By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

When the potential of a flu pandemic derived from Avian Influenza emerged, alarm bells rang across the world. The prospect of a major public health catastrophe caused by the human-human transmission of so-called bird flu sparked considerable investment into developing surveillance and response systems for the disease.

But how effective are these responses? And who are the likely winners and losers? Are such response systems robust, durable and resilient, in the face of unknown, and perhaps unknowable, shocks and stresses, and a complex and dynamic viral ecology? A new research project co-ordinated by Professor Ian Scoones in KNOTS (Knowledge, Society and Technology) Team at the Institute of Development Studies is seeking some answers. Photo: Robert Churchill / iStockphoto

The project – supported by the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative as part of a wider set of activities under the DFID (UK Department for International Development)-funded Pro-Poor HPAI Risk Reduction Project – aims to investigate the politics of policy processes surrounding the response to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

The work seeks to interrogate the assumptions being made by the politics and processes of global responses to avian flu and explore different framings in the debate – including those often not heard in mainstream policy circles. Key actors and networks will be identified along with associated narratives and practices of policy.

Dr Anni McLeod, FAO Senior Officer (Livestock Policy), attended the recent planning workshop for this project at IDS. ‘This research comes at a particularly interesting time because the global focus is shifting from Avian Influenza as a single disease and an emergency, to thinking about how we might deal with zoonotic diseases in the future. That is going to require a very good understanding for the political economy in which the diseases are situated and the way that institutions work together to deal with them,’ she said.

‘We have got so much experience with Avian Influenza, there are so many narratives running through this on which we can draw, but there has been very little documentation of those narratives; most of the research that has been done doesn’t take that angle. This is quite a unique project coming at a really interesting time,’ Dr McLeod added.

The research will focus on both the international level, working with the key agencies involved in the global response, and the country level, engaging with four countries in SE Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The overall analysis of the political economy of policy will reveal key challenges, obstacles and opportunities for responding to avian flu – and potentially other global epidemics. This project is part of a broader initiative of the STEPS Centre on ‘Global epidemics: pathways of disease and response’.

Working with collaborators in international agencies and national programmes, as well as funding agencies, the aim will be to develop a fresh and critical reflection on the current response to the HPAI challenge, asking questions about the distributional and sustainability consequences of the existing policy response.

Karl Rich, Agricultural Economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya said of the project, ‘There are a lot of complementarities between this type of work in terms of understanding the political economy of response – the institutions behind it, the narratives – with what we at ILRI are doing, which is trying to place this in the broader institutional contexts as far as looking at different mitigations, what works, what doesn’t and why. So this research brings a lot of real synergies to what we are doing and potential capacity that we can maybe share among the different research groups and with IDS.’