The Personal Is Professional: Balancing Objectivity, Empathy and Academic Activism in Disaster Research

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 15:45
Oral Presentation
Glenda BONIFACIO, University of Lethbridge, Canada
In November 2013, the strongest typhoon ever to hit landfall destroyed millions of homes and thousands of people dead in Central and Eastern Visayas in the Philippines. Most of my family members and friends were left homeless and suffered casualties from the storm surge brought by Haiyan, local name Yolanda. Haiyan created a ‘new normal’ in people’s lives, government response, and international collaboration; a global condemnation to muddy local politics hampering relief efforts and rehabilitation; and synergy of activism to protect the environment amidst changing climate. Natural disasters radically shift our realities and focus to the most important human act of all---building a sustainable future---regardless of perceived differences and systemic prejudices.

Two years after super typhoon Haiyan, I conducted a field course with Canadian students on local-global relations. Four years after Tacloban City was flattened and cleared most of the debris, I conducted a field research in urban and rural communities about gender, migration, and reconstruction. This paper presents a reflective summary of balancing objectivity in the research process with personal connections to the tragic loss of families and communities, and the inevitable trajectory of activism in the academy. It sets out the unique simultaneous challenges of being both an “insider” and “outsider” with quest for valid claims and how these claims are translated into policy and practice. The Philippines rests on a volatile geopolitical region with much at stake with rising sea levels, yet its global connectivity in trade and commerce have left the issue of environment and recurring disasters sidelined. As a researcher with a ‘personal but professional’ stake in the topic, the moral dilemma of doing enough or little comes aground. Translating this into a macro perspective where ‘home’ is the world, what is the duty of scholars?