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Some Thoughts about the Future of Culture in “Nonessential” Times

September 14, 2021
By 29373

Violinist Gabriele Slizyte, a 2019 Sylff fellow, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted professionals and students in culture, including herself, and poses existential questions that the pandemic has raised for her. In the latter half of the essay, Slizyte contemplates the future of culture, referencing an article by Leon Botstein that offers answers to some of her questions.

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Gabriele Slizyte

As a violinist, student in musicology at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris, and Sylff fellow since 2020, I would like to share some thoughts about the future of culture in our post-COVID society. Conceived in two parts, this essay first poses some personal questions I have been asking myself during this pandemic and then turns to an article by Leon Botstein titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which shares some hypotheses about the future of culture.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cultural Workers and Students

How does it feel to work in a field that has been considered “nonessential” for more than a year now? For students and young adults, this pandemic made it difficult to visualize a professional integration someday, somehow. After we had lost all our landmarks and convictions about what our daily life should be like, it became clear that culture will still play a role in the “new normal” post-COVID world. However, as we reemerged from this forced break, we found that we have changed. Cultural events, as they might return someday, will gather a public that is already slightly different from the one we have known. How can we prepare ourselves for these changes, and how can we create a safe and interactive environment for cultural gatherings between total strangers who lived confined and in the fear of getting infected for more than a year now?

By its primary conception, culture never was an essential activity, firstly by virtue of its nonmaterial value. It is something we seek only when all the other things—stable and basic things—are assured. However, during the lockdown, we all consumed cultural products in order to stay motivated. So how do we save this nonessential activity? And wait, since when did sense and sensibility become nonessential?

After a great shock and cancellation of everything that was ongoing, cultural workers adapted themselves. Some strayed to Internet broadcast systems, rarely advantageous for classical musicians, some of whom even went viral. Some could not pay their rent, and some took forced vacations from everything to meditate on some big project they never had time to do before. And then there were students who got caught in the middle of a system they did not create. I am thinking about young professionals who just graduated, those who are still looking for jobs in a field where a long-term contract has already expired as a concept.

In France, the voice of depressed and impoverished students took almost a year to be heard. From the beginning of the pandemic, students became one of the most economically vulnerable groups of persons, directly touched by this pandemic. The social impact is here to stay, as well as an existential crisis, the one that no one is talking about because of its nonessential, more personal character. Even if we put aside the economic impact, some questions must be answered. How do we build a network since everything has gone online? How do we stay efficient and take action if you cannot practice your activity? How do we reinvent the way we work and have an impact while still sitting at home, knowing nothing about what the future folds?

On a personal level, this pandemic made me think from a more philosophical and less self-centered point of view. After so many years spent thinking about the big picture of life, we were forced to focus on details, to look after our near future more than just expecting something to happen. While deeply frustrating, this situation can also be perceived as an invitation to think about new ways of making things. Can culture be less international and more local? Could cultural workers also have an ecological impact in the era of the new green deal? Can we create more social impact for our communities?

Botstein’s Action Plan for Music in the Post-COVID World

Leon Botstein, Conducting the American Symphony Orchestra - photo by Matt Dine.

In the second part of this short essay, I would like to review an article titled “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic”1 by Leon Botstein, which, in my opinion, is worthy of our attention. The discourse of this paper inspires comments because it puts into words things that are sometimes difficult to formulate. More than an action plan, it makes us rethink our conception of culture and can actually be transposed to any field.

Swiss-American conductor, academic administrator, and president of Bard College, Leon Botstein is an editor of the Musical Quarterly. This scholarly musical journal is one of the most important and renowned publications, offering brilliant, neat, and critical papers that are shaping the musical domain.

Naturally enough, Mr. Botstein does not limit himself to just offering an immersion into a dramatic situation that has been shaking American cultural workers. He proposes a seven-point action plan that could help “to prevent the 2020 pandemic from devastating, for future generations, the practice and place of music in American life.”[1] Let us just extend this geographical approach to any country in the world that has a tradition of art music.

“Music must become intensely local,”[2] begins Botstein, proposing a conception opposite of worldwide concert tours that could be applied to any popular band or singer. And why not, because an artist has the power to create a dynamic community where a collaboration and exchange between listeners and music makers could replace a wall syndrome in which both are separated as in the traditional conception of a scene. Music should be “perform[ed] in public spaces” and more often leave traditional concert halls.[3] We should encourage a “direct interaction between performer, composer, and the audience, before, between, and after performances.”[4] Culture needs the public because, by its definition, it is a social activity where reception plays a final role. However, our public must be encouraged to take a real place in music making.

After reading Botstein’s article, I felt as if I was being invited to take more concrete action besides my activities as a musicologist, researcher, and performer—to conceive a project, to create a new learning tool, to dynamize our old conception of culture. I am not sure whether it could prevent us from devastating the practice and place of music, but it could, I hope, help us to be more ready and more awake the next time a dark cloud comes over our path.

Written in Paris in February 2021.

1 Leon Botstein, “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Musical Quarterly 102, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 351–360.

[1] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[2] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 357.

[3] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 358.

[4] Botstein, “The Future of Music in America,” 359.

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Municipality of Pallini, Greece: How Covid-19 Has Affected the Delivery of Supporting Services

September 3, 2021
By 24941

Eleni Konstantinou, a 2001 Sylff fellow, is a psychologist and group and family therapist who now works for the municipality of Pallini, Greece. She discusses how the measures in response to COVID-19 have impacted social support services in the municipality, with personal observations about how people, including herself, have adjusted largely positively to the lack of direct contact.

 * * *

The aim of this article is to present how COVID-19 and the imposed measures have altered, changed, and affected the delivery of supporting services such as psychological support, consulting, and lifelong learning programs in the Municipality of Pallini.

I am a psychologist, family and group therapist, and a member of the Sylff community. I received the Sylff grant in 2001 during my postgraduate studies in school psychology. In 2018 I was very honored to be chosen to attend the Sylff Leaders Workshop in Japan—a great experience that helped me deepen my knowledge in international cooperation for a common goal. I had the chance to meet and communicate with exceptional people from all over the world who are expert in their field of work and studies. I also had the privilege of experiencing and tasting Japan’s culture. I am more than thankful to the Sylff Association secretariat for organizing this memorable and unique event with great success.

I have been working in the Municipality of Pallini (Region of Eastern Attica, Greece) for a decade. Since 2016, I have been in charge of the Education, Continuing Education, and Culture Section of the Department of Social Policy.

The mayor of Pallini, Mr. Athanasios Zoutsos, expresses the basic principle of the municipality during the pandemic as follows: “Νo one should be left alone, without access to public services in these harsh times.” But how could this happen? Is it possible for people to access public services when there are strict measures on circulation to lower the number of active COVID-19 cases? After the outbreak of the pandemic, people have had to send a text message to 13033 to get a circulation permit within their prefecture. Οne can only move around for health reasons (e.g., to see a doctor or to go to the hospital or pharmacy), to shop at the supermarket, to go to the bank, or to help someone in need. It is also permissible for divorced parents to visit their children. If a ceremony such as a wedding, christening, or funeral takes place, only a few relatives are able to attend. Finally, in order to leave the house, everyone must carry an ID and send the aforementioned required message to 13033, even if it is to walk his or her dog or just exercise individually. Wearing face masks is compulsory everywhere. Due to the above, when the mayor of Pallini speaks of supporting the citizens, he is referring to the ability to access public services mainly digitally via Internet. Moreover, because of the reduction in circulation, there are certain cases where municipal staff must visit vulnerable people in need and offer goods for free from the local grocery store.

If I could briefly explain my current position, I would mostly refer to consulting, consultation programs, and consulting groups for parents and teachers. Furthermore, part of my job is to organize continuing education activities and programs and supervise school cleaning staff.


