The Implications of Transnational Coalitional Actions and Activism in Disaster Response

Extended essay by
Sweta Baniya


Disasters are unsettling, upsetting, and also unraveling. In Nepali, there is a proverb, लहरो तान्दा पहरो खस्छ, which means while unrooting stems, the whole hill will collapse (loose translation). Disasters not only destroy lives and uproot people, but they also reveal the underlying truth of the various established state and global systems and their systemic oppressions. Such oppressions are seen in how states handle a disaster when attending to the needs of marginalized communities who are vulnerable. When any sort of disaster happens, vulnerable communities suffer the most because such catastrophic disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis “become exceptionally disastrous as the societal conditions of the particular contexts exacerbate already-existing inequities during recovery efforts” (Soto Vega, 2020). Some recent examples of such disasters include the case of the April 25 Nepal earthquake in 2015 and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. The April 25 Nepal earthquake was 7.8 in magnitude, with an aftershock of 7.3 magnitude on May 12. Eight thousand, eight hundred, and fifty-six people were killed due to the earthquake, and 22,309 were injured. Likewise, two years later in September 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by category five Hurricane Maria, which killed an estimated 800 to 8000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands (Kishore et al., 2018).

Nepal, a country prone to natural disasters and the consequences of climate change, hadn’t suffered through a large-scale disaster until the April 25 earthquake. However, Nepal has suffered through an autocratic regime, a ten-year-long civil war that killed thousands, and years of political instability and unrest. The earthquake further embattled the country and stalled the nation’s development by pushing an additional 700,000–982,000 people below the poverty line (Sapkota, 2015). Due to a lack of support by the United States’ mainland and the historical negligence and colonialism, the consequences of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico unraveled ongoing sovereignty struggles and pushed activists toward grassroots decolonial practices (Cortés, 2018; Lloréns, 2018; Soto Vega, 2020). Both Nepali and Puerto Rican communities are very small, often ignored by the world, marginalized, and, in the case of Puerto Rico, colonized. Since governmental mechanisms in both countries were ineffective in meeting the needs of vulnerable populations during these disasters, various activists emerged and helped form transnational, coalitional networks to respond to these needs. I decided to study these two communities because communities in both places resisted and survived these disasters by developing an activist praxis. More specifically, people in both places reacted to the inequity heightened during and after these disasters by performing activism against the practices of the formal entities, such as the government, international humanitarian organizations, and the media. This extended essay argues that transnational activism describes the often-ignored survival practices that marginalized communities use to navigate oppressive systems and to restore peace and stability in their communities in a post-disaster situation.

Catastrophic disasters, like the Nepal earthquake and Hurricane Maria, require multi-sectoral coalitional actions. Karma Chávez (2013) suggests that coalition embodies multiple meanings based on various social and political contexts. In the case of a disaster such coalitions are formed spontaneously as the disaster demands an urgent response in order to save lives. Similarly, coalitions can also be a space where multiple parts or sectors can engage with one another, and they require constant work if they are to endure (Chávez, 2013, p. 8). In the context of disasters, such coalitions are formed instantly and with a complex array of agents, similar to what theorists, such as Gillies Deleuze and Félix Guattarai (1987), regard as assemblages. Manuel DeLanda (2016) argues that an assemblage is determined by multiplicity and heterogeneity in which various relationships or liaisons are established beyond ages, genders, or communities. (p. 1) In my dissertation work (Baniya, 2020), I argued that during disasters such assemblages are transnational. These transnational assemblages are coalitional networks created among people across national boundaries and are formed by affective interactions mediated via digital media. Within these transnational assemblages, various actors circulate information, data, and knowledge across borders by mobilizing cross-cultural power, language, resources, and people (Hesford & Schell, 2008; Potts, 2014). My discussion of transational assemblages resembles Rebecca Walton, Kristen Moore, and Natasha Jones’ (2019) argument that oppressions cannot be combated alone. Struggling against them requires joining coalitions, building genuine allyships, and working toward a sustainable activist practice. To understand the interplay among transnational contexts, coalitions, and activism, I rely on various rhetoric, technical and professional communications, and cultural theory scholars whose work attends to transnational contexts, coalition building, and social justice and disasters (see, for example, Appadurai, 2013; Ding, 2014; Dingo, 2012; Potts, 2014; Soto Vega, 2020; Walton et al., 2019). Understanding transnational coalition building will help one understand how the people affected by disasters help themselves and their communities survive by creating or connecting to local and transnational networks.

