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Panel discussion on working in challenging environments & conflict zones at the 2019 UCL Humanitarian Summit

AnwarMusah3 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).

Image 1: Dr James Hammond spoke about his experience and difficulty of doing collaborative research with North Korean scientists. UN sanctions and politics made it increasingly difficult for the teams to work.

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”.

He adds:

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.

Image 2: Dr Bayes Ahmed speaks of his incredible experiences and shares harrowing stories of how three of his research team members were kidnapped in Bangladesh.

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).

Image 3: Liz Harding shares with us her incredible fieldwork experiences in high risk areas as a humanitarian representative working for MSF

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.

Image 4: Our three guests with Dr Marie Aronsson-Storrier (far left) chairing the panel discussion. From second left – Dr James Hammond, Dr Ahmed Bayes & Liz Harding.

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)

In-conversation – Drones for health emergencies: friend or foe? @ the UCL IRDR 9th Annual Conference

AnwarMusah3 July 2019

On the 19thof June, Professor Patty Kostkova (UCL IRDR and Director of the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies) chaired an intriguing panel discussion with invited speaker Jorieke Vyncke (Coordinator of the Missing Maps Activities, Médecins San Frontières (MSF)) on the use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (or drones) in low income and low resource settings for health emergencies especially in the context of sub-Saharan Africa.

Image 1: Seated is our panel guest Jorieke Vyncke (left). The session was chaired by Professor Patty Kostkova (right)

Jorieke Vyncke coordinates the Missing maps project and was involved in using drone technology in several MSF missions. In collaboration with organisations as the American and British Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, the Missing Maps project wants to map the entire world so as to provide baseline data of all locations including villages and important buildings in remote areas. The session was kick-off with Jorieke Vyncke giving the audience an interactive walkthrough with the various model types of UAVs (or drones) used in operations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia with MSF.

Image 2: Jorieke does a walkthrough of the various drone models used in her day-to-day operations

She spoke of the day-to-day application of drone technologies to address some of the world’s humanitarian crisis and gives an example – she says:

… drones were used by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) to take direct satellite images for the geospatial triangulation of Rohingya refugee settlements in and around Balukhali in Bangladesh during and after the exodus of Rohingya out of Myanmar in 2017

Image 3: Around Balukhali (Bangladesh) – 2 December 2017 (Drone images IOM)

She shown remarkable drone images of how the settlements have expanded over time and narrates how the MSF team collaborated with the international Organisation for Migration (IOM), who were given a permission to fly drones over refugee camp, to understand the growing settlement patterns of the Rohingyas to address the issue of displacement.

Professor Kostkova asked whether they have ever used such technology to deliver goods to affected areas to which Jorieke explains:

Yes, our teams have used drones in Papua New Guinea to transport TB sputum samples to a hospital from health centres in remote villages.

Difficult questions regarding drone regulation were asked – unlike the Global North where laws are stricter against drone usage in public spaces. In the Global South – unfortunately, this is not the case. Jorieke agreed that in countries like Malawi there were no strict regulation concerning drones in 2017 when the MSF team, lead by Raphael Brechard, used them for mapping the flooded area. She mentioned that at the time:

…you can become a user without a license”.

She adds the following:

…while there’s less regulations, MSF tries to maximise good-use of drones [not to compromise people’s privacy]. We try to collaborate with government and local institutions and community leaders before we deploy our drone activities. We also make sure to have strong local knowledge and close ties with the community involved to get their participation and acceptance”.

Image 4: Jorieke (left) explaining the advantages and disadvantages of using drones in lower income & low resource settings in the Global South

An interactive panel discussion was held and the floor was opened for the audience to ask interesting questions. Of course, for more interesting details you can watch all live streamed videos on YouTube – remember to hit the like button and subscribe to the channel at UCL IRDR.

Follow us on Twitter @UCL_dPHE & @UCLIRDR

You can follow the Missing maps project and Médecins San Frontières (MSF) on Twitter @TheMissingMaps & @MSF, respectively.

Concerning all photographs used in this blog. All credit goes to the rightful owner and photographer: Professor Ilan Kelman (IRDR, UCL)

The 2019 Global Assessment Report (GAR)

RebekahYore31 May 2019

Post written by Prof. David Alexander 

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction was born out of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, 1990-2000. On 1st May 2019 it was renamed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. UNDRR remains a relatively small unit of the United Nations, but it has a truly world-wide reach. DRR is thus now truly mainstreamed at the global level.

UNDRR has a recurrent initiative for assessing the state of disaster preparedness around the world, and this results in a document, the Global Assessment Report(GAR), which is issued biennially to coincide with the UN’s Global Platform on DRR. The 2019 report is accompanied by an executive summary called GAR Distilled. The GAR proper consists of 15 chapters in four sections: introductory, the Sendai Framework (SFDRR), its implementation (and interaction with sustainable development), and managing risk nationally and locally. The document is decanted from many different studies, some of which have been commissioned specially for it. These may be published separately in an academic journal. An example of this for the 2013 GAR can be found in Di Mauro (2014). This edition of the GAR is the first to report on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR.

