Resilience 2011: As the planet warms, become more like bamboo!

We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...

We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists,” says a Japanese Proverb.

In these times of climate change, we all need to bear this in mind. It’s not how we resist the battering, but how we pick up again after repeated onslaughts.

Bamboo is an amazingly versatile plant (actually, a grass) with many uses in Asian cultures. We use it for buildings, furniture, outdoor infrastructure, artistic decor and even eat parts of it.

Beyond these utility functions, the bamboo holds a philosophical lesson that the ancient Japanese and Chinese knew very well: its flexibility is its strength. It can bend and move with the wind or water or other element, rather than being rigid, unyielding and ultimately vulnerable to an unexpected jolt and sideways shift.

Bamboo was mentioned several times by Asian researchers and practitioners who came together at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 to 5 March 2011.

Resilience was discussed and interpreted in a number of ways at the conference. But participants broadly agreed that it is the ability of any individual or community or system to absorb external shocks, bounce back and transform or continue to grow.

Such bouncing back, in some climate related situations, could be to alternatives rather than to the original condition. For example, if poorly built structures are damaged in a disaster or extreme weather condition, the recovery could – and should – be to build back better.

Indeed, the bamboo metaphor is widely used in various fields from business management to self-help counseling. See these interesting links for further insights:

Australian Anthill, June 2009: ‘Be the bamboo’: Thinking tips for innovative minds

The Great Work Blog: The wisdom of Bamboo

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Resilience 2011: Banging Heads together to make lives better

What does Livelihood Resilience mean to them?


I am at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, being held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 – 5 March 2011. It is jointly organised by Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA), International Development Research Center (IDRC), The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Cordaid and ekgaon technologies

The conference has attracted three dozen researchers, practitioners and policy makers from across the Asia Pacific region, and from different ‘domains’: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and disaster management; Ecosystem services and conservation; and livelihoods and socio-economic development.

I like hobnob with researchers and activists from whom I learn much. As a science and development communicator, I sit through their often very technical discussions and find ways of relating them to the bigger realities. For a start, I created a word map of the keywords being used in the conference. That gives an idea of concerns at a glance.

I then tried to make sense of the conference introduction note, published on the event website. It looks and reads like the work of a committee, and not the easiest to read and absorb unless one is deep immersed in these areas. Since most of us aren’t, I spent an hour or two rewriting it in my own language. Here it is — my version of what Resilience 2011 conference is trying to accomplish:

Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate Asia Regional Conference
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 3 – 5 March 2011
A layman’s interpretation of the vision, scope and aims of the conference

Asia, home to over 60 per cent of all human beings, is the largest and most diverse geographical region in the world. It is also a region of sharp contrasts and disparities in economic and social development.

Some Asian economies have been growing faster than any other on the planet, and even the global recession has not slowed them down too much. This growth has helped push tens of millions of people out of poverty during the past three decades. Yet, Asia still has the largest number of people living in poverty and food insecurity.

In some respects, gains have been lost. For example, the UN Millennium Development Goals Report for 2010 revealed that the proportion of undernourished Asians has increased recently to levels last seen during the 1990s. Two thirds of the world’s undernourished people live in Asia. At the same time, the natural resources on which food supplies depend – land, water and biodiversity – are degrading rapidly. Food shortages and water scarcities are already being experienced, or anticipated, in many countries.

Growing number and intensity of disasters adds further pressures. According to the international disaster database EM DAT, Asia accounted for nearly half (46 per cent) of the all water related disasters in the world, and 90 per cent of all affected people during 1980 to 2006. During this period, disasters in Asia caused a total of US$ 8 billion worth of economic damage. These disasters impacted disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

Climate change impacts will make this situation worse for everyone, and especially for the poor who already have limited options and ability to adjust to rapid changes. It is now clear that all efforts aimed at reducing poverty and protecting the socially vulnerable groups need to factor in the additional pressures created by changing climate.

