In many low-income countries, remittances help to sustain people’s livelihoods and reduce their vulnerability to disasters. However, most studies on this topic are short-term and rely on econometric methods and analysis. Research suggests that aid agencies are aware of the importance of remittances in disasters, but rarely consider them within their relief actions and recovery programmes since their understanding of such mechanisms is generally very limited. Drawing on fieldwork in Samoa, this article concludes that participatory methods, despite some limitations and challenges, contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of remittances and their importance in people’s livelihoods following disaster.
Why participatory methods?
Most studies exploring remittances during disasters use econometric methods based on national financial and migration data, which are often combined with questionnaire-based surveys. These methods of assessment give little insight for Disaster Risk Management (DRM), such as who has access to remittances and how important this resource is within people’s livelihoods. Such methods may also be subject to large errors and provide limited information on remittance practices. The recorded data on remittance flows is often unreliable, as a large part is sent through unofficial channels. Survey-based research often consists of very long questionnaires that use predetermined categories that do not fit with people’s own criteria and perceptions. These methods usually provide information at national level, and do not acknowledge smaller-scale patterns of remittances.
Participatory methods aim to be more cognisant of people’s perceptions and priorities. Participatory tools also enable the collection of both qualitative and quantitative information that more conventional methods cannot capture. Participation is increasingly used in Community-Based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR), which emphasises the need to build on people’s own capacity to cope with natural hazards.
A community-based research project in Samoa
The research took place in Samoa, where both remittances and vulnerability to natural hazards are very high. On 29 September 2009, Samoa was hit by a tsunami that killed 143 people and left 5,000 homeless. In December 2012, some of the same communities were hit by Cyclone Evan.
The overall aim of the research was to assess the importance of remittances in households’ responses to hazard-related disasters by investigating:
- Who has access to remittances.
- The importance of remittances relative to other livelihood resources.
- How long after a disaster households received remittances and at what levels.
- What remittances are used for.
- The extent to which remittances help households to address their perceived priorities following a disaster. Some of the outcomes have been published in L. Le De, J. C. Gaillard, W. Friesen and F. M. Smith, ‘Remittances in the Face of Disasters: A Case Study of Rural Samoa’, Environment, Development and Sustainability, 17(3), 2015; and L. Le De, J. C. Gaillard and W. Friesen ‘Poverty and Disasters: Do Remittances Reproduce Vulnerability?’, Journal of Development Studies, 51(5), 2015.
Participatory methods were used to address these objectives. The process of selecting and contacting communities for the study was facilitated by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), which supported the research project, and the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD). Fieldwork took place between 2012 and 2013. Eighty-two semi-structured interviews were carried out in five coastal villages affected by the 2009 tsunami. Some of these villages were also hit by Cyclone Evan in 2012. Participatory activities were later carried out in four of the villages. While less quantitative data on remittances was collected, having fewer study sites meant that more time was spent with the communities selected. A wide range of participatory techniques were used (see Table 1).
Interviews revealed disparities about the amount of remittances received and the degree of dependence on them. To assess the resources that constitute people’s livelihoods, and the disparities among households regarding the importance of remittances, we developed a ‘wheel’ of livelihood resources. This technique first requires that participants, as a group, list all the livelihood resources and activities they employ, both normally and during disasters. In normal times, resources listed included farming, coconut harvesting, paid employment, remittances, handicrafts, mat weaving, raising cattle and fishing. During periods of disaster, people also listed livelihood resources, government support, external aid and loans and credit. Each resource was written on a card and then stuck on the pillars of the fale (a traditional open Samoan house), enabling participants to visualise the resources identified. When this process was completed, the cards were displayed on each cell of the wheel of livelihood resources, which comprises concentric circles and lines radiating from the centre. Each participant is allocated a row and each cell corresponds to a resource that the participants had previously identified. Participants were provided with 20 stones (shells or seeds can be used) that represented the household’s income, assets and resources. Each head of household then distributed the stones among the livelihood resources in accordance with the importance of each resource. The facilitators recorded the data directly on the wheel after double-checking its accuracy with participants. The exercise was repeated, but with participants reallocating the stones to reflect the relative importance of these resources during disasters. The participants could indicate the trade-offs they made and the combinations of resources used, and how these become more or less significant in a crisis. Recording the information pre- and post-disaster on the wheel facilitates dialogue and helps participants to visualise both their resources and the decision-making process.
