Root of Conflict Podcast

Why are some places affected by violence and disorder while others enjoy peace and stability? Root of Conflict analyzes violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. Harris Public Policy students meet with leading experts and key stakeholders to discuss what can be done to create more peaceful societies.

This series is produced by University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts, (UC3P) in partnership with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. 

Root of Conflict


Human Rights in North Korea | Julie Turner

How does the United States coordinate with regional partners to promote human rights in North Korea? In this episode, we speak with Ambassador Julie Turner, the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights at the Department of State. Ambassador Turner is globally recognized as an
expert in human rights and democracy and has worked over the past 20 years to strengthen democratic institutions and promote human rights throughout the East Asia and Pacific Region. We discuss how the United States and its allies in the region play a role in protecting and promoting human rights in North Korea, how the United States balances Human Rights with some of its hardline measures – like economic sanctions and military deterrence, and how Ambassador Turner engages with the broader Korean American community.

Hannah Balikci:

Hi, this is Hannah and you are listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

How does the United States coordinate with regional partners to promote human rights in North Korea? In this episode, we speak with Ambassador, Julie Turner, the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human rights at the Department of State. Ambassador Turner is globally recognized as an expert in human rights and democracy, and has worked over the past 20 years to strengthen democratic institutions and promote human rights throughout the East Asia and Pacific region. As a career civil service employee and former Presidential Management fellow, Ambassador Turner has dedicated her career to advancing human rights around the world.

We discuss how the United States and its allies in the region play a role in protecting and promoting human rights in North Korea, how the United States balances human rights with some of its hard-line measures like economic sanctions and military deterrence, and how Ambassador Turner engages with the broader Korean-American community. A note that the acronym DPRK refers to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official title, which is also commonly referred to as North Korea.

Hi, my name is Hannah Balikci. I'm a second year MPP student here at the Harris School of Public Policy, and I'm a Pearson fellow.

Myong Kun (Chris) Shin:

My name is Chris Shin. I'm also a second year MPP student, a Pearson fellow at the University of Chicago, and I'm originally from Seoul, South Korea. Welcome to Chicago, Ambassador Turner.

Levi Latoz:

Hi, my name is Levi Latoz. I am a second year MPP student here at the Harris School as well.

Hannah Balikci:

So, thank you for joining us here, Ambassador Turner. Could you briefly introduce yourself for our audience and why you're here at UChicago today?

Julie Turner:

Yes. Well, thank you for having me today. I'm excited to be on this podcast with you all. My name is Julie Turner. I'm the U.S. Special Envoy on North Korean human rights issues. And I'm here in Chicago because I am engaging with students with the Korean American community with North Korean refugees that live here in the greater Chicago area to talk about U.S. government efforts to support the reunification of divided families or separated families, as well as to talk about our policy on North Korean human rights and how people in Chicago, Korean Americans, but also non-Korean Americans, can help contribute to improving the lives of North Koreans.

Levi Latoz:

Ambassador, your position as a special envoy had, until your appointment in 2023, remained vacant since 2017. Could you briefly share a bit about what a special envoy is and the significance of your recent appointment?

Julie Turner:

I want to make a joke about bureaucratic process and the title of special envoy, but I'll try to keep myself in line here with you guys today. But a special envoy is an individual that's appointed on behalf of the U.S. government to represent a particular issue that the administration or that the government feels needs more focused attention. My particular position was created by Congress under the North Korean Human Rights Act, and I was nominated in January 2023, but confirmed and sworn into my position in October of 2023. So, I have just dove into the issue and am hoping that some of these engagements that I'm doing help to do exactly what the position was mandated to do, which is to coordinate and promote efforts in the U.S. government to improve the lives of the North Korean people.

Hannah Balikci:

And for those that don't know, when was it mandated?

Julie Turner:

The North Korean Human Rights Act originally was passed in 2004.

Hannah Balikci:

Focusing on the work you're doing, building off of what you just said, can you take a moment to walk us through the U.S. Foreign policy priorities for your position?

Julie Turner:

Yes, For my position, I have five areas that I've laid out as priority lines of effort. The first one is to work with partners and allies to raise international awareness of North Korea's human rights record. And built into that effort, I would also include increasing the free flow of information into North Korea, independent information in particular. And so, that particular effort has involved a lot of travel and coordination with partners in Europe, with the South Korean government, with the Japanese government, among others. The second line of effort is promoting accountability for those most responsible for human rights abuses in North Korea. And this has been a long time area of focus for the U.S. government. But one of the efforts that I have built into my own work has been to really amplify and lift up the voices of survivors in the conversation about accountability to make sure that the process to achieving accountability is led by North Koreans.

And so, I've been doing a lot of engagements with North Korean refugees to better understand what they hope to see when we talk about accountability. The third line of effort is pressing for concrete change in North Korea, and this is the hardest one because it involves the North Koreans wanting to talk to me about what concrete change is. Right now, they've spent a little bit more time calling me names rather than demonstrating a willingness to engage. But I will, again, put out the same message that I've said over and over again, and that's that the U.S. government, including myself, stand ready to have a conversation with the North Koreans without preconditions. But in pressing for concrete change, we are looking for things like the repeal of the anti-reactionary thought law, for the repeal of the Pyongyang dialect law or reforms to those pieces of legislation that would create space and freedom of expression that is actually severely restricted under those laws.

The fourth area is helping to advocate on behalf of North Korean asylum seekers and refugees or those individuals that are seeking protection abroad. And a lot of that has involved calling on the People's Republic of China and Russia to abide by the principle of non-refoulement and to stop forcibly returning North Korean refugees. And then, the last area of work is one that is relatively new to the special envoy's mandate, and that is to engage with, to coordinate with the divided families community to better understand what their needs are, how many there are, and then, to work together with the community to try to facilitate family reunions.

Levi Latoz:

The State Department released the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices last week. I wondered if you could talk about what are the current trends of human rights in East Asia and how do those relate to what you're observing in the DPRK?

Julie Turner:

I think a couple of trends that I would say. One, I think we've all been talking about the rise of authoritarianism for the last few years. I don't think that Asia is an exception to that. I think we've seen it with coups in Burma and just other efforts undertaken by governments that further restrict freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the fundamental freedoms. And how this all relates or how it aligns with what we're seeing in North Korea, I think we've seen a lot of the similar restrictions or tightening of controls during COVID. They put into place the three, so-called "evil laws", the anti-reactionary thought law, the Pyongyang dialect law and the youth education law. Somebody's going to correct me on that last one because I know I didn't get the official name right. But those three laws, which increase penalties for viewing foreign information, for using South Korean dialect words in North Korea, now you can be punished or you can be punished for watching a K-drama. In fact, they, earlier this year, sentenced a handful of teenagers to 12 years of hard labor for watching essentially a K-drama.

But I would also say there are other things that we're seeing in North Korea that overlap with things that we're seeing elsewhere, and that's cooperation with other authoritarian governments through the transfer of technology, including specifically surveillance technology. There was recently a report that was released that highlights just increased observations of new surveillance cameras in North Korea that didn't exist pre-COVID and other things that we're seeing in places like the PRC that are now appearing in North Korea. And also increased transnational repression. Sometimes, in some cases in Asia, it's looked like prisoner swaps where one government says, "Hey, I've got somebody you want. You've got somebody that I want. We're holding them because they said something about the government. You're holding them because they illegally crossed a border. Let's just trade." The North Koreans are doing less trading, but more going to the Russians, going to the Chinese and saying, "Hey, we want these people back." And they're being sent back. And so, those kind of things that extend the types of repression that extends beyond one's territorial borders is an increasingly alarming trend that we're seeing more of.

Myong Kun (Chris) Shin:

Ambassador, you talked about the roles that United States and its allies in the region play in protecting and promoting human rights in North Korea, but sometimes, given the foreign policy approaches conflict with human rights advocacy, how should the U.S. And its allies balance some of the potential hardline policies like economic sanctions or military deterrents with continuous effort to advocate for human rights in North Korea?

Julie Turner:

So, one of the things that I am talking more and more about and that the U.S. government is talking more and more about, something that we've said at the UN on a number of occasions is the interconnectedness, the inextricable link between international peace and security and human rights. And so, these things are tightly wound together, and we see this in the form of, for instance, North Korean overseas workers who are in conditions that amount to forced labor. They're dispatched overseas, they make money, they don't see a dime of that money. That money gets sent back to the North Korean government, and that money is then being used to support the weapons program. We've seen recently reports through an organization called the Outlaw Oceans Project that highlighted North Koreans in Chinese seafood processing factories. We've seen a Reuters article earlier this year that highlighted North Korean workers making false eyelashes, beauty products that end up in U.S., South Korean, Japanese beauty markets. And all of that is being made with forced labor and all of that forced labor is generating revenue that goes to the regime.

And so, I think the international community is coming or starting to at least circle around a consensus that that interconnectedness exists. And I think that it's our responsibility now to continue to build out those examples and to underscore why it's imperative that governments around the world take action to address simultaneously the human rights situation and the security situation. To your point about sanctions versus how that impacts the people, I do also want to underscore that the U.S. government sanctions, as well as the UN sanctions have carve-outs for humanitarian purposes. None of our sanctions are targeting the people of North Korea. In fact, we very much do care about their welfare and want to protect their rights and to make sure that their needs are being met, which is why we have those carve-outs. But we also, at the same time, want to make sure that we're taking the steps necessary to help address the long-term security issues.

Levi Latoz:

In what ways is the United States coordinating with its regional partners to promote human rights in the region? And do you see any potential opportunities to partner with the PRC on this matter, specifically in the context of the DPRK?

Julie Turner:

This is a good question. We're partnering with a number of partners and allies in the region on human rights. We have a number of human rights dialogues. We have consultations on democratic governance with the South Korean government. We have similar consultations with the government of Japan. You all have seen, in the last few years, that we have had a number of summits. We had the Yoon administration here. We just recently had the Japanese government here for an official visit helping to also amplify the effort that was undertaken in the trilateral meeting through the Spirit of Camp David: Joint Statement. And so, there's a lot of work to make sure that we're coordinated, that we're speaking with one voice on North Korea policy issues, but specifically also North Korean human rights issues.

There's also an overlap in our interests here in that all three of our governments across that trilateral relationship have family groups that have been impacted by the North Korean government's repressive policies. That's for Japan, the Abductees. For South Korea, it's divided families, abductees, detainees, POWs. And for the U.S., we also have the divided families issue. And so, continuing to work together across governments to highlight how those policies, how North Korea's restrictions on freedom of movement, how their censorship and surveillance have prevented families from communicating with each other is a cross-cutting issue for all of us that we need to work together to advance.

Now, in terms of China and China's role, I think we are looking for areas and ways in which we can cooperate with the PRC on North Korea specifically. It would be great if we could partner with them on human rights issues. That could include on the refugee situation, but could also be on talking about areas in which there might be potential for concrete change in North Korea. And that may be starting in an area that the U.S., the PRC, and the DPRK can all agree, maybe disability rights, an area where we're all doing work already. And so, I will remain optimistic in that space. And the Secretary of State was just in China last week talking about North Korea, and I hope that we can carry forward some of the outcomes of that visit and make sure that we're working hand-in-hand on the North Korean human rights issue.

Hannah Balikci:

I know we have limited time with you, so we have a couple questions we ask every guest on our podcast, one of which being, if there was one paper or book that you would recommend to young public policy students to read about North Korean human rights or in advocacy or anything that you think would be helpful, what would you recommend?

Julie Turner:

This is a really tough one, and I don't want to-

Hannah Balikci:

You can say-

Julie Turner:

Endorse a particular one because, because I've read so many of them and many of the North Korean refugees are dear friends of mine. But I would just encourage students to pick up one of those books and to read about the life of a North Korean refugee, what that journey looked like from their earliest memories in North Korea to where they are today and how they got there. To be completely honest, having known some of the people whose memoirs I've read and having known them first and then going back and reading their books, it's pretty powerful stuff, especially comparing the person that I know today to this very unbelievable lived story, the obstacles that they had to overcome.

