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Archive for January, 2010


Our reactions to humanitarian crises: Haiti in question

January 29, 2010

The magnitude 7 earthquake that recently devastated Haiti has caused, and continues to do so, unimaginable human suffering. It brings into focus the need for the international global community to take measures to prepare for future emergencies. Multi-lateral donors, national governments, aid agencies and the press have pulled their efforts together in an admirable way. However, there have been criticisms of the way the relief effort has been coordinated, and there are always lessons to be learnt.

In terms of responding to, fundraising for, reporting on, and planning for improved disaster relief efforts recent research undertaken by the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution (ELSE) outlines how responses can be improved, especially in light of the international effort taking place in Haiti.

Christopher Olivola, a researcher from University College London and ELSE, along with Namika Sagara from Duke University, have underlined a fundamental flaw in our response to those international crisis that carry a high death toll. For instance, they state “In a country, such as the UK, which is unused to mass deaths, a medium-scale disaster will seem really shocking, but the shock value will quickly start to blur as the numbers increase so that large-scale events will seem indistinguishable. However, in a country where mass deaths are more common, a medium-scale disaster may seem less shocking but people will be more sensitive to differences in magnitude between large-scale events because they have observed many more of them.”

This work attempts to explain why we find large death tolls, such as the one in Haiti, so difficult to fully grasp, and why a disaster involving thousands of victims tends to produce a bigger response than one that impacts on hundreds of thousands of people. As a result, it is common “As the death toll increases, each additional death seems less shocking, so that, for example, we appear to care less about the last thousand people to die in a large-scale disaster than the first thousand fatalities.” This type of behavior clearly has huge implications on how disasters are responded to, implying that when the death toll becomes so high, the level of suffering is difficult to comprehend,  and we appear ‘de-sensitized’ to it.

At times, we are all guilty of feeling detached from the news and the grave implications of what we here. How we react to fatalities is largely dependent on personal history. The majority of us have very little experience dealing with large numbers of human losses and this shapes how we perceive such events.

Nevertheless, it might be deemed insensitive to criticize the relief effort in Haiti in such ‘broad brush’ terms. The ongoing commitment of so many individuals working in unimaginable circumstances is truly inspiring.

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt, and the ELSE research can add to the lesson learning exercise. Yet, there is also a need to take positive’s from the way people from all over the world have assisted the relief effort, raised funds and shown true compassion to the people of Haiti.

“Gordon Brown has described a seven-year-old boy who has raised more than £200,000 for earthquake victims in Haiti as ‘truly inspirational’…”


Missing links: how to bring down the ‘conflict-trap’

January 25, 2010

The ‘conflict trap’ is a well known concept in the political and development fields. It refers to the crippling effects it has on a country’s infrastructure, investor confidence, social capital, and the increased prevalence for disease, among other things. These conditions are seen as the precursors for countries to fall back into civil war, despite all attempts to escape. A recent research programme by CommGap called Missing Link seeks to help policy-makers recognise the societal challenges of post-conflict countries and their relation to governance and long-term stability.

The key challenges identified in the research where severed citizen-state relations, lack of public trust, high expectations for a peace dividend, and a fragmented and traumatized society. These pose a series of governance challenges that are particular to post-conflict states. The Missing Link project calls for a series of strategic and coordinated activities to help manage expectations, alter perceptions, build public trust in state institutions and repair citizen-state relations. The success of this process is based upon the extent to which dialogue can build trust and reconnect citizens and groups with each other and the state. A functioning public sphere is seen as a means to close the space that would potentially give room to ‘peace-spoilers’.

The study found that a an effective public sphere ‘encompasses a legitimate, inclusive and transparent state that informs the public of its undertakings, political debates, administrative decisions and legislative acts, and provides entry points for public participation’. Further, an inclusive civil society and a self regulated media are held as important elements of a functional public sphere.

However, the reality is that post-conflict states are often a long way from attaining a well functioning public sphere. Often dialogue is limited and public discourse is still framed by hostile attitudes and feelings of mistrust. It is crucial that these attitudes and any mistrust is overcome and effective public participation and dialogue ensue in post-conflict states, if peace is to take a long term hold.

Unfortunately, power holders are not likely to put political will behind participatory governance unless they can see how it will contribute to their long term political survival. Mindsets are difficult to change when framed by conflict and military backgrounds. This has a bearing on the way actors perceive information and dialogue and stakeholders need to be aware of these obstacles.

The Missing Link report recommends the following elements to support public sphere dynamics:

  • Apply the public sphere governance framework early in post-conflict assessments.
  • Think systematically. Ensure cross-sector planning and donor coordination to create synergies and to capture public sphere dynamics.
  • Work with civil society, media and government to ensure a common understanding of and respect for their respective roles. Promote programs to increase interaction.
  • In building state institutions, pay particular attention to the creation of entry points for public participation and to the “listening” capacity of both, central and local structures.
  • Pay attention that media sector development and communication capacity within government go hand-in-hand, as one outpacing the other carries the risk of manipulation or alienation.
  • Promote inclusive national civil society networks and internal, downward accountability within these networks.
  • Support civic education programs that promote public understanding about the right to information.
  • Develop legislative frameworks and cultivate political will and resources—engage in strategic advocacy.
  • Do not accept the purely political nature of language choices; provide evidence and advice on the economic and social cost of exclusive language policies.
  • Donor behaviour tends to be exclusive and to lack transparency: practice what you preach!

The Missing Link ‘brief’ is available on R4D through the following link: Missing Link. You might also be interested in a research publication entitled ‘Breaking the Conflict Trap’ authored by Paul Collier et al. and published by the World Bank.


Language an underutilised entry point for sex education

January 21, 2010

Research by the APHRC in Malawi explores how young people conceptualise sex and sexual relations as a means to try and better understand and be aware of gaps in sex education programmes. In general, the research found that ‘young people take a utilitarian approach to sex, and conceive of it as a natural, routine activity of which pleasure and passion are essential components’.

The research found that language is a useful tool for unravelling sex-related conceptualizations which could inform sex education. As a result, awareness of locally based conceptualisations could be enrolled into the curricula. It is also suggested that engaging with common conceptualisations of sex through metaphors could be used to allow young people to assess whether these lead to positive or negative constructions of sex, and their implications in terms of health and rights. A related activity would be a series of small group discussions that get young people to think critically about the language they use, and how this can have a negative effect by reinforcing risky sexual behaviour and power inequalities.

The potential negative role of language was brought out by the research. For instance, the language of young people raised a series of questions around the perceived role of women as passive participants in sexual activity. These kinds of conceptualisations could have negative implications for young girls and their level of sexual agency.

Another key finding in the research was the tendency for sex to be discussed in a “physical” sense, and for young people to overlook the importance of relationships built on mutual respect and care, rather than just sexual relations alone. Comprehensive relationship education is seen as an important element to sex education because there is a danger young people will only ever perceive sex in a superficial way, and not comprehend fully what sex is about.

The research has also acknowledged that because young people perceive so clearly the pleasure in sexuality, and the positive aspects of sex there is great potential on building on these messages in sex education. However, addressing the issue of pleasure in sex education is likely to be controversial, but could still be used to produce a positive message. For example, sex education could counter the perception that sexual monogamy is an issue for married people, by building a message that purports to the enhanced pleasure that can come from building a relationship with one partner, as opposed having multiple partners – in a word through having safer sex.

The research document is available on R4D through the following link – Metaphors We Love By: Conceptualizations of Sex among Young People in Malawi