Stories from the field

month September 2015

Michelle Maillet- Blog 1: Vulnerability, Connection and Relationships

In this blog I explore what Nepal has taught me about what it means to be with people.

Nicola Craig Hora – Blog 1: Knowledge and Accessibility

Last week I woke up at 3am to tsunami sirens. It was not the first time that I had heard Japanese emergency alarms; I had heard earthquake warnings in that past and I attended the annual Yokohama Disaster Drill two weeks ago but even having had those experiences there was something that bothered me with the tsunami sirens. They are spoken in fast Japanese and I wasn’t even really sure that I understood the alarm right. Also there is a melody that plays when the alarm ends. I couldn’t even believe that that short jingle meant that it was the “end” that I actually got up out of bed to check if someone was at my door because it sounded more like a doorbell ringing than an alarm finishing. This may have been because of the fact that I was tired and it was 3am but I feel like there must be a more accessible way to release warning information in Japan considering the large number of foreign tourists who visit Japan every year as well as the many foreigners living in Japan who do not speak Japanese.  

Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunami warnings, volcanic eruptions, and flooding, it has been quite an eventful first few weeks in Japan. Living in disaster prone Japan gives you a reality check, a reminder of just how little control you actually have in this world. What you can control though is your level of preparedness for future disasters, ways to mitigate risk and build resilience.

Natural disasters are an everyday occurrence in Asia, by some reports there is on average 0.8 disasters a day in the region (IFRC and RCS). More than 75% of the world’s volcanoes and 90% of the world’s earthquakes are in Asia Pacific region (World Bank) and a week doesn’t go by without someone reminding you in passing that Japan is in the ring of fire. 

In addition to being the most disaster prone continent it is also the continent with the largest population at 4.1 billion (UN). Asian cities are also experiencing a large urban migration and it is estimated that there are at least 2 million new urban residents every month in East Asia alone (World Bank). This means expanding urbanised areas without disaster risk reduction (DRR) initiatives. For a number of reasons building sustainably is seen as an inaccessibly luxury, which is a fair assumption because building sustainably comes with a hefty cost, a cost that most countries do not think they can afford and they don’t even know where to start.

This continent alone is home to 60% of the world’s hungry with more than 933 million living on 1.25$ to 2$ a day (UN). There has been a lot of research done on the relationship between disasters, income, and human capital and how one disruption can leave individuals in a poverty trap; Asia is the perfect case study (World Bank). How does one target these vulnerable groups, show them how to prepare for future disasters? Where do you even start? 

The other day one of my friends asked me what has been the project that made me the most proud this past month. This was a hard question to answer and took me slightly off guard. I have had an amazing first month working for CITYNET in their Yokohama office. I learn something new everyday and my position here is opening my eyes to new dimensions of knowledge accessibility. 

What I realised was that that was the answer to the question. There is not a single project that has made proud but instead the fact that I could say that I was working with CITYNET. The Yokohama office is the lead city in the CITYNET Disaster Cluster and most of my work this past month has been related to the disaster cluster programs. CITYNET works to target vulnerable groups on the local level, one of their on-going programs being the Community Based Adaption and Resilience Against Disasters (CBARAD), which is in its second phase. The program works in the local communities in Iloilo, the Philippines, to help create DRR initiatives and increase community involvement and awareness in disaster prevention. This has included establishing disaster education programs for children and creating emergency facilities that are equipped for people with disabilities.

At the beginning of September our office hosted the 8th CITYNET Disaster Cluster Seminar. Participants were from nine cities in Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines. It is an event for networking and sharing of best practices. What I liked most about the itinerary is that in addition to having “in-class” seminar type activities there were also study visits to sites around the Yokohama area. 

The DRR initiatives that were presented to participants were presented on a basic level and in a way that localising them was attainable. My favourite presentation was by an organisation called Plus Arts that is based out of Kobe. The organisation has a disaster education program for children and other at-risk groups. The program is simple and easily localised which has lead to its success in countries all around the world. The CITYNET Yokohama office has been working closely with them in Nepal and in the CBARAD project in the Philippines. One of my favourite things about the program is its philosophy that teaching disaster prevention education to children and creating awareness can be fun for both teachers and participants. The program is completed through games and activities. Their material is clean and simple, very visual and recognisable.

One of the study visits we took was to the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park. Here Plus Arts has worked to create a permanent exhibit to teach individuals how to survive for 72 hours after a disaster. There are arts and crafts like how to make plates and bowls out of newspaper and how to make emergency toilets, flashlights, and other essential items.

