Author Archives: jenniferwilliams

Reflections on T2015 Jennifer Rao-Williams:

The opening speech of the Transformations 2015 stated that it would be a conference which would challenge us and as a PhD student, it did exactly this. Across the three days the event, like no other that I had been to previously, took my learning into new places. This was through a variety of inspiring talks, interactive sessions, and through the making of some ‘unlikely alliances’ – a phrase that I first heard during T2013, from John Colvin and Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, and is a phrase which I continually find new relevance for.

This was especially the case during the T2015, where the event focused on interaction and provided waves of deep embodied learning, particular during the Seed of a Good Anthropocene session where I was role playing as a good social seed looking for investment from a group named business as usual. Whilst entertaining, this interactive session really brought through the reality of how powerful unlikely alliances can be, but it also highlighted the challenges that progressive change is so vulnerable to. In this respect, this conference had so much personal contribution invested in it which really helped to shape the big picture on transformation, which is that we are all learners in and of a rapidly changing context. However challenging this positionality is, I think that the Transformation conferences (Oslo, Stockholm and Dundee in 2017) have all appropriately framed the choreography of how are our understanding of this topic and its role in addressing complex challenges is unfolding. As a PhD student, I am really excited for T2017 and its focus on Transformation in practice which will be held at the University of Dundee, I think that this will be a really complementary and inspiring event which will build on the learning from the previous two conferences.


Learning from experiences: Some reflections on my UNESCO Internship with Disaster Risk Reduction

UNESCO Case Study

1) Introduction

This short case study outlines a two month internship at UNESCO’s HQ in Paris working with Disaster Risk Reduction Programs. It gives a brief background of UNESCO’s work, and details key areas of learning gained from the internship which is based on non-participatory observations and personal reflection.

2) Summary key points

  • Inclusive learning with a focus on vulnerable groups as change agents is worthwhile
  • Accessible knowledge exchange from across different stakeholder groups can create impact if it is captured
  • Multilateral engagement in processes are more rewarding than bi-lateral structures for developing DRR intelligence
  • Creating spaces creates unlikely alliances and networks which use resources and efforts more effectively

3) UNESCO Background

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and is a specialised agency which first originated in 1946. Its purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the UN Charter. It is recognised as being the intelligence organisation of the United Nations and focuses on five major priority areas and include; Education, Social Science, Culture and Communication Information and Natural Sciences. It is within the Natural Sciences priority area where Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programs which also include Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation exist. Due to UNESCO’s diverse range of priority areas, UNESCO has such a multidisciplinary approach to the development of DRR intelligence spanning 45 years, with studies on earthquakes and oceanography dating back to the 1960s. As a result of UNESCO’s expertise in over the decades it has developed a pioneering shift in thinking about DRR away from post-disaster reaction to pre-disaster action.

UNESCO’s work is underpinned by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), which focus around poverty, equality, health, sustainable development and education (UNESCO, 2014). This can be seen in UNESCO’s approach to DRR which was announced during the International Disaster Reduction Day in 2004: “disaster reduction emphasises that crucial role of human thought and action in the minimization of risk where need to educate people, in particular young people, about disasters and the implications for the way we live.”(Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO). With such strong links between the aims of MDG’s and DRR, UNESCO understands its role to be about strengthening the interface between education, science, communication and culture with a particular focus on learning as a key element of developing a ‘culture of prevention’ (UNESCO 2014).

4) What did the placement involve?

I was involved with the Gender Equality (GE) department working on DRR related projects; as women and children are classed as being the most vulnerable groups in society, DRR related projects represented a large portion of the GE Program. During the placement I had the opportunity to liaise with colleagues across all priority areas during DRR meetings. This provided a good insight into how UNESCO’s multidisciplinary approach was able to cultivate a global culture of resilience through not only the content of UNESCO’s programs but also how it operated as an organisation. For instance, a strong ethos of UNESCO’s work within DRR is the requirements if new partnerships which can draw together stakeholders from all levels of society, across different regions, sectors and disciplines. In addition to the active approach to partnership development, UNESCO’s projects are created so to be more multi-lateral than bi-lateral, where relationships on a horizontal rather than vertical (top-down) are fostered in the development and implementation of a project. This is done during different phases of a project, for instance during the development of a project during meetings, field agents local to a particular area will be contacted and asked for local specific advice and updates. Most importantly however, UNESCO works directly with communities, and builds alliances which and tap into existing knowledge capacities. These relationships of knowledge are continually built upon and which also result in a tradition of feedbacks from the community, and for this reason multilateral structures are the most efficient.