One of these individuals has talked about finding his human nature again, that North Korea, because of the competitiveness and survival mode that you have to be in at all times, had described how you almost become animal-like, and how he had to become human again once he got to the United States. Knowing him now, he's one of the most wonderful human beings I know, and it's hard to believe that he had to live through what he lived through. And so, I guess my real challenge is, read one of those books, but also spend an hour just talking to a North Korean refugee because it puts just a completely different lens on the issue.

Hannah Balikci:

We'll try and put some links in the podcast information. Our final question for you is, what's something you wish we would've asked you?

Julie Turner:

That's another good one. It's a tough one. I think it's really about what you can do now as students. And really, part of my purpose in being here and doing outreach to university students, to the Korean American community is really to push that call of action beyond governments. I definitely feel the pressure from civil society groups to do more and they give me great recommendations for things that we can pursue in the multilateral space, bilateral conversations that we're having. But I'm really here to encourage you all and the other students and Korean Americans or diaspora Korean that I'm interacting with while I'm here in Chicago to take part in the effort to promote North Korean human rights.

And you can do that by... There is a large refugee community here in Chicago. If it's tutoring a student, a North Korean refugee who's trying to learn English or helping Korean refugee get plugged into resources that they might need. A lot of them need legal assistance because they have pending asylum applications or just need to get a work authorization, which is an arduous process here in the U.S. But also, for those who are more on the policy side to get involved in a human rights NGO or to do more advocacy efforts. I won't mention any particular organizations, but I'm sure you all are familiar with some of them, and maybe you can also share some ideas in the links as well.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you so much for your time today, really, and we'll be going to your talk at IHouse after this.

Now, let's go to a conversation between Ambassador Turner and Karl Friedhoff, who is the Marshall M. Bouton Fellow for Asia Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This program was held at the University of Chicago's International House and hosted in partnership with the Center for East Asian Studies, the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and the Asian Policy Forum.

Karl Friedhoff:

So, continuing on in the region, we talked a little bit about the state of democracy. This is obviously a big election year. It's not only the U.S. There are, I think, 50 elections around the world this year. There are more than half of the population is going to vote. We've already seen elections in South Korea, by-elections in Japan. Indonesia had an election and India is coming up. What is the role of the United States in promoting democracy in the region? How is it pooling its partners to do that? Is there a role for alliances? Obviously, the Biden administration has focused a lot on alliances, mostly on the security side of this, but in terms of pooling alliances in to focus on democracy and how we promote that and build a stronger network, so then you can then use that influence to then turn it on in North Korea? Turn it on in North Korea is a little bit of the wrong phrase, but...

Julie Turner:

Absolutely. In terms of building upon pre-existing partnerships and alliances, we recently hosted the Japanese government for an official visit. We have, during the Biden administration, also hosted the Yoon administration for a state visit and had numerous other, both state visits, but also efforts that we've undertaken to upgrade relationships. We have an expanded partnership with ASEAN now. We also have an upgraded relationship with Vietnam now. And so, we're not just relying on the old partnerships, but also trying to build trust and confidence through expansion of new partnerships. And I think that the partnership with Vietnam and ASEAN are two perfect examples of that.

In terms of election years and how we support democratic processes, I think, one, it is support of a society because they are at the core, the ones who are going to lead the way in building democratic institutions domestically in their home countries. Also, empowering and supporting independent press. These countries can have an informed citizenry because informed citizenries are able to better engage with their governments and to really demand responsive governments, which at the end of the day is what we are hoping to see more of, and that increases peace, stability, security.

Karl Friedhoff:

So I'll pick up on two things there. You mentioned civil society and independent press. Two things which obviously are very limited in North Korea. Is there a way to promote those inside of North Korea? Are there attempts to do that or, at this point, is there more harm to be done in doing that because you put people at risk as you're trying to reach them and have them become more active in North Korea?

Julie Turner:

So, I think right now, it's very clear that there's a demand for independent information in North Korea. And I think that we can see that demand in the North Korean government's recent actions because they've been tightening control of the information space. Human Rights Watch put out a report a couple of months ago about backsliding in North Korea's human rights situation during the COVID-19 pandemic. We're talking about one of the worst human rights crises in the world, and it got worse. The unimaginable happened, and the way I've interpreted their report is that COVID was the worst thing that could have happened to the North Korean people, but the best thing that could have happened to the North Korean government because it allowed for this tightening of repression. They put in place three new laws that increased penalties for viewing foreign media. We've seen them enforcing those laws. They put in place a shoot-to-kill order.

So, without a doubt, there is real fear on the North Korean government's side of this external flow of independent information. I think from our side, one of the areas that the U.S. government has prioritized for many years through news outlets like Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, but also supporting independent refugee and defector-led groups that are based in Seoul is to increase the amount of information that's out there. And then, it's really up to the end user to decide whether or not they want to take the risk to take it. We don't want to inadvertently put somebody at risk by pushing information into hands of an unwitting end user.

Karl Friedhoff:

So, all this rising middle class, that's an intriguing idea to think about, that there is this rising middle class there. Can you talk about where it is in North Korea? Is this a regional focus? Is it all Pyongyang or is this also out into the outer regions if there's a rising middle class there?

Julie Turner:

So, I should clarify. I think that rising middle class existed, but is quickly being squashed, and particularly in recent months. The last time I was in Seoul, I had the opportunity to go to Hanawon and met with a couple of the groups that had come by sea directly from North Korea to the south last year. When I asked some of the younger generation, teenagers I guess amongst the group, they all told me food security was never an issue for them. Now granted, these were people from southern part of the country who lived close to the ports, and so, there probably was a lot more trade and other traffic going through, but they said food security wasn't an issue. They had cell phones and were living relatively decent lives. Were watching South Korean television.

But for all of them, they said across the board, in 2023, that shifted. That the risk of watching South Korean TV became too great, which is also part of what led them to make the decision to leave. "I want opportunity, I want a future. I can't have that here, so I'm going to go elsewhere." I asked one of them, I was like, "Oh, well now you're here in South Korea. What's that opportunity that you want? What do you want to do now that you're here?" She's like, "I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. I just knew that I couldn't have whatever it was if I stayed in North Korea and I'll figure it out now that I'm here."

Karl Friedhoff:

So, you mentioned Hanawon. For the audience, this is a place in South Korea where people who have left North Korea, they come in and I think they're in Hanawon about six months, and they go through things to kind of learn how to use an electronic banking system ans how daily life is going to work in South Korea. I was there about 10 years ago, and one of the things that is very obvious when you're at Hanawon is the gender disparity in the defectors that are there. You look at South Korea overall, the percentage of defectors that are in South Korea is about 70% are women. Can you talk a little bit about what drives that gender disparity and what drives women in particular to seek to cross however they're going to get out, [inaudible 00:28:48] China? Why do they seek to come South Korea and take that risk? Why does [inaudible 00:28:54]?

Julie Turner:

So, I think there are probably a few factors with why the numbers are a little bit skewed right now, but I also want to tackle the issue of what the numbers look like right now in this very moment. But I think, historically, you saw a wave of the numbers, you go way back, were much higher amongst men, and then, there was the wave of women that followed and then bringing children out after that. And so sometimes, it was just the families coming in different tranches. There's also the issue of trafficking, and many of the women are trafficked into China and then sold into marriages. And the women that are sold into marriages oftentimes have children who go unregistered in China and are then de facto stateless, which creates problems for resettlement because they don't have a nationality and can't get exit permission and sometimes can't get entry permission to a third country.

And so, there are waves of problem with the trafficking, but that also leads to a disproportionate number of women in the border area. Many of them, after being trafficked, forced into marriages, having children, it takes between five and 10 years to save enough money to be able to make the difficult journey from Northeastern China to a Southeast Asian country where they can get to South Korea or elsewhere. And so, I think we're still seeing some of that wave right now. Many of the refugees that are arriving in Seoul have been in China for [inaudible 00:30:37] right now. COVID did essentially shut down the refugee flows. When I was at Hanawon, most of the facility was empty, but it's quite possible that the border slowly reopening that that will change. The South Korean government has done an excellent job of keeping that facility up and fully functional and ready to support any number of North Koreans that may end up making their way to South Korea.

Karl Friedhoff:

So, when we think about human rights, I want to touch also on the U.S. policy side of this, not just the situation internally. In the past, if you go back, and I'm sure you've experienced a lot of ways that were negotiators at the six-party talks, that's going back a while, but when you talk to them, they're all very clear that human rights was never raised as a part of the negotiations. And they're pretty unequivocal in the fact that they think, through their interactions within North Koreans is that if human rights is raised, it's a non-starter, and North Korea will essentially get up from the table and leave. If we do enter negotiations at some point in the future, right now, there are no negotiations, no known communications ongoing, if negotiations were to restart, how does the U.S. ensure, how do you work to ensure that human rights are now on the table and are going to be a part of the negotiating package moving forward?

Julie Turner:

So, I think that the conversation around security and human rights has developed since the six-party period, in particular. And I think some of this came into light around 2014 when the UN Commission of Inquiry report was released, but also as the U.S. sought to work with partners to get North Korea's human rights situation added to the Security Council agenda. In order to have the Security Council talk or take a serious look at North Korea's human rights record, we had to build out a storyline of how North Korea's human rights record is connected to international peace and security to be able to sway the votes that we need to be able to have that discussion every year. I think, more recently, and this is something that the panel of experts have looked at or has looked at, is how North Korea dispatches overseas workers to China, to Russia, those workers all work in conditions that amount to forced labor, which is a human rights abuse.

So, the North Korean government's human rights abuse in that situation then is generating revenue that the regime is using to support its weapons program. And so, that shows some of that interconnectedness. I think we're seeing more of that now as well with Russia and North Korean military cooperation, where similarly, North Korean weapons are now in the hands of the Russians, which are then being launched into Ukraine and taking civilian lives to Ukraine. Also human rights abuse. Similarly, North Korean arms sales to Myanmar or Burma where [inaudible 00:34:13] also using North Korean-made products to kill innocent civilians in the course of their own domestic conflict.

So, the international community is beginning to see those threats connecting these two issues more and more. I think how we continue to carry that forward is continuing to build out those connections, and that requires more of the security world to be talking more to the human rights world about where these two things are overlapping. And we hope to, again, this year have another conversation about North Korea and human rights at the Security Council.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Ambassador Julie Turner. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Levi Latoz, Chris Shin and Hannah Balikci. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website and follow them on Twitter at Pearson Inst. Inst is spelled I-N-S-T. Thank you.


Root of Conflict


A War Later | Juanita Vélez

How do stories give new perspectives to conflict and peace? In this episode, we speak with Juanita Vélez, a journalist and political scientist. She is the author of A War Later, (Spanish: Una Guerra Después), a journalistic book that tells the stories of five Colombians impacted by the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC). The book focuses not just on the former FARC combatants but also tells the stories of victims, military personnel, and government officials that weren’t covered in the broader news at the time. We discuss the framework of the peace agreement, the impacts of implementation, and how Vélez built trust within communities to facilitate her journalism.

Root of Conflict


Power and Development | Raul Sanchez de la Sierra

What is the role of narratives within the political economy of development? In this episode, we speak with Professor Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and Faculty Affiliate of the Pearson Institute. His research tackles problems in the economics of development, political economy, and conflict. He conducts most of his research in areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); where he looks at the organization of society, the economics and psychology of armed groups, the emergence of state functions, and the economics of organized corruption, working closely with these actors, while also gathering detailed data for statistical analysis. We discuss Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s path to working in the DRC and later involvement in Congo Calling, a documentary film that follows him and two other Europeans who work in various roles within the international development aid sector in the DRC. Later, we discuss his goals and objectives for his class Power and “Development,” which he teaches at Harris. Finally, we explore Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s perspectives on the state of the world at-large, including his insights into the #FreeCongo movement. 

