Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Link Pack #14: Kerala, poverty pathways, and coping strategies

Listening: In the Field, a promising development podcast from India (do check them out in case you haven't already) open their second season with a great episode on Kerala - the poster child of development in India and where it is today. Includes discussions on

  • how Kerala's development trajectory has meant different things for men and women (differences in expectations, women still seen as conduits of 'economic outflows' despite being key sources of remittances - think Malayalee nurses).   
  • the 2018 floods and whether Kerala's development has come at the cost of its environmental security. 
  • future development pathways for Kerala (a knowledge economy? but what of changing aspirations?)
Reading: There is a new special issue in Environment and Development Economics which has a series of papers examining the links between poverty and climate change. In the introduction to the special issue, Hallegatte et al. (open access) highlight how climate change can push people into poverty (e.g. through direct losses such as floods eroding assets) and can also block people escaping poverty (e.g. through a drought undermining farm incomes). We have known these linkages for some time now but given the scale of the data represented in the papers and the current 'moment of opportunity' climate change research is witnessing, makes reiterating some of these findings. I found particularly interesting, Angelsen & Dokken's paper examining role of environmental income (income from products extracted from non-cultivated (wild) areas) in coping with shocks. They find:
"Among the income-generating coping strategies, extracting more environmental resources ranks second to seeking wage labor. The poorest in dry regions also experience the highest forest loss, undermining the opportunities to to cope with future climate shocks." Angelsen, A. & Dokken, T. (2018:257).
What this means is that while natural resource extraction is detrimental to dealing with climate shocks, poor people continue to do so because it generates income. Sobering and something we continuously see whether in competitive groundwater extraction across South India, or the degradation of pasturelands in dryland areas. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

New Project: Recovery with Dignity

I'm starting a new project called 'Recovery with Dignity' with a great set of researchers at University of East Anglia and IIHS. We're examining processes and impacts of representation and memorialisation in post-disaster recovery processes, with case studies in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As the project takes shape, the team is thinking and writing about post-disaster representation (who represents whom and what, when and why) and how perhaps pluralising representation can make it more inclusive.

We're building on previous experiences in Odisha and Tamil Nadu where we found that short-term humanitarian assistance tends to overlook longer-term development impacts. In Chennai for example, we found relocation and resettlement are common 'tools' of disaster recovery but have longer-term social, economic, and intangible impacts on resettled lives and livelihoods. They also forefront multiple agendas - a removal of slums in the city, the thrust to vacate expensive real estate, the imperatives of reducing peoples' hazard exposure, and in all of this, the daily lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations.

Rising high, sinking low. Relocated households often find themselves in multi-floor housing like those
pictured above, very different from the spaces of communal living they come from. Public spaces and parks,
though planed for, are flooded because the buildings stood on low-lying marshlands. Many reported
safety issues because in a colony of resettelers, there is no 'community' let alone cohesion.
Semencherry, Chennai 2017. 

Ten years on. The coast along Tamil Nadu's capital is littered with broken boats, remains of old huts.
Chennai 2017

In the Recovery with Dignity project we aim to use creative methodological approaches to capture representation and memorialisation which I am particularly looking forward to. Watch this space for updates on the project and fieldwork!

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Link Pack #13: A great paper on vulnerability

Reading: Are you a vulnerability researcher? There's a great new paper by James Ford and others reviewing vulnerability research and defining a forward-looking research agenda. From a review of 587 papers, they identify seven concerns in vulnerability research from 1990 to 2016. They are: neglect of social drivers, promotion of a static under- standing of human-environment interactions, vagueness about the concept of vulnerability, neglect of cross-scale interactions, passive and negative framing, limited influence on decision-making, and limited collaboration across disciplines. 

Most usefully, the paper crosschecks if each concern is substantiated by the literature. For example, they find the concern that social drivers of vulnerability are neglected has limited supporting evidence since foundational work in vulnerability (such as Watts and Bohle's work on famine and vulnerability, Blaikie and Wisner's seminal work on the political economy of risk, and Jesse Ribot's thesis that vulnerability does not fall from the sky) have been discussing non-climatic drivers of vulnerability since the late 1980s.

