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    A Geographers' Imperative? Research and Action in the Aftermath of DisasterAuthor(s): Cathrine BrunSource: The Geographical Journal,  Vol. 175, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 196-207Published by: Wiley on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute ofBritish Geographers)Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25621819Accessed: 10-09-2018 22:00 UTC   JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a widerange of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity andfacilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available athttps://about.jstor.org/terms The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), Wiley   arecollaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Geographical Journal  This content downloaded from 129.2.19.102 on Mon, 10 Sep 2018 22:00:16 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms   The Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 3, September 2009, pp. 196-207, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2009.00329.x  A geographers' imperative? Research and action  in the aftermath of disaster  CATHRINE BRUN  Department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU),  NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway  E-mail: cathrine.brun@svt.ntnu.no This paper was accepted for publication in January 2009  After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 a number of academics published texts in  attempts to make sense of the disaster. Frustrations and feelings of inability to do  something useful to assist were expressed. The academic discussions arising from the disaster may be linked with more general discussions around conducting relevant and  responsible research in the social sciences. This paper addresses the role of researchers in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka and explores how the debate following  the tsunami can move on to refine researchers' roles in geography by way of participatory  action research (PAR), a research strategy that has received limited attention in research  on disasters. The paper begins by situating the debate in the spatial politics of  humanitarian work and academic research. Then discussions that arose among  geographers in the aftermath of the tsunami are presented and potentials for conducting  responsible research by engaging with the field are introduced. In the final section,  starting with the notion of responsible research, how PAR can potentially bring us  forward in developing principles and tools for more responsible geographical research in the context of emergencies is discussed. KEY WORDS: disasters, emergencies, responsible research, ethics, participatory action  research, tsunami  Introduction  After the Asian tsunami, there was an  unprecedented response from the global  public audience. The response was spurred  by a number of factors related to the waves hitting some of the most popular tourist resorts in South and Southeast Asia. Not only were Western tourists  fatally affected by the disaster, but because of inter  national tourism and the intense media coverage,  many people in the West also felt a close relation  ship with the coastlines affected. Drama, suffering  and crisis were exposed to such degrees that  people worldwide felt they had to respond in the  ways they could from a distance. People shared their resources with the aid agencies and other  private initiatives established to assist those affected  by the tsunami. In academia, the reactions proved  the importance of the relationship between affect,  personal and professional interests and motiva  tions. The outpouring of funding to research the  consequences of the disaster showed how research agendas are set by emotional responses to tragedy  (Lawson 2007).  The generosity (see debate between Clark 2005;  Clark etal. 2006; Korf 2006 2007) may also have  been a result of a more fundamental and long-term  tendency in the geography of care in Western  societies described by Doreen Massey (2004, 9) as  a 'nested set of Russian dolls'. By this description  she refers to how we care most for those who are  closest to home physically and mentally in our  networks and relationships. Korf (2007) shows how  generosity, and the ethics of care, may also be thought  of as grounded in an asymmetrical relationship  between the giver and the receiver of generosity. What most clearly defines aid, according to Hattori  (2001), is the symbolic power politics between  donor and recipient. Aid relations tend to lack reci procity, and consequently, strengthen the symbolic  domination of the West towards the 'developing'  world (Korf 2007). In relation to war and disaster,  The Geographical Journal Vol. 175 No. 3, pp. 196-207, 2009  ? 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation ? 2009 The Royal Geographical Society This content downloaded from 129.2.19.102 on Mon, 10 Sep 2018 22:00:16 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms   Research and action in the aftermath of disaster 197  the discussion of aid and generosity is fruitfully  understood through recent developments in human  itarianism. Humanitarianism refers to principles of assistance during and after war and general disaster.  The idea behind humanitarianism is that in extreme  cases of human suffering external agents may offer  assistance to people in need, and in doing so  should be accorded respect and even 'rights' while  carrying out their functions (Vaux 2006, 240).  