Panel discussion on working in challenging environments & conflict zones at the 2019 UCL Humanitarian Summit
By Anwar Musah, on 3 July 2019
When embarking on fieldwork research in an area that is classed as high risk, it is essential for academics and experts from Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to come prepared; especially when entering into a setting that is characterised by kidnappings, violence, conflicts (or civil crisis), disease outbreak, political instability and/or faced with international sanctions.
On the 19th of June, Dr James Hammond (Reader in Geophysics, Birkbeck), Dr Ahmed Bayes (Lecturer in Risk & Disaster Science, UCL) and Liz Harding (Humanitarian Representative, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)) delivered a series of intriguing talks and an engaging panel discussion about their personal experiences of Working in Challenging Environments and Conflict (& Post-conflict) Zones at the 2019 Humanitarian Summit in UCL, on a panel chaired by Dr Marie Aronsson-Storrier (Lecturer in Global Law and Disasters, University of Reading and member of UCL IRDR Board).
The session was kick-off by Dr James Hammond who spoke of his experience and difficulty getting access to do research in North Korea. He worked on a collaborative project with physical scientists from North Korea – the research focusses on volcanic activity and deriving geophysical imaging of the magma plumbing systems that’s beneath Mountain Paektu. He states:
“Most scientists from North Korea, and especially researchers from his field of expertise are very keen for international collaboration and support shared knowledge”.
“However, external factors such as North Korea’s closedness to outsiders and geopolitical influence and international sanctions from the United Nations has made it increasingly difficult for us to conduct their fieldwork activities at Mountain Paektu”.
He quotes a sanction imposed on North Korea which effectively puts his team’s work to a halt: “Suspend all technical and scientific cooperation with North Korea”. Fortunately, he was able to overcome this issue by getting the UK government involved, and through diplomacy and science, they were allowed to continue their research.
The second speaker, Dr Bayes Ahmed, shares his harrowing experience in Bangladesh and how he dealt with three of his research team members being kidnapped. He states:
“… before doing fieldwork research which involve humans in the context of conflict or displacement. It is strictly important for academics to comply with all conventional fieldwork procedures such as risk assessments, receiving ethical approval, health insurance etc.
He also states the following:
“… it is equally important to know that while the above is all ‘pen and paper’; however, the fieldwork context is completely different and anything can happen.”
He provides an example of visiting local communities situated in remote areas of Chittagong (Bangladesh) and how being adventurous was risky behaviour. He narrates how himself and his team mates were taking pictures and video footages of hill cutters who were building apartments along the hills in Chittagong. He was warned by the local villagers to put their cameras away and not to take pictures lest the people may think they are journalists. He was also warned not to sightsee or venture further from their position as certain areas in their community are dangerous. Unfortunately, he and his team did not take the advice of the local villagers – of course, this resulted in three of his colleagues being held captive by kidnappers. Fortunately, Dr Bayes was able to resolve the situation – he had strong connections with politicians and local members with strong influence in Chittagong who intervened. The captives were released within 30 minutes of negotiations.
The last speaker, Liz Harding, shared her incredible fieldwork experiences in high risk areas as a humanitarian representative working for MSF. She spoke about her everyday experiences and risks when working – these ranged from getting access to affected areas, being accepted by the local communities and bureaucracy (i.e. work permits, official documents etc).
Liz Harding gave example of situations where her team have to make really tough decisions – she spoke of how they had to abandon their search and rescue missions of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Basin because the issue became so politically charged in Europe. In South Sudan, she narrates how her medical team had to relocate all medical activities to smaller mobile clinics because their hospital in which they were present was attacked four times.
Personally, for Liz Harding, the toughest part of her work is taking hardest decisions for her team and asking the question of ‘can or should we stay?’. Abandoning a mission or evacuation is based on the following conditions – she states:
“… if there’s no more need for our presence; or if the risks are too high for the team.”
In addition, she adds:
“… or if the government authorities forcefully inform the team to leave the country etc., or if our presence poses a significant risk to the local population”.
An interactive panel discussion was held and the floor was opened for the audience to ask interesting questions.
The 2019 UCL Humanitarian Summit took place on Tuesday 18thJune, and the UCL IRDR 9thAnnual Conference was on Wednesday 19thJune. Selected sessions were live streamed, and these videos are available on our YouTube channel- remember to hit the like button and subscribe to the channel at IRDR UCL.
Follow the Humanitarian Institute on Twitter on @UCLHI
Concerning all photographs used in this blog. All credit goes to the rightful owner and photographer: Professor Ilan Kelman (IRDR, UCL)