Interviewing: Raphael Rony Anthony, Manda Bwerevu, and Hannah Balikci 
Editing: Nishita Karun 
Production: Hannah Balikci 

Hannah Balikci:

Hi, this is Hannah and you are listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects.

In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC-3-P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

What is the role of narratives within the political economy of development? In this episode, we speak with Professor Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy and a faculty affiliate of the Pearson Institute. His research tackles problems in the economics of development, political economy, and conflict. He conducts most of his research in areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, where he looks at the organization of society, the economics and psychology of armed groups, the emergence of state functions and the economics of organized corruption, working closely with these actors while also gathering detailed data for statistical analysis.

We discussed Professor Sánchez de la Sierra's path to working in the DRC and later involvement in Congo calling, a documentary film that follows him and two other Europeans who work in various roles within the international development aid sector in the DRC. Later, we discuss his goals and objectives for his class power and development, which he teaches in the spring quarter here at Harris. Finally, we explore Professor Sánchez de la Sierra's perspectives on the state of the world at large, including his insights into the Free Congo Movement. And with that, please enjoy our conversation with Professor Raul Sánchez de la Sierra.

Hi, my name is Hannah Balikci. I'm a second year MPP student and a Pearson fellow.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

Hi, I'm Rony Anthony and I'm a first year MPP student and a big fan of Professor Raul.

Manda Bwerevu:

Hello, everyone. My name is Manda Bwerevu. I am a first year Congolese MPP student and a Pearson fellow.

Hannah Balikci:

And welcome professor. We're so happy to have you in studio. Thanks for coming. We were just wondering if you could introduce yourself and tell us your origin story really going right into it.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Perfect. I'm very happy to be here. And I'm also very excited to be in your community, whether it is in the class and outside the class. I'm a Spanish citizen who was born in Spain in '84. I think it was the year before that Spain was declared no longer to be a developing country by the United Nations. Around the time, it integrated the European Union. And as soon as I was 1, my family moved to France. So I grew up with two societies. It took me a while to kind of articulate what it meant for me. Partly it was just feeling awkward in the summer, having two parts of yourself that don't really communicate with each other.

But also little by little, I would go to Spain on holidays and it wouldn't be a very poor country, but it would be a significantly poorer country that changed a lot in the '90s, and the kind of type of social life that people had had also very different values. The groups of friends that I began to have were like 30 kids. Everyone was completely different. Everyone was helping each other a lot. There were values of solidarity and of community that I didn't find as much in the other side of the border where kids were more alone. There's a lot of problems in France, but in general there's an environment of material well-being and of security where there's a welfare state.

There's a lot of problems that have to do with race that what I say is not true for certain people, but even then materially there is a safety net. Looking back at the history of my parents is what kind of motivated me to be here today probably. So my parents were born in the '50s, during the dictatorship of Franco. Different people reacted differently in the face of the pressure that this signified on people. And for the case of my father, his parents had fought or collaborated on the side of the public against fascism. And at the time in the '50s, it was a time of huge repression so there was a lot of silence at home about politics.

And so after a few years where my father was not allowed to go to school because they were low class, so they couldn't acquire education and they had to work, when he was 18, he kind of realized that his father was not kind of the bad person in this story, but rather also a victim of a system that was bigger than him. So he started to also be actively involved in trying to introduce democracy in Spain. And so Spain is a country beyond the story of my family that is hugely traumatized by the Civil War of the '30s. Hundreds of thousands of people died on both sides.

After the fascists took power, the repression continued for 10 or 15 years. It's almost like the Civil War killing continued on one side. So I've been always very moved by the lives of people who suffer in power and conflict, I guess if that's also one of the questions. So growing up in France, not only I started to be involved politically, but also I started to be interesting on this new thing called development, which had to do with all the countries that didn't have the chance that I had growing up in France. And so the rest is here.

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah, I mean you jumped the gun a bit on our questions. We were going to ask why conflict and what went wrong or right in your life for you to focus on conflict? So that kind of gets at it. Is there any more you want to talk about then?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

There's a bit more. Surely the stories of the Civil War in Spain is still something that makes a lot of us vibrate for the injustice that took place, and that has not really been talked about openly in Spain when one side has tried to open mass graves, the other side has often tried to push back saying, "This is opening wounds. We shouldn't talk about this," while often it's not even politically. It's people who want to know where their grandfather is buried in a mass grave.

And so when I started my PhD at Columbia, I focused on development and political economy, which was about why certain countries are poor and the role of power in development and also in injustice. I stumbled on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo is many things. One of the things it also is, it's not the only one, is a lot of suffering in relation to conflict since the '90s especially. If you think in the big picture of conflict in the last 150 years, it has been subject to massive conflict from the outside and from political leaders in conjunction with the outside. But that kind of revived in me the interest in conflict, even though I wasn't necessarily going to be focused on conflict.

Hannah Balikci:

How did you find your way to Harris through that then?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

So when I started thinking about the questions of power and development, some of the most impactful scholars that we read when I was doing my master, one of them was Avner Greif, who is at Stanford now, and another was James Robinson. And so I happened to kind of cross paths with James Robinson when I did my postdoctoral studies at Harvard just after the PhD. And at Columbia, I also crossed paths with Chris Blattman and I found out that this new group had been formed with Oeindrila Dube, Chris Blattman, and James Robinson. It was already my community. So at the end of that, they just sent me a link and say, "We're looking for someone if you want to apply." And it was just a very natural thing to do. It's an extremely unusually creative environment where people are very open to kind of listen to the logic of societies in their own words before trying to impose a structure, whether it is game theory or whatever that can come after. But I think the inductive humble approach to research is something that characterizes this hallway on the second floor.

But having spent a decade, five years ago, for example, with a huge amount of human experiences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it just felt as been an extremely hard challenge to condense all the lessons in this academic writings. So now hopefully this is going to change soon. So teaching allows to convey all of the learning through that experience that doesn't fit in academic papers.

An academic paper in my field could take eight years until publication. Someone might need just three papers in top journals in order to get promoted. So one focuses on almost nothing in terms of knowledge for a very long amount of time. And teaching also has another side that is not just the experience of thinking through it, but actually what is research? Research is teaching because it's people who are driven by curiosity. They want to learn so that the world can also see. And so teaching is the same. So it's an act of generosity that fulfills someone. And in teaching, it feels so much more meaningful because there's so much more that it can be heartfelt. Whereas with research, do I really care now that this paper of 2020, there is a small group of people who read it and think differently, a little bit about something. Maybe not as much as the vast amount of human and informal knowledge that I gather through the process of doing research, yeah.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

Now talking about research, can you give a small glimpse of what research that you're doing right now to our audience?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah. So I started going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009 as a research assistant. I took a class called Political Economy of Development. I worked really hard so the professor said one day, "Do you want to go to Congo?" I said, "Of course." In the process of that, I also came to feel somewhat uncomfortable in the approach to development and approach to research that I was part of. And again, it took me a while to articulate it and to identify what the issues were, but there was something clearly paternalistic in the very question. People were going there saying, "We're going to bring democracy to the Africans." Because they don't know it. It's not as if they have been living there for 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 years.

So my dissertation was about when do our actors have an incentive to behave this way or that way? Now this was the dissertation. I don't know if I have enough time, but even though I was very excited about it, all of this remained part of my imagination. So this bandit that steals you, et cetera, it's kind of a mental experiment. I did do a large amount of data collection during the dissertation to show that in certain places when there is high value due to minerals, it could be due to anything else, then the armed actors have an incentive to settle and to provide protection to create custom systems, to give visas to people who enter the mining and to tax output.

In other places where output is very easy to hide, such as valuable gold, they can't really tax the production sites, but they start settling in villages where people live and they have wealth that they start spending in food and clothes. So they start taxing everything leading to more sophisticated fiscal administrations. But over the years, I also realized that this was very much based on imagination. Even though the numbers coincide, the interpretation makes sense, economists think that the interpretation makes sense, it's still part of the imagination of a European.

So over the last eight years, I started building much more personal connections with not only with the villagers, but also with armed actors themselves, getting very close to certain organizations, learning about their logic, about how they think, about how they feel about who are the people who lead the organization, who are the people who join it, what are the different functions, how does recruitment operate. So now I'm working with one of those organizations that places phone calls to my team every day. There's 160 human resource commanders that are part of a cell phone system that inform us in real time where someone joins the organization that allows us to send a team in conjunction with a civilian organization for development in the area that we work to interview those who join to understand their psychology and also to interview people in their village to understand in what ways their psychology is different from those in the village.

And now we're just following up two years after they joined to try to learn about how does joining an armed organization change the psychology. There isn't much of a difference with the US Army with regards that it's humans that go to a place where they're going to kill other humans, and there is a prosocial motivation to do so to contribute to the community. And the question then is how legitimate is the narrative that brings people to feel that it's out of a prosocial motivation? I think for example, after 9/11, the kind of motivations that people had to join the US Army included a demonization of people in Muslim countries with the idea that they were the enemy and they had to be killed for some greater cause. So the comparison is one of structure, not of content of the narrative, but yeah.

And that's some aspects of the research. We also, in 2015, worked a lot not just with armed doctors, but also with the state itself to try to understand how the state functions when it's so-called weak state. And so, we spent a lot of time preparing a study where we hired 150 people to work inside the Traffic Police Agency of Kinshasa to map every single transaction in the system that "might be called corruption" or informal revenue generation, to learn about how much is generated, how it's generated, the role of supervisors in it, which we normally presume but we don't see.

And so the takeaway is about 80 or 90% of the revenue generated by a traffic police agency is informal. That pays the wages of people. That pays gas expenses. And it's profoundly hinges on the role of supervisors and their power of their agents. It's also very distortionary. It creates a lot of problems like traffic jams. It doesn't lead people to want to respect the law because those who get arrested are not those who violate the law, but anyone who doesn't have friends in higher places. So it kind of hopefully helps understand a bit better nuancing what weak state means and how it functions. Yeah, this is some aspects on the research. Yeah, happy to-

Raphael Rony Anthony:

I found it very fascinating when professor's talking about his research keeps on referring to the group as "we." And I'm assuming what you mean by "we" is Marakuja.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:


Raphael Rony Anthony:

And I think we need to start talking about that. So I'm going to start with the full name of Marakuja. That is Multidisciplinary Association for Research and Advocacy in the Kivus by United Junior Academics. Now that's a huge name. We found out from the website that it's defined as our name comes from salad de fruits or fruit salad, a team-building activity that led to our group. So first of all, how the name and why the name.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah. In July 2010, when I went there for this impact evaluation, we were tasked to train 100 surveyors for collecting data that would last two years of this evaluation. We were students, we didn't know anything, so we had to learn from the experts. One of the experts was a Congolese man who had been in the organization for 10 years and he was very good with people. And so the first kind of trainings that we did, we knew the survey and he knew management much more than we did. We did breaks and he said, "Now we're going to play fruit salad. Everyone has to pick a fruit name in a circle." And so I had just discovered that morning the passion fruit, which is called Marakuja in Congo in Swahili. And so I chose my name to be Marakuja. And so you have to stand up and call two fruits and you take their chair. And so everyone laughs because someone stays without chair and some people fall, the chairs break. It's a very fun game. So that was very early in 2010.

So what happened is people started referring to me as Marakuja in DRC. So I came back in 2012 to start my own dissertation. I arrived with almost no money as a graduate student. I said, "How many villages can we do with this?" We had discussions about with the six or seven people that I was closest with. Some people were saying, "Well, the wage must be increased. Look." And one of them stood up and said, "Look, we all know here the impact that it had on us to have two and a half years of stable employment for the first time in our lives. You got married, you had kids. You also got married, you bought a house. And after what this person has done for us, it is our turn now to thank him. We don't need to talk about the wages. Now you might not have funds. We have your back and we want to make you a professor."

