limited by sample size and the informal nature of Mutual Aid groups—especially within a crisis—that makes the navigation of data difficult [2].

Though results are inconclusive and liable to error, current research efforts show that there is opportunity to better understand the phenomena of emergent mutual aid groups, which could enhance the effectiveness of their intentions in future times of turmoil. To these eyes, there are two alternate visions tugging against each other: one, where community power is harnessed and nurtured by emergency planners and institutions; and two, where institutional responses are effective enough to preclude the necessity for citizen action.

One thing this pandemic demonstrates for certain is that the subjects of disaster are not passive recipients of aid and can and have participated in affecting vital response. Time and time again we are reminded that chaos is not an inevitability of hardship, and that, when duty calls, communities have summoned the power that lies dormant beneath their lines in order to tackle catastrophe together.

References

[1] Twigg, J., & Mosel, I. (2017). Emergent groups and spontaneous volunteers in urban disaster response. Environment and Urbanization, 29(2), 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817721413

[2] Anthony, J. (2020). Modelling the Emergence of Mutual Aid Groups in London (UK) during the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic.

[3] Alexander, D. E. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan (1st ed.). Edinburgh and London: Dunedin Academic Press

[4] Tiratelli, L. & Kaye, S. (2020). Communities vs. Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid. New Local Government Network

[5] Quarantelli, E. L. (1984). Emergent Citizen Groups in Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Activities. Final Project Report #33, University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/1206

[6] Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office (2020).Quarterly report on progress to address COVID-19 health inequalities


Joshua Anthony is Editor of the IRDR Blog and a PhD student within the institute.

Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

The Value of Life and Disaster Risk Reduction

By Myra Farooqi, on 14 May 2021

Humanity proves time and again that one life is not always equal to another, ultimately devaluing us all.

 

1 – 1 = -2. Basic arithmetic would explain why this answer is incorrect, but the valuation of life is far from basic.

There have been many attempts at discovering the value of life, ranging from the economical for use in labor practices to the metaphysical to the biomedical to the religious. On an individual level, humans search for the answer as well — consciously or not.

Every day, we make choices that place value on the lives of ourselves and others, and this is at the core of every aspect of disaster risk reduction (DRR). Who we define as vulnerable, who we choose to abandon, and what we choose to protect are all questions of value, and that value has consequences as illustrated by the fact that “children from the poorest households die at twice the rate of their better-off peers” (UNICEF).

In her recent book, The Sum of Us, author and economist Heather McGhee argues that we have been taught that our value stems from the devaluation of others, and this belief “distorts our politics, drains our economy, and erodes everything…from our schools to our air to our infrastructure” (p.xxiii). McGhee specifically discusses the American experience, but this valuation process is applicable to almost every interaction in power dynamics.

For example, why do we use drone warfare? It allows us to protect our own people while fighting others. Why do we restrict access to elections? It allows us to protect our power from waning. Why do we engage in factory farming? It allows us to feed ourselves more easily.

These are simplifications of complex issues, but they do reflect our values in practice. Time after time, conflict after conflict, day after day, we (those with power) decide whose life is more important, and act accordingly. Unless we work to combat this inequality, incorporating DRR principles may never reduce our disasters of choice. At the end of the day, the unequal valuation of life will leave us all at a loss.

1 – 1 will equal -2.

 

Myra Farooqi is an MSc student at the IRDR, and can be contacted at myra.farooqi.20@ucl.ac.uk 

Connected Learning Internship: Accessibility and Inclusivity in Disaster Studies | Opening up the Conversation

By Joshua Anthony, on 5 May 2021

Authors: Eleanor King and Fran Kurlansky

 

In a world where our lives are increasingly digitilised, and there is increased awareness about curating accessible spaces and ensuring optimum representation of all people, taking on an internship working on facilitating accessibility and inclusivity was very important. This is even more crucial in a year filled with challenges created by the pandemic. Covid-19 has challenged educational providers to further enhance online learning, making it imperative for content to accommodate all learners, regardless of their identity and additional requirements.

Image 1: Photo ‘Studying’ by rhodesj on Flickr, creative commons license

For two months across December-January, we reviewed the content of postgraduate modules taught at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR): the Conflict Humanitarianism and Disaster Risk Reduction module, and the Gender, Disaster and Conflict module. This was part of an Arena Centre Connected Learning internship supervised by Dr Jessica Field and Dr Virginie Le Masson in IRDR. We were equipped with the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck and the Accessibility and the Internet document, both of which provided a solid foundation from which to scrutinise and assess the  content of our assigned modules.

Improving Accessibility: Definition and Challenges

An institution providing digital accessibility means ensuring that documents and online platforms can be accessed by all students regardless of additional learning requirements. Features that all documents and online platforms should have inbuilt—but unfortunately often do not—include: tags to allow users to navigate through text and images; alt-text, so that readers with visual impairments can use a screen-reader to have images conveyed to them in detail and in context; and resizing text and implementing the appropriate contrast ratio between text and background. From a technical point of view, conducting accessibility checks was a challenging aspect of the internship. Whilst utilising the resources, including advice from IRDR PhD students who had completed accessibility tasks on other modules, and becoming familiar with the functions of Adobe Acrobat, for instance, the process of making content accessible can vary between documents.

