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Mutual Aid: Community Power During a Pandemic

Joshua Anthony24 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

Myra Farooqi14 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

Joshua Anthony5 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.