The 2019 GAR starts with a quotation from UN Secretary General António Guterres, who observes that in the modern world global challenges are more and more integrated and the responses are more and more fragmented. This is a powerful argument for joining forces and using a common agreed policy at the world-wide scale.

The GAR uses the ‘pressure-and-release’ model of Wisner et al, (2004) in an adapted form, consisting of: context, stressors, thresholds (nowadays known as ‘tipping points’ and impacts (which it terms ‘systemic failure’). One great lesson that the modern world teaches us is that changes that we thought were gradual can be suddenly overwhelming. Perhaps we are unaware when the ‘tipping points’ are passed, and that is a dangerous situation to be in.

The GAR urges that international agreements (the Sendai Framework, the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the New Urban Agenda) be viewed collectively through the lens of systemic risk. It is clear that the world is still struggling to achieve the transition from a focus on responding to disaster impacts to one on reducing the risks associated with future impacts. The verdict on major risk is a resounding “sooner than expected”, which, of course, reduces the time available to prepare. Initiatives need to coalesce around “risk informed sustainable development”.

I have argued elsewhere (Alexander 2017) that the number of times the word ‘should’ is used in an official document is an inverse indicator of its utility. The road to the nether regions is paved with things we should do (but for one reason or another have not done), and so a high ‘should ratio’ (the number of “shoulds” per page) is a proxy indicator for an ineffective instrument. The ‘should ratios’ of the GAR and GAR Distilled are 0.26 and 0.32, both below the alarm-signal threshold of 0.40. However, parts of the GAR bristle with “shoulds”. Moreover, there are only two mentions of ‘rights’ and none of ‘human rights’. The latter are very important to disaster risk reduction because they constrain or determine what can be done in the way of preparedness, action and reaction. UNISDR had a tendency to shy away from human rights issues, perhaps because it needed to remain engaged with countries that have a poor record in this respect.

The section of the GAR on ‘challenges’ is welcome, as the challenges are indeed legion. However, the two short paragraphs devoted to political challenges are extremely weak. It could be argued that political decision making is the greatest barrier of all to successful disaster risk reduction. We live in a world in which Terry Cannon’s ‘cure to damage ratio’ is paramount. Globally, about a thousand times as much is spent on hydrocarbon exploration and extraction than on the mitigation of the climate change that results from burning fossil fuels (Mechler et al. 2019). Unofficial voices have suggested that the ‘cure to damage ratio’ for natural hazards is 1:43. In any case, there is no doubt that much more is spent on making the problem worse than on solving it. What is needed is a brutally honest assessment of why this is the case.

Notably, the GAR has finally come around to the view that we all bear the burden of reducing disaster risk. In putting individuals at the centre of a diagram of actions we see people either crushed between the rock of hazards and the hard place of risk-informed sustainable development or as protagonists in combatting the former with the latter. The GAR notes that “we all live in communities”. No doubt we do, but the DRR community needs to do more to define what a community is, how it functions and whether it is really the right vehicle for solving our problems.

One of the most intransigent problems with the predecessor of the Sendai Framework, Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015, was its resolute reliance on a ‘top-down’ approach. Studies showed that the HFA had had little impact at the local level (GNCSODR 2015). The Sendai Framework and all the United Nations impedimenta that goes with it tend to perpetuate this issue, despite the launch in 2010 of the UN Safe Cities programme (about 1% of towns and cities have signed up for it). Consequently, the greatest present-day challenge is to achieve change from the local level against rigid power structures and massive vested interests at the national and globalised levels. For the sake of survival, it must be done. The GAR helps, and no one would deny that a coordinated world-wide approach is needed, but there is a growing feeling that progress will never be rapid enough until there is a fundamental reorientation.

Further Reading

The full and abbreviated Global Assessment Report 2019 can both be freely downloaded from https://gar.unisdr.org

Alexander, D.E. 2017. The ‘should ratio’. Disaster Planning and Emergency Management, 18 July 2017.


Di Mauro, M. (ed.) 2014. Global probabilistic assessment of risk from natural hazards for the Global Assessment Report 2013 (GAR13). International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction10(B): 403-502.

GNCSODR 2015. Views From the Frontline: Beyond 2015. Recommendations for a Post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction Framework to Strengthen the Resilience of Communities to All Hazards. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Teddington, UK, 12 pp.

Mechler, R., L.M. Bouwer, T. Schinko, S. Surminski and J-A. Linnerooth-Bayer (eds) 2019. Loss and Damagefrom Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options. Springer Open, Cham, Switzerland, 557 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 25 pp.

UNDRR 2019a. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, 2019. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 472 pp.

UNDRR 2019b. GAR Distilled. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, 26 pp.

Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon and I. Davis and 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters(2nd edition). Routledge, London, 496 pp.