Of course, it's not that I took advantage of that gratitude, but it illustrates the beginning of a very strong bond that starts to kind of breach this invisible race barrier between us and "them," despite the asymmetry of financial means that is impossible to get a around. And so it's this kind of reciprocity that created, first, one bond. So that I did the dissertation, I kept funding funds. And then the dissertation worked. And then I came back. And at that moment, one of them who you have met stood up and said, "Look, we need stability, therefore we need to create an organization. Enough with this consultancy. So can you use some of that funding to create an organization?" And it turns out that by then, it was 2015, these people for six years, whenever they refer to them, they're like, "Oh, they're with Marakuja." Others were like, "They're with John." Or, "They are with Peter." But so they were called the Marakujas or the Johns or the Peters, whoever was the employer's name, or they are the IRCs for example.

So when we decided to create the organization, of course we would be Marakuja. There were some other organizations with acronyms that were hard to follow, but Marakuja no one would forget. We then completely made up the words that constitute the acronym just to give some semblance of seriousness. Only later I realized that this was not the Pan-African name, which I thought, which we thought. It's actually Guarani and it arrived to Africa later, so did the name. But it's now a Swahili name. And so that's the origin. That's the answer to the question.

Hannah Balikci:

So what sets Marakuja apart from other research-focused organizations in the region or in the country?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah. So there are two types of organizations. There's the kind of implementers, NGOs, and there's a huge amount of them. And then there's their data collection ones. There are not that many. The two that I know emerged from the same hundred people that we trained in 2010. They learned, we learned. And so some data collection managerial skills led to that.

There's a third one that came from extremely qualified people from Benin, from the Africa School of Economics mostly, who had worked at IPA and the World Bank. They're based in Kinshasa. Typically, they don't have the local knowledge that Marakuja has. So most of their projects they need to work with Marakuja, but also so does Marakuja benefit from working with them and their skills. So often Marakuja collaborates with them.

Now, the big difference of Marakuja in terms of its principles comes in comparison with organizations such as implementers, and it emerged as the outcome of spending various years. We, the Marakujas, so the Marakuja was founded by eight people, seven Congolese and me. The seven were the surveyors, and now they're managers. They're experience working in NGOs was not good. They made money, but they experienced very racialized hierarchies where they were continuously silenced, not just the kind of inequality within the same organization was very uncomfortable. It was almost more uncomfortable for the "expatriates" than it was for them. But really the kind of silencing that operated within those organizations, people who are "locals," which in fact means, de facto means people who are Black. They could not acquire positions that are supposedly for "expats."

So often you would have a girl who would be 22, she would come from New York as soon as she finished her master and become the boss of this person who had been there for 12 years, had the number of kids, had extreme expertise. It often is not just the hierarchy and the distribution of material resources, which is important. It's also the attitude that people had towards the Congolese was very difficult to witness. So often you would have people who would come from the US and kind of treat Congolese as if they were almost like children and that they had to follow them because they were the expert.

So I was present in a lot of situations where that happened even before forming Marakuja as we were bringing people from the outside to help with the technical side. The mentality that people have when they come from the world of the NGOs is, "I'm going to be country manager. I'm going to rule here. The Congolese don't know anything." My wages, of course it's going to be eight times higher because I'm the country manager. And the Congolese are almost assumed to have no morality. They're greedy, they're trying to cheat their way through, and there is a constant environment of mistrust. That is degrading.

So Marakuja was born to try not to reproduce that. And so even after it was born, we had issues among people who came to work with Marakuja. And so we had to write these rules that made it very clear. So now any time that a European or an American goes to work with Marakuja, they're an assistant. They're not a country manager. The country manager is [inaudible 00:23:59] now, ad they come to assist them with whatever skills they have the privilege to acquire, but the expert is actually someone else.

Hannah Balikci:

So just going through the timeline, because you say Marakuja was founded after you finished your dissertation and you were back. And you became a professor and then started Marakuja?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:


Hannah Balikci:

Okay. I think this is a good transition to go into Congo Calling, which is a documentary film that you're featured heavily in, which features three Europeans who work in various roles within the international development aid sector in Congo. How did you first get involved in the production of this? What was the focus of... How did these people, how did you and the other two Europeans get selected? It's just the background of how you were involved in this program. Does this also shows the... Not the beginning, but that Marakuja is featured in the film as well, so if you could talk through that.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah. So it all starts, I think, with the sensitivity and perceptiveness of this person who is the director. I met him in 2004 when I had just come back from spending a year in Germany. And he was a German who had just started his year in Spain. We were both studying economics. We got along well. So we wrote together an undergraduate thesis on Karl Marx labor theory of value using mathematics, which was a recent development by some economic theorists just to try to understand what would it mean today and what is missing. He left economics, he started film school in Munich. By the time I had gone the first seven months to the DRC, or even the second year again about half a year, we met in New York. He came to visit. And I was telling him about the research and the life there, and he kept asking me questions from the perspective of a human. A lot of things that I have unpacked now when I speak, I hadn't unpacked them before. I wasn't even aware of them. I was just talking about the project.

But he was very moved by the human side of this inequality, the contradictions that people have to live through when they come from a place of privilege and often motivated precisely because of equality or injustice or privilege, and they find themselves in an even stronger position of privilege. So of course the human reality that I was describing to him had a Congolese side, and he was moved by that first and foremost. But very early on he understood that he couldn't really speak to that or convey voice in a way that wouldn't be biased. However, he could try to see the world through the eyes of these Europeans to portray kind of the human side of this impetus of going outside of the bubble of privilege and how one navigates emotionally contradiction without very clear early on, so without taking a stance necessarily more to kind of unpack it and help empathize.

So then we started filming in 2015. There was a pilot in 2013, I think. He got some funding. And 2015, he came in. That's when Marakuja was about to be formed, I believe. And that's when I met back the team saying, "Thank you for the work" and I bring back the dissertation in a book. And then two years later he came back in 2017, filmed again.

So I was supposed to be a co-director. We were motivated by the same thing, which is try to illustrate that challenge in the world of aide, NGOs. But he started following me when I was doing my research and said, "Can I film here? Can I film that?" And one day he said, "Actually, you experienced the same in a perhaps different way because you want to stay there forever. The kind of relationships that you build are of course different than those of "expats" who spend one year or two, put it on their CV and leave, but it has the same kind of exploitative risk. It has the same like a mining corporation. You go there to get your publications even though you tell yourself that it's good, maybe it's good, maybe it's not. So I think it would be nice to illustrate it as a parallel."

Then he met this German humanitarian worker who had spent his whole life in Africa and who was in the verge of being kicked out of his home at one reception of the German foreign affairs ministers who is not the president. And then I had worked with a third person, the third character, Anlo. And so we had kind of met through a friend. Anlo also had gone through her process of kind of thinking through what it means to be in that industry. She had been in NGOs. She had to quit and she had a more sincere relationship with the country than how most people coming from Europe start. And so it was also an interesting story to portray. At that point, I was fired because of conflict of interest and I became a subject. And after that, I was just grateful that he chose to portray some of it.

Manda Bwerevu:

So speaking of the portrayal of and the selection of the characters, a theme that I've picked up in a lot of their responses so far as centering Africans in the development of Africa. So in resolving conflict and helping uplift and empower the DRC specifically in this context, with the selection of these three characters, obviously there are three wide characters speaking about Congo, what do you think the takeaway can be for the lens that we're using to assess the conflict in the Eastern DRC? That kind of ties in with the next question of, obviously you don't have a lot of creative control over the direction of the production, but I'm curious about what were the elements and the conversations that were had around how does this affect then the way people will digest what we're trying to convey in the Eastern DRC based on the selection, choices that were made, and the creative direction of the documentary itself?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah, we didn't always agree in the process, and I defer to him because he had much more expertise also about the artistic sides. So I learned also to defer to him. I didn't necessarily push back on his choice of characters even though I wasn't involved. I probably would've chosen Congolese to be characters. Or even in my case, there's a relationship with the Congolese called Christian. It's all my perspective. So that for example, we did have conversations like, "Why is Christian a bit silent in this relationship?" And he was always very clear. I found he had thought about it more than me even saying like, "I can try to portray their view, but I will not succeed in portraying their view. I'll portray what I think their view is. So we have to focus. Let's focus on like, we're in Europe, Europeans have the question, how can we help the world? So let's show the European audiences what happens to Europeans when they go there and what challenges themselves they have to navigate."

However, I think part of the objective was to show how people struggle. And he became a subject because he was also struggling with those questions himself about what his positionality, what his role, what is the impact of his actions by transmitting just one side, especially because the characters, especially me and certainly Peter, I have nothing to say about him, but I carried a huge amount of blind spots even then. And the director who empathized with me was very able to convey my vision, my view. Therefore, the documentary also brings the blind spots with them. That today we see the documentary to kind of illustrate those blind spots. At the time, it wasn't necessarily filmed with that objective in mind.

And so I think if we were to go back, probably we would've challenged more. I would've, and he too probably the idea of saying, "Oh, we should just take the perspective that we understand. He always says, "There's a lot of very good Congolese filmmakers. They're just much better than me in doing that." But the reality is there's just one documentary that is there about humanitarian sector and it's the European perspective.

So with those blind spots, therefore, one of the challenges is people who look at the documentary and try to make conclusions about the conflict that are going to have very limited view because it doesn't directly address it. But also there's another problem, which is because the presence of the whites in some scenes, there is a specific performativity that distorts the voice of the Congolese, even when they're accused of corruption. There's the presence which is almost a huge asymmetry of power, but also almost with a huge baggage of history of the white that's present there. So people act differently. Even when Christian, for example, is asked in private in an interview, it's not private. There's the camera. And he knows that it's as part of the relationship with Raul that he's being asked about the accusations against him.

Another example is we meet these commanders that have been hanging out for eight years, and there is this one scene that I think he's irresponsible to show even if the scene happened, because the audiences are not prepared not to interpret this as a way that kind of feeds into preconceived ideas of almost backwardness and primitiveness when they describe how they eat the liver of people or whatever. Now you need also the contextual awareness that we didn't have at the time, I think, and certainly the audience doesn't have to know how much of this was performativity as well. It was a group of young kids trying to impress the white, trying to almost bully the white into gaining his respect and vice versa. We were negotiating our position in different hierarchies. For example, when I interrupted someone, I had to apologize with the military gesture, and I was a bit scared also. And sometimes when they interrupted me, I said, "I'm a professor now, you let me talk" and they would apologize to me.

So we were constantly trying to find who we are in their relationship. They were also trying to find what they can get from it, et cetera. This is not to say that specific facts are not true, but it's like journalism. The choice of what to show has a social responsibility aspect independently of whether it's true or not and also how it's shown. And that's, I think, a problem to talk about.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

Okay, I think it's a great place to start talking about power and development because we were just talking about your dynamics with the people in Congo and you working with them and you being the white man presence in that situation. So your class, Power and Development, if we are to advertise it to the people who come into Harris, we have to ask the question like, "Why this class?" How would you answer that?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

I think there are two reasons. The first is coming from the perspective of a class on political economy of development. There is something really frustrating that even though it's called political economy, which is about power, it entirely omits the role of power at the bigger scale in explaining the evolution of societies. It's often like whether this person sends a text message to a politician to let them know that they prefer to have a well rather than a toilet in the village. And so we operate in a society where there are a lot of silences with regards to how power has been deployed, especially in the last 500 years.

So let me say this perhaps more explicitly. We just come out of two phases that were different in nature. I don't know in which phase we are now of European expansionism that a lot of reasonable historians have called European imperialism. The first wave being focused around the slave trade, the second wave in the 19th century with a different philosophical justification being based in large part in colonization of Asia and Africa.

