So, as I mentioned in the about section of this page, I am currently working on a PhD project at the University of Sheffield, in co-operation between the School of East Asian Studies at Sheffield, and the School of Law at Tohoku University in Japan. The programme I am studying in is called the Cross-National Doctoral Programme (CNDC) between our two universities, eventually earning me a double doctorate degree. The funding for the project is received from the University of Sheffield, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and the Japanese Government.
Enough with the boring stuff…here’s what I am actually doing:
The project began as a way to combine my various passions for East Asian, communities and sustainability. The Tohoku region was hit by an earthquake and a devastating Tsunami in 2011, and local communities in the region have struggled to recover ever since. Well, to be fair, these communities were not doing terribly well even before the devastation. Tohoku region, which is located north from Tokyo (the dark green areas on the map below), has suffered from a long-term decline for decades in fact which has affected the vitality of their local economies, social structure, cultural heritage and population development. Lack of opportunities in the region for young people has resulted in out migration, leaving a graying population to hold the fort. When the disaster hit in 2011, what became the big questions for Tohoku were not only how they can survive natural disasters, but also how they can survive the recovery itself?
I began thinking about recovery and finding out how it is usually carried out in situations like this. The more I read, the more I began to wonder if my work in Community Organising could provide insights into a more sustainable recovery process in Japan. Community Organising after all is about responding to people’s real needs, dealing with power and conficts, and social injustices, and uncovering the root causes of problems. All of these elements appeared in Tohoku, presenting problems with recovery, ranging from emergency shelters not knowing how to cater for the basic needs of certain groups of people (e.g. women, disabled, young children), community participation in recovery being carried through existing organisational structures that upheld the existing power balances leaving many voices unheard, and problems with prioritising technical safety over people’s desires for established lifestyles and cultural heritage, such as landscapes. Many of the issues that were discussed in the reading were spelling problems that had their root causes in the structural characteristics of the way in which the society was organised. It is precisely the structures and the status quo that community organising is trying to untangle, understand, and yes, also disrupt.
What my research is trying to uncover is whether the practice and methodologies of community development, including community organising, can produce better recovery results than the established modes of community-based approaches to recovery. The key difference for me appears to be the root causes that lead to certain populations and locations being more vulnerable than others. Poverty for instance may be a reason why some people experience adversities more severely than others, but poverty itself cannot be the end point; we need to uncover why people are poor in the first place. And this often leads us to look at social injustices and the way our societies and different fortunes within are mobilised and distributed. My argument for the research is that recovery in Tohoku, and in fact in any place, should be utilising community development as the prime approach to recovery.
What I want to find out through the research is to what degree are community-based organisations in Tohoku region devoted to grass roots oriented recovery work, how are they conducting their activities, what is their practice of discovering real needs or the communities and how are local residents engaged in the processes, and finally, what barriers they may experience in their contact and communication with traditional decision-makers within the overall recovery framework for the region.
In order to respond to these questions, I aim to test this hypothesis through my field work in Japan that will take place between October 2015 till September 2016 in the Tohoku region in Japan. I will strive to recruit four organisations to take part in a Participatory Action Research (PAR) where the organisations working in Tohoku on recovery projects will be asked to utilise community organising practice within their organisations for a period of time. In the ethos of PAR the participants will have more control over the research methods, how they fit their organisations and the analysis of the results. Additionally I will interview other organisations as a control group to compare the results of the PAR group and other organisations. Essentially, the research will use community development practice as a research method itself.
So why should this research be done? Is it really important?
Obviously I’d like to think so. The argument for this research is that unless we uncover the root cause of vulnerabilities, there is a danger of reproducing them in the recovery phase. While vulnerability research has focused a great deal on how vulnerabilities create disaster conditions, but not what are the root causes of vulnerabilities in the first place. My research aims to focus on the latter point, with the end goal of challenging how recovery is carried out on the grassroots level in communities, by community-based organisations and by official organisations structures as well, and whether what we are doing is focusing on vulnerabilities in disaster, or vulnerabilities in life. My research argues we should be doing the latter.
The research will be completed in 2017 and the purpose of this blog is to discuss and debate its progress. The most exciting part of the project is ahead in a few months, and am currently busying myself with travel preparations and further writing. The 12 months from October will be busy and tough, but fascinating nonetheless.