Before the outbreak of the pandemic crisis, people used to visit me in my office at the Town Hall, asking for information and apply for consulting. A therapeutic procedure was designed according to their needs, including personal consulting sessions, couples’ therapy, and even group therapy. That was the formal procedure. Now consulting is mostly done on the phone. People can receive our services only with prior arrangement by phone. We are all obliged to wear masks and keep a 1.5-m distance.

Personal contact is essential during consulting. Now that we miss smiles and facial expressions in general, we have to cultivate and promote other skills to communicate effectively with one another. In the beginning, counseling on the phone was a bit awkward for both therapist and client, since our service is not a phone line. But we had to adjust to the current situation and overcome this obstacle by focusing on the voice tone, the pauses, or even the breathing. Unfortunately, group therapy meetings had to stop for safety reasons.

Meeting with teachers at school.

Moreover, we created a series of videos with relaxing music in the background, pleasant images, and tips on surviving curfew (,, Making these videos was incredible, as I worked together with people whom I had never met. We cooperated harmoniously and effectively without knowing one another. Respecting one another and knowing that we were working for a common goal were enough for us. Our meetings were held only by telephone. I was very honored that my script was narrated by a famous Greek actor and member of the City Council, Mrs. Aspasia Tzitzikaki, while Mr. Michalis Christodoulides composed the original soundtrack. Finally, Mrs. Karolina Kosmetatou was responsible for the image editing. Because of the current circumstances, we have not managed to meet till now! What we have learned from this experience is that such skills as flexibility, adjustment, and resilience are essential not only for survival but also for creativity.


Before the pandemic crisis, I used to visit schools following teachers’ requests to help them deal with students’ behavioral problems. In addition, the principal of the school would organize staff meetings with me to overcome unpleasant situations at schools involving students, teachers, and parents. Now that schools are closed and lessons are held via an Internet platform (Webex), my communication with teachers and school personnel is limited to the phone. Teachers mention the lack of communication, especially with high school students, and all the difficulties that arise during Webex lessons. They are also anxious about their students’ mental health. Now mental resilience is more important than learning!

School for Parents

The Online School for Parents.

The implementation of prevention programs is one of the main goals of our services. In this context, the School for Parents is a counseling and informative program for parents. There are more than 90 applicants, and approximately half of them attend the lectures. In March 2020 we were forced to stop the meetings because of the enforcement of strict measures against the pandemic. To keep in touch with parents and students, we created a blog with relevant articles written by the guest speakers so that parents would not feel alone or isolated during COVID times. In June 2020 we managed to meet again at the closing ceremony, taking all the necessary measures. During this academic year we had to reform and redesign the format of the School for Parents. We thus organized , consisting entirely of online meetings that took t place once a week every Wednesday from 6 to 8 pm (from January to May 2021). Parents could attend them from their homes. For each session we had a distinguished guest speaker addressing such topics as addiction, safer Internet, eating disorders, learning disabilities, resilience, tips for parents to help their children face the new reality during the pandemic, and crisis management. We missed the direct contact, but it proved to be  very helpful for parents not to have to leave their home and children to attend the lectures.. Parents have expressed gratefulness for this program and that they are looking forward to our meetings. So do we!

Continuing Education activities and program

Continuing education is a very lively program in our municipality. Whenever a program starts, there are many applicants who are interested in taking part in the classes. IT classes for adults were usually held twice a week in municipal buildings. The last program was conducted until July 20, 2020. We were obliged to take all the necessary preventive measures against COVID-19. However, after the last strict measures of quarantine, the programs of continuing education were canceled, following the school closure. But in this case the courses have not been continued by distance learning.


Networking is necessary for me daily. I think that no one can solve all the problems by oneself. We all need one another. For instance, I come in contact with other institutions (e.g., hospitals and social services) and professionals (e.g., social workers and psychiatrists) in order to effectively face a complex psychosocial case. Networking is very useful between different services that face similar problems and difficulties. In addition, it can be helpful in encouraging solidarity among people. In January 2020, we organized a meeting with mental health specialists from other municipalities, hospitals, and mental health services. We closed this event with a wish as well as a promise to meet again. Unfortunately, we have not managed to make it happen until now due to the circumstances, but I am thinking of proposing a Webex meeting instead. We need to stay connected!

Before closing this article, I would like to underline the necessity of solidarity. Close contact is now being avoided, but this does not have to make people feel alone. Even in conditions of limitation, we can get close to our loved ones and connect with respect for one another, with love and caring, so that we can have a good time and remain safe and healthy, without fear!

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Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) without Oversea Travel Launched for FY2021

September 1, 2021

SRA without Oversea Travel

The Sylff Association is pleased to announce the launch of a revised Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) support program for Sylff fellows in fiscal 2021 (ending March 31, 2022). Considering that some international borders remain closed and global travel restrictions are still in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are making a call for applications for SRA projects that do not require fellows themselves to travel overseas.

SRA without Oversea Travel awards will help fellows to conduct academic research related to their doctoral dissertations in a foreign country through alternative strategies, such as hiring local research assistant(s) or organizing virtual meetings. It will provide grants of up to US$3,000 to each successful applicant.

Click here to view the call for applications.

The application deadline is 23:59 October 31, 2021 (JST).

We look forward to receiving your applications.

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Why Do We Need Vaccines Now?

August 4, 2021
By 29262

Drawing on the field of health economics, 2002 Sylff fellow Matheus Albergaria contemplates the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for collective health and possible solutions. Vaccines are one such solution, as well as social distancing and the wearing of masks in public places. But for these measures to be effective, it is key that individuals consider the impact that their actions may have on collective well-being.

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The first records of the so-called coronavirus 2019 disease (COVID-19) occurred in late 2019. As the name suggests, COVID-19 is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), being generally associated with such symptoms as fever, dry cough, and tiredness, although other symptoms may also appear in more severe cases of the disease. Throughout the year 2020, the spread of the virus across numerous countries occurred at an astonishing speed; recent data from October 2020 suggest the confirmation of more than 190 million cases, as well as deaths in excess of 4 million worldwide.

An important aspect related to the COVID-19 pandemic concerns its consequences in terms of collective health. Few people outside the field of economics are aware of the existence of a field of study called “health economics,” in which scholars employ economic logic to evaluate health policy interventions, such as in the case of COVID-19. In this article, I will illustrate possible ways in which we can use the lessons from this field to understand some characteristics of the pandemic, as well as possible solutions related to it.

Since collective health can be seen as a special category of goods needed by a society—so-called public goods—it is important to take into account the potential implications derived from such a categorization. Specifically, public goods have two unique characteristics: they are (i) “non-excludable” and (ii) “non-rival.” That is, it is not possible to exclude anyone from their consumption (non-exclusionary property), while at the same time, the consumption of the goods by one person does not necessarily affect the consumption of other people in society (non-rivalry property). Examples of public goods—in addition to public health itself—are national security, maritime lighthouses, fireworks, public parks, and beaches. (It is worth noting that all these examples are non-excludable and non-rival goods.)

The main challenge related to public goods concerns the possible emergence of differences between individual interests and collective well-being. For example, in the case of public health issues, a person may wonder if it makes sense to comply with a period of quarantine at home, wear a mask in public places, or maintain social distance, as their actions may have seemingly insignificant impacts in social terms. In other words, in situations like this, a person may ask the following question: “Will my actions have any significant impact on the rest of society?” If the answer to this question is no, the person is likely to have little incentive to cooperate with collective well-being, since he views his individual actions as socially insignificant. One problem arising from thinking along these lines is that if many people think this way, it will be very difficult for society to achieve public health goals (as well as any goal involving collective action). Such situations are known as “social dilemmas”; actions that apparently make sense from an individual point of view do not necessarily lead to the best results from a social point of view. This fact has important implications for the current pandemic situation that we are experiencing in the world. Since collective health can be seen as a public good, a high degree of coordination between individual actions and society’s goals becomes necessary. The biggest challenge for a government in a context involving public goods is to coordinate individual actions so as to obtain results that are satisfactory for society as a whole.

