On disaster pornography

On page 246 of this 1994 article by Erica Burman there is a discussion of the concept of Disaster Pornography which is “the gruesome fascination with depicting, and commercially benefiting from people’s suffering and degradation.” The ‘pornography’ parallel is as follows: “bodies are represented as parts, devoid of subjectivity, and rendered available for use and consumption, with no regard for consent or participation.” In trying to understand fundamental principles that are important for an appropriate, just and dignifying approach in disaster response efforts, we keep coming back to the importance of putting survivors first and allowing space for survivors to lead in the recovery effort. This concept of disaster pornography points in a vivid way to the absolute necessity for survivor-driven recovery, which includes allowing survivors to make decisions around how the disaster itself is depicted in media and in aid organizations’ calls for funding of relief efforts.

Burman, Erica, (1994) “Innocents abroad: Western fantasies of childhood and the iconography of emergencies” from Disasters 18 (3) pp.238-253



A bike is a toy, a bike is a tool

As we began looking into the feasibility of the Ready-to-Go Bikes model for delivering bikes to survivors, I began to call around to different aid organizations that already engage in immediate disaster response. I asked them if they’d be interested in serving as ‘hubs’ that would be willing to receive donated bicycles and deliver them to disaster sites for survivors. But I encountered an unexpected source of resistance to the idea. Representatives from these large disaster response NGOs simply did not see the value of a bike in this setting. There was not even a well-reasoned response as to why they would not consider delivering bikes to survivors. Instead they seemed to reject the idea as if I were suggesting that they help to deliver balloons or cotton candy. I spoke with bike advocate and bikes-in-disaster-response consultant, Joe Partridge, former Deputy for Planning and Preparedness for the Emergency Management Division of Multnomah County in Oregon State. He understood this phenomenon (of obliviousness among NGOs regarding how bikes could be useful in disaster) as having to do with the bike being perceived by many, particularly among older generations, as a toy or a piece of recreation equipment. Many do not see the bike as a tool; a means of human transport and a tool to haul cargo. I had never thought of a bike as a toy and so this idea of an alternate perception of the function of a bike was a revelation to me. It has important implications for how we go about promoting use of bikes for survivor-led disaster recovery. How do you convince operations managers of large NGOs of the need to incorporate bikes if they still see bikes as toys or recreation devices?


Possible model for donating bikes in disaster

Based on conversations with bicycle advocates and through multiple iterations, we came up with a potential model for how good quality donated bikes could be collected by community groups wanting to contribute to disaster response, and how those bikes could be sent directly to disaster response organizations who could bring bikes in along with water, medicines, tents and cooking supplies. The bikes could then be used as tools that facilitate disaster survivors being able to shape and guide the recovery process. I gave this 2 minute “Fast pitch” at Global Washington a few years ago about this model for integrating bikes into disaster response.
Here’s a description of how it could work:
Inline image 1
• You hear about a disaster event and feel a desire to help.
• You look select a Hub organization capable of taking your bike to a survivor of the disaster
• You learn which carrier can ship your bike and then
• You take your packaged bike to the service you chose and
• You pay for it to be sent to your selected Hub organization.
• Your bike arrives at the Hub organization’s location and
• They arrange for it to be taken to the disaster site and delivered to a survivor in need of transportation.
I’m sure there are other models out there, too. But in order to have a place to start the conversation about how bikes can be brought in earlier for use by survivors, we offer this idea. What do you think? What’s missing?

“Childhood and the Iconography of Emergencies”

I recently came across this academic journal article: “Innocents abroad: Western fantasies of childhood and the iconography of emergencies,” by Erica Burman.

Here are a few quotes from this 1994 piece in the Disasters journal.

  • “the use of the child in aid appeals repeats the colonial paternalism where the adult-Northerner offers help and knowledge to the infantilized-South”
  • “Within this imagery [of the distressed child]… ‘we’ are the competent donors; we have the power to ‘help’; ‘they’ are the helpless unfortunates.”
  • “Femininity and childish dependency are here collapsed to evoke sympathy. This reinforces assumptions of children’s passivity, and reproduces patriarchal relations, both within and between donor and recipient countries.”