Plus Arts has also created a permanent exhibit in the mall across from my office building. By creating permanent exhibits in open public spaces the amount of new individuals they can reach out to has no limit; the knowledge it provides is accessible.

In terms of DRR initiatives, it is great that the UN has worked to create DRR frameworks such as the Hyogo Framework for Action and most recently the Sendai Framework for DRR but there are a lot of issues regarding the accessibility of their framework. It’s one thing to provide organisations, governments, and various other stakeholders with long lists of investment recommendations but without providing them with clear ways of how to find the resources needed to introduce those DRR initiatives, that knowledge remains inaccessible. Accessible knowledge is key when it comes to DRR and it saves lives. As the Asia population continues to grow its urban spaces grow with it, climate change is affecting disaster strength and frequency, increasing vulnerability to disasters. Sometimes the most effective way to create change is to start at the local level. Target vulnerable groups; provide them with life saving knowledge that has been localised to their context. Show them learning can be fun and link communities together. Knowledge is power so why isn’t the knowledge accessible. 

Roxanne Power – Blog 1: Bargaining for Livelihoods – India

While staying in Delhi, I spent a day browsing markets with a friend in a popular district of New Delhi and soon found myself in a dilemma. It was a moment that has stuck with me, and it prompted me to write this blog reflection.

After browsing many stalls and pavement set-ups, interacting with vendors along the way, my friend and I agreed that we would look around the corner at another market close-by. On our way, a man selling post-cards approached us, and I thought I’d look for one to send home. It turned out he was selling an entire package (about 10+) but I just needed one and so I became hesitant – I didn’t want to waste the cards if I just needed one. He was firm that he could only sell the whole package and bargaining ensued after he saw my disinclination. Eventually, he settled on a price much lower than the first, and it was quite inexpensive (relatively, by my Canadian-mind’s gauge), so I decided to buy them – I could send more cards to family and friends, and frankly, it was the path of least resistance.

As we walked away, my friend told me that I should avoid engaging such sellers unless I am really interested because their livelihoods depend on it – once there is hope of a purchase, ‘no’ is no longer an option. Her words also prompted me to think a little harder about the amount I had just spent. Of course, I could justify it by saying he likely would not have accepted the price if he truly thought it unreasonable; but by my judgement, the product certainly would have been sold for more in Canada, still at a price I could have afforded. And it would be untruthful to suggest that this moment of awareness was not in part prompted by a pang of guilt. From what I’ve gathered, such a feeling is not uncommon amongst relatively ‘wealthy’ visitors to India. But it is more than attempting to reconcile uncomfortable feelings.

This cultural experience and process of bargaining was something entirely new to me. Yet, seeking out the most affordable option has long been a habit of mine, which for better or for worse has accompanied my life here in India. Things also become relative when you live in-country. Suddenly a 50-rupee (around 1.00 CDN) difference might seem like quite a lot when you consider that travelling through the city could cost 50-100INR and getting a good meal on the street could cost between 25-50INR.

The bargaining process is something that is easy to get swept up in, and it can shape our expectations in terms of pricing. There is even an abundance of articles aimed at foreign visitors discussing the practice of bargaining in India. This is in part due to the fact that there can be high premiums placed on products or experiences for foreign visitors.  After travelling around Delhi, I have learned firsthand that sellers may significantly multiply prices, and a site that costs locals 20INR may be a 500INR fixed-cost to foreigners. Though, such an occurence should perhaps be obvious, considering the financial inequity between many western visitors and so many people trying to get a sliver of space to make a living amongst countless others doing the same. (These are based on my observations and limited understanding about thelocal urban economy). What does this say about how we should or should not view our positions in the bargaining process?

Since my post-card bargaining experience, I have encountered the dilemma of cost and value in other forms: largely in negotiating auto (rickshaw) fares. I’ve also since had many local friends instruct me not to pay more than what it ‘should’ be (i.e., what they would pay). But is handing over that extra 25 rupees (about 0.50 CDN) and paying 50 rupees instead of 25INR going to make such a difference? Moreover, who does it make a difference to, and what is the impact? I have found that in general, it is not worth getting overly anxious over spending those 10-50-100 rupees more.