One big takeaway for me from the paper was that the authors found an absence of studies evaluating whether vulnerability research is informing decision-making. Given the amount of funds going into vulnerability alleviation projects, this appears to be a critical gap to filled, and one that can be addressed with an eye on the IPCC's AR6 which is just kicking off.
"While there still remains little consensus about its precise meaning— and the success of studies seeking to bring clarity to vulnerability research is debatable—there is agreement that vulnerability denotes susceptibility to harm, and is composed of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity... In this view, rather than striving for a unified approach to vulnerability, researchers should be aware of the diverse approaches that exist, and be explicit about the concepts they use."
The paper closes on a positive note with directions for future research, practice, and funding. The authors call for methodological development (something we have been trying to do within the ASSAR project through life history interviews), expanding future scenarios work that is predominantly quantitative and focussed on biophysical aspects, reimagining case studies to draw on their rich empirics but feed into broader meta-analyses, and revisiting past research to inform present concerns and gaps. All of this of course points towards a reorientation of how vulnerability funding is given, both in terms of duration and topics of focus.  

For more insights, do read the paper! Suggest reading with McDowell et al. 2016 which also focusses on advances and gaps in vulnerability research but restricts itself to the community scale (both papers are open access).

Monday, 10 September 2018

Bigfoot: On being a climate scientist that flies

Flying around the globe to attend climate change conferences that discuss the importance of flying less has got to be one of the most ironical parts of my job. On the one hand, the research world is moving towards being more connected. We're in an age of multi-country studies and collaborative, international research teams; North-South partnerships and shrinking timelines to build those partnerships. On the other hand, there is a growing call for climate change researchers to introspect on their own carbon footprint from flying.

Personally, this dilemma [wanting to fly and grab all the opportunities (!) vs. seriously dealing with my Big(carbon)Foot problem] has troubled me for several years now. There is a growing online conversation on ways to solve this dilemma (see here, here and here). However, the articles I come across on flying less or no flying are often written by researchers in contexts far different from mine. The conversations I've had on low/no flying have often been with colleagues in Europe who have options of trains and buses to cross countries. You can't attend a conference in Thailand (from India) by taking an overnight bus. Getting from one end of India to another by train itself takes 3 days! So when I heard of Peter Kalmus's amazing initiative 'No Fly Climate Sci', I decided to chime in with my experiences as someone who enjoys being part of a multi-country research project and is concerned about her carbon emissions.

My piece from the No Fly Climate Sci website:

As a researcher examining the interface of climate change and livelihood shifts, reducing my carbon footprint is a professional and personal issue for me. I try to do so by walking to work, carpooling, recycling and eating less meat. However, these options are difficult to engage with when the systems and institutions in a country disincentivise them. For example, Indian cities are not particularly known for being walkable or having cycling tracks, making these options perilous (a few years ago, noted environmentalist, Sunita Narain was run over while cycling to work in Delhi).

Flying less is often put forth as a positive behavioural change with a large impact on individual emissions. I have consciously started flying less, either clubbing meetings to reduce multiple trips or taking the train if that is an option. However, again, being a researcher based in the global South, there are some challenges that are seldom recognised in narratives around ‘climate researchers must walk the talk’. First, with distances as large as they are in India, train rides can last well over 12-15 hours (and up to 24-36 hours if you are traversing the country). Taking such options might often mean travelling over the weekend, eating into time one reserves for family or self-care. Second, important conferences in my field are often held in America or Europe (e.g. Adaptation Futures 2016 was in Rotterdam, the Cities and Climate Change Conference 2018 is in Edmonton). Getting to these and showcasing one’s work is usually only possible by flying, often at a large financial and physical cost.

An argument I hear often is to not attend these conferences at all, thus eliminating the need to travel completely. Often, such suggestions come well-established researchers, with strong networks and an extensive body of work. To young researchers in my team, many of whom will use conferences to travel abroad for the first time in their life, the pros of presenting their ideas to an international audience, getting feedback on their work, and experiencing a different culture, outweighs concerns of carbon emissions. This is why, while I applaud my European colleagues who choose to take the train instead of flying from say the Netherlands to Sweden or France to the UK, I am unable to provide similar stories of restraint.

I continue to make small amends – offsetting some of the miles, using social media and livestreaming to learn of new advances in my field, and sharing with my team, opportunities to present closer to home. And though I try to fly less, as a researcher based out of South Asia and presenting on international platforms, I find it hard to do.