Our generation has kind of been numbed when there was a formal devolution of power to the societies that were on the receiving end of colonization in the '60s with the Cold War that became the kind of only obsession of everyone. And we're kind of emerging trying to realize the legacies of these 500 years. A lot of the legacies are mental shortcuts that people take uncritically as granted, that have to do with essentially dehumanizing people of a darker skin that is present in our society pretty much everywhere. If you just go one block down, people look very different where we are. One doesn't need to go to another country. But it informs working relations. It informs decisions of police officers, of judges, of entire societies in support of current policies.

And so it's a look critically at the silences that have been introduced in the historical narrative with regards to the use exercise of power by Europe and later by the United States in asserting a certain type of military domination across the globe. This is not a conspiracy theory, these are the facts. But interestingly, we still don't learn about those facts in high school.

So what the class is predicated upon is we start with the development aid position. Someone goes, there's a few symptoms that are weird, those which we talked about in Congo Calling or in the paternalistic relationships of giving democracy to "Africans". And then we take a step back, go back 500 years to try to trace back the origin of the inequality of wealth in which we are born today and try to ask questions whether the exercise of military domination by the Europeans plays a role at understanding who we are today in terms of our wealth and at explaining the emergence of ways of thinking that inform how people relate to each other to today.

Something that's quite noticeable. We had a guest from the Congo a few days ago in class, and he explained that this baggage of thinking is very present among Europeans. It's less present among the Congolese, this kind of social hierarchies that presuppose that white people are superior essentially and that Africans are backward. But what makes it even more perhaps revolting and important to talk about is that he also said the Congolese also carry it with themselves. And they have internalized the relationship of paternalistic relationship where they are on the inferior end and they look up to the European as if the European is the one who invents everything rather than what might be more accurate as the one who systematically stole from their society and with a scale that might explain why they're richer today.

So we talk about these historical facts. We talk also about philosophical tools that we can use to understand some of the things I'm touching upon. For example, epistemic injustice is the idea that certain voices are silenced in the production of historical narratives and also in the articulation of their experience. In this case, the Africans' own experience, but also the concept of hermeneutical injustice, which is that society's dominant language or prevailing language makes it harder for people who are subject to a particular form of injustice to articulate and find the tools to become even aware of that experience. It's for sure those who experience it are more aware than those who do not, but they're constantly challenged by the absence of tools that they need to develop talking to each other, to identify patterns, to realize often, "It's not this thing that happened to me here. It's not my fault" or, "This thing that happened 20 years ago. Now I can understand it."

So there's a lot of con-events between questions about gender and the experience of being of a particular gender in a society and the development of a language to gain awareness as well as race. There has always been this kind of conversation between the two. Sometimes it's not necessarily a good conversation, like white people, no matter their gender, are not always aligned with people of color. But there's a lot of solidarity as well in shared experiences with regards to these process.

So the objective of the class is perhaps to jointly gain awareness of that seriously, not just postulating it, really interrogating it and asking even econometrically, how much of this can explain that? What's the research going to go to continue to answer this question?

And then the last part of the course, after having questioned these exceptionalist narratives of why Europeans are rich with the presumptions that the rest of the world are more backward with something that comes from the 19th century, we then take a step back and say, "Okay, if we are to undo, unlearn that mode of thinking, let's reconstruct political economy of development from the voices by the people who experience it themselves." So for example, we start with philosophical foundations of Igbo philosophy in one particular country, and we try to see how would political economy of development look like through their voice?

And then that's kind of the most challenging part of the course. It's also the most interesting and I think enriching because recognizing injustice also has the risk of depriving agency to the people experiencing injustice. Recognizing a symmetry of power doesn't imply transforming people into just they are defined by victims. There's much more. Just like in life in Congo is about so much more than conflict and history of oppression, it's about music, it's about solidarity, it's about extreme levels of creativity and of social ingeniousness that are obscured by just talking about injustice. But we do need to talk about it when we take seriously the question of political economy and development.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

Right. And so now when we were talking about power and development, we had the most fun framing the questions because we went through your whole syllabus, and the syllabus is a really funny concept that we need to talk about. So I'm going to take some quotations from your syllabus and I'm going to ask you why is it the way it is. So it goes like, "Instructor Raoul Sanchez. You can be mean to him. He's working hard to make your learning uncomfortable." What do you mean by that?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yes, that's in a context of I think trying to encourage people to be kind to each other, but completely frank, because we're going to talk about topics that evoke emotional reactions, often of discomfort, whether it's guilt. And I can say this as a white European man, I understand that. And so while people have to be kind to each other, it's also saying, "Don't worry about me. I've done enough emotional work that I'm not going to be offended." But I'm trying to make you uncomfortable, and that's the objective of the class. Because often, growing with regards to this question goes through a process of feeling a little bit uncomfortable. That's where some parts of our knowledge and of our growth are kind of blocked a little bit by fear. And so it's kind of acknowledging that with a little playful tone.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

Okay, the next one, it goes, "Maximum freedom of expression, including offending and uncomfortable ideas without attacks against the dignity of every anyone."

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:


Raphael Rony Anthony:


Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

So here we're at the University of Chicago. We're also at the crucial point in time where there are topics that have been somewhat silenced. And so I want to uphold the values, the freedom of expression of the University of Chicago saying that being uncomfortable is not being unsafe, and often the feeling of uncomfort has been weaponized by misinterpreting it as being unsafe and therefore the need to silence certain speech that might be violent.

So for example, when I criticize, let's say, or when we analyze the psychology of one of the readings we have to do, is we look at the work of a psychiatrist who is Black in a white society or white-dominated society, Frantz Fanon. It's very difficult to read. It's very difficult to read as a Black person because it points fingers on a lot of difficult experiences that sometimes doesn't teach anything, sometimes helps recognize. It's very uncomfortable for a white person to see as well, to identify all the ways in which one has contributed to assert oppressive relationships, to silence the expression of the self of people who keeps telling us but we are not hearing. So that discomfort is something that kindness and compassion has to accommodate to grow, but it's not something that ever can be used to silence these conversations.

It is kind of astonishing that Frantz Fanon is often dismissed as being political, even though he's a psychiatrist who is trying to take seriously the experience of being Black in a society that constantly tells Black people that they're inferior and that they have to speak like the French in order to be more civilized. The same goes for a scholar who has spent his entire life trying to show that people in societies east and south of Europe are also human beings. They also have their logic, trying to deconstruct these myths about the Oriental that was perhaps constructed during relationships of domination in colonial times, and that kind of distorts very strongly the immediate impetus that Europeans and Americans have when it comes to relating to people outside. And that is especially important in the particular context where legitimate critique of military policies such as in the state of Israel. And we can say something that the International Court of Justice has said, "At least it's plausibly a genocide."

Raphael Rony Anthony:

So the last part of this conversation, I feel, is the most important one, is a warning that you give in the syllabus as well as in your first class where you tell the students, "If you cannot handle being uncomfortable, you may leave the class." And that makes your class one of the most unique experiences in Harris. So why do you give that warning? That's the first question. And the second question is, do you have anything to tell the students who left after the first class?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah, I think those students who left, there might be 27, let them be welcomed. They have many reasons to have left. I just encourage them to talk to the students of the class to see how they go. And even this kind of threat of feeling uncomfortable, whether it really materialize in the end, it's a very safe space where compassion is the rule. And we also spoke, for example, about how white people feel uncomfortable when so much negativity is being brought to light about the history of countries and the construction of privilege that some people call whiteness, and it's okay to feel bad. It's out of a place of love, we have a community in the class.

The other thing that you mentioned is about the... Oh, "If you are not ready to feel uncomfortable, it's better that you quit." Look, until a year ago, even discomfort was invited in the class. And the experience in the class was somewhat different in that some group of people kind of knew, but felt that they had better tools to articulate what they already kind of had a gut feeling for. And some were like, "This is new. I feel bad, I feel guilty." And so the process was really cathartic. It was one of together trying to see each other so that when you go out there, you have much better visibility in each of your relationships and interactions.

The context in which we are now also makes me unsafe, and I don't want to be in a situation where whatever topics we talk to and I really am not interested about whether it is the military policies of the state of Israel or whether it is the US or whether it is Europe, I'm not going to be silent with regards to describing those. I'm not going to give privilege to one country over another. And so in the context in which we are, it's a climate where some faculty do not feel safe necessarily. And so I want to make sure that if people are going to confuse discomfort with safety, it's better that they were not going to have a good experience at the moment. But the key point is despite kindness and compassion, freedom of expression to continue growing inquiry which is what we're here to do.

Manda Bwerevu:

So speaking about conflict, let's go back to the Eastern DRC. It's a place where the conflict has been raging on for 30 years with approximately 120 different rebel groups involved, and numerous Western and eastern agents also involved in the conflict. Because of this, it's really complicated for a lot of people who are outside of that Eastern DRC context to understand what is actually happening in the Eastern DRC. So the first question is how would you explain the issue in eastern Congo to a fifth grader interested in understanding the context? And then added onto that question is, a lot of governments have recently come out to condemn Rwanda specifically for its support of M23, which is a large rebel group contributing significantly to the instability in the East. Yet these same governments like France and the US in particular are still sending aid to the Rwanda defense force. So the second question is, how can we reconcile the cognitive dissonance there in terms of the foreign policy of these countries? And what are tangible actions you believe that the governments can make towards helping liberate the Congolese people?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Perfect. So I would start by saying that people who have studied the Congolese conflict reach always the same conclusion that it's extremely complex, that there are many causes, that it's about land, that it's about politics, that it's about ethnicity, that it's about conflict minerals, that it's about the weakness of the state. That is also not very helpful when it comes to paint a picture of what's going on.

And at the risk of being oversimplifying, if I were to talk to a five-year-old, let's say, look, if you look over the last 30 years when the first and second Congo war happened and the conflict that we have now, something happened in a neighboring country which was really bad, it's called genocide, and that resulted in 2 million people coming into the Congo as refugees including those who perpetrated the genocide. As a result, because of political reasons first, neighboring countries had an interest in coming into the Congo to hunt down these people, which they did perpetrate in a countergenocide. Another silence in the historical narrative is that this is not really spoken about. And so these political motivations of neighboring countries to either take over the Congo or take over parts of the Congo was the impetus of the first Congo war.

The second Congo war, that was also true, but they started to realize that there were also economic benefits to be had. Society had been partly militarized. There were a lot of guns, there was a lot of opportunities to use guns in a context of a weak state to achieve whatever. So one of the whatever is people realized in Rwanda military networks that minerals in Congo would be very valuable. So the second Congo war, which started politically also was in large part about facilitating the illicit exploitation of Congolese minerals. There's a 2001 United Nations report that was the first to kind of show it.

And later on, once society is militarized, once the state is weak, pretty much anything can be a cause for violence because you can use violence to steal, you can use violence to express a grievance or to negotiate with the central government. But if one were to paint a picture now, pretty much everywhere in Eastern Congo, communities have mobilized as a defense to the challenge of their territorial integrity by foreign actors, be the Rwandan government or be the enemy of the Rwandan government, who are the Hutu militias who later became FDLR, who have been terrorizing the population for a variety of reasons. They're extremely violent as well. There's political reasons because they feel unstable, and so they steal from the population, so they act like roving bandits.

But the bottom line is 120 armed groups, most of them are popular militias that mobilize to protect the community. Once again, once they mobilize for political reasons, then they realize they can tax people, they can grow, economic logics grow. So you have a mix of political mobilizations with extortion that kind of explains part of the behaviors that you see today. The common denominator is the weakness of the state.

Manda Bwerevu:

Got it. Could you speak a little bit to the cognitive dissonance there in the foreign policy between France and the US in the way that they're supporting the Rwanda defense force, yet also condemning them by [inaudible 00:54:31].