This experience/reflection taught me that a) if bargaining in the market for groceries, a ride, or a shawl for a friend, take a moment to think before getting swept up in the perceived injustice of paying more than locals; b) while discretion should be practiced, so should self-awareness (e.g., what is my intent in this interaction?); and c) I should expect to remain at odds with myself and assumptions while negotiating my place here through daily experience.

Though I’m still left wondering: can awareness to these economics promote a separation from the experience of immersion? What is the cost of constant comparison between local and ‘home’ expectations? Is it as simple as ‘paying more where and when you can’ if it seems to benefit the local economy? Could asking these questions contribute to or help confront a perspective of Western arrogance/privilege? In any case, these are some things to consider. I appreciate any feedback or thoughts!

Perry Watson – Podcast 3: Interpreting the peri-urban landscape

Join me on a typical walk home from my host organization’s office (PRIA) to my residence, here in Raipur, India. 

I discussmany of the sights and sounds, trials and tribulations, and personal reflections that I have gathered over the first two months of my placement. I thought that it would be both appropriate and desirable to attempt to share my own experience, in as much as a podcast can, for a wider audience. The format or lack thereof is organic and free-flowing.

Let’s take a walk and have a chat.  


Kylie Pettifer – Podcast 2: Reflections on Japan

Here is my second podcast talking about my time with Citynet and my experiences in Japan.

Jordan Konyk – Blog 2: Paths and Politics

Continuing my exploration of forms of power in Dhaka, in my second blog I reflect on the idea that our urban journeys, or paths, are far from neutral or mundane. Instead, they reflect deep histories and important political conditions. Comparing paths in Victoria and Dhaka, I argue that how we get around is much more than a simple matter of convenience or logistics – it’s political.

Tabitha Black-Lock – Blog 3: Dilemmas of Housing in a Megacity: Urban Expansion in Dhaka

Urbanization is a complex process, and there are many factors that push people to migrate to larger cities. Due in part to the increased rural to urban migration, among other factors of population growth, Dhaka has emerged as one of the fasted growing cities in the world. Of course, this continuous expansion has massive economic, environmental, political, social and cultural impacts on Bangladesh and its inhabitants. In Dhaka, one of the major concerns is housing. How will Dhaka sustain and accommodate the growing population? Where will people live? Who will be most affected by this influx in population? How will this affect the quality of life for the poorest members of society? How will modernization of housing affect the existence of historical and cultural buildings?  In this blog, I will touch on some of these issues in relation to gentrification, urban peripheries, heritage buildings, and the economy and culture of Bangladesh. 

Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Blog 2: The Globalized Bottleneck

My second blog post discusses the UNHCR’s system of processing and admitting refugees. It also discusses some interactions between asylum-seekers, the UNHCR and the Malaysian state. Thanks for reading! Any feedback and advice would be the most welcome.

The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees established the definition of a “refugee” as well as the requirements of a signatory state to protect those fitting this definition. The 1967 Protocol then extended the definition to refugees those that come from outside of Europe and without any temporal limitations. Previously, states had the option to recognize refugees only as those from Europe and prior to January 1, 1951. Due to Malaysia’s position as a non-signatory of either mandate, they have no obligation to recognize refugees and provide support or protection to displaced individuals. For this reason, external and non-governmental actors are necessary in order for refugees and asylum-seekers to have access to support and protection. Due to their government-established illegal status, this protection includes that from the state’s ability to detain or deport these individuals.

Before having access to these protections, individuals must be recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. To do this, they must go through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process (a process which has changed regularly since I began my placement at MSRI). This might take up to one year and is described by the UNHCR as a basic interview to determine the eligibility of an individual to claim refugee status. In this interview, interviewees must provide biological information (including any and all forms of identification documents), statements on how and why they left their country and any UNHCR issued documents.

The following interview is a Vulnerability/Risk Assessment. It determines the applicant’s eligibility to access UNHCR services and what vulnerabilities an individual or family may have. This assesses the Best Interest of the Child (BID), the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) vulnerabilities and medical vulnerabilities. Those determined by the assessment to be vulnerable will receive the aforementioned RSD interview. At this point, they are either recognized as a refugee or again risk being rejected. Rejection at the RSD level can be appealed. If an individual is recognized as a refugee they have access to the Resettlement Process. Resettlement entails moving to a third country where resettled individuals should have access to rights, legal employment and education. As mentioned, getting to this point may take years. On top of this, the Resettlement Assessment process alone could take anywhere from a couple months to a couple more years.