Another important aspect related to the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the occurrence of a phenomenon known by economists as “externalities” (or “external effects”). Basically, externalities correspond to “market failures,” that is, situations in which the market system ceases to function properly, generating inefficient results from a societal point of view. In such situations, it would be possible to improve the situation of some people in society without necessarily harming others—that is, it would be possible to generate efficient solutions, economically speaking.

Externalities occur when the actions of an individual or firm have unplanned consequences on other parties (similar to the side effects of any action, which can be both positive and negative). For example, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the possibility of negative externalities occurring, since some people may infect others without even knowing that they are infected with the coronavirus. (In fact, there are several reports of asymptomatic cases of the virus.) That is, even without having the intention of harming other people, an infected person can end up harming society as a whole.

An extreme example of the occurrence of negative externalities is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” a parable created in the nineteenth century to explain the potential adverse consequences of situations involving goods known as “common resources.” Although these goods are excluding as public goods, they are rivals—that is, the consumption of the good by an individual affects its availability to other individuals. Examples of common resources would be common property land, as well as fish in the sea and some animal species. (Not coincidentally, this parable has been used extensively in biology.) According to this “tragedy,” differences between individual interests and social interests could lead to a situation in which society ends up losing out as a whole. For example, a situation in which all people in a society have access to a common resource—such as the commons in England for a time—raises the possibility of the emergence of patterns of excessive consumption of that resource, which could lead to the society ending up in a worse situation in terms of social welfare. (The commons could become sterile, in this case.)

But what do these hypotheses say to us? First, the occurrence of market failures along the lines discussed here may suggest a more active role for governments around the globe. Since the market does not always result in efficient situations from a social point of view, there may be a role for government in the economy. For example, one way for governments to alleviate the pandemic’s adverse effects is by evaluating the occurrence of externalities between individuals in the current context. Additionally, the fact that the coronavirus displays patterns of complementarity with other sources of morbidity—such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart problems—makes the case for the government to implement public policies focused on disseminating information related to possible forms of contagion.

A potential solution to the COVID-19 pandemic that has been widely publicized by the media and debated by society in recent times is the creation of vaccines capable of protecting individuals from the adverse effects of the virus. From an economic point of view, an effective vaccine in combating the virus must at least have two basic properties. First, the vaccine must have the characteristics of what economists call a “public good”: non-exclusiveness (no person should be excluded from its reach) and non-rivalry (the fact that a person receives the vaccine should not prevent other people from receiving it). Taken together, these two characteristics could justify a vaccine supply to be provided by the government in a pandemic context.

Second, unlike the virus, a vaccine must be associated with the occurrence of positive externalities. In the case of the current pandemic, an effective vaccine must be able to generate a kind of “spillover effect” in terms of immunization. Specifically, the fact that a person is vaccinated could prevent other people from being infected by the virus over time (a result that depends on the effectiveness of the vaccine in question). Ultimately, vaccines generate positive externalities.

One way to have a vaccine with these characteristics would be through its provision and free distribution by the government. Although there are substantial costs associated with such an undertaking, we must take into account the potential costs—of greater magnitude, probably—associated with the possible occurrence of a new wave of contagions in the world if an insufficient number of people are vaccinated.

Another way for governments to combat the adverse effects of the pandemic is through the introduction of public policies based on so-called merit goods, goods that the government obliges people to consume, assuming that they are not always able to make favorable choices for their own well-being. In the case of the current pandemic, two examples of such goods are the policy of social distancing and the wearing of masks in places such as supermarkets or sports gyms.

The situations described in this article point to the importance of considering differences between individual interests and collective well-being. In other words, what is best for an individual or group of individuals may not be better for society as a whole. A potential way to alleviate the harmful effects of the pandemic is through the collaboration of everyone in society: if one person collaborates—taking vaccines, following the quarantine regime, wearing masks in public places, and maintaining social distance—everyone benefits from it. Ultimately, it is important to consider the interaction between individual interests and collective well-being in an increasingly complex and diverse society where market failures may occur. From an economist’s point of view, possible solutions to the pandemic are not easy, although they are possible as long as each person considers the possible impacts of their actions on society as a whole.

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Credence, Chlorine and Curfew: Doing Ethnography under the Pandemic

July 15, 2021
By 28933

If there is one profound truth about ethnography, it is that intimacy,
and not distancing, is crucial.

(Fine and Abramson 2020, 1)


Sara Nikolić, a 2020 Sylff fellow, has had to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the coronavirus pandemic. In this candid account of how the challenge affected her, emotionally as well as in terms of the course of her research, Nikolić says the experience reinforced her love of ethnography and her belief that it is not interchangeable with other methods.

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Starting fieldwork and facing the most significant academic endeavour in a young researcher‘s life is probably never easy. Starting fieldwork in your neighbourhood may sound like a good idea—only until the first wave of the doubt to your research site, the ability to set boundaries and juggle the insider perspective engulfs you. However, starting fieldwork in a densely populated large housing estate under the “first wave” of a global pandemic never sounded like a good idea.

“The expected delay in collecting data will abort many ethnographies. COVID-19 and its future viral siblings may deter those who would pursue ambitious field studies”. However, my research is not really that ambitious. So I try. In weeks when the number of infected seem to be declining, when everyone around me is healthy and when I manage to overcome typical postgraduate insecurities, I keep trying.

These lines are a testament to my confrontation with the flagrant fact that it is not entirely up to me—that I have chosen to relinquish control. In that sense, this essay is an attempt to become aware, articulate and accept how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the course of my doctoral research. This essay is an intimate confession about waiting and learning patience rather than about concrete adjustments of urban ethnography methodology to the crisis that has befallen us. In the following lines I will try to reconstruct the pandemic induced research challenges that led me to reinforce my love of ethnography and the value-laden belief that it is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods.

Alterations in a two-storey residential unit in blok 70, New Belgrade. Photo: Dušan Rajić

 Strict curfew introduced by the Serbian Government in March 2020 prohibited people over the age of 65 from leaving the house and occasionally prohibiting younger citizens from leaving their homes for up to 84 hours. When a vibrant and pulsating city dies abruptly, when its citizens’ movement is more restricted than during the bombing, little of the urban life remains for us, researchers of the everydayness, to explore. In the COVID-19 urban landscape of Belgrade—and any other city—intimate, in-person human subject research was (unofficially) prohibited, making ethnography an almost impossible method. Not only did conducting research seem impossible to me at the time, but the very idea of denying the situation we were in deeply disturbed me. The repulsion was so strong that it paralysed me even to dare to approach my neighbours, the rare passers-by who enjoy the spring sun, or the “privileged” individuals who were allowed to walk their dogs, with a request to participate in the research that had nothing to do with our current lifeworlds.

 However, hundreds of photographs, dozens of folders, transcripts, voice recordings, several “smell maps” and a few new acquaintances testify that I have not given up. Nevertheless, for senso-biographic approach and focusing on smell-evoked memories of urban environment that form the backbone of my doctoral research, as well as for the informants’ photographic diaries not to become (only) testaments of life under siege by the virus, I had to wait for the “first wave” to come to an end.

