Olivia Crane is a student at the University of Sheffield, studying for a Masters in Public Health at ScHARR. This project is a research attachment linked to her dissertation, supervised by Julie Balen (ScHARR) and Simon Rushton (Politics).
What is your area of interest within this project?
The research project as a whole is focussing on the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, particularly the role of the formal and informal health systems in the relief, recovery and reconstruction processes following the disaster. The project takes a bottom-up approach, with community views as central. My particular focus within this is the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – including phones, radio, internet, social media and others. I am interested in finding out whether the global trend towards ICTs playing a growing part in disaster response was replicated in Nepal, as a low-income country. Understanding the extent to which ICT was used, by whom, for what, and how effectively is important.
How did you go about collecting data?
We wanted community-level views to be the foundation and starting point for our research. Starting in Barpak, the village recognised as the epicentre of the April 25th earthquake, we spent a few days conducting focus groups and individual interviews with community members. We then moved to Gorkha district capital to interview those involved in the earthquake response, including representatives from NGOs, INGOs, and government. Finally, interviews and an executive workshop were conducted in Kathmandu to obtain national-level perspectives, and to triangulate emerging themes and perspectives between all three levels.
Can you outline some of your main preliminary findings?
Formal analysis of data is ongoing, however there were some themes and interesting observations that cropped up repeatedly in the field.
The first observation is that, as might be expected after a large-scale natural disaster in a developing country, practical barriers to using ICTs for communication were widespread in the first few days. Power outages, damage to signalling towers and no fuel for generators meant that rural areas in particular suffered initially. An ad hoc and spontaneous response by relief teams supplying portable solar panels, and telecoms companies providing free Wi-Fi, calls, and texts kicked in swiftly, and contact was resumed for many within a couple of days. In Barpak, mobile phone ownership is not a given: we found that families tended to have one phone per household – which often seemed to be held by men – used for phone calls rather than internet. Being able to contact and ask for funds from family living overseas was especially important in light of the delayed national response, with families and communities mobilising independently where they were in a position to do so. There is a possibility that this may create even greater inequalities within and between communities however, dependent on the individual/family connections with those in other countries.
At a district level, there was a real mix of traditional and modern methods of communication demonstrated. The short-term loss of communication technologies was compensated for by strong networks between organisations in Gorkha – a cultural way of working aided by main players being geographically very close. Use of ICTs appeared to be a matter of personal preference rather than an institutional way of working, and this was demonstrated by certain individuals becoming ‘pop-up humanitarians’ and using their personal skills to disseminate information in a way that went above and beyond their usual “everyday” role. This is akin to “citizen journalists” that appear especially during crises.
Nationally, the picture becomes more complex. The formal disaster response places great importance on coordination to avoid duplication, but most organizations and teams had no plans in place for how to do this in a disaster. Due to the reactive nature of the response, emergent systems tended to be traditional, and to use conventional meetings for communication. Alongside the formal response made up of government, NGO, and INGO representatives, an informal response appeared. Anecdotally this appears to be made up of younger urban and/or “international” Nepalis, many of whom have spent time living overseas and have some form of foreign education. Some returned to Nepal specifically for the purpose of becoming involved in the recovery efforts. This group of actors appear to be much more reliant on ICTs for mobilising resources, working flexibly and through personal networks. The interaction of these two systems, and their sometimes contrasting methods – and indeed cultures – is an interesting one.
What has been most surprising about the research?
People’s apparent willingness to talk about an event which can only have been deeply traumatic was really surprising to me. Having prepared myself to provide some emotional support, or to have questions batted back with possible accusations of insensitivity, people seemed to have no personal difficulty discussing the topic with a stranger, even when they and their families had suffered tremendously. I really valued their courage and warm and welcoming ways!
One way of explaining this could be people’s “resilience”. Although countless individuals and organisations have been involved in the earthquake response, a year on we are still seeing people living under corrugated tin, still breaking rocks on the roadside to rebuild their houses, still having to live from donations and aid packages. So does ‘resilience’, in this context, just mean low expectations and a willingness to help themselves rather than be helped? And if so, to what extent is this something that the international community should admire? Perhaps we should instead be lamenting that the only way some people have been able to get by since the earthquake is by expecting close to nothing. Some of those involved in the “informal response” expressed indignation and righteous anger towards the apparent failings of the formal response – is this a more honest feeling than the idealised and even patronising admiration seen by some of the international community?