Take a look at this article. There are some interesting insights to think about and incorporate.

Burman, Erica, (1994) “Innocents abroad: Western fantasies of childhood and the iconography of emergencies” from Disasters 18 (3) pp.238-253



Regulating disaster responders

This article is so timely.  It shows how citizens rapidly and spontaneously help one another and how “the government” which cannot scale up in time to meet the disaster needs immediately is talking about regulating the citizens or at least make them go thru a certification process.  This is disaster mitigation at its finest (worst).  This article explained well what we said in our GlobalWA paragraph submission.
Article: Talk of regulating Louisiana’s freewheeling Cajun Navy makes waves – Washington Times
In this case it is clear that the introduction of “official” aid in the form of channel blocking, disincentivizes  the immediate and effective spontaneous citizen aid.


Ready to go Bikes, part 2

We spoke with Dave Schweidenback of Pedals for Progress about his model of collecting good used bikes to send to regions that could use them. In the Pedals for Progress bike-donation model folks who want to donate a bike must also make a cash donation to cover the cost of shipping the bikes.

That way two things happen 1) folks don’t donate junk bikes just to avoid a trip to the scrap yard, and 2) the best bikes are also sent overseas rather than being auctioned off at home to help cover shipping costs of the worst bikes. There are a lot of different models out there for collecting and sending bikes from the USA to different regions of the world, each holding to varying standards of ethics and accountability. The concept itself of sending used bikes, good ones or not, treads on “aid” territory dangerously close to what has been termed SWEDOW (Shit WE DOn’t Want).

This is a term that has been used to describe the tendency for donors to think of others as having lower standards than themselves and thus thoughtlessly sending used crap to other people with an expectation that those poor folks elsewhere ought to be grateful for anything, whether that be our used tea bags or our used bikes. This is an important thing for those sending bikes overseas to think long and hard about, and is equally important to consider in disaster response efforts. A key way to avoid sending SWEDOW is to listen to communities and follow their lead, working as their allies, rather than arrogantly assuming that our ideas are best and therefore worth implementing.

So as we talk about how to get bikes to folks in the aftermath of a disaster, lets start with the caveat that sending bikes is only appropriate if communities have identified this as a need and a valuable recovery resource in their own context. If survivor communities are not asking for bikes then it is probably not appropriate to be pushing bikes on folks and potentially sending them our junk. If survivors are asking for bikes, then sending good bikes in a timely way is something we need to figure out how to do.
– Bjorn

Here’s an idea…

So here’s an idea: survivors of catastrophic disaster need to be able to lead the recovery process and bikes are a tool that can help make that happen. Therefore, bikes need to be more central to disaster response. After some time in Biloxi, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, we saw this need for a more central role of bikes in disaster recovery. In fact, it was Kryzra Holmes, an East Biloxi community member and leader, who noted that it was unfortunate that bikes were not more available as a way to involve survivor youth directly in the recovery rather than seeing the youth as a nuisance.

Some bikes were eventually delivered to the area for the survivors by at least one group, in addition to the few bikes we were able to borrow from the police station’s stash of impounded bikes. There are a number of organizations like Pedals for Progress and Cyclo Nord Sud (and many others) that store up containers full of bikes and send them to other countries for “third world development” projects, but none of these initiatives are geared directly toward immediate disaster response.

Another organization, World Bicycle Relief, helps to set up bicycle manufacturing in regions affected by catastrophic disasters, but again, these bicycles are not available soon enough to be part of the initial recovery process. So the question remains, how can bikes be delivered to survivors in the immediate recovery phase – within days of a disaster occurring? Along with medical help, water, food and blankets, how do we get bikes, as a versatile and fuel-less means of transportation, to survivors in settings where they would be useful?