Congratulations on being awarded the John Legge Prize for Best Thesis in Asian Studies in Australia in 2021! Can you tell us a bit about your thesis? What’s the problem/topic it explores and what did you find?
My thesis examines the reconstruction of Tacloban City in the Philippines following typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan), as seen through the eyes of women. In the era of resilience, a concept that has dominated disaster studies and practices in recent years, the thesis re-centers women’s situated knowledges of disaster recovery as a powerful starting point to investigate current organised practices through which disaster-affected communities are rebuilt, governed, and made ‘resilient’. In this sense, I was interested in what we might learn (or rather need to unlearn) about how ‘resilience’ is inscribed in post-disaster settings, with women’s everyday realities regarded as both a category of analysis and a methodological approach for critically examining these processes. Foregrounding women’s navigations of precarity, insecurity, and uncertainty, my findings demonstrate how processes of self-formation, the workings of emotions and aspirations, and care relations with others and the environment provide a counterbalance to the hegemonic views of ‘resilient’ recovery. From women’s everyday, embodied, and emotional experiences, the thesis offers a reconceptualisation of ‘resilience’ as lived, grounded in feminist ethics of care. A lived resilience perspective requires the broadening of our ethico-ontological horizons to view ‘resilient’ recovery as a process of becoming – not simply driven by the goal to rebuild what has been damaged, but as a regenerative practice that centres care as a normative basis for exploring post-disaster futures.
How did you first become interested in this topic?
My interest originated from my involvement in the disaster response efforts in areas affected by Yolanda. I was then based in Cebu, an island province located in Central Philippines, and had witnessed firsthand the destructive power of the typhoon. Through a local non-government organisation with which I was affiliated, I found myself caught up in the ‘frenzy’ of humanitarian work which occupied all our waking hours for months. ‘Resilience-building’ became central to the conduct of various disaster reconstruction initiatives, with aid organisations and local NGOs employing the slogan of Build Back Better. My exposure in the field – whether through the projects that our organisation implemented or through studies I performed for a number of humanitarian aid organisations – made me reflect critically on the complexities of reconstruction, physical relocation, and the negotiations between continuity and change that underpinned efforts to ‘build back better’.
Before beginning your PhD you worked as a women’s rights advocate, community organiser and development practitioner in the Philippines. How did your previous experiences inform your research?
As a community organiser in urban poor communities in Cebu before coming into academia, I was heavily involved in the local women’s movement for gender rights and social justice. These experiences have been critical in shaping my own worldviews and political orientation. Disaster studies and disaster risk management practices tend to be highly technocentric, often eliding and depoliticising the social (and gendered) roots of risk. My involvement in grassroots women’s movements have been a rich source of inspiration for pursuing different ways of seeing, knowing, and responding to disaster risks and vulnerabilities grounded in the lived realities of those whose voices are often drowned out in favour of ‘expert knowledge’. Women, in particular, perform critical roles in the aftermath of disaster, yet knowledge production about recovery has rarely seen the reconstruction process from their perspective.
What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?
There were many! For instance, designing my methodology and struggling with ethical questions involving power imbalances in disaster research is something I have written and talked about extensively. However, I would like to use this space to acknowledge that PhD students go through different life circumstances too and that doing research is very much entwined with our personal lives. This is something we often neglect when talking about the research process. What made my PhD journey (more) challenging was the fact that I was an international student who also had care responsibilities for children. Along with navigating the research process, I also had to navigate parenting in a foreign environment. When the pandemic hit, these struggles became more pronounced. In the final year of my candidature, I had to balance writing the thesis, home-schooling my children and looking after their needs, and dealing with all the tension and anxiety that arose from the situation. While that experience was immensely taxing, I was fortunate to have had a supportive supervisory team who saw me through those difficult times. This impressed on me the importance of nurturing a culture of care within academia itself. During this period, I was engaging with the narratives of women in my study in a new light. In a way, I was also living through a crisis and their stories resonated with what I was experiencing. A lot of the ideas in my thesis, which centred around ethics of care, came from those moments of reflection while in lockdown.
During your research you developed and used a photo-based feminist method called PhotoKwento. Can you tell us more about this method? How did it aid your research?
PhotoKwento utilises techniques of photo elicitation (using photographs in an interview setting). Kwento is a Filipino term which means ‘story’. Thus, PhotoKwento is a method that allows study participants to tell their stories with photographs and therefore, in the context of research, co-construct their narratives of disaster recovery. It comprises three main stages: image generation (or the process of producing photographs), interview tool development (the creation of a photo album which would serve as the interview tool), and administering interviews using photographs. Throughout this process, women participants were placed at the center. Women who participated in the study decided what images to take, how to take them, and when. Women deliberated and decided on which photos to use for the photo album and identified the thematic areas upon which interviews would be structured. There is much to be said about this process and this is discussed in more detail in an article I recently published.
PhotoKwento helped me and study participants to (re)discover facets of daily experiences that often escape the gaze and attention of conventional disaster research: the intimate spaces of a house provided after a disaster, women’s invisible care work, and the emotions attached to and generated by place. Most importantly, PhotoKwento helped promote collaborative knowledge construction, which is very much central to feminist scholarship. I was driven by the belief that if we want to produce knowledge that is respectful of the lived experiences of communities we work with, then we need to develop methodologies where co-creativity can be fostered.
Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?
My main struggles during fieldwork had been in sharing power, building trust, and finding a way to create a bridge between my world (as an Australia-based Filipino woman and researcher) and the world of my study participants. I have written about these issues in my thesis. However, one moment stands out. While putting together the PhotoKwento album, as mentioned above, I inserted some photographs I had taken myself to fill in blank spaces in some of the pages of the tool. Based on my assumptions of what I thought would be relevant to women’s experiences, I expected that the photographs would elicit more interest and responses. In hindsight, I realised that this was really my attempt to maintain control of the research process, albeit unwittingly done. To my surprise, my photographs were largely ignored. Photographs generated by women going through the processes of recovery spoke more to the women who were interviewed than mine ever did. This reinforced my belief in the importance of actively co-constructing knowledge with study participants as they are the ones who know best the context and the issues they face.
What are the hopes for the influence of your work?
I hope that my research contributes to (ongoing) conversations within disaster studies on the need to co-produce knowledge from the margins not only to identify the deficiencies of current systems of disaster governance, but also and more importantly, to help us develop methods and approaches with which to nurture possibilities for transformation. Moreover, as feminist perspectives remain marginalised in the field, I hope to have demonstrated the value of feminist epistemology and methodology in surfacing alternative sensibilities of what matters in disaster recovery towards new ways of theorising the creation of post-disaster futures.
What are you working on now?
I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I am part of the Humanitarian Governance Research Project funded by the European Research Council. Our work focuses on how civil society actors and crisis-affected people shape humanitarian governance through accountability and advocacy. The project also explores alternative models of humanitarian ethics, one that is grounded in the knowledges, perspectives, and experiences of those who live with crisis. I am currently working on examining existing humanitarian ethical frameworks and, building on my PhD, advancing feminist ethics of care (and care-full solidarities) in crisis governance.