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

The first kind of hypocrisy is something that is difficult to call out because it is known but the evidence is often hidden, is the role of the French in supporting the Hutu government during the genocide in the beginning where they were arming, sending even equipment and training them in the ground. It is unclear whether they knew exactly what was going on. They say, "No, it is unlikely that they did not know," but they had a calculus, which was to maintain their influence for the Hutus of Francophone over the Anglophone Tutsis. They had a geopolitical interest to kind of turn a blind eye of how excessive the violence might be as long as they could keep control.

They lost control. It was the Anglophone Tutsis who had... Many of them were refugees in Uganda, not all of them. There's a new division now emerging within the Tutsis because of that, which the US have felt very closely aligned ever since. The reasons for the US alignment are, number one, the US felt guilty that they didn't do anything during the genocide, the Clinton administration at the time. So that has marked a lot of people who remain with a lot of power in the State Department. Two, personal relations and business relations were also built with high levels of the Rwandan government back then. The same government is in place since '94. It is Kagame.

And three, the US has found a strategic interest in supporting maintaining the Kagame government in place, in part because it might act as a buffer for, especially after 9/11 for what they perceive to be threats of Islamist groups going to areas that might be of strategic interest like the Congo. I don't know whether that this is justified or not, but I know that the US has a long history of constructing fears to justify strategic interests that are often based on falsehoods.

So now when the United Nations repeatedly, the group of experts, does reports that show the role of the Rwandan government in the armed groups in the east, which they often use satellite groups, the US is systematically involved trying to silence those reports. Often there are addendums that get cancelled and then they get leaked to the press. It is often at that moment that the US then starts to ask Rwanda, "Please behave a bit better because my name is on the line essentially." This hypocrisy is not something new. Foreign policy is not dictated by any moral principle, I believe, other than strategic calculations and at times economic interests of people who have more power. It's something that I think is very striking today when one looks at the Congolese conflict and when one looks at the genocide on Gaza in ways that are very difficult to comprehend, the level of mismatch between what society is actually able to see and the discourse of the US government trying to hide and sanitize something that is too late to hide anymore.

And the same happens for the support of Rwanda. The violations of human rights in the Congo exploitation of illicit minerals have a long history of Rwanda involvement since the '90s. Also, human rights inside Rwanda to maintain the regime. So there's a common pattern in that when a group or a regime is of strategic value for a powerful country, then they are willing to cut more slack on a variety of issues to this group so that they can remain aligned, which is a form of extracting rent from the big powers saying, "You need me, therefore I'm going to do things that other people might not like, and you can keep protecting me."

Manda Bwerevu:

And then on the note of the Free Congo Movement, that's really popular right now in huge part because of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. I'm curious why you think that the connection between the DRC and Palestine is being made and what the Congolese people can do to capitalize on this media tension to help address and spotlight some of the conflict there, because it's been a conflict that's been happening for a very long time, really large scale. Violence and lives lost, yet not really a lot of media attention. So I'm curious what you think we can do to help capitalize on the Free Congo Movement.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

I think it's an empowering moment, and it's also a very difficult moment because the madness that is currently taking place in Gaza shadows also other conflicts that are often brought back by defenders of the madness of Gaza, by saying, "Well, if you care about them, you should also care about this 50 other conflict."

In the case of the DRC, the few studies that exist showed that within five or six years, 7 million people died as a result of the wars just between 97 and 2004, and how murderous the situation is continuous. Perhaps less intensively, but millions and millions of people have died in Congo directly or indirectly as a result of the war. So I think when people started to develop the language of, for example, genocide... Or to use genocide, it's something that resonated a lot among Congolese people who have, in a sense, it relates I think a little bit to this hermeneutical injustice who have been in the shadow of the look of the international community while suffering at a huge scale without necessarily being given the tools to put a finger of what exactly is that is happening to us.

The scale is huge. The difficulty in addition to be shadowed by the other conflict now is that in the other conflict, there's one very clear perpetrator that every day decides to destroy everything through dumb bombs. In the case of the Congo, there's 120 groups and people don't understand from the outside what would be the one logic, what would be the role of the Rwandan actually if one were able to intervene intervening at the level of the Rwandan government would be important. Also the political elite in Kinshasa, what is their role? Each of hundreds of groups typically has a political pattern. Sometimes they're in Kinshasa, sometimes they're in Rwanda. The key denominator is that the state is too weak.

And so that makes it even harder to articulate a language saying, "We have to stop, and this is the strategy." Because it seems like it's almost like conflict that has infected everything and people don't really know where to begin. So I think it has provided the language a little bit to remobilize the fight in the Congo to end the suffering. It's shadowed and it's very difficult for a lot of people to identify one solution.

Hannah Balikci:

I think starting to wrap things up a bit, we just want to know... We just have some final questions that we ask every guest on root of conflict. And one thing is that if there was a paper or book that you would recommend to a young public policy student to read, which would it be? Was there something that you read either in your studies that you found seminal or that you teach in your class that you think is something that people should be really reading and internalizing?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

Yeah. Can I give a few?

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah, for sure.

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

So I would start probably with Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, which I think is very enlightening and empowering to understand some of the issues we have been discussing. Democratizing also for people to read it. I would probably also suggest that's also a difficult book to read, but Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous History of the United States that kind of traces back the history of the last 300 years from the perspective of indigenous people who received the colons and who were exterminated before the word genocide even existed, to kind of position ourselves in the historical context to better understand who we are and what we do and why and to better decide freely ourselves what we want to do. This is not to dictate just normatively who we ought to do.

I think there is a recent book since we're talking about the current conflict, a a recent book called The Palestine Laboratory by Antony Loewenstein that illustrates how the Israeli military very rarely understood that they had an edge in military technology. And part of the edge became huge with the birth of artificial intelligence because military technology hinges on experimenting. And it is a society that essentially has millions of Palestinians on which new technologies are regularly experimented. That may not explain the current conflict, but I think it provides some context.

I would also provide perhaps two other last recommendations. Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years' War on Palestine gives good context for most people, I think, to understand, I don't want to say the Palestinian perspective. I want to actually say a more holistic perspective. As well as of course, Ilan Pappé, the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which is an Israeli scholar that took seriously the most taboo question in the birth of the state of Israel, which has to do with the removal by force of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Palestinians from their historical homeland.

Manda Bwerevu:

The next question is, what advice would you give to students or people in general who are interested in working in this area and are just beginning their careers?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

I think courage. Courage to you. I encourage you to continue recognizing that if you can, you are born in a historical context of privilege that doesn't make you evil, that gives you a responsibility to look back at why you, or we, have this privilege where we can actually spend our time trying to help other people. Doing that, undergoing that reflection, taking the responsibility of perhaps historical injustices that might account for the distribution of wealth today to say how better can you use it?

And hopefully, the kind of historical introspection might also help better make sense of the relationships that you're going to build. Beware of anti-intellectual quick thinking that is very present when it comes in building relationships across different groups. It's very present today in the media when people regularly call other people human animals, for example, in a way that's almost sparks like wildfire. People are very ready to take these representations of other people as a way to justify violence. This is not about the current conflict. It is about the history of humanity. And especially over the last 500 years, it's about... I think looking at it can make us better to have the impact we want to have.

Raphael Rony Anthony:

What upcoming event in Harris that you're looking forward to and you would recommend everyone to go and attend?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

So I think there is an event in May, I believe it's May 16th, where a film is going to be showed with a producer. The film is called Israelism. And again, along the lines of what we have discussed about the class, I think it's not something that is going to be very comfortable to watch for some people. And I really don't wish people to feel uncomfortable. I watched it myself and it helped From the perspective of Jewish-Americans, explain to me as an outsider, how important is their relationship with the state of Israel after a millennia of persecution of Jewish people. How also not only important it is, but how much dissent that is also among the Jewish community with regards to if we are going to have a state for ourselves where we can be safe, should it be at the expense of other people with violence?

And it led me to realize that very early in the 19th century when people became aware that the political project of Zionist was about to remove people with violence, a lot of Jewish people became anti-Zionist of different political ideologies. Some of them have the view that today they live very safely in the United States, and maybe there is a way to have their own homeland, but perhaps not this one or not the way it has been obtained. I'm an outsider. I just found it very illustrative for me. And so part of the reason of consequence of watching this film is that yesterday I was at a Jewish celebration, a Seder by Jewish academics who are against Zionism as a political project. It doesn't mean they want to destroy the state, doesn't mean they want anyone to die, but they just interpret their cultural and religious and historical roots in a way that is more consistent with their struggle as well as the struggle of others.

So I have full respect for, and an appreciation for the complex relationships that people who have suffered so much persecution have with the state of Israel. But it also, I think, illustrates how people came out of a particular relationship by realizing that they perhaps did not agree with the political project. And I learned a lot. And maybe other people disagree, and hopefully more people come to share their views.

Hannah Balikci:

And finally, what's something you wish we would've asked? We've asked a lot of questions here. It's been a long, long episode. What's something that you would've liked us to talk about?

Raul Sánchez de la Sierra:

I run out of ideas because you had so many great questions and you asked me more than I thought you would ask, which I really appreciated too. Maybe I position myself with this discourse that we have to be critical about the role of race, et cetera, but I'm also human and I'm a perpetrator as well. Deconstructing that aura that might emerge when someone is critical would be nice. I've been very difficult to work with, with the Congolese, with people from Europe and the United States.

I do have to say that having experienced the huge injustice of the living conditions of the Congolese, there was a moment they really lost any respect for European or American students that went to work with me and had this attitude with the Congolese. Things that were important needs for them, that I consider just an expression of entitlement. And I think I've grown over the years. I've also been difficult with the Congolese before. But to kind of base everything on compassion, that's the starting point. And the work that I have done on myself is not over. It's just the beginning. But that also implies that one has to use compassion with others. And everyone starts from a place that is not malicious. A lot of people in position of privilege also start from a place of some ignorance. It's not their fault. It's also good to kind of extend the bridge to help people, including me.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Professor Raul Sánchez de la Sierra. This episode was produced in edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Rony Anthony, Manda Bwerevu, and Hannah Balikci. Special thanks to UC-III-P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of the series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website at and follow them on Twitter, @pearsoninst. Inst is spelled I-N-S-T. Thank you.


Root of Conflict


Polarization in a Region of Turmoil | Daniel Brumberg

How did the prevention of a second democratic transition lead to Tunisia’s current political system? In this episode, we speak with Professor Daniel Brumberg, a Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University and co-founder of its Democracy and Governance Masters
program. We discuss Tunisia’s political players his past and current research projects in Afghanistan, dual-use infrastructure, and broad U.S. policy interventions. We also talk about his work teaching as a professor, his advice for students, and how his life journey has influenced his understanding of conflict and ripple effects.

Root of Conflict


Colonizing Kashmir | Hafsa Kanjwal

What is the history of Kashmir’s path to self-determination? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal, an assistant professor of South Asian History at Lafayette College. We talk about Dr. Kanjwal’s new book Colonizing Kashmir: State-building Under Indian Occupation. The book interrogates how Kashmir was made "integral" to India through a study of the decade long rule of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the second Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. We discuss the historical context of the conflict in Kashmir through the book’s chapters. 

Root of Conflict


Philosophies of Research | Austin Wright

What kind of ethical concerns should researchers think about when deciding to take on a project? In this episode, we speak with Professor Austin Wright, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and a faculty affiliate of the Pearson Institute and Empirical Studies of Conflict Project.  We speak about his past and current research projects in Afghanistan, dual use infrastructure, and broad U.S. policy interventions. We also talk about his work teaching as a professor, his advice for students, and how his life journey has influenced his understanding of conflict and ripple effects. 

Podcast Production Credits: 

Interviewing: Jose Macias and Hannah Balikci 
Editing: Nishita Karun 
Production: Hannah Balikci 

Hannah Balikci:

Hi, this is Hannah and you are listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC-III-P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

What kind of ethical concerns should researchers think about when deciding to take on a project? In this episode, we speak with Professor Austin Wright, an assistant professor of public policy at Harris, and a faculty affiliate of the Pearson Institute. We speak about his past and current research projects in Afghanistan, dual-use infrastructure and broad US policy interventions. We also talk about his work teaching as a professor, his advice for students, and how his life journey has influenced his understanding of conflict and ripple effects.