 I don’t know what the smell of my building would be, before this, I would probably say mould from the basement or the smell of cigarettes in the elevator, but all I feel now is chlorine. It smells like a kindergarten. (M, blok 45, female)

 One of my main research interests—self-management in socialist era large housing estates—lurked behind every freshly disinfected staircase. Many buildings’ occupants self-organised into weekly or even daily cleanings to keep the entrances and corridors clean and their families or flatmates safe from the virus. In improvised protective equipment consisting of colourful scarves tied over their faces, rubber gloves and old clothes, armed with their buckets, rags, brooms and mops and the last remaining Domestos or any other chlorine-based disinfectant provided by the municipality, these female troops regained control of the space for the benefit of all. As if taking control of the cleaning schedule, maintaining a routine, following the prescribed steps and performing it together for a moment made the situation outside seem less uncertain.

Bestowing details of these events I recognised as an initiation into the house council simply seemed too intrusive. I hesitated and refused to keep a journal record about self-organized cleaning episodes and to reiterate muffled staircase gossip I overheard during these rites of passage. It almost felt treacherous as in a moment of crisis I perceived my role in the apartment building as a tenant, a neighbour and a girl next door—rather than a cold, rigid and objective researcher.

Therefore, a fellow researcher reading this essay could assume that the research’s explicit part—such as interviews—went better than sketching notes and palpation of the neighbourhood pulse based on informal encounters. A reader could also assume that I, being a girl next door, had no trouble recruiting my neighbours. However, that assumption would be wrong. The fact that I lived close by and was a few minutes’ walk from them, that I was a friendly face they saw on their evening strolls was simply not enough. Nor was the fact that I knew some mutual friends and shared the local references. Lastly, the incentives that I could offer under the Sylff fellowship were irrelevant and insufficient. None of that matters when the danger from an infection is so tangible, and your family members are chronically ill, or you are pregnant or homeschooling your children, or someone close to you has passed away. And on my part, as a vulnerable and empathetic researcher, I could not give up the contacts I built under those trying circumstances and the trust I gained. To this day, I haven’t been able to use some deadline as an argument to recruit new, healthy, childless or carefree informants instead of ones who expressed interest and indicated trust, but their participation was postponed due to objective circumstances.

Ethnographic kit under COVID-19. Photo: Sara Nikolić

As a trained ethnographer, I learned about great heroes who went into the wilderness, who “through toughness and perseverance . . . overcome entry barriers”. I, of course, looked up to them. I too wanted to become a hero who overcame the ethnographic odds.

The reality is that I was anxious, frustrated, and impatient. I envied colleagues who enjoyed moments of privilege where they “finally have time to write”. The rising academic pressure, the “figure-it-out-on-your-own” University policy, the “just send me any chapter you have, and we will count it an exam” helping hand of my professors, the crowdsourced documents that offer solutions for “avoiding in-person interactions by using mediated forms that will achieve similar ends” seemed to conflict with the immersion aspect of ethnography I strived for.

These attempts to stay loyal to the ethnography I believe in bring along many pursuits to establish contact with potential respondents, many cancelled or indefinitely postponed meetings, many unanswered calls and messages, and too many sympathetic shrugs. Moments of elation are quickly followed by ones of letdown and despair. I try to push forward. Sometimes I slip or get lost along the way. Sometimes I try to fix it, reinvent my entry strategy, and rely on snowballing instead of a more organic approach. Seeing that I am only halfway in the process of collecting “the deep data”, I cannot refer to the quality and density of the obtained material.

Working version of the “smell map” of Blok 45, New Belgrade. Source: Sara Nikolić

 We will take a walk outside, in the fresh air and try to grasp your neighbourhood’s smells, and we will both wear masks. It does not interfere with the quality of the recording—I often explain to my potential informants. Smell mapping while wearing (K)N95 masks, however, does not really work. Instead of fleeting but current and vivid neighbourhood smells that we could not detect while wearing masks, during our strolls we frequently evoked childhood memories intertwined with the ubiquitous scents of the area, such as linden blossom or sludge.

Ding dong! The sound of footsteps, the unlocking of doors and clumsy contactless greetings. Just there, I would usually insist on taking off my shoes, as is the epidemiological recommendation and custom in this area. Furthermore, as good hosts, as an expression of respect for the guest, they would insist that I leave the shoes on. After those initial negotiations at the front door, I would get a bottle of alcohol to disinfect my shoes and mobile phone upon entering the apartment. And then, still from a distance, a hand gesture to signal in which direction the toilet is so that I can wash my hands before the interview. When the weather was nice, we would spend visits to the apartment on the balconies or with the windows open, sitting within a reasonable distance.

On a sunny September day, when everything was going at a good pace, the unglamorous and petty disappointment came. It was caused by an informant’s rejection to invite me into his apartment for the final interview, although it was agreed in advance. Of course, I did not let the injured ego peek outside, so I played it cool. However, I was still ashamed of my feelings, of the vanity that flooded me. Why did I take it so personally? Wasn’t I the one who told him he has the right to give up at any moment and set boundaries in which he feels comfortable and safe? How could I not have understood the respect he had for advised physical distance? Have I forgotten that I am not merely a researcher but a possible vector too?

Object elicitation and disinfection in the informant’s apartment. Photo: Sara Nikolić

 Although I do not attach half the importance to this episode today as I did on that September day, it encouraged me to think about how many people passed through my apartment from March to September? Very few, and I knew them all. I trust them. I know how responsible they are, how much they follow all the recommendations, how much they care and how much they are in solidarity with the people around them. Is it possible that I was so upset because I interpreted this man’s responsibility or privacy as distrust? So what if he was distrustful? Don’t we all have the right to be distrustful at a time when we are in danger from an “unknown enemy”, when the media is co-opting military rhetoric, when contradictory information and mutually exclusive recommendations are coming from all sides? Aren’t we, citizens of a country that declared coronavirus “the most ridiculous virus in the world”, and shortly afterwards deprived us of freedom of movement, justifiably distrustful towards anything and anyone? Amidst growing distrust that surrounds us, how can we closely and intimately research something as personal as home, something as inseparable from issues of trust as community relations and self-organization?

 Much as we might adapt our research plans to alternative methods in the current crisis and agree to data-oriented techniques such as structured interviews, we must not forget the importance of the immersive experience and deep hanging out for ethnography. As this crisis helped me rediscover that ethnography is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods, I realised that the pragmatic choice to take time was ideological. The choice that was the only possible one, and the one that I needed—to embrace the vulnerable researcher within me and remain faithful to ethnography at the cost of breaking deadlines and delaying my studies. The choice to advocate for slow science. A science that is not an end in itself, a science that is not cruel and does not require sacrifices or preposterous heroic deeds, a science that does not exploit or endanger the subjects under study. That is science based on questioning and building trust instead of taking it for granted.

Reprinted from

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Role of Water in Geopolitics

July 8, 2021
By 28927

Eliska Cernovska, a 2019 Sylff fellow, offers an overview of the concept of water wars and its implications. Given the rise in water scarcity—the major causes of which include overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—diplomacy has an important role to play in easing tensions over water supplies and managing international relations, Cernovska assers.

* * *

Water does not respect political boundaries and, therefore, may be a source of leverage for upstream riparian states over those downstream. However, it is important to underline that water encompasses not only rivers, which are primarily associated with it in international relations, but all surface and groundwater. Based on the concept of water wars and related terms, this short paper illustrates what role water plays in geopolitics.

Water might play a manifold role in a violent confrontation.

