Identity and disaster management in public policy

Researcher profile: Johanu Botha

Johanu Botha, a graduate student in the interdisciplinary master’s program in public administration, focuses on two different research areas: disaster management & emergency preparedness, and the way in which the concept of identity can or cannot be integrated into the public policy process.

Each area is broad enough to render several theses; however, Botha has been happily working in both worlds. He has decided on a course-based master’s, which allows him to keep working in both areas, exploring all possibilities that each has to offer.

“As far as my research interests go, I am currently in love with both and for now I am happy working on both. It doesn’t bother me that they are so far apart in subject matter; in fact, I like it that way.”

Botha’s future plans contain the same openness to variety.

“I am applying to PhD programs this fall. The idea of working at a university is a wonderful one, but I am open to exploring other options as well. The work I currently do for the Government [of Manitoba] is very fulfilling, and I am intrigued with the possibilities involved in public service.”

Botha works at the Office of Disaster Management (ODM), which is a part of Manitoba Health. Mitigation strategies are a part of Botha’s routine at the ODM and in his academic work. He notes that overall both the country and the province are—slowly, but surely—improving their mechanisms of response to unexpected situations.

“We are more aware of the diverse impacts potential threats can have than we were, say, 10 years ago. The impact severe weather events, for example, can have not just on infrastructure, but on the health of citizens is becoming more of a focus. The ‘economic costs’ are no longer simply a measure of the land and capital damaged, but also include the substantial impact ‘social costs,’ such as prolonged evacuation, can have on the health of individuals and the health of the economy.”

Despite this progress, Botha notes that there is much room for research in disaster management.

“There is very interesting work to be done on the difference between costs of preparation versus the costs of the effects of a disaster. Is disaster management a worthwhile investment? Should it even be thought of as an investment? Does it truly counterbalance the harsh effects disasters can have on economies? If so, how is a disaster management team or office best comprised, and in which government department should it reside? Should it reside within government? Would it work best as a non-state, not-for-profit? All these questions are interesting.”

Before dividing his attention to disaster management, Botha was fully immersed in a different topic of research: identity. This, as Botha explains, is work rooted in political philosophy in that it requires analysis and comparison of various theories relating to identity with the goal to construct ways in which these ideas can be applied or integrated into the public policy process.

“The entire idea of identity is complicated. It’s a messy topic, and therefore one that many theorists and public policy scholars tend to avoid. But identity is key; it is the narrative in which we situate the very meaning of our lives, and the policy questions identity [gives rise to] are fascinating,” said Botha. “For example, how can public policy begin to acknowledge marginalized collective identities without constraining them at the same time? If remedying systematic prejudice includes recognizing these identities, then that requires some definition of them, and definition necessarily means putting parameters around something.”

Botha specialized in several areas during his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal. He studied English (with a focus on theatre), social psychology and political science.

“I realized that what fascinated me in each area of study was its unique capacity to contribute to the solution of a specific public problem.

“The beauty of doing a course-based master’s in public administration is that you don’t have to use just one of these areas of study and then flush it out in one piece of work. There are a variety of areas that I can look at, and I can look at them through a variety of lenses,” said Botha.

“Once you define a problem, you generally need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated solution to tackle it and this requires more than one way of looking at the world.”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.