Postscript: 
In March this year, I was scheduled to travel to the IPCC Cities Conference in Edmonton. It would be the farthermost I'd have travelled, from my current base in Myanmar, with a large carbon footprint and great financial cost. It was an important conference in my field, would provide a great networking opportunity, and my panel on urban adaptation case studies across Asia, Africa and Latin America had been accepted and fully funded! In the end, I never got my Canadian visa on time and ended up presenting remotely. The thought of speaking through a computer to an audience far away wasn't particularly exciting. But it worked! I pre-recorded the presentation to avoid hiccups and the panel managed audience questions brilliantly. Yes, I missed meeting colleagues and researchers in person, but Twitter helped update me on key presentations. As a first timer, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy remote-presenting can be and have since then taught classes remotely, slowly chipping away at my Bigfoot!

Further reading on flying less:

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Research for (Policy) Impact

Demonstrating policy impact of research is becoming increasingly important. In countries like the UK, the Research Excellence Framework ensures that incentives are tied to demonstrating impact. While we aren't there yet in India, spaces such as IIHS and CPR India are increasingly contributing to conversations at the research-policy interface.

Podcast on research impact

In this context, I enjoyed listening to ANU's recent Policy Forum Podcast episode on policy impact, which touches upon research impact, questioning one's motives for doing research, and how to engage in meaningful research despite the neoliberalisation of higher education. Prof Mark Reed, Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University and a research impact wiz, talks of his experiences of trying to ‘make a difference’. Few things from the podcast that really spoke to me:
  • Need more thought at proposal writing stages to consider the dangers of cobbling together ill-suited research/policy/practice partners to bid for trans- and inter-disciplinary research initiatives
  • Need more training on doing interdisciplinary research that often calls for working with people with different worldviews, methodological leanings, and crucially, different motivations
  • Doing a rapid stakeholder mapping to discover and forge new, non-research partnerships is useful ongoing exercise for researchers
  • Question your motives and ability to nurture relationships over time: "If you want to make a difference, you have to be in this for the long game. This (research impact) is fundamentally about relationships and it has to be two-way...there has to be humility in these relationships."

Two papers on developing the skills, space for research impact 

Also read two interesting articles on research impact and being an engaged, impactful researcher (thanks Georgina Cundill for the recommendation!):
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots in Nature Communications
Evans and Cvitanovic (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers in Palgrave Communications (here's a blog post based on the paper)
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) call for changing the terminology of 'gaps' across the science–policy–practice interfaces to a focus on 'bright spots'. This is something that has struck me in climate change adaptation research as well where there is a focus on identifying, enumerating and finding solutions to 'adaptation barriers'. Changing the narrative on this means finding leverage points and entry spaces where one learns from success AND failure instead of success stories OR examples of failure. 

The second paper refreshingly argues that being honest and humble researchers is key for impact. In my experience, humility and honesty are critical to strong, effective and inclusive research teams. I've discussed the role of empathy in scenario planning exercises and find that creating a conducive environment as a first step of impactful research is still an under-acknowledged aspect of interdisciplinary work.

The two papers also discuss the need for understanding policy in practice before being able to influence it. This is critical, especially in countries such as India, where a lot of policy influencing is hidden and policy conversations and spaces are often closed off. During my PhD, being a young female researcher who had to engage with all-male irrigation department officials, was a challenging and sometimes dangerous part of data collection. I regularly faced inappropriate invitations to visit their homes, and although unofficial conversations would have helped building a rapport so crucial for policy impact, my gender and age sharply shaped my ability and experience to nurture beyond-research relationships. 

I think the messiness and informal nature of policy making is something researchers don't appreciate fully. I look forward to reading (or perhaps writing?!) more about it, especially experiences of trying to achieve research impact in the Global South (where, I have a hunch things are messier and more closed off but that might just be a hunch). 


My own experience of research impact

In a bid to start thinking of making my own research more 'impact-friendly', earlier this year I helped collate eight farmer stories documenting bottom-up, policy-facing solutions in climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in South India.

We collected these stories of change where farmers facing significant hardship such as growing water scarcity, small landholding, and market fluctuations have overcome them through a mix of personal innovation and ingenuity, and institutional support.

We consciously decided not to publish a paper from it and instead launched a booklet in English and Kannada (the local language) and invited the farmers to speak about their experiences at the launch. Having government and civil society representatives at the launch (with whom we had built relationships over the past few years of our wider research project) made the event more meaningful. We've already had had interest from popular media (Time of IndiaIndiaSpend, Business Standard covered our work) and NGOs beyond the region have ordered the open access booklet to learn from these farmer stories. Small steps, but important nonetheless. 