Water Wars

The concept of water wars identifies three dimensions of water in geopolitics. Firstly, water resources or infrastructure are prone to be casualties of a violent confrontation either intentionally or accidentally. As an example, pollution of water resources is a well-known consequence of a conflict. Secondly, water resources may be used as a tool in achieving one side’s political, economic, or military interests (Pacific Institute 2019). The weaponization of water was a dominant military strategy of the Islamic State (IS) to achieve its military and political objectives. The IS contaminated water supplies of its enemies and, in particular, used large dams—such as the Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates in Iraq—to either cut off supplies of cities downstream or flood the area above or below the river flow. In addition, the IS used water infrastructure, especially dams, as their military command headquarters or prisons. This hindered the capture of IS positions, because what adversary would lead an airstrike over a dam, knowing that doing so would devastate the surrounding area (Mazlum 2018; van Lossow 2020)? Thirdly, water may cause a dispute over control of water resources and, in the worst-case scenario, the disagreement could lead to an outright and violent conflict (Pacific Institute 2019).

Using dams in a conflict is one of the most common examples of water weaponization.

The third element of water wars—water as a trigger of a violent confrontation—is widely discussed in the academic literature (see Dinar and Dinar 2000; Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001; Gregory 2013). Interestingly, scholars agree that, firstly, water-related issues tend to be a source of an intrastate conflict rather than an international one (e.g., Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001). Secondly, outright strife is rarely triggered by a single variable; they are usually triggered by a set of issues, among which access to water supplies may be included (Postel and Wolf 2001; Farnum 2018). In other words, it is often difficult to classify a violent clash as a war over water, since many other variables alongside it may play a role in the confrontation. However, it does not mean that water is not a catalyst for a conflict at all. Examples can be found as early as 2525 BC in Mesopotamian times between two city-states, Lagash and Umma. Umma repeatedly refused to pay for renting downstream Lagash’s territory for crop cultivation in the water-rich delta of Tigris. In response, Lagash damaged the irrigation system leading to the leased area. Umma could not cultivate crops without water supplies and thus attacked Lagash, which resulted in several successive military confrontations. After the defeat of Umma, the water treaty was reestablished and the canal system reconstructed (see the water conflict map made by the Pacific Institute 2018).

A Solution to a Conflict over Water?

When water causes a violent conflict, the zero-sum approach can never resolve it in a long-term perspective. If a river represents the core of the dispute between upstream and downstream states, the conflict will not result in a situation where two countries no longer share the river basin. On the contrary, water creates interdependent geopolitical relations, and an outright and violent conflict over water supplies is therefore not a sustainable solution. It also goes without saying that, just as the concept of water wars indicates, water resources can be contaminated and water systems destroyed in a conflict that is likely to influence all interested parties. In general terms, wars always have harmful consequences for the environment, and water resources are not an exception. Another feature of water in geopolitics is that civilizations are entirely dependent on water resources, because human beings cannot survive without drinking water. Moreover, economic development is associated with water resources (e.g., agriculture and the energy sector). In other words, a violent conflict over water resources cannot lead to a zero-sum victory, and all involved actors would most likely lose to a greater or lesser extent. This is a fundamental reason why it is believed that wars over water will not occur in future decades more frequently than they did in history (Dunn 2013).

However, it is undeniable that water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—the most significant causes of water scarcity—even in initially water-rich regions. Nevertheless, as I have discussed above, cooperation rather than conflict is a sustainable solution that could lead to a win-win situation. Therefore, water diplomacy, i.e., ʻusing diplomatic instruments with the aim to solve, mitigate or prevent disagreements over shared water resources for the sake of cooperation, regional stability and peaceʼ (Schmeier 2018), seems to be a promising path to fostering multilateral governance over shared water resources and ensuring water security. In view of these goals, the concept of water diplomacy is not limited to states but underlines the necessity of nonstate actorsʼ involvement that play a crucial role as mediator in negotiations over water-related issues, such as the World Bank, or that may provide essential information via monitoring (see, for example, Honkonen and Lipponen 2018).

Water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change.

Although there is a consensus in the academic literature that water will not become a frequent catalyst for a violent conflict, it is and will remain a source of tensions in international relations. High water demand from all sectors of human activities (households, agriculture, energy, and so forth) and the reduction of water resources due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change are contradictory phenomena producing unsustainable environments within and among societies. Nevertheless, an outright conflict over shared water resources cannot end in a zero-sum victory. As such, diplomatic instruments are crucial tools for addressing increasing water scarcity and, therefore, tensions over water supplies. Water diplomacy, also called hydro-diplomacy, thus need to be an integral part of international relations more than ever.



Dinar, S. and A. Dinar. 2000. “Negotiating in International Watercourses: Diplomacy, Conflict and Cooperation.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 93–200.

Dunn, G. 2013. “Water Wars: A Surprisingly Rare Source of Conflict.” Harvard International Review 35, no. 2 (fall 2013): 46–49.

Farnum, R. 2018. “Drops of Diplomacy: Questioning the Scale of Hydro-Diplomacy through Fog-Harvesting.” Journal of Hydrology 562 (July 2018), 446–54.

Honkonen, T. and A. Lipponen. 2018. “Finland’s Cooperation in Managing Transboundary Waters and the UNECE Principles for Effective Joint Bodies: Value for Water Diplomacy?” Journal of Hydrology 567 (December 2018), 320–31.

Von Lossow, T. 2020. “The Role of Water in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. February 26, 2020.

Mazlum, I. 2018. “ISIS as an Actor Controlling Water Resources in Syria and Iraq.” In Violent Non-state Actors and the Syrian Civil War: The ISIS and YPG Cases, edited by Özden Zeynep Oktav, Emel Parlar Dal, and Ali Murat Kurşun, 109–25. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Pacific Institute. 2018. “Water Conflict Chronology Map.” Accessed March 24, 2021.

Pacific Institute. 2019. “Water Conflict Chronology.”

Postel, S. and A. Wolf. 2001. “Dehydrating Conflict.” Foreign Policy 126.

Schmeier, S. 2018. “What Is Water Diplomacy and Why Should You Care?” Global Water Forum. August 31, 2018.

Spector, B. 2000. “Motivating Water Diplomacy: Finding the Situational Incentives to Negotiate.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 223–36.

White, C. 2012. “Understanding Water Scarcity: Definitions and Measurements.” Global Water Forum. May 7, 2012.


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Stressors: Observations from a Series of Workshops on Stress and Well-Being Conducted in India during the COVID-19 Related Lockdown

July 1, 2021
By 19594

Based on a webinar series she gave in August 2020, 2012 Sylff fellow Anindita Roy shares her observations on stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected people differently. Turning to the current culture of information sharing and virtual communication, Roy also touches on the importance of consuming information mindfully.

 * * *

I conducted a series of workshops on responding to stress and mental well-being for a local charity at Jamshedpur, India, during the COVID-19 related countrywide lockdown. As part of the workshop, multiple online sessions were offered and were open for all. The broader theme to cover was understanding stress and coping with stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These sessions were roughly divided into learning about the stress response and developing resilience to enhance mental well-being. I would like to share through this article observations that formed part of these sessions. However, let me add at the start that the article does not present tools and tips. I am wary of making general prescriptions about stress and coping, although surely one can speak of these more generally. My biggest hope in sharing this article is one of solidarity with my extended Sylff family during these difficult times, by sharing with you another perspective of the COVID experience in another part of the globe. In times when each of us has been confined in our worlds and lives, in isolation and isolated, sometimes alone or lonely, I hope this article brings with it the hope that you are not alone and that we are in this together.

The poster for a series of sessions that the author conducted on stress and mental well-being.

On Difference

For a major part of the world’s population today, a pandemic of this scale had not formed a part of our lived experiences. Forcing us to negotiate with something we had no experience of in living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo, and the world continues to strive for a “new normal” amid this crisis and beyond. At its peak, the pandemic instilled a general unease in connecting with others, forging a different culture of connection. As we continue to practice social distancing, in many cases, company is still viewed as risky and contact potentially fatal. The epidemic, the related lockdown, and its intensity have not been the same for all. The unprecedented chaos has had different effects on our lives, raising varied concerns. Within the context of the workshop too, it was observed that the pandemic influenced my participants and me very differently. It was necessary to acknowledge as well that it is not only about the pandemic but also about the people and their response to it, and that people are different too.