To cope with these challenges, we need better understand how livelihoods are threatened, and what strategies can be adopted to improve resilience especially at the grassroots. Researchers and practitioners in natural resource management and poverty reduction are now focusing more and more on the nexus between resources, climate changes and livelihoods.

New ways of looking at the inter-linked challenges have emerged:
• Humanitarian aid workers active on disasters now focus on disaster risk reduction, expanding the scope of risk management to include preparedness and risk reduction.
• Development practitioners working on poverty reduction emphasize on increasing access to various capitals to help address disaster risk and poverty.
• A ‘systems approach’ is being used to look at poverty in broader terms of well-being of people and ecosystem services of Nature.

In addition, researchers and activists emphasize the value of freedoms for participation, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, protective security and ecological security. It is only by ensuring these freedoms that the poor will have a meaningful chance to assert their rights and make their own choices in what they do, and how they do it.

The slowly but steadily warming planet challenges everyone to rethink their conceptual frameworks, and redefine or reconfigure how they work. If there is one thing certain about these uncertain and turbulent times, it is business-as-usual won’t do!

What do we seek to achieve?

Each sector has accumulated a knowledge base, set of best practices and lessons learnt exist within individual domains. Each sector’s theories, approaches and actions within various domains differ on how to make livelihoods more resilient, especially in the often harsh realities of the developing world.

They are all necessary, but not sufficient. Taken individually, no single approach or solution can help make everybody’s livelihoods resilient from the multitude of pressures and impacts. Yet, what one strand cannot withstand on its own, a bundle of strands very likely can: bringing different areas of research, advocacy and practice is the way forward to ensuring better resilience at the grassroots.

This is easier said than done. Both researchers and practitioners have long worked in their own silos or compartments, with occasional nods at each other’s work and periodic exchanges. From this, we need to evolve more integrated framework that brings in the ecologists, disaster managers, social scientists and everyone else who share an interest in making lives better at the grassroots and at the bottom of the income pyramid.

The Kuala Lumpur conference attempts to address this formidable challenge. It will provide a common platform to practitioners and researchers from various ‘domains’ related to livelihoods to work out a shared vision on livelihoods resilience by seeking answers to these questions:
• What are the existing challenges to achieving livelihood resilience?
• What are the gaps in existing livelihood frameworks in relation to disaster, climate change adaptation and conservation in addressing livelihood resilience?
• What are the challenges in scaling up pilot models of Livelihood Resilience?
• How does social adaptation occur in resilience building?

Resilience 2011: Staying Alive on a warming planet – exploring choices

Keywords of sessions at Resilience 2011 Conference: Courtesy Wordle.net

I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attending the Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, being held from 3 – 5 March 2011.

The conference brings together researchers and practitioners from three fields: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and disaster management community; Ecosystem services and conservation community; and the livelihoods and socio-economic development community. Although their work overlap part of the time, they don’t converge too often.

I will blog on different aspects of the conference, trying to connect the dots, and relating the micro to the macro as I often do in my own work communicating development.

There are many issues, topics and discussions under the broad theme of protecting Asian livelihoods from climate change impacts. For a start, I used Wordle to build a word map, displaying proportionate use of keywords in the conference sessions. The above and below are the word clouds it generated (same words, displayed in different modes).

The conference is organised jointly by Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA), International Development Research Center (IDRC), The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Cordaid and ekgaon technologies of India.

Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media: Who wants a free ride?

If you got a message, hitch a ride...

If you got a message, hitch a ride...

How can research institutes and advocacy groups use the mainstream media effectively to communicate their findings and analyses?

What is the secret of some researchers receiving more media attention and coverage than others? Why are some ‘media darlings’?

Are there ways to secure quality coverage for public interest content without having to pay high rates for media space or air time?

TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) addresses these important questions in a new framework to engage the mass media for communicating for influence and social change. We call it a Hitchhiker’s (Rough) Guide to the Media.