The end of the Cold War uncovered a number of  conflicts and complex humanitarian emergencies  that resulted in renewed discussions about the politics of aid and humanitarian practices. The discussions on humanitarian principles, led by  the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and some international NGOs, have  influenced the principles for how the international humanitarian community works in disasters and has  also shaped the prevailing humanitarian discourse. A code of conduct for the International Red Cross  and Red Crescent Movement's Disaster Response  Programmes has become the most common moral  denominator in the humanitarian world today (Slim 2002). The first principle of the code of  conduct explains the humanitarian imperative:  The humanitarian imperative comes first. The right to  receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a  fundamental humanitarian principle which should be  enjoyed by all citizens of all countries. As members of  the international community, we recognise our obligation  to provide humanitarian assistance wherever it is  needed. Hence the need for unimpeded access to  affected populations is of fundamental importance in  exercising that responsibility. The prime motivation of our response to disaster is to alleviate human suffering amongst those least able to withstand the stress caused  by disaster. When we give humanitarian aid it is not  a partisan or political act and should not be viewed  as such.  Sphere (2004, 31 7)1  Two issues raised in the quotation are of special  interest here. First, the quotation expresses an  obligation to assist when the support mechanisms  supposed to be in place fail or are abandoned.  Interestingly, the humanitarian imperative even  expresses that 'we' - meaning 'the international  community' - have the right to offer humanitarian  assistance. Consequently, humanitarian assistance  may become an end in itself (Slim 2002), a categorical  imperative where humanitarian assistance is under  stood as boundless, we all ought to do it Second,  it is interesting that the humanitarian imperative maintains impartiality as a principle, although it is well established that all actors involved in a disaster  play a role and consequently will have a political  impact in an often very fragile and complex social,  economic and political environment (Leader 2000).  The description of the politics of involvement  and ethics of care as a nested set of Russian dolls  mentioned above may also ascribe to the contem  porary humanitarian community. According to  Vaux (2006), Western politics draws humanitarianism closer to itself while the distance from the people  in need seems to increase. A challenge for the  humanitarian ethics and its operating system in  the 21st century is thus, according to Slim (2002), to decolonise humanitarian practice.  Humanitarian agencies, aided by the generosity  of the general public in the West and researchers  concerned with the tsunami disaster, have all  become part of the spatial politics of disaster and  recovery. We are participants in a Eurocentric  'world-picturing' (Sidaway 2000). What is the  relationship between humanitarianism and research in this debate? Researchers are also located in this  power geometry of humanitarianism and generosity.  There are parallel processes and dilemmas. As  researchers we have to ask the following questions. What place is there for us in this field? Do we have the obligation - and the right - to conduct research in such conditions? What is the researchers' imper  ative?2 How do we make sense of the disaster?  What can we do to legitimise our presence in the  local/global fields in the aftermath of a disaster?  How can we assist, and play a role, but avoid  aiding the neo-colonial practices identified after  the tsunami? What are our responsibilities as  researchers?  My own work and connections with Sri Lanka  stretch back to 1994. At the time of the tsunami, I  was together with colleagues collaborating with an international development organisation to improve the World Bank supported housing reconstruction  programme for people displaced during the war. After the tsunami, our collaboration was directed  towards post-tsunami recovery. The collaboration  we developed can be described as an action  research project where the aim was to improve the  organisation's recovery practices by thinking and  working more holistically with recovery3. The work engaged with a range of the organisation's tsunami  recovery projects. We interviewed and discussed  with staff, partner organisations and the people the  organisation assisted, with the aim of informing  and improving the organisational practices and  recovery practices more generally. We often found,  however, that our research inputs seldom went beyond being presented as research results and  appeared to serve the organisation better than the  people the organisation was supposed to assist  (Brun and Lund 2008 2009b). In hindsight, a more  participatory approach to the collaboration could  The Geographical Journal Vol. 175 No. 3, pp. 196-207, 2009  ? 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation ? 2009 The Royal Geographical Society This content downloaded from 129.2.19.102 on Mon, 10 Sep 2018 22:00:16 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms   198 Research and action in the aftermath of disaster  have been a more fruitful approach to research  conducted during the disaster.  