In addition to this, colleagues working on different priority area will be able to scope out the projects aims and collaborate on the outcomes and outputs which synthesises their efforts and resources. Understanding this interconnectivity at an international level was personally very beneficial for gaining an insight into how the make-up of an organisation and its networks are able to best share and develop learning. For instance, UNESCO exists as a kind of membership body of around 195 Member States representing a vast and vibrant community of expertise and international insights, which come together regularly to discuss issues. This allows UNESCO to be as permeable to knowledge as possible by having an international expert community providing real time information which can be turned into lessons for sharing. This was very interesting to learn about from an international perspective, as my research looks at community stakeholder group’s engagement with policy processes and so understanding how UNESCO develops projects involving members from different groups in societies was very worthwhile.

Separate to being involved in cross-priority meetings, I also assisted in the development of a DRR e-learning platform which was to be used by vulnerable groups specifically women and young people in communities recognised as risk sensitive ( i.e. climatic variability, economic or political hazard). The course was specifically designed to be accessible for a variety of learner’s backgrounds, and that used limited text, in favour of emotional prompts which developed learning about local risks and skills in preparedness through a realistic narrative. As part of the task, I was involved in reviewing a selection of bids from various webpage developers who had previous experience in creating e-learning platforms which due to the nature of the project, involved criteria such as accessibility to terminology, inclusive design such as ‘friendly’  user prompts and existing experience with developing e-learning for vulnerable groups.

Whilst women are considered the most vulnerable groups in society they are also recognised as the most underused resource in DRR, which was raised during a seminar for UNESCO colleagues titled Gender in Disaster Risk Reduction. My role was to support the development of the seminar by assisting with conference room bookings, communicate with colleagues and source case studies. An interesting aspect of this training was how it was framed; this was the second seminar on the subject and there was some useful deliberation on whether it should be classed as an introduction or a review. This was an interesting dialogue to be part of because it gave a perspective that whilst UNESCO are a key actor in developing DRR intelligence, they are also as an organisation on their own journey, which could be seen across many other organisations involved in developing DRR programs.  Similar to this, another beneficial insight from the internship was understanding UNESCO’s current attempts at transformation; UNESCO like many other organisations have experienced increasing limitations on their resources, and as a consequence of this the organisation is currently going through its own restructure which has encouraged new methods of assessing a projects performance such as its timescale, method of evaluation, and how effective its means at disseminating learning are. In this respect, whilst UNESCO is a very large international organisation, as an intern during this time it was a useful insight to understand that it too was agile in how it operated.

5) Main findings – clearly explained.

The main findings of this placement with UNESCO are based on my fist hand experiences as an intern working with DRR related projects. The most impressive learning that I took away from the experience was that creating the right kinds of spaces and networks are really fundamental for shaping effective DRR projects. UNESCO has such a wealth of expertise made up in the fabric of its membership that it can gain intelligence from the community setting, as well as that of the field practitioners, but what is key to the success of its projects is the level by which UNESCO aligns people across the stakeholder groups to play an inclusive role. This insight represents that learning can and does come from different levels of society either by one community’s experience of a hazard or a review of a project, but what is important is for the experience to be captured and the knowledge shared so that it can be accessed by different communities for their own DRR needs.

In creating the right opportunities for stakeholder groups to engage, project outcomes and outputs can be merged together, and resources and efforts made best use of which is an effective approach given the current stress on resources. But opportunities to unify projects like this is largely only possible when people across the priorities are able to come together and talk about their projects using time specially allocated for DRR interests. In this respect, whilst an organisation at an either international or national level has diverse interests and responsibilities, there are often overlaps which can be combined.

6) Conclusion

In conclusion to this case study, my experience with UNESCO has led me to think more critically about how processes of learning can in themselves be an effective outcome for developing a culture of DRR. It has led me to reflect on how the DRR culture is being cultivated within Scotland across stakeholder groups, and whether the processes of developing this culture is influenced by the types of structures that are in place. As an experience, this placement has helped me understand that there is so much learning to be shared which can further DRR efforts, even if it is something as simple as a post evaluation tool used by participants or practitioners which assesses their learning post involvement with a DRR project. This has helped me to define the topic of my PhD research in collaboration with the Scottish Government Resilience Division where I am interested to know about how tools and processes for resilience learning can influence effective policy processes. Through this I will be exploring what kinds of networks, processes and tools stakeholder groups, particular those from the community currently use for sharing learning to see if there is an opportunity to better capture and mainstream this information.

6) Some useful links for anyone who wants to know more

Information on the Millennium Development Goals

Information on Gender Equality

Information on developing culture of resiliency through education

7) References

UNESCO (2014)