After Disaster Strikes
In late February, Dr Ayesha Siddiqi, who recently joined the University of Cambridge’s geography department, met with PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil at PaCCS’ Cambridge office. Over a cup of tea, they discussed Dr Siddiqi’s project PaCCS-funded project, After Disaster Strikes and Other Stories: The political construction of Typhoon Pablo in insurgency affected communities in Mindanao, which sought to provide a new direction for disaster and development policy in conflict affected lower and middle income countries. This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research career thus far?
Dr Ayesha Siddiqi: My research focuses on examining post-disaster political space and the way this is mobilised by political movements within societies in the Global South. Hazard based disasters open civic and political spaces for state, non-state actors and citizens to interact, and I’ve been interested in exploring the consequences of that.
My PhD work resulted in a book on Pakistan, where a lot of the dominant narrative focused on concerns that the post-disaster political moment would be instrumentalized or misused by Islamist groups. There have been similar fears in places in South America, where the narrative has been around the aftermath of disasters providing drug gangs opportunities to provide relief and increase mobilisation.
My work has been able to temper some of the more alarmist views that had previously suggested that disasters and hazards always lead to a specific kind of political conflict and violence. Through evidence-based and empirical work, we have demonstrated that while disasters may open certain kinds of political spaces, they are not necessarily going to result in more chaos, crime or conflict.
After completing my PhD research on Pakistan, I wanted to explore the aftermath of disasters from the perspective of those experiencing a different type of conflict setting, so I applied for funding from PaCCS and the AHRC and started a project focused on the Marxist insurgency, the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines.
What did your work in the Philippines entail?
I’m an ethnographer by training, so I work quite closely with communities, and the work in the Philippines has also been driven by a humanities approach.
My fieldwork in the Philippines was at a local barrio level, which are small municipal units. Over five months of fieldwork, we did about 100 interviews and some digital storytelling workshops in two barrio. Our aim was to understand the lived experience of resilience and vulnerability, and what they mean to you when you’re dealing with multiple forms of vulnerability – to conflict, disasters, hazards, and the security establishment at the same time. The people who came to these workshops narrated their own stories of how they’ve been living through an insurgency most of their lives – they talked about what it’s like to experience a category 5 typhoon while in a heightened security and insurgency affected environment. We wanted to explore the intersection between experiencing that disaster and the lived reality of insurgency.
The main components of the project in the Philippines ran from 2016-2018, and by 2018 it had developed quite a strong policy angle. We worked with policymakers and national disaster management agencies and we worked with the UN Disaster Risk Reduction office, contributing our perspective to some papers for them. We also did a digital storytelling workshop with the local municipal Disaster Risk Reduction office at their request. Because they wanted an opportunity to construct the ways in which this disaster had been a transformational event for their office.
The Overseas Development Institute asked, as we were finishing up the PaCCS project in 2018, whether I would be interested in doing some similar work for them on disaster-conflict issues in Columbia, emerging out of my work in the Philippines. So, I’ve now also done some work with them, including a policy paper.
What do you think some of the key takeaway messages from this work might be?
In terms of what some of the key takeaway messages from these experiences might be, I think I’m still making my way through unpacking the complexities, even now, that came out of my work in the Philippines and Columbia. What has been very evident throughout these projects is that while a lot of hazards are natural, people’s vulnerability is what turns the hazard into the disaster. That is the standard disaster studies framework I teach my students in Geography. But I think that the Philippines project was a very clear illustration that hazards can also be very directly the product of choices that the state, market, or the security establishment is making. In the municipality I was working in, it seemed very much as though there were political interests that were actively placing people in a situation that was going to result in a hazard in this case a landslide. And, officials were using the excuse of the typhoon that had just passed in order to do it.
My work in the Philippines, Pakistan and Columbia has all also highlighted that states very actively and deliberately conflate disaster risk reduction policies with counterinsurgency efforts. A disaster can be used as an excuse to go into a community and clear out insurgents, or to impose forms of securitisation. In both the Philippines and Columbia, I’ve seen infrastructure projects like dams be justified as hazard reduction measures. It is important that we unpack the massive political, economic and security related agendas that are subsumed within the broader discourse of climate change, disasters and hazards in conflict-affected areas.
What was it like, working in a conflict affected area?
During my PhD, I worked for four years in Pakistan, which is a highly securitized state and the military is in control of so much. I thought that that problem was quite specific to Pakistan; but working in the Philippines made me realise how normal that level of securitisation is. Where we were conducting our fieldwork in the Philippines, there are several military checkpoints and bases, and the military establishment is very powerful in this conflicted-affected part of the country in a way that isn’t as visible in the big metropolitan cities like Manila. There have been successive democratic regimes, and when you are in the cities you don’t feel the legacy of martial law and the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s. On the margins of the state, however, the military is still powerful, and controls people’s movements and livelihoods. Even as a privileged Western researcher, they intimidated and threatened me, so I can’t imagine the level of control and authority they must be able to exercise on the lives of residents in these barrios.
Were there ethical challenges you had to grapple with over the course of conducting this research?
Even following all the appropriate ethics protocols, in the back of my mind there was always some worry – I didn’t want to get my interviewees in any kind of trouble.
Local project partners were imperative in this regard because they knew what steps to take, and had contacts who helped us to reach an agreement with the military commander who was unhappy about our presence in his ‘backyard’. So, I think working with local partners was as important for managing the fieldwork as it was for the intellectual and theoretical contributions they brought to the research.
Who tends to be involved in the aftermath of these disasters? What role do insurgents play?
In the immediate aftermath of disaster, there is a big presence from a lot of different non-state actors, including churches, NGOS, and in some limited cases, insurgent groups. With respect to insurgent groups, their level of involvement in relief efforts was quite different between the cases I studied in Pakistan and the Philippines. The Filipino Marxist insurgents I was looking into, the New People’s Army (NPA), were badly affected by the disaster. Several of their contingents were washed away during the typhoon. The guerrilla warfare they practice which involves spending time in camps in the highlands and forests meant they were very vulnerable to disaster. With so many of their people killed, the NPA had to deal with an internal crisis in the aftermath of the typhoon and providing community relief wasn’t high priority for them at that time. When they regrouped and recovered a bit, they began to engage with communities, but that level of impact was quite different to what I had just seen in Pakistan.
Are there gaps in the research in this area that you think need to be addressed?
My long-term vision is to develop a post-colonial perspective on disaster studies, so what I’m trying to come up with is a post-colonial movement within the study of disasters. That’s challenging right now, because the frameworks we currently have for understanding disaster are very reliant on Western perspectives. I think there is scope for much more work to be done in the area of conflict and disaster, as well as in exploring how state politics and non-state actors in these contexts respond to disasters. There’s a lot here that is still not understood, because they require a much more local and nuanced perspective than where we’ve gotten within disaster studies as a field thus far.
Where do you think you’ll be working next?
The history of Spanish rule in the Philippines, and the way that legacy has shaped the modern state, has fostered my interest in wider postcolonial studies, and there’s some part of me that wants to continue work in post-colonial Spanish states. So, I’m doing more work in Columbia, though I may also do more work on the Philippines and Pakistan.
Geography, for me, is less about the physical location where the work is taking place, and more about the questions of disaster and post-colonial contexts. I don’t think you can get away from the question of colonisation and how that has influenced subsequent political movements in any of the countries that I have worked in, and those questions, rather than a particular location, are what fuels my work.
This is the final post in our Spotlight on Conflict Research Series, which ran on Tuesdays throughout the month of March.