The framework, building on a dozen years of TVEAP experience in working with television broadcasters and other media outlets across the Asia Pacific region, guides individuals and institutions to get the best out of the media. One key to success is building sustained relationships with media professionals and their gatekeepers (the bosses at media organisations who decide what content to publish or broadcast).

We introduced the framework to a group of ICT researchers drawn from across Asia who came together for a two-day workshop in Hyderabad, India, on 1 – 2 December 2008. The workshop aimed to build their capacity to use different communication frameworks and tools to engage policy makers, various other stake-holders and the wider public.

Workshop participants were all drawn from various action research projects on ICT or ICT for development supported by the Pan Asia Networking programme of the International Development Research Institute (IDRC) of Canada.

Our friends at IDRC have recently edited highlights of our presentation into a short video, which mixes excerpts from an interview they filmed with me. It can be watched here:

More about the workshop is found on a dedicated blog.

Read more about our framework on TVEAP website.

“Development” is seen as a hard sell in the increasingly commercialised media in the Asia Pacific. Researchers, activists and educators engaged in development work often complain that they are blocked out of the print and broadcast media. Yet they fail to understand a basic truth about the media: there is no quota of print space or air time set aside for development. Information and opinions on development topics must compete with other areas of human endeavour for the limited space and time available.

It is unrealistic to expect any legally or otherwise guaranteed space or time for development content. Even if there were, that can only apply on the media owners and media professionals. There can be no guarantee that media audiences will accept such content.

I get rather weary when well-meaning development players complain about the airwaves being full of entertainment, as if that airtime is something they have been deprived of. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with entertainment. The world will be a very dull place if the broadcasters listened to development people and packed every minute of air time with ‘information and education’.

Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...

Hitch a hike, but don't expect to get in the driver's seat...

This is the big challenge to the development community — how to get that delicate balance right, and learn to co-exist with other forms of media products catering to the wide and varied human interests. Hitch-hiking with the media avoids confrontation, looks for the common ground and tries to nurture collaboration for mutual benefit.

As my colleague Manori Wijesekera (presenting in the photo above) told the Hyderabad workshop: “Researchers and activists are a good source of information and opinions for the media, who need a constant supply of these. This can be a win-win situation for both parties, but we have to remember that we are hitching a ride with the media. So we can’t get into the driving seat or demand too much at once!”

So here’s our commercial: TVEAP conducts short, customised training sessions and workshops for researchers and civil society groups to enhance their media skills. These offer guidance on how to build and sustain ‘bridges’ with the media, and receive quality coverage that go well beyond publicity and public relations. If interested, get in touch with us!

Photos courtesy TVEAP Image Archive

Sleeping easy along the shore: Going the Last Mile with hazard warnings

creating-disaster-resilience-everywhere.jpg

October 8 is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The United Nations system observes the day ‘to raise the profile of disaster risk reduction, and encourage every citizen and government to take part in building more resilient communities and nations’.

Disaster risk reduction (abbreviated as DRR) is the common term for many and varied techniques that focus on preventing or minimising the effects of disasters. DRR measures either seek to reduce the likelihood of a disaster occurring, or strengthen the people’s ability to respond to it.

DRR is not just another lofty piece of developmentspeak. Unlike many other development measures that are full of cold statistics and/or hot air, this one directly (and quietly) saves lives, jobs and properties.

And it gives people peace of mind – we can’t put a value on that. That was the point I made in a blog post written in December 2007, on the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Taking the personal example of J A Malani, an ordinary Sri Lankan woman living in Hambantota, on the island’s southern coast, I talked about how she has found peace of mind from a DRR initiative.

‘Evaluating Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project’ (HazInfo project for short) was an action research project by LIRNEasia to find out how communication technology and training can be used to safeguard grassroots communities from disasters. It involved Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, and several other partners including my own TVE Asia Pacific. It was supported by International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada.