Therefore, in this extended essay, I approach transnational coalition building as the often ignored survival practices of marginalized communities who must navigate oppressive systems in order to restore peace and stability in their communities. Highlighting these survival practices will help in building and strengthening community resilience and preparing for future disasters. The information that I present in this essay is based on narratives provided by 28 participants (14 Nepali and 14 Puerto Ricans). Due to space constraints, I focus on transnational disaster response that provides immediate and short-term relief for affected communities and that is conducted by local actors, community organizers, and members of the Nepali and Puerto Rican diasporas. In the context of this essay, I call these communities both transnational and transcultural as a) they expand the boundaries of the nation-state in conducting disaster response, and b) they reside in places across the world encompassing multiple cultures. These narratives suggest that transnational activism and engagement in disaster response mediated via transcultural communities spread across the world leads to unraveling social injustice issues within marginalized spaces. As the globe is currently suffering through a world-wide pandemic and its consequences, many states including the U.S. have failed to address the concerns of marginalized communities. The most recent example can be seen in how communities in Texas suffered through a storm during mid-February 2021 due to poor infrastructure and lack of disaster preparedness. I believe that illustrating the role that transnational coalitions play during disasters can help the new Biden-Harris administration consider the injustices that communities of color and immigrants face in the U.S. given the political context of the past four years and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Transnational coalitions in disaster response

During the April 25 Nepal earthquake and Hurricane Maria 2017, the transcultural activists’ communities from transnational spaces came together and responded to these disasters by a) unveiling the injustices perpetrated by irresponsible state mechanisms and formal entities and b) establishing coalitions via networked collaborations supported by digital platforms to conduct disaster response. To unveil the injustices brought by a lack of proper disaster response, the transnational disaster responders and activists within their own spaces, localities, and beyond the geographical boundaries created transnational coalitional networks. These networks became a communal force that didn’t wait for the formal mechanism to respond to the crisis. Instead, they spontaneously raised funds, gathered resources, and formulated crisis management plans. The participants mentioned that they were spontaneously motivated to join already established networks or to create their networks transnationally to collaborate with activists on the ground. Additionally, participants mentioned that they depended on their networks of friends, family members, or even strangers whom they met online to conduct disaster response (Warner, 2002). Likewise, the activists and disaster responders on the ground depended on the transnational coalitions formed via diasporic networks involving people from multiple countries, nationalities, communities, and transcultural contexts. The participants mentioned that after the disaster, they were motivated to perform spontaneous actions in an attempt to save lives, serve communities in need, and reach out to ask for help, creating “coalitional praxis for survival” (Soto Vega, 2019). These transnational activists are densely connected such that there is a reduction of personal differences and an increased degree of conformity leading towards working collaboratively, with a mission of supporting communities in need (DeLanda, 2016).

The coalitional network of transnational disaster responders and activists that formed during the disaster helped tremendously in responding to the disasters. Eileen Schell (2013) argues that global communities form informal networks of activists across the borders to take action and to respond to specific social, economic, and political issues such as “environment, labor, human rights, human trafficking, and global trade policies” (p. 589). In collaborating and participating, the activists’ network becomes stronger and stabilizes as the actors contribute their content, curate information, and finally mobilize others in their network to effectively and efficiently disseminate knowledge (Dadas, 2017; Potts, 2014). One participant in the Nepal case mentioned that their friends at home and abroad sent them relief materials, like tarpaulins, food, water, and supplies, that they took to remote communities by using motorbikes to various rural places that the government and international organizations weren’t able to reach. Likewise, another participant (from Puerto Rico) mentioned that they used Facebook’s Live feature to reach out to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S., and immediately after that their friend sent them funds via cellphone transfer to buy relief materials to serve a rural location in Puerto Rico. The activists’ spontaneous actions are powered by the speed of the internet in circulating the materials, information, and also affect surrounding the disaster (Appadurai, 2013). This affective attunement enabled through various digital media presents a way for diverse people or communities to be part of a movement as well as ways to emotionally align with one another (Papacharissi, 2015; Yam, 2016).