Although individuals may make it into the Resettlement Process, “of the 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, less than one per cent is submitted for resettlement,” ( These submissions are then assessed by the countries of relocation themselves. In 2014, 73,000 of the 103,890 submitted refugees were successfully relocated. Protection, refugee status, and resettlement opportunities for individuals becomes a system of ever-decreasing bottlenecks reliant on third-party observers and their assessments of the subjective experiences of applicants. While Malaysia as a transit country resettled the highest number of individuals in 2014 (about 10,000), as the size of the bottlenecks narrow, with less and less individuals being recognized as eligible for the subsequent step, more end up trapped in a legal limbo. Despite having some limited protections from the UNHCR, this position still poses the risk of detainment and issues of unemployment and a lack of access to education remains.

By issuing UNHCR cards to refugee and asylum-seekers, the UNHCR attempts to validate these individuals’ lives in Malaysia. Although it removes some pressure from the state itself to address the constant influx of asylum-seekers to the country, the state criticizes the UNHCR’s agency within the state. On August 15th of this year, Malaysia’s Minister of Home and Immigration insisted that the UNHCR stop issuing refugee status cards. In particular, Shahidan Kassim emphasizes on the UNHCR’s lack of diplomatic status in Malaysia, saying the organization is “doing it wrong by issuing the cards without informing the Home and Immigration Department.” He insists that “foreigners wanting to apply for refugee status” go through the country’s legal procedures. These are evidently convoluted statements because, as has been mentioned and as Kassim himself recognizes, Malaysia remains a non-signatory of the UN refugee mandates. Additionally, he adds that those breaking the law should be deported immediately. Through this speech, Kassim simultaneously suggests that there are legal means for refugees to stay in Malaysia, yet acknowledges that, in reality, there are not.

In this way, not only are the UNHCR’s systems of resettling refugees complicated and long-winded, in Malaysia, the bottlenecking effects receive constant pressure from the state. People are being pushed out, while the available exit is constantly narrowing. The lack of resettling countries, their low acceptance rates of refugees, along with a lack of acceptance in the society’s of transit countries and the inability to return to countries of origin, places the lives of individuals in limited spaces without options. Kassim’s speech frames the discussion of refugees in such a way that it is those seeking refuge and the UNHCR which are infringing on legal lines. While this is debatably true, when we compartmentalize law to their individual states, it disables global development and is ineffective in its purpose.

Humans are not compartmentalized to their individual states. Laws are allegedly created to protect people, as globalization and migration (forced and voluntary) continue to expand, states and laws must adapt to this. Legality and state borders as intangible man-made structures have the ability to be flexible. For this reason people should and can be protected within their migration. At the very least, since mass-migration and human displacement have already occurred, attempting to maintain laws which try to undo this is neither beneficial nor reasonable. The same is true of resettlement countries. Continuing to deny access to humans does not prevent the movements or influxes of refugees and migrants from occurring. It just incapacitates livelihoods in an awkward, bottleneck-shaped world.

(This image is typically used to explain a phenomenon of genetics and gene variation, but it demonstrates the point here alright too.)

Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Podcast 2: Some Perspective from Inside the System

Hello all!

In my second podcast I talk with a wonderful, unnamed coworker and friend of mine who is currently being processed through the UNHCR’s ressettlement program. She briefly talks about the system itself and was kind enough to share a few thoughts on her own experience as a refugee. Never someone to discuss her own attributes, I will share a few of my impressions of her as an individual. As she will discuss, she is the supervisor of the Sahabat Support Center (SSC) School, a job that takes some incredible patience. She handles it with a constant awareness of and attentiveness to each student, despite how her modesty would surely deny it. Although we joke about her love of having days off, her dedication to the SSC School is obvious. Her and I are both 21 years old, and while she never has a bad word to say about her work or coworkers, one of the first things we ever discussed was about how she was trying to find a University to attend, to go back to school herself. She said I am not a teacher, right now I do not want to be a teacher, I want to be a student. Not only is this another stark realization of my own privilege,  a student, here to visit and learn, but is evidently another unnecessary effect of systematic usages of legality as a category for humans. And still, this thoughtful and soft-spoken individual does what she can, working and dedicating her time and energy for her family and their well-being. I hope you enjoy this short introduction to someone I have been fortunate enough to get to know over the past few months. Thanks for listening!

Cam Giannotti – Podcast 1: Introductory Interview

In my first podcast, fellow CAPI Intern Kip Jorgensen asks me a few questions about myself and my upcoming placement with BRAC in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 

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