Recently, IDRC’s inhouse series ‘Research that Matters’ has published an article about the project. Titled “For Easy Sleep Along the Shore: Making Hazard Warnings More Effective” its blurb reads: “In Sri Lanka, a grassroots pilot study combines advanced communication technologies with local volunteer networks to alert coastal villages to danger coming from the sea.”

The article has adapted a lot of the information and quotes I originally compiled for a project introductory note in April 2006.

The outcome of the project’s first phase, which ended in mid 2007, is well documented. My own reflective essay on this project is included as a chapter in our book Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, published by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP in December 2007.

TVE Asia Pacific also made a short video film in late 2007. Called The Long Last Mile , it can be viewed on YouTube in two parts:

The Long Last Mile, part 1 of 2:

The Long Last Mile, part 2 of 2:

The recent IDRC article ends with this para: “A related challenge concerns the shortness of any society’s attention span. In the absence of frequent crises and alerts, how can a nation — or even a village — sustain the continuing levels of preparedness essential to ensure that, when the next big wave comes rolling in and the sirens sound, its people will have the motivation and the capacity to act? The follow-up project seeks to address this worry by preparing the hotels and villages to respond to different types of hazards, rather than only to the relatively rare tsunamis.”

Watch this space.

Download pdf of IDRC’s Research That Matters profile on Last Mile Hazard Warning Project

Telecom Without Tears: Book Review

My review of the book, ICT Infrastructure in Emerging Asia: Policy and Regulatory Roadblocks, was printed in Financial Times on Sunday, Sri Lanka, on 18 May 2008.

The book, co-edited by Rohan Samarajiva (in photo, below) and Ayesha Zainudeen, is published jointly by Sage Books and Canada’s IDRC. It is based largely on the work of my friends and colleagues at LIRNEasia.

Although the book showcases recent telecom and ICT reform experiences in five economies in South and Southeast Asia (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka), my review takes a closer look at the Sri Lankan situation partly because I live and work there, and because the review was intended more at a Sri Lankan readership.

Here’s my opening:

“In the early 1990s, I had to wait for nearly six years for my first (fixed) telephone – I refused to pay bribes or use ‘connections’ to bypass thousands of others on the notorious waiting list. Earlier this year, when I bought an extra mobile phone SIM from Dialog GSM, it took six hours for the company to connect it. I found that a bit too long.

“How things have changed! Connectivity without (social) connections, and practically off-the-shelf, is now possible in most parts of Sri Lanka. Telecommunications is the fastest growing sector in the economy, recording 47 per cent growth in 2007 (and 58 per cent in 2006). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 54 in 2007, from 36 at the end of 2006 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones, which now outnumber fixed phones by three to one.”

One quick – albeit a bit unfortunate – way to introduce this book is that it apparently scared some sections of Sri Lanka’s state bureaucracy. When copies arrived from the Indian publisher earlier this year, they were held up at Customs for over three months for no logical or coherent reason. The editors speculated whether it had something to do with one chapter (among 13) looking at telephone use in war-ravaged Jaffna during the ceasefire (which lasted from 2002 to 2008), but this was neither confirmed nor denied.

In my review, I make the point: “It was a stark reminder, if any were needed, of the turbulent settings and often paranoid times in which telecom liberalisation has been taking place in many parts of emerging Asia.”

And I return to the larger political reality in my conclusion, as follows:
“Now that the ICT genie has been set loose, it’s impossible to push it back into the dusty lamp of the monopolist past, even under that much-abused bogey of ‘national security’ (or its new, freshly squeezed version, ‘war against terror’). Despite this, the officialdom and its ultra-nationalist cohorts don’t give up easily. While this book was in ‘state custody’, Sri Lankans experienced the first government-sanctioned blocking of mobile phone SMS – ironically on the day marking 60 years of political independence.

Photo below shows several contributing authors at the book’s launch in Chennai in December 2007


Read the review online

Download the review as a pdf document (47kb)
telecom-without-tears-by-nalaka-gunawardene-may-2008

Read or download the book electronically from IDRC website