Furthermore, these transnational coalitional communities worked towards revealing unethical practices of the government, the media, and the larger humanitarian organizations by raising their voices against irregularities and misconduct during disaster response. One of the major issues identified by Nepali participants was that the government and humanitarian organizations were too dependent on their protocols rather than the lives of people and too invested in writing reports rather than organizing relief. Similarly, Puerto Rican participants shared that since all the relief materials sent by the U.S. government stayed at the port (due to their protocol), those materials didn’t reach the people in need. There were a lot of discrepancies in disaster response that participants noted as having motivated their activism. Moreover, the participants also mentioned that they fought against injustices in discourse related to disasters. For instance, activists in Nepal revealed via Twitter that the United Nations World Food Program distributed rotten food to marginalized communities, which the organization denies (“WFP to Destroy”,  2015). Similarly, in Nepal, there was also a trending hashtag  launched against the Indian Media who were conducting poor reporting of the Nepal earthquake. The hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia was supported by various communities in India, Pakistan, and other countries (“Why is Indian Media”, 2015). Likewise, Puerto Ricans used various digital platforms to continually argue against the colonial practices of the U.S. government and American corporations as well as the nation’s lack of a disaster response. For example, in October 2017, Mark Zuckerberg shared a live streaming video of a virtual reality avatar of himself in Puerto Rico. This move was highly criticized by people who regarded him as “a heartless billionaire” and accused him of “exploiting disaster,” which led him to apologize (Kharpal, 2017).

Furthermore, the disaster responders in Nepal and Puerto Rico not only used digital platforms to communicate and coordinate relief efforts but also worked in creating innovative technologies for gathering data for disaster response. One participant from Nepal shared that they engaged in curating a web-based information platform for the government, which later became the national disaster-based information website for Nepal. Another participant from Nepal shared that due to the volume of volunteers as well as the need for disaster relief, they created a web-based platform to match volunteers and the communities in need. Additionally, there were also tech-savvy activists in Nepal who created interactive maps by gathering data and information from the communities on the ground, helping hundreds of volunteers to organize disaster response. Likewise, a Puerto Rican participant shared that they helped create a similar, but mobile-based, application during a hackathon. This mobile-based application tracked volunteers, relief providers, and survivors. It was a crowd-sourced platform used by a lot of people to update data from various parts of Puerto Rico. In addition to sharing, curating information, crowdfunding, volunteering, and organizing the disaster response, the disaster responders and the activists also found new and innovative technological solutions to manage disaster response via proper data collection and management (Potts, 2014).

Lastly, the Nepali and Puerto Rican diaspora played a significant role in conducting transnational disaster response by connecting to the local communities and by engaging and involving their newer communities abroad. Participants from Nepal recounted that social media provided ease to connect back home, which allowed the diasporic communities to organize their activism. The diasporic communities weren’t only connecting to their loved ones but also connecting to various other communities in need by establishing partnerships with local disaster responders. Furthermore, participants from Puerto Rico articulated their trust and reliance on the members of their diaspora who are mostly in the U.S. mainland as well as around the world. Hilda Lloréns (2018) notes that “the diaspora has become the island’s most indispensable ally. Driven in part by the images coming out of Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the storm, members of the diaspora quickly organized to respond to the disaster” (p. 167). The diaspora stood together with communities in Puerto Rico and was using various digital platforms to communicate with their respective diaspora in the U.S. and abroad. Moreover, the two communities established their counter-public enclaves by sharing various oratorical, material, visual, or performative action, which Chávez (2013) points out as the center of social movement and, in this case, the transnational activism. These coalitional networks existed in contrast to formal bodies, like the government or national and international humanitarian organizations, and they reached the communities that were ignored by the formal disaster responders. This disaster response showcases the rhetorical practice of these diasporic communities who were engaged in creating, curating, and circulating materials and discourses online as well as assembling disaster responders on the ground (Wang, 2020).