In an activity with the participants, I encouraged everyone to write with their body parts instead of a pen or pencil. They were requested, for example, to write letters and numbers in the air with their elbows, knees, tongue, and left hand. None of my participants in this session were differently abled, and many initially found the exercise “awkward” and “funny” as they were encouraged to keep their cameras on during this part. Although the scope of the session did not allow us to look at the theme of the body, issues of difference, and disability in great depth, the exercise offered the participants another perspective on their own abilities and the way it may be represented to themselves and others. For instance, some shared that they struggled to twist their tongues or bend their knees, while others who had imagined they could not write with their left hands did so with great ease. There was one participant who noted that their shoulder blade hurt immensely while trying to use their right elbow when making figures in the air.

In a way, this exercise offered an awareness to the participants about the others in their group but also presented the opportunity to know a little more about themselves—at least in that moment. Being on the same boat but not (quite!) in the same journey, this helped with an understanding of difference, while simultaneously offering the possibility to learn together, albeit differently from one another.

On Stress

The above exercise offered a useful understanding of stress itself. Stress affects everyone, and everyone feels stressed from time to time. Yet some cope with it more effectively and recover from stressful events faster than others. When the demands placed on us in any given situation are much greater than the resources we may have (or percieve we have), we find ourselves stressed in trying to meet these demands. Stress is the call for a sense of balance in the face of a perceived imbalance. Stress is different for everyone, and no two people respond to stressors in the same way. What maybe stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and even if it is, the response to stress and the coping mechanisms could be vastly different between individuals.

Not all stress is bad. In life-threatening situations, stress prepares the body to either fight the threat or flee from it. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can be motivating. Long-term stress, however, is straining on our body and mind, contributing to serious complications and compromising physical and mental well-being. Dealing or coping with stress can be learned and, with practice, can be implemented effectively. This does not eradicate stress in and of itself, nor does it guarantee that one will never be stressed again. However, it offers a roadmap to meander stressful situations, equipping the individual with tools to communicate with stress in productive awareness.

On Stressors

Awareness of symptoms helps with diagnosis. Recognizing stressors is a crucial step toward developing tools to deal with stress. My participants shared some of their stressors specific to COVID-19 and the related lockdown. Most were related to such issues as health in the face of the epidemic, achieving a work-life balance in a work-from-home environment, family conflicts from more time spent at home, difficult conversations due to death, illness, or job loss, and public speaking in meetings via Zoom calls. In going through some of these stressors, an overarching theme that came up was how the pandemic had changed the lives of the participants in different ways. Some of my participants had lost their jobs, some expressed concerns about sick family and friends, and yet others were left worried about elderly parents or children living alone at another location. On the one hand, there was the frustration of students lacking sufficient support and the ambiguity of older school goers on the verge of preparing for their career-defining examinations. On the other hand, there were teachers dealing with the additional responsibility of adapting to newer technologies for teaching and evaluation, as well as pay cuts, in some cases. Most of these stressors fed into a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, there were a few participants who expressed their efforts in “trying to find a silver lining” as they talked of rediscovering their long-lost hobbies, nurturing skills such as baking, pottery, poetry writing, and gardening, finding time to exercise, eating healthier, reading more, and writing journals, to name a few.

During these sessions, the participants were encouraged to reflect on how the pandemic and the related lockdown had impacted their lives in terms of perceived differences between before and after the pandemic. These helped explain to a certain degree the levels of stress brought about by sudden changes such as death, illness, and unemployment and stress related to changes in routine such as the pressures of school, work, family, and other responsibilities. The very nature of the epidemic, the ever-evolving research, government guidelines and containment measures, death tolls, major gaps from unequal access to a variety of resources, ranging from healthcare to education to support services, etc, and related information—these all added to the atmosphere of dealing with an unknown future, the uncertainty of not knowing, or the inability to accurately predict some semblance of a known “normal.” (Dare I mention the minefield of mis/disinformation further adding to the confusion?)

My participants and I wondered if we could structure some sense of certainty in the face of unprecedented changes, and how. The idea of this attempt was not to judge whether the glass is half full or half empty but to give back to the participants the power to refill the glass, even amid the crisis. A sense of the familiar in the face of overwhelming change somehow offers a sense of control or of taking back some control. My participants and I discussed forming a routine that suited them and how having one was helpful to combat uncertainty by establishing some predictability. One way to do this is goal setting, preferably setting small achievable chunks as part of formulating one’s routine. This not only helps to get organized but also brings back a sense of certainty and control by helping the individual to lean into things that one can change within their routine. This is also a good way of attaining motivation. Nonetheless, this also extended to the disclaimer that one must not blindly borrow someone else’s routine, specifically out of the “fear of missing out.”

Within the ambience of “influencers,” information overload, and frequent “forwards,” “likes,” “comments,”and “subscribes,” the consumption and sharing of information is undeniably important to one’s overall well-being. Another stressor, broadly relevant to the contemporary age of newer technologies and the present culture of virtual communication, is FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” FOMO was a significant stressor for some of my participants during the lockdown. For instance, it was distressing for a participant how a friend had lost weight while they had piled on multiple kilograms during the lockdown. They had found creative expression through online platforms and were unhappy with the number of “likes” they had on their pictures and profile. Their friend had been following a certain diet and achieved a significant “transformation,” along with more subscribers, likes, and views from the pictures shared since the “transformation,” or so thought this participant. The latter was extremely eager to go on the new diet and transform themselves too in the lockdown. They did not initially feel the need to consult a nutritionist and said that all the information about the diet was available for free online. My personal hesitation about the diet is that it leaves out an entire food group, but my participant did not want to lose out on the benefits—benefits they thought their friend had gained from following this certain diet.

I would like to end this article with a brief take on “infobesity,” or information overload, another stressor in the lockdown. Information today is widely available and often easily accessible at the click of a button (at least to many sections across society, if not everywhere). However, when there is too much information, there is also the possibility of mis/disinformation. This was briefly discussed in the context of the pandemic in one of my sessions. At the risk of repeating what my researcher colleagues may already know, here are some ways to challenge information abuse (and also help with information overload):

  1. Verify information before you consume it. When verifying the authenticity of a piece of information, check for the information’s
  2. time stamp
  3. where it was published
  4. their author
  5. the intended audience
  6. whether the information is sponsored in any way, and if so, whether the sponsorship or affiliation is clearly declared to avoid any conflict of interest.
  7. Be mindful when sharing information with another. Pause. Think. Forward (or maybe not).

The COVID-19 lockdown saw instances of information abuse in the form of inaccurate information and fake news. Although not typical to the pandemic and its related lockdown, information abuse should be challenged, and one can do so only if one is mindful of their information consumption. Information is useful. Information about COVID-19, local guidelines, helpline numbers, food banks, and now vaccines is significant and potentially life saving. Information is power, and I take this opportunity to remind us of the power we have and of the choices we can continue to make even in crisis, and beyond.

General sessions open for the public can be viewed at:

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Challenges in Improving Utilization of Antenatal Care Services in Rural Bihar, India

June 25, 2021
By 27503

(Note: This article is an abridged summary of a chapter from the PhD dissertation of the author submitted to Oregon State University.)

Gautam Anand, a 2019 Sylff fellow, shares insights from his dissertation research, focusing on the poor utilization of antenatal care in India, a problem that is pronounced in rural areas. Based on interviews with health workers and group discussions with women in rural Bihar, he sheds light on the challenges and obstacles to improving access to antenatal care.