A prominent issue was creating image descriptions (alt-text), especially if the document was image-heavy. Some images, such as “word clouds”, graphs, and tables, are very detailed and contain a lot of written information, so condensing high quantities of information into captions proved to be virtually impossible. Another issue faced was knowing whether edits, colours, and some images were simply aesthetic and could be removed, or functional and so important to retain. Not being the original creator of module documents (such as PowerPoints) made these decisions difficult, as context is often needed. These elements can place pressure on someone carrying out accessibility checks, as we found, not being experts in the field of Disaster Studies.

These were important challenges to face, however, in generating discourse about why accessibility and inclusivity work is important. While we were essentially working backwards, trying to unpick major flaws in documents that were not designed to be accessed by someone with additional requirements, it made the need for educating staff on accessibility requirements even greater.

The Importance of Accessibility in an Academic Environment

Currently, information about accessibility is disseminated among staff. Yet a problem can arise when that information is not made a priority for all staff at all times. Awareness of not only how to implement checks and corrections, but why they are necessary, must be prioritised by departments and the university, and a better system of providing accessible digital education needs to be explored. This way, staff can make digital teaching materials accessible prior to a module beginning, thus, making a more accessible learning environment for students to enter into. A deeper understanding of the need for inclusivity and accessibility is imperative if there is going to be a culture shift which then provides a safer educational experience for all students.

Enhancing Inclusivity: Definition

Working within the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, it was also crucial to explore, using an intersectional framework, the inclusivity of the module content which we worked on. A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality provides a framework through which to understand how people’s different social characteristics—such as race, gender, or class—“intersect” to create complex oppressions. The framework is most commonly applied to feminist theory, highlighting that, for example, a middle-class white cisgender woman does not face the same oppression as a working-class Transgender Black woman, even though they both face misogyny.

Making Academia more Inclusive

In an IRDR teaching context, this requires an awareness of the effect of disasters on people of all races, genders, and classes, as well as ensuring the voices of those individuals are platformed. Rather than having a week on “women” or a week on “LGBTQIA+” within the module, a holistic approach to people’s complex identities and the way these impact their experience of disasters is not only a more inclusive approach, but it also provides a more thorough analysis.

Crucially, the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck spotlights the ‘attainment gap’ (the discrepancy of achievement between students of different backgrounds). It notes how, through making a curriculum that greater encompasses the student body—that is, going further than celebrating diversity and actually creating modules that students can relate to—the gap can continue to reduce in size. There is a direct correlation between representation and achievement.

Image 2: UCL Curriculum Healthcheck cover & p.1.

Evaluating how both IRDR modules incorporated the stories of people from different cultures, ethnicities, genders and sexualities was imperative to ensuring that, as required in the Healthcheck, they captured a multitude of experiences, fostered inclusivity and ensured that content was reflective of the diversity of student experience.  In addition, checking that both modules facilitated the students’ sharing of their own stories and perspectives in a safe digital space would help to ensure that the students could voice issues in a supportive environment.

We were able to build on these analytical skills through conducting a critical appraisal of a guest lecture by Dr Virginie Le Masson on Gender-based Violence and Disasters. Utilising both the accessibility and the inclusivity elements of the internship, and working closely with Dr Le Masson, we delivered feedback from the perspective of students, and were able to draw on our own experiences as students navigating online learning to create further considerations for lecturers to take. For example, when presenting information about the experience of women in disaster situations, we advised it was also important to analyse the experience of trans men who felt they had also been victims of misogyny when coded by others as women.

Inclusivity was an important element of the internship, and this task exemplified this; we conversed with IRDR staff about how to deliver feedback in a constructive manner, how to cater to the diversity of the student body, and creating good support systems for both students and staff. It was a unique opportunity for a dialogue between students and lecturers, and meant that we were able to work in a collaborative way to create the best learning experience for all.

Learning from Experience: Holistic and Methodical Approaches

Having completed the internship, there are several things for us to consider in retrospect and to recommend for future practice. For the department and the university as a whole, we would advise that an important element of digital accessibility and inclusivity work is planning and time-management. For anyone assigned with making documents more accessible and inclusive, it is important to start working on these tasks sooner rather than later, experimenting with how much time you allocate a task and at what part of the day you work best until you find a rhythm that fits your individual work style. For example, the assignment may seem daunting in the beginning and could require some practice and further research. In this case, you may find that approaching it in twenty-minute slots to be more manageable. On the other hand, larger chunks of time may be more suitable if you find yourself wanting to complete a document’s alt-text in one session, for instance.

It is particularly imperative to work in a holistic manner. As accessibility and inclusivity work can be detail-orientated, the module leader or convener should keep the bigger picture in mind which helps to assess the content as a whole. This is particularly important in modules with lots of guest lecturers. Whilst each guest lecturer may include content written by women, it could be that each lecturer has predominantly platformed cisgender women, and the voices of trans women and genderqueer individuals are marginalized. Being methodical is key here, as is approaching the task sooner rather than later or retrospectively.

Working in a finite internship affected our experience of the work. 35 hours in two months is not a lot of time in relation to the tasks we were required to work on. What is most important in this internship are the skills we learned, understanding the root problems and what can be done to solve these—in this case: increasing provisions for technical literacy and a deeper understanding of what accessibility and inclusivity are, and why they need to be made more visible on a widespread scale.

 

Eleanor King is a postgraduate student at the Institute of Education, studying for her MA in Digital Media: Critical Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation on the dissemination of misinformation through social media. Email address: eleanor.king20@ucl.ac.uk.

Fran Kurlansky is a postgraduate student, studying for her MA in Jewish Studies. She is also working for UCL Human Resources as a Digital Accessibility Assistant. Email address: francesca.kurlansky.20@ucl.ac.uk.