The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Coping with big scale tragedy © Duncan Graham 2008

What makes one society more resilient in the face of catastrophe than another?

Why do some people stoically accept the awful things that happen when they encounter the unleashed energies of nature? Some regard such events as a trial by a testing god; others rail against the elements and curse the uncontrollable forces that released them. Many are just left numb.

New Zealand doctoral student Heather Taylor will probe these and other tricky but critical questions in Indonesia and NZ during the next three years.

“Many other research studies on the capacity to adapt to major tragedies have focused on Western populations,” she said.

“I want to know if there are universal traits that indicate the capacity of a community to cope. If these traits do exist and can be identified then non-government agencies (NGOs) and others can use this information in the way they allocate their resources.

“For example, if we know that one society can better handle a tragedy and look after themselves to some extent, then the NGO’s energies can be focused on communities that don’t respond well.”

In April Taylor will start her studies by traveling to the west coast Sumatra island of Nias that was smashed by a massive earthquake in 2005 killing 800 and injuring 2,000. The superstitious must have wondered what they’d done wrong because Nias was also a victim of the December 2004 tsunami.

Taylor will also study in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta that was horrendously damaged by a massive shaking in 2006 with the loss of 6,000 lives, and West Sumatra that was hit twice last year, in March and September.

Fortunately Taylor, 24, hasn’t had any ghastly personal tragedy to drive her into this unusual research. She hasn’t had to outrun an avalanche of mud or flee a forest furnace, but she does come from a family that believes it has a duty to channel its abilities to the benefit of humanity.

“I have a science background and I want to use my education to help people,” she said. “I hope to develop the skills to interpret science to policy makers in a language they can understand. There has to be a balance between technical and cultural knowledge.”

Her father is an Australian engineer working for an international Christian organisation and her mother is a nurse who was born in Ethiopia.

Taylor was born in Canada and studied to become a geological engineer. This is the profession that advises major mining ventures on the best place to dig or avoid, and the dangers that might result.

After graduating she worked on a big iron-ore mine in Western Australia before moving to NZ to further her studies.

Like Indonesia, NZ is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a geologically unstable zone of shifting tectonic plates deep underground and magna boiling to the surface.

NZ, also known as the Shaky Isles, seems to be forever trembling. If you check you’ll find a list of the latest rumbles, and can let the authorities know if they’ve missed any. As there are about 14,000 every year with around 150 serious it’s always possible that the experts haven’t noticed the earth move while they’re taking a coffee break.

(Most information on Indonesian earthquakes has been compiled by authorities overseas.)

Taylor has won a NZ $90,000 (Rp 650 million) grant to do her PhD through Massey University’s school of psychology. Her homeland has ice storms and floods but is relatively stable, so there’s little need to worry about skyscrapers coming down to earth or to study the phenomena.

NZ takes natural disasters seriously. There aren’t too many high rises; in the capital Wellington, that straddles three major fault lines, timber is the preferred building material. In the big Yogya quake that destroyed 1.5 million homes, the families who survived were often living in houses made of wood or bamboo.

Taylor is reluctant to predict exactly which way her research will go, but recognizes that NZ has a well-developed system of building regulations, alerts, emergency routines and other systems to help minimize damage and injury from natural disasters. These management tools may well be of use to Indonesia.

The NZ Earthquake Commission provides rapid relief and covers damage caused by earthquakes, landslips, volcanic eruptions, tsunami and hydrothermal activity to people who are insured.

But there are restraints on transferring expertise across cultures. Taylor said that most overseas aid comes from Western nations with different ideas and values. She would not be drawn on recent controversies where some agencies have allegedly tried to package Christianity, feminism and other Western values along with emergency building materials and water pumps.

Then there are the tales of corruption, with aid allegedly diverted into the pockets of government authorities to the great fury of donors. Another factor that may work itself into her research are the motives behind outsiders giving money or rushing to help. What emotional and attitudinal baggage are they carrying in the back of their white four-wheel drives, bouncing across rubble-strewn landscapes?

“It often becomes the case that the international NGOs are coming from a different culture and are unfamiliar with the culture they’re entering,” Taylor said.

“I want to understand the qualities of communities and individuals that withstand natural disasters. Is it their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, their past experiences, their economic background?

“I hope my research will lead to better ways for NGOs to handle big crises. I want to try and avoid the political traps. In the end it’s not what you do but how you do it.

“You can get the technology right, but if you mess up on the social side you’ll get nowhere.

“I come from a background within an NGO because of my family. But don’t write me up as a na├»ve young researcher out to save the world. Hopefully I’ll be able to change attitudes from being superior and paternalistic so that NGOs can do things better as partners with communities.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 Feb 08)