Monday, October 20, 2008

We're just here to help: disaster research in developing countries

Disasters are in the first place tragedies: persons are killed, injured and traumatized, and their ways of life may be irrevocably changed. But disasters are not necessarily tragedies for everybody: can also be manipulated to promote someone's interests. This is the central thesis of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine -- natural and non-natural disasters are moments of collective weakness that the rich and powerful exploit to enact dubious policies that they might not otherwise get away with.

A recent opinion in SciDev warns against the potential for disaster research in the developing world to become an example of The Shock Doctrine. While there is obviously nothing intrinsically wrong about doing research in the midst of a disaster -- such research is needed to improve future disaster responses -- there are ways to doing it that threaten to increase the vulnerability of disaster victims. Author Athula Sumathipala speaks from experience:

Because natural disasters are often sudden (like cyclones) research can sometimes start without proper scientific rigour or ethical consideration. Researchers may rush to collect data, without adequate planning.

This can lead to undue pressure to participate, particularly when research is combined with humanitarian aid or clinical care. Some survivors may not even realise they are taking part in research.

In my home country of Sri Lanka, for example, the 2004 tsunami was followed by a huge influx of foreign organisations and individuals offering humanitarian aid, including counselling. Some advocated compulsory counselling for survivors, though this runs against recommendations from the WHO and the Cochrane Collaboration — a not-for-profit organisation that provides information on the effects of health care.

In parallel to these 'services', doctoral students from developed countries acquired data to finish their theses, harassed survivors with numerous questionnaires and even collected blood to research neurobiological stress markers. In the rush to provide assistance, a lack of familiarity with local customs caused cultural insensitivities. For example, many people would prefer to seek help from a temple rather than a therapist.

To counteract the feeding frenzy of 'help' from disaster researchers, Sumathipala promotes the usual sort of things: consultation on the needs and priorities of affected communities, the involvement of ethics review committees, and development of international guidelines specific to this type of research.


Blogger Congo said...

I have been slowly trying to work my way through The Shock Doctrine, and although I spoke with someone recently that criticized Klein's approach to activism and said that her writing is aimed at a very specific North American audience, I think her summation of many pieces of evidence and history provides a coherent perspective that is, well, shocking.

Although I suppose that the motivations of post-disaster public health and development researchers are somewhat different from the Chicago School economists, if the effect is much the same, it doesn't really matter what the intent was.

One fear I have is that even with the development of guidelines for this type of research, the effect will not be much changed: researchers, as with Milton Friedman and his proteges, will be sitting around waiting for the right opportunity/shock to come along so they can pounce.

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