This paper explores the initial discussions that  evolved after the tsunami on 'what geographers can do' during disaster as it was raised in geographical  academic journals. I analyse these discussions  using the idea of conducting responsible research. There is a growing call by geographers for research  practices that more actively promote social and political change (Elwood 2007). Recently partici  patory action research (PAR) has gained increased  prominence in the field (Kindon et a/. 2007). However,  these discussions have not engaged much with research on conflict and disasters where little  participatory research is documented. The final  part of the paper, therefore discusses how PAR can potentially bring us forward in developing  principles and tools for more responsible geograph  ical research in the context of emergencies.  Geographers making sense of the disaster  If this is truly a moment of opening up, of new possi  bilities and new responsibilities, what does it mean  for us, as academics and researchers, as geographers,  to take up this opportunity, this challenge to think and  practice geographical research in the wake of disaster?  What obligations does it place upon us?  Greenhough etal. (2005, 371)  The scenes of the tsunami waves' total devastation, as they were distributed through the electronic and  printed media, made those of us witnessing the  disaster from a distance feel a need to make sense  of the disaster and use our obligation and right to assist. In the years after the disaster, researchers -  some with connections in the region, many without  connections, some with longstanding expertise in  recovery after war and disaster, and others without  such knowledge - still struggle to make sense of  the disaster and the reactions and consequences of  it through commentaries, work-in-progress articles,  and recently also reporting on more substantial  research. The initial texts emphasised and discussed  the role and responsibility of geographers in dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. These discussions  could be located at the interface of utility, position  ality and ethics (Buranakul etal. 2005), and have  become integrated with a debate on geographies  of responsibilities and ethics of care (Barnett and  Land 2007; Clark 2007; Lawson 2007). In this  section, I will tease out some of the general issues raised on how research and interventions published  after the tsunami addressed our role as foreign  researchers4 in the context of a disaster, with examples  mainly drawn from research on Sri Lanka.  Producing critical knowledge that may influence the  recovery process Researchers' potential and obligation to make sense of the disaster by understanding the local impacts  and the extra-local effects was actively stated in the  aftermath of the event (Rigg etal. 2005). It is quite  clear that the international research community can  be a resource by asking different questions of those present in the areas affected and those who experi  enced the disaster. As outsiders, we can see the  challenges from different angles and not least often  be free to challenge existing power relations in  different ways than those affected. In the case of Sri  Lanka, for example, there is much risk related to actually speaking and writing critically, although  still some continue to do so. Consequently, as  researchers located outside the territories directly  affected by the tsunami, a traditional understanding  of our role is to produce critical knowledge that  may contribute to understanding and influencing  the recovery processes. As Clark (2005) maintains, peoples' needs after the tsunami can be documented  and we can develop ways of understanding the  forces that came together to produce the disaster and of helping others to understand these forces,  respond to them, and work through them.  Research emerging from the disaster has shown  the critical potential in pointing at the injustice  and inefficiency in the administration of aid funds,  the failure to coordinate recovery, and how local  and national actors have been neglected when  mobilising the international community (Bennett  etal. 2006; Rajasingham-Senanayake 2005). These  connections are clearly related to discussions  about the role of the international community's  generosity and the geopolitics of aid played out on  the ground (Hyndman 2005 2007; Korf 2007).  Wider implications for the relationship between the war in Sri Lanka and the disaster have also  been identified (de Mel 2007; Hyndman 2007;  Uyangoda 2005).  The tsunami was not 'just' a natural disaster, and  several studies have shown how the social fabric  existing along the coasts impacted on how societies  were affected and how they coped (Brun and Lund 2008; Buranakul etal. 2005; de Mel 2007; Hyndman  2007; Ruwanpura 2008; Uyangoda 2005). Recovery  is not only about the reconstruction of roads and buildings, but rather about recovering lives, liveli hoods and local communities. At the core of many research reports has been a people focus, signifying  people's struggles, resilience and loss (Brun and  Lund 2008; Hyndman 2008; Ruwanpura 2008;  Uyangoda 2005).  Articles published on the experiences after the  tsunami prove that socially created vulnerabilities  The Geographical Journal Vol. 175 No. 3, pp. 196-207, 2009  ? 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation ? 