This is the central question discussed and debated in the Humanitarian Technologies Project Stakeholder Workshop held at the Social Development Complex last 5 November 2014. The workshop presented preliminary findings from the Humanitarian Technologies Project, led by Dr Mirca Madianou (Goldsmiths University of London), with coinvestigators Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong (University of Leicester), Dr Jayeel Cornelio (Director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University), Dr Nicole Curato (University of Canberra), and Postdoctoral Research Assistant Dr Liezel Longboan (Goldsmiths University of London).
Since April this year, the research team has been conducting ethnographic research in Tacloban, Leyte and Bantayan, Cebu with humanitarian organizations and affected populations from Typhoon Yolanda and evaluating their diverse uses of media and ICTs in the recovery phase of the disaster.
Explaining the project's unique approach, Dr Mirca Madianou identified that previous research on disasters and ICTs focus on the emergency phase rather than the less spectacular but equally important recovery phase. Madianou says that the project also aims to give a nuanced perspective to recent humanitarian policies that celebrate how mobile phones and the internet enable affected communities "to respond to their own problems" and foster "people-centered humanitarian action."
The team presented data that showed that technologies are not often taken up by Yolanda-affected communities to give feedback to NGOs or fundraise for themselves. Low-income people relocated to tent cities and bunkhouses lack media access, social capital, and even personal confidence to voice their concerns in social media or in proprietary platforms such as humanitarian radio or Frontline SMS. The team observes that mostly middle-class people, with existing resources and strong social networks, have been able to use new technologies in community mobilizing and problem-solving.
One of the few perks of living in Tanauan's "tent city" is good cellphone signal
In the afternoon session, Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong's presentation highlighted how technologies were often used in ordinary ways even in extraordinary circumstances. Instead of using humanitarian radio to give feedback about relief goods, Taclobanons instead sent song requests with personal dedications to loved ones. And instead of using Facebook to organize for protest, women were using Facebook to maintain friendships and find new love after disaster. The team argued that these uses of technology far from their most "virtuous" purposes should be seen as creative ways of achieving ordinariness in the face of extraordinary rupture.
The event also featured presentations from representatives of the humanitarian sector: Gil Francis Arevalo of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Catherine Green of World Vision. Government officials, technology and media companies, local NGOs, academics from various disciplines, and guests from Tacloban and Bantayan also participated in the lively discussion and challenged the team to think of the ways in which particular media platforms proved more significant at various points of the protracted period of recovery.
The project is funded by a grant from the UK's Economic and Social Research Council. The workshop was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) and supported by the Department of Communication and the Development Studies Program of the School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. The workshop follows a series of conferences on disasters hosted by the School of Social Sciences, including "(Un)Covering Disasters" organized by the Department of Communication and "Disasters in History: The Philippines from a Comparative Perspective" organized by Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints and the Department of History, in partnership with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kyoto University.
Lighthearted moment during fieldwork in Tacloban