Hi, my name is Hannah Balikchi and I'm a second-year MPP student and Pearson fellow.

Austin Wright:

Hi, I'm Austin Wright. I'm an assistant professor here at the Harris School of Public Policy and an affiliate of the Pearson Institute.

Jose Macias:

Hey everyone, my name is Jose Macias. I'm a first-generation Chicano, and I'm also a second-year MPP student and Pearson Fellow.

Hannah Balikci:

So, Austin could you introduce yourself, how you came to Harris and your work, why conflict and how you got into all this?

Austin Wright:

Sure. Yeah, so I think that how I got into conflict I think is a story about a really pivotal time in my life. So when 9/11 happened, I happened to be at a high school in San Antonio, and when the towers were struck, my school went into lockdown. Those who are listening to the podcast might know, but might also not know, that San Antonio is military city USA. You have a large number of bases, a large constellation of military infrastructure there. And so my school went into lockdown because of that and concerns of the potential that San Antonio or nearby sites might be struck during a large-scale coordinated attack, which was unclear if that was happening on that day.

And the person that I was locked down with happened to be, again, military city USA, their partner was at the Pentagon. And when they found out the Pentagon had been hit, they of course went through this period of trying to gather information. Communications were locked down, they weren't able to get in contact with them. So, I spent that day, a day of tremendous suffering in the United States and abroad, I spent that day with someone who was in a very real sense going through the phases of reckoning with the potential that they had just lost their partner. And I think up until that point, I was a young teenager. I didn't really have a sense what terrorism meant. And I think many people around that age kind of experienced it for the first time then. We weren't really thinking about the attack on the World Trade Center that had occurred before, or even necessarily the attack on the USS Cole, that really didn't strike home for a lot of young people.

But this day, that event in particular, being with someone who was processing life, just how close terror can come to individuals who are thousands of miles away, that made the stakes really clear for me. And from that point forward, I became really interested in foreign policy. I became really interested in the notion of how people use violence as an alternative means of politics. And that day really solidified for me an interest in finding ways that we might both understand what the root causes of conflict are...

Hannah Balikci:

Good plug for the show.

Austin Wright:

As well as think... Yeah, good plug for the show. But also ultimately how, if we understand, if we can understand what are the causes of conflict, what are the root causes, what are the drivers of participation, why do individuals feel the need to resort to violence in this way, ultimately generates a set of challenges. And I think a core part of what I hope the Harris School is doing is not just thinking about that set of problems, thinking about what the drivers are.

The opportunity came. So you asked out how I ended up here. When the opportunity came to join Harris, I jumped at it. In part because it was around this time that the Pearson Institute was forming, and there was a lot of excitement about the potential that that could promote both on the research front and on the policymaking or policy advocacy front. And I'm here because I'm excited about that work. And I think all of us, maybe the folks listening to the podcast, I think a lot of the folks in this room right now are thinking about, how do we not just identify what drivers are, but how we can go out and build a better, more prosperous, more just world.

A world that our kids are going to live in and my kids live in. And this is what motivates me in the work that I do and the advocacy that I do because of that. And I think that what this has enabled, I don't mean to be too long-winded, but is that when we struggle with, we're all purpose-seeking animals, and we can find purpose in any number of ways. And the purpose that I have found in my life, at least at this moment of my life, is really how to build that more just and secure and prosperous world for my children and their friends and the children that they will have. And a big part of that is not just how to we identify origins, but find solutions and how do we reinforce our relationships with strategic allies abroad, especially in the goal.

Jose Macias:

That's awesome. So thinking about your impact, and since joining Harris, you've taught about eight generations of scholars now. Could you describe what shaping a generation of policymakers is like at the Harris School for you? And if so, in addition to that, what are three things you want your graduates to remember when they leave?

Austin Wright:

Okay. Yeah, no, no, that's real, real. I feel like doing the numbers, I have the good fortune of people sometimes enjoying my lectures, and so sometimes they're a little overpopulated. That's probably at least 2000 students that I've taught that have come through that I've touched in some way, and many of which have gone off and worked in the public sector, have gone off and done important work there, have gone off and done work in the private sector, have gone off and worked in city and local government.

And look, not all of us need to study these questions. Not all of us are driven or motivated by the questions of understanding conflict. But I think all of us are driven by a core set of interests in how do we use policy as this lever? And ultimately people, I hope, lead, the courses I teach here are mostly in the core and mostly focus on how do we leverage data to generate the insights that will ultimately shape policy. And I think, yeah, so that's the aspiration. I think that we've done those programs internally with folks here at Harris. Big picture we've also expanded the offerings that Harris can provide so that we can reach beyond. Jose, you've been an instrumental part. This is kind of how we first met, and you've been an instrumental partner in enabling us to be able to take those opportunities elsewhere.

Ultimately, more recently thought about going out and not just working people who are thinking about going to graduate school, but also thinking about people who are already working for governments and enabling them to be successful. We're doing that with a strategic partner in the security arrangement of the United States, and I think that that's a meaningful thing. That goes just beyond the scope of Pearson.

Now, three things I hope students who leave Harris, who I've interacted with are ultimately thinking about. I think the first is that in order to do good work, we need to understand the settings. We need to understand the context. That I think a lot of folks often confuse running regressions with a true understanding of what's going on. But once you really understand what you can learn from the regression, you do know that in order to get the most out of this tool, in order to get the most out of data, you have to understand what generates the data. You have to understand the local context, you have to understand drivers and measurement. And that just requires a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge. And I hope that people coming through here don't get confused about the fact that just because I'm looking at a table or I'm looking at a really beautiful figure that it's necessarily telling me anything meaningful if I don't know about the-

So, that's the first thing. I think the second thing really is that I hope our students leave with the skills to both be good, hopefully be good producers, but if they can't be good producers of research that they know how to more skeptically consume research. And I mean, that's part of the first thing, but I think it's also much bigger that you know how to ask questions about what is generating the sample, what are the potential biases that are here? Part of that is understanding context, but also part of that is also understanding the method you're using or what the method other people are using.

And I think the third thing that I hope that students leave my class with an understanding of is that there are many people here at Harris that care. There are many people here at Harris that want to enable our students to be successful. As an institution, I hope that we're committed to this, but at the very least, I hope my students understand that if they ever need to come back and they want to talk about a problem that whether it's professional or personal, whatever, mostly professional, right? I'm here for talk therapy, but mostly I'm to give you advice about it like make better policy.

But I would hope that they understand they can come back. There is a home for them here. And I mean that both here in a literal sense, but there is a home for them and in intellectual sense where they can come and find me wherever I am in the world. And if they have a problem and I have the time and bandwidth to help to solve that problem, I will give them everything I have.

And we talked about this, Jose. I think that's just part of, and when we think about, for me, the true origin of the roots of my interest here intersect very closely with a lot of those drivers we were talking about earlier, which is I grew up in abject poverty in some sense. We had holes in our roof, we had holes in our ceiling and black mold, we didn't have heat, we didn't have AC. And what enabled me to be successful, it was that people were committed. And so I hope that people leave my class with the sense that I'm equally committed to their success because people in the past have seen something in me and took gambles and made flyers and they took a pass. And I hope that the gamble paid off and I'm here to pay that far forward. So, yeah. Third thing, hopefully.

Hannah Balikci:

One of the things you talked about, you teach the core classes, but there's a class you also take that's big data and development. And I was just wondering to get your thoughts on what's your definition of big data and how do you use it within your research and how do you use data, the context that you talked about and together to create research?

Austin Wright:

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think that big data has no single definition in the sense that how big does it have to be? In this class, what we are focused on is a broad set of settings. We're innovating on data collection. People are innovating on measurement, people are innovating on clever research designs, all of which leverage large-scale data. And I think that one of the benefits of a class like this is I get to teach papers that I like and I get to share some of the cool things. But we don't shy away from the fact, look, we're scientists and everything, nothing I do is perfect and nothing that anyone else does is perfect. And there are always things that we can improve on. That is, that should be our mission as scientists, is to find the ways that we can improve that which we see and ensure that it's as robust as possible and as meaningful as possible.

And that class gives us an opportunity to read through papers at the bleeding edge of data science and big data as it intersects with social science and questions of interest for us in development, which is a broad spectrum. It's like political developments, it's economic development, it's development in fragile settings often which are marred by conflict. And to both think about how to do good work in those places that leverages things like remote sensing, so satellite imagery, high-frequency satellite imagery at super granular levels.

In yesterday's class, we were talking about a really nice paper on fires that crop bring in Pakistan and India and a super nice, super interesting paper. But I hope that the students understand that I really like this paper. I think this paper is excellent in many, many dimensions, but there are many things that we could do to potentially tweak it around the edges and improve it. And when they come in and they see that cool data, they see all this high-frequency information, they see the beautiful data bits. I hope that that doesn't keep them from asking skeptical questions. Just because this is great doesn't mean it can't be better.

Hannah Balikci:


Austin Wright:


Hannah Balikci:

I think that kind of goes into some of the projects that you worked on and you talked about context. You've been to Afghanistan before 2021. One of your projects I think was released last year was territorial control. And even just talking about non-state actors and how that creates conflict and how, I think just how the control and effective sovereignty of political entities can be measured through big data. But also just how did you, I don't know. I guess my real question with this is how did you come to that research topic and how did you use the context you had from being in Afghanistan to sort of say, okay, this is something we can measure. How do you take those results and can you apply them to other places? And what's the policy outcome you want to have from that?

Austin Wright:

Yeah, yeah, that's a excellent question. Yeah. So we had a project that leveraged some rather incredible survey data that had been sponsored by NATO. And we negotiated through Pearson early on access to this data. We had just moved to Keller and I was here, I couldn't sleep. And at that time I lived here really close to probably way too close to code. So when I couldn't sleep, I would just come to the office super late at night and I would just read. And I happened to be reading one of the reports that came alongside that survey data. Basically explains how did they collect it in the field and I was thumbing through these extremely long documents, and I get to the very end of one of them, and it's explaining something called a sampling recent. And what I was seeing in this report was this notion that the Taliban was actively blocking them from going in and collecting data in certain places. And then I was leaning back in my chair, I fell down, I hit my head pretty hard. I went uncon- No, I'm kidding. I'm joking about this part. This is my apple hitting me on the head type moment.

No, it was just like in that moment I...

Hannah Balikci:

Are you okay? It's two in the morning.

Austin Wright:

That's right, that's right. It's two in the morning. I wake up little birdies, like little birdies flying around my head. No, it's like in that moment I just kind of had this aha where it's like, okay, okay. Everything that we see is conditional to being able to go collect data and the data they're collecting is sensitive. The data they're collecting is insights into how civilians behave, what they believe, what they prefer, and insights about the operations of the Taliban. And so if you are this non-state actor and it's smart because you asked the question about generalizability and whether or not I can take this and take it to other places. And I think that in that sense, it's portable in that non-state actors, whether it's the Taliban, whether it's the FARC or former FARC or paramilitaries or armed groups or criminal groups or just criminal organizations in general, or even just regular political actors, will often have incentives to keep people from knowing information about their activities.

They want to keep that private and their ability to keep it private in a setting like this reveals something about their power. And it reveals something about the territorial integrity of what they control in a geographic sense. This is all in-person data collection. They're constantly pinging these districts trying to go in and access them. And what's happening is if there's territorial integrity, those data collectors are going to get blocked, and if they have an incentive to block them, they're going to keep them out. And so yeah, that's where that project came from. I didn't actually fall. It did not need to seek medical attention, but it was this aha moment where it's like, okay, the sampling, resampling process in these surveys is instrumental for thinking about whether or not we even see the data. And that tells us something, that gives us some insights into the battle space.