* * *

In 2018, nearly 2.5 million neonatal deaths[1] were recorded globally, 22% (549,000) of which were from India alone (WHO 2019a). Similarly, out of a total of 295,000 maternal mortalities globally in 2017, more than 11% were recorded in India (WHO 2019b). Access to antenatal care (ANC) is crucial for reducing neonatal and maternal mortality as well as improving birth outcomes for both mothers and infants (Baqui et al. 2007; Coley and Aronson 2013). However, improving access to antenatal care in India remains a persistent challenge.

Antenatal Care Utilization Still Low in Rural Bihar

A primary health center building.

The 2015–16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-IV) of India reported very poor antenatal care utilization with significant rural-urban disparity (IIPS and ICF 2017). Only 17% of pregnant women in rural areas received full antenatal care, meaning four ANC visits, 100 days of iron and folic acid (IFA) intake, and two tetanus (TT) injections, compared to 31% in urban areas. Further, there are significant geographic disparities too. In Bihar, one of the poorest states with a population of more than 110 million, only 3% of pregnant women in rural areas received full antenatal care, and only 13% of women had four or more antenatal checkups (ibid.). The challenge of low antenatal care utilization in rural parts of Bihar persists despite a targeted policy focus under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), which introduced a community health worker (CHW) program under which an accredited social health activist (ASHA) is appointed for every 1,000 in the population. ASHAs have been incentivized to identify pregnant women in their community, register them with the local public health facility, and mobilize and accompany them to visit the facilities to receive antenatal care.

A focused group discussion being conducted with female community members.

It is thus important to understand the challenges faced by ASHAs in improving the utilization of antenatal care in rural parts of Bihar. My study was conducted in two blocks of Nawada district in Bihar utilizing a qualitative research design. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 22 ASHAs and 10 local health officials, auxiliary nurse midwives, and Anganwadi workers. Seven focused group discussions (FGDs) were also conducted with women community members to understand their concerns with health service delivery at the local level. Using thematic network analysis (Attride-Stirling 2001), findings could be categorized into four major themes that emerged from the study: the perceived importance of antenatal care, lack of economic development, institutional obstacles, and sociocultural challenges.

It is important to highlight that utilization of antenatal care has increased significantly thanks to the sustained policy focus on its improvement under the NRHM. ASHAs and community members have observed an overall increase in the level of awareness among women for the need of antenatal care as well as a reduction in incidences of neonatal and maternal mortality over during the last 15 years. However, they noted that ensuring utilization of full antenatal care, especially four checkups and 100 days of IFA intake, remained a big challenge and that they faced many barriers in their efforts to improve it. The ASHAs very well understood what constitutes full antenatal care, and they also emphasized the importance of utilizing the services.

 Challenges and Impediments

Persistent lack of economic opportunities and widespread poverty in Bihar have for long impelled mass internal migration of laborers from the state to other parts of the country (Keshri and Bhagat 2012; Rasul and Sharma 2014; Sharma 2005). This was reflected in the findings; most of the ASHAs identified seasonal migration as a major challenge to their efforts toward full antenatal care utilization. ASHAs reported that seasonal migration was common in their communities as families, mostly poor, migrated to northern and western states for five to six months every year to work as agricultural laborers or in seasonal industries such as brick kilns. This has two critical implications here. First, it severely restricts continuity in outreach and access to care. Second, it often causes delays in identification of pregnant women, resulting in late initiation of antenatal care. In some cases, pregnant women left the community while they were pregnant, disrupting continuity in access to care. In other cases, women returned to their communities and reported to be in the later months of pregnancy without having initiated antenatal care. Widespread poverty poses a barrier too, given that it is correlated with lack of education, resources, and awareness.


A maternity ward in one of the primary health centers in Bihar that was in use until 2019. A new maternity ward is being constructed.

It was also reported that the health infrastructure has improved over the years but was still not adequate to meet the needs of full antenatal care. Arrangements to provide antenatal care services were not efficient and lacked quality, which demotivated pregnant women from returning for frequent checkups. Pregnant women must stand for hours in a queue to receive care. Waiting rooms, proper clean toilets, and drinking water were not available in many cases.

Several cultural norms also restrict ASHAs’ ability to ensure utilization of full antenatal care. ASHAs often talked about the cultural norm of pregnant women moving to their mothers’ place, especially during their first pregnancy, which can be challenging. They pointed out that this disrupted the continuity in utilization of antenatal care. A generational gap also restricts their ability to convince women to initiate antenatal care early in the pregnancy and going for frequent checkups, given the traditional belief of reporting pregnancy only after the first trimester is over.

Implications for Policy Design

The findings discussed above have important implications for the design of health policies aimed at improving antenatal care utilization, especially in the context of economic underdevelopment and widespread poverty. The study indicates that there is a limited focus under the program to improve quantity of care utilization and inadequate attention to the quality of care. ASHAs repeatedly pointed out that the poor quality of antenatal care offered at the public health facilities combined with the poor service experience of pregnant women are severe barriers to their mobilization effort. Also, the program design seems to have taken cognizance of the context mentioned above, judging from the importance it has placed on mobilization efforts by ASHAs and its incentivization of these efforts. However, the current incentive structure of ASHAs is narrowly defined, as it places most of the weight on physical outputs achieved and not so much on their counseling and education efforts to improve overall understanding of the need for antenatal care in their communities. A focus on improving the quality of antenatal care and providing adequate institutional support and remuneration to ASHAs will lead to significant improvement in antenatal care utilization.


Attride-Stirling, J. 2001. “Thematic Networks: An Analytic Tool for Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Research 1 (3): 385–405.

Baqui, A. H., E. K. Williams, G. L. Darmstadt, V. Kumar, T. U. Kiran, D. Panwar, R. K. Sharma, S. Ahmed, V. Sreevasta, and R. Ahuja. 2007. “Newborn Care in Rural Uttar Pradesh.” The Indian Journal of Pediatrics 74 (3): 241–47.

Coley, S. L., and R. E. Aronson. 2013. “Exploring Birth Outcome Disparities and the Impact of Prenatal Care Utilization among North Carolina Teen Mothers.” Women’s Health Issues 23 (5), e287–94.

Girard, A. W., and O. Olude. 2012. “Nutrition Education and Counselling Provided during Pregnancy: Effects on Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health Outcomes.” Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 26, Supplement 1: 191–204.

International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and ICF. 2017. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), 2015–16: India. Mumbai: IIPS.

Keshri, K., and R. B. Bhagat. 2012. “Temporary and Seasonal Migration: Regional Pattern, Characteristics and Associated Factors.” Economic and Political Weekly 47 (4): 81–88.

Rasul, G., and E. Sharma. 2014. “Understanding the Poor Economic Performance of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India: A Macro-Perspective.” Regional Studies, Regional Science 1 (1): 221–39.

Sharma, A. N. 2005. “Agrarian Relations and Socio-Economic Change in Bihar.” Economic and Political Weekly 40 (10): 960–72.

Wehby, G. L., J. C. Murray, E. E. Castilla, J. S. Lopez-Camelo, and R. L. Ohsfeldt. 2009. “Prenatal Care Effectiveness and Utilization in Brazil.” Health Policy and Planning 24 (3): 175–88.


[1] Within 28 days of birth.

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Thank You for Your COVID-19 Relief Donations

June 25, 2021

The Sylff Association secretariat is pleased to announce that members of the Sylff community donated a total of 146,000 yen (approximately US$1,330)* in 2021 to support Sylff fellows affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The online fundraising system to accept donations via credit card will be closed on June 30, 2021.

