McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Student research could aid Pakistan flood relief

By Matt Terry
Published: September 9, 2010
A relief tent village in Islamabad, Pakistan
A relief tent village in Islamabad, Pakistan.
— Dilzayn Panjwani 2004

As the floodwaters that have ravaged Pakistan recently begin to recede, help has begun to pour into the country from governments and aid organizations around the world. But will it be enough? Does the world understand the gravity of the situation? And who will coordinate relief efforts?

These are just some of the questions considered by students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program's The Politics and Praxis of Global Health Advocacy. The class, in collaboration with the McMaster Health Forum, has recently published an edited volume of research offering a student perspective on some of the world's most pressing global health issues — internal displacement, water systems, gender-based violence, maternal health and disaster relief.

Daniel Sisson, a member of the research team that studied disaster relief, said that such topics are the focus of less academic study than many people think.

"There are large gaps in the literature that focuses on how best to assist those in a disaster zone," he said. "Our goal was to try to fill in some of those gaps while offering some tangible recommendations to those working in the field."

Among the recommendations of Sisson’s group: that disasters be framed more effectively in order to encourage financial support; that social media reporting be increased in order to raise awareness, especially in the West, of issues affecting distant populations; that key players in disaster relief get together to coordinate efforts before starting work on the ground; and that research in the area of disaster relief be increased.

"We really want our work to help promote better advocacy strategies, whether it's at the individual level or to non-governmental organizations, governments, or the United Nations," Sisson said.

Classmate Rebecca Cherniak agrees and stresses that the adoption of new, online technologies is imperative for aid groups to better organize and to increase the speed of aid delivery.

"We researched a number of tools that groups can and should be using to democratize the distribution of aid," Cherniak said. "It's just a matter of figuring out which tools are right for each group and deciding how best to use them."

According to instructor Steven Hoffman, the course is meant to be an opportunity for students to get involved in the "real-world" aspects of global health advocacy.

"The students get to work at the intersection of theory and practice," he said. "Rarely do students get to see the impact of academic knowledge on the real world. In this case, they have offered their research directly to concerned stakeholders."

Whether or not the students' recommendations are taken up by those involved in disaster relief and the delivery of aid remains to be seen, but Hoffman says that either way, the students have made a difference.

"At the outset of the course we wondered, ‘How do we have an impact? How do we encourage action?’ I think that with the publication of this research, the students have done just that. With their unique perspectives on the world they've contributed to the field in a very meaningful way."

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