2009 The Royal Geographical Society This content downloaded from 129.2.19.102 on Mon, 10 Sep 2018 22:00:16 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms   Research and action in the aftermath of disaster 199  are often ignored in the recovery process because  they are hard to measure. On the part of geogra  phy, there is also a clear sense of the difference  that the discipline can contribute in making sense  of how physical and human forces work together to  shape particular social vulnerabilities (Cutter 2006).  According to Buranakul etal. (2005), such research  can enrich the recovery work by linking and  comparing different locations, the nature of the  disaster and the consequences of the disaster, as well as understanding the dynamics of response,  rehabilitation and recovery. Consequently, our  research into disasters such as the tsunami may  help to make sense of how the tsunami realigned  geopolitical and geophysical boundaries (Green  hough etal. 2005).  Conducting fieldwork, linking theory and practice  [W]e believe there is a role to play for concerned  scholars who wish to practically engage with, rather  than merely comment upon, the tsunami and its  aftermath.  Buranakul etal. (2005, 246)  In the writing after the tsunami, geographers were  urged to go to the field to see, record, map, and  interview in order to ground the knowledge in the  field and make the knowledge available to the affected communities (Buranakul etal. 2005). As  geographers, we have come to think that one of  our common denominators is 'the field' as the arena  where knowledge making takes place. Fieldwork  has become the way to step outside institutional  and academic bounds to explore the fabric of  everyday life (Dewsbury and Naylor 2002; Lorimer  2003; Powell 2002). Commenting on the geogra  phers' role after the tsunami, Buranakul et al. (2005)  state that there is potential in geographic research  to engage more actively in linking theory and  practice by conducting fieldwork. This is echoed by  Wong (2005, 259, srcinal emphasis) who states  that 'to be relevant in research on the tsunami and its aftermath, human geographers must get to the  location of the event, to the people affected,  their homes, their economic activities and their communities in real - not in "deconstructed" or  "reconstructed" geographical space'. Wong's statement may be interpreted in relation  to what Nagar and Geiger (cited in Nagar 2002)  refer to as the 'impasse' with respect to (feminist)  fieldwork, where geographers have abandoned  fieldwork in favour of textual analysis. Raju (2002,  174) describes this impasse as an 'apology' by the  researchers for being 'the other' and our inabilities  to adequately represent our research subjects.  However, advocating fieldwork as a way of linking  theory and practice should not be done without  caution. Field practices could be questioned from a  number of perspectives and there are dangers in encouraging researchers to 'enter' the field after  a disaster (Buranakul etal. 2005). In Sri Lanka, for  example, we have witnessed research fatigue  among the tsunami-affected people. An important  tension then arises between the need to develop  empirically based measures for dealing with disas  ters and the need to protect vulnerable populations  from possible exploitation or harm (Leaning 2001). Inclusions/exclusions, ethics of care and distance  [W]here and how might foreign academic researchers  contribute to understanding the tsunami and its  aftermath in practical and helpful ways while at the  same time not reproducing a context of over-research?  How can we share conversations with local researchers  and 'add' something to what is already happening on  the ground? In other words, how do we define an  ethics of engagement?  Buranakul etal. (2005, 245)  The tsunami extended human and (geo)political  resonances and reconfigured social and physical  distances from the field and in the field (Nah and  Bunnell 2005). Bell (2009) writes about how the  intense inclusions she developed in Sri Lanka  during years of ethnographic fieldwork contrast  with the feeling of intense exclusion she felt from  Sri Lanka during times of terror, conflict and after  the tsunami. By not being able to share the suffering  with people we once felt close to, our engagement  with the field is questioned and made problematic.  How do we cope with social and geographical  distance and difference in our responses?  These questions extend into the debate mentioned  above about the implications of generosity and  global responsibility emerging after the tsunami.  While Korf (2006) criticises the way generosity  was practiced in the West, Clark etal. (2006, 248)  consider the global reactions after the tsunami to  be a moment of real political possibility because  people, in spite of physical and social distance,  never 'felt more connected to one another through  grief and concern, space felt less abstract and the  stranger seemed to be here with us'.  We still, however, need to deal with distance -  both social and geographical - when engaging with the field. We cannot escape the differing locations  we find ourselves in. Some of us are writing from  privileged positions, others are fighting for a voice from the margins. Searching the international geo  graphical journals (assuming they are the most  The Geographical Journal Vol. 175 No. 3, pp. 196-207, 2009  ? 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation ? 2009 The Royal Geographical Society This content downloaded from 129.2.19.102 on Mon, 10 Sep 2018 22:00:16 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
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