The donations will be used not only to help fellows continue their studies and research but also to financially support recent and soon-to-be graduates who have experienced significant and unexpected disruptions to their career plans due to the pandemic. The secretariat believes that the support offered by the Sylff community will also offer encouragement and cultivate a sense of belonging under these difficult times.

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to everyone who made a contribution to COVID-19 Relief for Sylff Fellows 2021.

(*Total amount of donations updated. August 5, 2021)

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Going Feral at Home: Reducing Academic Air Travel in a Post-COVID World

June 11, 2021
By 24438

Dr. Trisia Farrelly, a 2004 Sylff fellow, writes about a series of “nearly carbon neutral” conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre, of which she is co-director. The online format of these conferences, established prior to the pandemic, presents an opportunity to reduce academics’ significant contribution to carbon emissions from international air travel.

 * * *

A glimmer of light amidst the devastating fallout of COVID-19 may be seen in temporary global carbon emission reductions. While longer-term reductions are needed to see any impact on climate change, the Global Carbon Project reports that the mass grounding of flights during the peak of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic saw CO2 emissions from aviation drop by up to 60%. Across the board, and on average, the emissions of individual countries decreased by 26%. Academics contribute significantly to carbon emissions from international air travel. As an academic located in one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world, Aotearoa (New Zealand), the pandemic has forced me to critically reflect on my own air travel and that of my university. 


Online conferences could significantly reduce air travel, which is a major source of carbon emissions.

Feral is the second of three online, nearly carbon neutral (international and free) conferences organized by Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC). The content of these conferences remains freely accessible on the PERC website. The first of these fully online conferences was The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic in 2017, and our latest conference was “Extraction in 2019. PERC did not organize one of these online conferences in 2020, even though this was the year academics found themselves grounded and when, one by one, face-to-face academic events were being canceled or indefinitely postponed all over the world. We felt that contributing to a conference in 2020 was likely to be low down on the list of priorities for most already stressed and overwhelmed academics. 

Feral was cited in Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030 as an opportunity to reduce academic staff contributions to long-haul carbon emissions. The relatively novel format of these conferences at the time was featured in the London School of Economics blog site under the headline, “Running a Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference: Lessons from the Feral Conference.” We had no idea at the time that we would see variations of this online format proliferate under pandemic restrictions two years later—not just for conferences but to meet a wider range of needs to connect people digitally, from collegial “check-ins” to United Nations assemblies.

Peter Kalmus, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Change Revolution, created the website NoFlyClimateSci (No Fly Climate Science)—a website dedicated to reducing academics’ carbon footprint from air travel. On the website, Kalmus states in reference to air travel, “Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet.” There is good reason for the website’s focus on academics. Prior to the pandemic, flights taken by academics left large climate footprints. Ironically, many of these academics are climate scientists and others who teach, campaign for, and research environmental and social justice.  

Academics report traveling by air for many reasons, including a need for relationship building, exposure, access to resources, and primary data collection. They also fly in response to external drivers including funding requirements and cultural expectations, capacity building, marketing, and recruitment. Conversely, some researchers claim that air travel has little impact on academics’ success

Aotearoa is the most isolated temperate landmass in the world. This means that when Massey University staff travel internationally, it is often long haul. (Travel from Aotearoa to Australia and the Pacific Islands is considered “short haul”). COVID-19 has forced all Massey University academics to think very carefully about how and why we have traveled in the past and to consider future alternatives. In 2018, transport emissions represented 41% of Massey University’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of all the transport-related GHG emissions, 70% were the result of air travel. Seventy-five percent of these were long-haul flights, and most of these flights were taken by Massey’s academic staff.   

In March 2019, Massey University used the carbon offsetting plan FlyNeutral to offset the air travel undertaken with Air New Zealand the previous year. A total of 4,667 tons of carbon emissions were offset through this scheme. In September 2020, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sal Lampkin, Dr. Allanah Ryan, and Professor Robert McLachlan produced a paper titled “Re-evaluating the Purpose of International Air Travel” for Massey University’s Research Committee. The paper aims to inform university governance “so they can lead the discussion within their respective Colleges/constituencies regarding a university-wide re-evaluation of the purpose of Massey’s international air travel” and to “enable them to contribute to the development of a set of recommendations.” 

The paper presented the results of the analysis of staff travel for 2019. It reported that a total of 10,391 flights (domestic, short-haul, and long-haul) were made in 2019 alone and that 19% of this total (1,947 flights) were long-haul flights. These long-haul flights contributed 80% of total carbon emissions for all of Massey University’s air travel totaling 8,946,429 kg of carbon emissions. And many staff took multiple flights every year. In the College of Sciences alone, 318 staff traveled once or twice a year; 119 traveled two to five times per year; and 21 staff traveled five or more times per year (Lampkin, Ryan, and McLachlan 2020).  

Once the report had been released, the authors distributed surveys, conducted three focus groups, and collated individual staff responses. Academics who were asked what they felt about reducing their travel voiced concerns about losing the value of in-person interaction, including relationship building, overcoming cultural and language barriers, promotional opportunities, and access to resources, artifacts, technology, and expertise. Sixty-five percent of staff survey respondents were aware of Massey University’s Climate Action Plan 2020–2030, which commits us to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Recommendations in the Climate Action Plan for reducing carbon from air travel includes “attending sessions via Skype,” “batching travel so it happens only once in a year for long-haul travel rather than more frequently,” and “virtual conferences like [PERC’s] ‘Feral.’ ”

During the planning phase of our first “nearly carbon neutral” PERC conference, we sought to address some challenges identified. As a network of political ecologists and academics who teach, research, and campaign for social and environmental justice, we were concerned about the environmental impact of our conference, particularly considering the geographic isolation of our host institute. We also needed to ensure we did not exclude participants and presenters based on financial and resource inequities and the potential physical and temporal burdens the long-haul air travel to Aotearoa to attend a conference would mean for some. 

The formatting of the Lives and Afterlives of Plastic conference went some way to addressing these concerns: the conference required zero travel; there were zero conference fees; it was presented asynchronously over a three-week period, meaning presenters and participants could watch and respond when they were available; and time zones were a nonissue. Presenters were required to prerecord a video presentation to submit in advance of the conference. Comments and Q and A took place via an online chat function, and panel chairs kicked off and sustained online engagement in these online discussion forums. The asynchronous nature of the conference also eliminated the possibility of poor connections and lag times in live sessions where connection speeds varied.

Each new conference was designed with feedback from participants in mind. However, even the third offering of these conference formats, Extraction, did not eliminate all possible inequity issues. For example, there remained variation in the quality of the video presentations. This was likely a result of an unevenness across presenters’ access to quality equipment, high-speed Internet, and video production support. 

I have seen recent examples of such digital injustice, which may be more acute in synchronous meetings where delegates have much more to lose. One example is the United Nations Open-Ended Expert Group (OEEG) meetings, which were held in February 2021. Due to COVID-19, for the first time, Pacific Islands delegates had to attend these multi-day meetings online. The meetings ran from around 10 pm until 3 am, as our part of the world had once again received the “short end of the time-zone straw.” Pacific Islands delegates reported having to travel to offices from home late in the evening so that they could access faster Internet connections (and even then, connections were often unstable). The next morning many delegates still needed to fulfill their familial responsibilities—after very little sleep—three days in a row.

PERC encourages academics to view online innovations like Feral not only as a temporary solution to the travel limitations the pandemic presents but also as a long-term solution to our shared global carbon emissions problem. We are seeing a proliferation of similar innovative models emerge out of necessity since the pandemic outbreak. However, we need to recognize, meet, and mitigate any new challenges the online transition could present for diverse attendees. These challenges include the need for human and intellectually satisfying connection, building and maintaining trust and equitable access, and cultural and gender-based considerations.