Implications: Towards social justice in the Biden-Harris era

The implications of the transnational activism in these two disasters calls for localizing social justice efforts as well as scholarship involving “international contexts, particularly in areas that have become known in political-economic discourse as unenfranchised, ‘third,’ or even ‘fourth world’ nations” (Agboka, 2013). For the past four years under the Trump administration, various marginalized populations, especially communities of color and immigrants within the U.S. and elsewhere, have suffered through injustices and inequities that are exacerbated by various disasters, including a global pandemic. Hence, the transnational activism by the Nepali and Puerto Rican communities during these disasters provides an example of transnational coalitional activism that helps in challenging local and global disasters. Activists during these two disasters have used various digital technologies and strategies to recognize, reveal, reject, and replace injustices and systems of oppression with an intersectional, coalition led practices (Walton, Moore, and Jones 2019, p. 133) by showcasing their rhetorical agency (Baniya, 2020; Jones, 2017; Koerber, 2006). They did so by a) creating a variety of transnational coalitional networks with various transcultural communities, b) using different modes of digital and professional communication, c) self-organizing disaster response groups, d) reaching out to people who could help in talking back against the government, the media, or humanitarian organizations, and e) by supporting marginalized communities who were in need. These intersectional and coalition practices have never been more important in the situation of risk and crisis as the world is constantly being challenged by various natural disasters, climate change, and now a global pandemic.

Furthermore, these transnational disaster responses wouldn’t be possible without immigrants and their communities within the U.S. and beyond. The power of these coalitional networks in challenging governmental atrocities and colonial practices has been mediated via creating various networks on digital as well as non-digital platforms. Currently, these platforms are not only used for supporting marginalized communities, but also to harm them by spreading misinformation (Baniya and Potts, 2021). For instance, following the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, Parler, a social media site for the right-wing users, increased its user base from 4.5 million to 8 million. On Parler, misinformation about marginalized communities dominates the discourse. At the same time, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, introduced stronger mechanisms to stop the sharing of misinformation (Pardes, 2020). Additionally, racism against various immigrant communities, especially Asian communities, has escalated as we suffer through a global pandemic (Hussain, 2020). These acts of misinformation and racism eliminate and dishonor the work and struggles of transcultural communities, and they highlight oppressive practices and systemic violence. As transcultural communities with transnational roots in the U.S. and beyond continue to navigate and resist oppression, it escalates through new methods via digital media. The new U.S. presidential administration needs to recognize these practices and implement policies to support them communities fighting oppression. Such policies should consider how to support marginalized communities by tackling the misinformation circulated on digital media and strengthening communication policies that ensure global social justice.

Lastly, it is important to recognize that each community has their unique practices of knowledge-making, including non-western and decolonial knowledge-making practices that significantly differ from western knowledge-making practices (Haas, 2012; Mao et al., 2015; Smith, 1999; Soto Vega, 2020). Western practices may create difficulties in facilitating communication in risk or crisis environments (Boiarsky, 2016) because of a lack of a) contextual local knowledge, b) awareness of audience needs and requirements, and c) understanding of social justice and intercultural communications practices (Jones, Moore & Walton, 2016). Hence, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers need to take these complexities in communicating risk into account and contextualize information during the crisis situation and beyond in order to serve multiple communities across the globe, specifically the marginalized and the most vulnerable ones.


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Author Bio

Photo of Sweta BaniyaSweta Baniya (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Professional and Technical Writing at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on professional and technical writing and rhetoric. Her research centers around transnational disaster response, non-western and feminist rhetorics, as well as community-engagement. Her scholarship is informed via non-western rhetorical traditions and practices that she acquired via her community in Nepal.