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Link Pack #12: Three papers on barriers to adaptation

I recently came across three papers on adaptation barriers which are a back and forth between some authors in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. Although focussed on adaptation barriers in the forestry sector, the points they make are quite interesting for climate change researchers in general.

  • Williamson and Nelson 2017: Talk of 3 types of barriers - harmoninsation barriers, enabling barriers, and implementation barriers in the context of the forestry sector. The paper's acknowledgement of the intersecting, subjective, and dynamic nature of barriers is particularly welcome and something I've been trying to articulate in the context of adaptation in Indian agriculture

Harmonization barriers pertain to differences between adaptation and mitigation in pre-existing frames and beliefs. Enabling barriers are psychological and institutional in nature. Implementation barriers include capacity deficits (e.g., funding limits, science and knowledge deficits regarding benefits, trade-offs, and synergies between adaptation and mitigation) and governance issues. Barriers are interrelated, dynamic, and subjective. 
(Williamson and Nelson 2017:1568)

  • Wellstead et al. 2018: Sharply critique Williamson and Nelson (2017) and call for examining the underlying causal mechanisms when studying barriers to open up a discussion on internal processes and dynamics that cause/perpetuate barriers instead of treating barriers in a system as a linear input-output model (i.e. if you remove barriers, desirable outcomes will be achieved). They particularly critique Williamson and Nelson's ' functionalist approach', the act of explaining early events by another event later in time. This style of reasoning, Wellstead et al.  argue masks the process of decision-making and does little to inform adaptation implementation. They say it assumes that 'socio-political systems will automatically adjust to changes provided that barriers are removed' (p.2). 
  • Williamson and Nelson 2018 reply back, saying the 'barriers approach' (listing out barriers to a desirable outcome) is important and a common practice in adaptation research (I agree) but acknowledge that using social science methodologies that focus on process and context are a useful addition.

Of course, the back and forth in the papers isn't as friendly as I make them out to be but the arguments raised are interesting and important. They highlight a fundamental difference in how different disciplinary stances and starting points can frame the issue of adaptation barriers. 

Read previous link packs here.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Link Pack #11: Deep Work, Mindfulness and a Paper on Caste

Paper: The inimitable David Mosse recently wrote a paper in World Development called Caste and development: Contemporary perspectives on a structure of discrimination and advantage. It is an important paper that looks at caste in its various dimensions—economic divisions based on occupation, political through systems of dominance and rule, and ideological which is closely linked to ideas of purity and impurity. I particularly enjoyed Mosse's review of the implications of caste on economic inequality, where he cites literature from rural India's longitudinal village studies as well as assessment of public services delivery by development economists.

However, I missed a discussion on sub-caste differences that goes beyond Dailts vs. the rest (to be fair they are alluded to but not detailed). As recent work shows, understanding intra-caste inequalities is critical but does not receive as much attention as commonly stated hierarchies of ST/SC/OBC/General do.

Mosse also makes a very useful point about how there are shifts in what caste means and confers. Thus, as villagers integrate into the regional economy, caste is reconfigured as a "a resource or strategic network for access into this economy and workforce" (p.427, emphasis in original). However, when caste connotations move from "honor to opportunity" (ibid.), it is relegated to further invisibility. This is why the oft-repeated argument that the move from rural to urban areas allows loosening of caste-based discrimination might be erroneous since caste-based identity does not disappear, it merely morphs or in come cases, becomes invisible. The paper is an important read for anyone working on development issues in India.

Podcast: Ezra Klein's podcast is my latest favourite thing to listen to (I listen to podcasts while cooking and find the mix of stimulating my auditory and olfactory senses quite a nice change from being tied to a laptop!). Two great episodes I particularly liked:
  1. His conversation with Cal Newport (computer scientist at Georgetown University who also advocates for 'deep work'). They talk of distractedness and productivity (the two most overused words of the decade!), but more importantly, of 'mental callisthenics' or workouts for the brain. Towards the end, Newport suggests a few immediate tasks one can do for improving your mental health/attention span/proclivity for deep work: start putting on your calendar some appointments with yourself to do deep work; take social media applications off your phone; and schedule the time you do novel, distracting, stimulating things.
  2. His conversation with Robert Wright, on Why Buddhism is True is a thought-provoking conversation about the practical benefits of meditation, where mindfulness meets evolutionary biology, and how to navigate an era of fast news and information overload. A must-listen for over-stretched academics with a mountain of to-read papers and to-write-down ideas.
Read previous link packs here