The wheel of livelihood resources was followed by proportional piling. The process started with an interactive discussion with all the participants listing what they used remittances for both before and after the disaster. The different uses of remittances were written on cards that were positioned on the floor in a circle. In the middle of the circle 40 stones were placed in order for the participants to indicate their use of remittances. At the beginning, the participants estimated how they spent remittances by allocating different piles of stones to different categories of spending. After visual observations and discussions (e.g. ‘do we really spend that much on food?’), the stones were redistributed. The participants then explained their choices to the facilitators, delivering insightful information on the rationale behind their remittance-related livelihood strategies.
The third tool, the carousel exercise, encouraged participants to reflect on how wealth guides the need for and access to remittances. One of the objectives of the project was to determine who has access to, and makes use of, remittances. The first step was to understand what comprises wealth in Samoa. A carousel activity was conducted involving three different groups of participants. Each group was allocated a flipchart and participants were asked to define the components they thought defined wealth. After a few minutes, the flipcharts were rotated and each group had the opportunity to add more characteristics to the definition of wealth. People defined wealth in relation to the availability and scarcity of resources, including access to jobs, credit, land, wages and savings.
A timeline with scoring was carried out to define in what proportions remittances increased after the disasters, for how long and in comparison with the support received by the government and NGOs. This provided new as well as complementary information to that generated by the previous tools. The matrix-scoring tool was used at the end of the participatory process, as making best use of it required having extensively discussed different aspects of remittances and disasters beforehand. The resources that the participants had identified earlier with the wheel of livelihood resources were listed on the horizontal axis, while people’s objectives, classified in seven predefined categories, were written on cards placed along the vertical axis. Each participant was given 30 stones to rank which resources, including remittances, were the most important in achieving particular outcomes.
Although remittances are important for households facing crisis, people see them as part of their everyday life and as an expression of love and affection from their relatives. It was only after reflection and discussion that participants started to think about this resource as a coping mechanism and/or a strength.
Methodological strengths of participatory tools
Bringing together people who are directly concerned with issues of remittances and disasters generated rich qualitative and quantitative information. The main strengths of participatory tools and methods were:
- They were very efficient in measuring some aspects of remittances and households’ livelihoods. This included quantifying remittances that are not part of official channels (e.g. as hand-carried cash, goods and in shipping containers), comparing remittances with external support (e.g. NGOs and government aid), and measuring activities that are part of people’s livelihoods but do not necessarily generate income (e.g. subsistence fishing and farming).
- Participatory methods enabled researchers to quantify remittances in relation to households’ incomes, how they fluctuated over time and how they were spent. This would have been impossible through more conventional methods that use predefined categories and are based on Western constructs (e.g. percentage or monetary value).
- The visual and interactive character of participatory techniques enabled a wide range of people to contribute their views and analysis, including those with limited knowledge of economic or scientific concepts and those with low levels of formal education or who were illiterate or innumerate. Many of these people would have had difficulty answering a questionnaire that involved numbers and percentages of income.
- Participatory tools potentially increased the accuracy of the quantitative information obtained as they encouraged participants to discuss, cross-verify and refine the data to reach consensus.
- Using a range of different participatory activities and debates involving the same participants helped both the participants and the researcher to identify more complex patterns, such as who has access to remittances and why.
- Group discussions provided insight on the social and cultural aspects of remittances.
- The participatory process allowed participants to discuss and learn more about their vulnerabilities and capacities, and how these are shaped by remittances and disasters.
Methodological challenges and ethical considerations
Although participatory tools enabled a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding remittances, participation required building strong relationships with local communities, a very time-consuming process. Ethical issues, such as who owns the data and whether and how it can be shared, also had to be considered. For example, sharing some information with the other participants might be more delicate, such as the amount of remittances received. In this project, confidentiality was ensured by collecting this data using individual semi-structured interviews, so that participants would not feel that this was purely extractive research.
Adopting a participatory approach generally implies carrying out a small-scale analysis. While such studies may not produce statistically significant or generalisable results, they can potentially enable better monitoring of ethical issues, provide more detailed information, empower participants and be less costly. A larger sample size, which more conventional methods pursued to provide statistically significant results, does not automatically mean better information, and may ultimately mean more bad information.
Remittances are complex systems that involve socio-economic, political and cultural conditions, motivations and capacities, as well as local and global constraints and opportunities. Thus, conventional methods of assessment are limited in answering some of the central questions surrounding remittances and disasters, including who has access to remittances, why, and how they help people to deal with disasters. Working directly with concerned communities and using participatory methods is necessary if we are to gain a better understanding of remittances and the role they play in people’s response to disasters.
Loic Le De is a Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. J. C. Gaillard is an Associate Professor at the School, and Wardlow Friesen is a Senior Lecturer.