Jose Macias:

So thinking about, we were talking about this international paradigm. Austin, it sounds like you came of age after 9/11, which impacted an entire generation of scholars. What do you think now as you sit here, you do this research, you leverage different kinds of methods. What does evidence policymaking look like under strategic competition with the New York [inaudible 00:17:55] what does that look like? What is the research, but how do we articulate findings? How do we drive impact? This idea of strategic competition as we've transitioned from the war on terror to what we see today?

Austin Wright:

That's a hard one. I think that, in an ideal sense, what we would be able to do is have a line of communication to share insights from our work with stakeholders who are making decisions. And that's a difficult thing to achieve, whether it's during periods of counterinsurgency or period now something like great power competition or near-peer, or as we recently found out with the war in Ukraine, maybe not near- peer, but big picture still concerns, right? We want to take those potential threats very seriously.

So there is something that emerged that Pearson has supported that Harris School has been an active participant in, which is something called the Empirical Studies of Conflict. It's a project that was initially funded by support from DOD to create exactly this. A network researchers all committed to the same core sort of credible causal approach, or at least the approach to social science research on these questions and to give advice. And we have a seat at the table in some sense. We can share those insights. We have partners. And again, that's because you have to build out reputation. You have to build out that relationship. They need to be able to say, okay, I can reasonably rely on what you're saying because the work you do is high quality. And I can differentiate between you and someone who's just a talking head on TV.

Now, that organization was originally founded with the focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are counterinsurgency conflicts. But the toolkit that we use, the toolkit that we teach our students here is portable. I can take it from studying these sets of questions and I can use it to study questions, not necessarily questions of true grand strategy, but I can use it to think about very precise questions in the context of great power competition and near-peer competition and the threats that we face in an international setting and not just in a counterinsurgency setting. And we're beginning to do that. And in fact, one of the big projects that we're launching is focusing on that transition, is focusing on, and we're rolling up those old projects. We still need to learn the lessons of those conflicts because we invested a lot of blood and treasure in those wars. We need to learn from them to prepare for the next set of counterinsurgencies, because these wars will not go away.

These wars don't go away. And when the United States is in a position to intervene in support of a strategic ally or to intervene in a humanitarian sense, I hope that we don't shine away from our obligation to humanity as this great nation, but we also need to prepare for an eminent set of concerns at a global scale, which are not that. And we're beginning to work on those sets of projects to understand how we can prepare for that eventuality because it's better to be prepared than to be caught off guard. We're getting ready for that.

Jose Macias:

Can you give a teaser to the audience? What kind of projects are coming down the pipeline?

Austin Wright:

Yeah. So we have a series of projects on Ukraine specifically. We launched a couple of projects there. We've already wrapped up one of those big projects about how we can better inform the public during periods, during episodes of instability that we can message to them understanding how responsive they are and figuring out better systems to help our allies in a setting where Ukraine is now engaged in a near-peer competition with Russia, right?

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

That's what we're seeing. And that stalemate creates a lot of potential concerns about the civilians getting adjusted to that. So that was what that project was about.

But in terms of that sort of, I don't really see this as a tri-polar world. This is like my hot take. Russian forces are not prepared for what the United States would be able to unleash in a ground war. That's obvious. And that is not near-peer competition in a broad sense. But there is a coming conflict with another nearby nation. A rising nation that is a recognizing its place in the world that would like to reshape the world in its vision. And that nation is also facing a series of internal crises and will soon find it probably politically advantageous to engage in a large-scale military conflict or military buildup to offset a crumbling economy. And the United States needs to be prepared for that eventuality and is increasingly becoming prepared for the possibility that that state won't just harness military capacity but will harness its strategic investments in the acquisition of seaports and trade terminals globally.

And so that is the work that we're doing is to understand just what the consequences are of the massive, massive spending that they have been doing, buying up the majority of the world's most important ports, and what potential consequences that might have for global trade. And of course, if that nation only directly controls somewhere on the order between 68% of global trade, so even if they withdrew from the global economy, I mean of course it would be a massive hit in terms of manufacturing and production, but there could be strategic reallocation. But through their port acquisitions, they now control probably something on the order between 65 and 75 percent of global trade through their ports.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

And that is of grave concern at a global scale. And our project is to better understand just what the consequences are of that amount of acquisition and doing some scheming about settings where they might be able to leverage that tremendous power they now have in a commercial sense, as an extension of the states to those commercial enterprises. And the way to think about this is in the wake of World War II, the United States chose guns. We have naval assets deployed globally. We have military assets-

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:24:04]

Austin Wright:

... states chose guns. We have naval assets deployed globally. We have military assets deployed globally. They have chosen butter and they have chosen to be able to control the global flow of butter. They have chosen ways of being able to influence who gets that, how much they pay for it, and they can use those means potentially to completely destabilize global trade. That represents an existential threat to the global system.

Hannah Balikci:

Right. I mean, it does represent an existential threat to the global system and especially to the United States. But looking towards the Western hemisphere, take for example the situation in Ecuador where the president has declared a state of internal armed conflict. In Ecuador and in Latin America in general, how do you get the economic situation in a place where people stay instead of coming to the US for economic opportunities? Or even also fleeing violence, there's the two sides of that. You have to do both the immediate violence and we've seen that in Bukele in El Salvador. How do you do the violence stuff? But also it's the bandaid for right now, but then also getting to the root cause of the violence.

Austin Wright:

These are many dimensional problems and if we think about gaming out a strategy that helps us resolve one thing, it might inadvertently have these second, third order effects that we have not carefully thought through.

I mean in the end, I think, listeners, if they know me, they probably know I'm a Harry Potter fan. This is like Snape turning-

Jose Macias:

What's your house?

Austin Wright:

Bro, obviously Slitherin.

Hannah Balikci:


Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

[inaudible 00:25:44] Bro.

Jose Macias:

That's real fake and all.

Austin Wright:

But I will say, I admit that I'm a Slitherin, but I struggle against some of these things. I made a commitment this year to be more empathetic. Snape is turning to Dumbledore, you asked too much. Have you ever stopped to think that you asked too much?

And I do think that this is something we need to think seriously about. There are a multitude of drivers, all interacting with each other that if we want a sustainable, intentional solution or a sustainable intentional intervention that we hope looks something like a solution, then it involves us thinking about all of these complexities involved in what the drivers are and the interaction between those local economic conditions and violence. And the fact that some individuals are fleeing the lack of economic opportunity, some individuals are fleeing the presence of violence, and some of them are fleeing places where these two things are very closely interconnected with one another.

Of course, we're also running up against very, very serious strategic concerns that we might have about the replacement rate in the United States, our birth rate, the extent to which we can pay for our social service commitments that have been made to an increasingly elderly population. And of course, how has the United States been able to do this over time? Because we've been significantly increasing the presence of immigrants who are paying into the system but are not yet benefited.

All of these things have to be taken together and thought about in concert with one another. But I think the tricky part is like, all right, are we asking too much of a process that can barely get the answer on a very simple set of problems? And this is a really complex one and we need to take seriously what can actually be done to address that.

Hannah Balikci:

I think of that like sometimes it feels like the US is almost doing too much. I don't know, this is just one of a personal thought that there's a lot of policy that's being done by the US to different countries around the world and does it feel like sometimes the US' policies are... I think of US sanctions of Venezuela, the secondary effects that happened from that are now not necessarily that it's only that, but that the economic situation as a result of the US sanctions of Venezuela has led to this migration throughout South America. And now with the Barbados Agreement trying to walk that back, how do you get to these?

Jose Macias:

And I think that just goes to show their shifting priorities and how do you adapt to a shifting priority? It sounds like this was probably an effort by the administration to try to offset energy crisis by introducing more oil to the market at large. But I think it goes to, is the US doing too much or how do you balance your priorities given what's going on in the shifting world or international conflict?

Austin Wright:

It is a tricky problem, because when you think about the sanctions question, when the initial decision is made, we tend to think about this as a partial equilibrium problem where it's like, can it have the direct effect that's intended on that target audience without thinking about the downstream? General equilibrium effects it might have, the externalities it might create or the second and third order effects. That's because often... This gets back to the conversation we were just having before that the policymaking process can rarely get simple problems right. And then when you think about, now I'm going to ask you to not just think about the direct effects today and try and optimize for those, but I'm going to ask you to think about what happens three congressional cycles from now when you might not be in office, when you might not reap the political benefits or face the political consequences. You don't reap the benefits of success and you don't face the consequences of failure necessarily.

Then, that creates a lot of focus on the present value of whatever you're doing. If we can't even get those right, then it becomes really difficult for us to think about these longer term strategic planning. And you have these whiplash effects where some new conflict emerges, you face an eminent concern today, you roll back an intervention that you introduced before, and it's basically just you're shifting your priorities and constantly reevaluating. And then that doesn't lend itself for the long-term planning you need to fix the problems that you were talking about earlier. To think about how do we go in and build that more just and secure and prosperous world that we were talking about before? How do you go do that? That's a really hard, that's a long-term commitment to a place. I think there are reasonable questions about like, how much should American taxpayers be responsible for the citizens of another country and helping them build their country?

Hannah Balikci:

And that goes back to Afghanistan, which what we were talking about.

Austin Wright:

That's right.

Hannah Balikci:

I was doing a bit of research on some of your current projects, and one of the things is the Refugee Repatriation Project and how really talking again about more people are on the move at any time now more than any time in human history. I think if you can go a bit into the project, it was an interesting, natural experiment of seeing people who had cash assistance versus not and the decoupling, repatriation with conflict. Is that right?

Austin Wright:

That's right. I mean, this is one of these... All credit for the initial idea goes to my coauthor Christopher Blair, who's at Princeton now, was a PhD student at Penn at the time. For thinking about this big question of how do we evaluate the impact of large scale resettlement? The movement of individuals who were previously displaced from their country back home, repatriation. That's a really hard problem because when we think about, and this is like what? The paper emphasized what you're picking up on, which is that there are these episodes throughout history, recent history, where we observe this mass relocation back to a place of origin or mass outflow away from a conflict. But crucially, it's all happening because it's endogenous to conflict.

Then when we're thinking about how do we go and we do an evaluation of the mass relocation of individuals? Is really hard because it's often embedded within a context where the driver is the very thing that we would like to be able to study the impact on. And this is so closely coordinated with one another.

This project is a nice opportunity to begin thinking about how do you go in and do that? To our knowledge, it's the very first of its kind to do effectively a natural experiment impact evaluation of resettlement at scale. And this is all coming from a shock induced by a change in cash assistance that was provided by the United Nations to individuals who relocated from Pakistan back to Afghanistan.

There's a lot of, as you might imagine in a space like this, when you're thinking about a lot of individuals, a lot of at-risk individuals, and this conflict. Sensitivities to the side, a lot of military-age males who are at risk relocating to context of ongoing conflict and that the timing of the policy was timed to, as it turns out, coincide with the beginning of the fighting season. This could have been an absolute disaster in terms of planning and in terms of the unintended harm that it could have created.

It was very serious and it was unclear whether or not it had those effects. There were a lot of conjectures and there still are a lot of conjectures about the effects of repatriation and relocation on conflict. What happens when you take a mass of individuals who have been abroad? Who have been exposed to all sorts of economic and political hardship? All sorts of insecurity. And now they're coming back home, a place they've been dislocated from for maybe months or maybe years or maybe decades? They're coming back to an origin community away from which they have drifted and to whom they might be viewed as an enemy or at least a rival, a competitor, putting pressure on that host community that they're going back to. Those are all serious concerns.

There are so many theories that one could come up with which exists that it's a tinderbox, you're about to light a match and we're going to see this whole thing light up in a way that's obviously was not the intention of a program that would lead to a wave of return.

What we do is we could take advantage of the unexpected timing of when the cash transfers were announced. And what you see is within days there's a flood, there's just a wave of individuals who are returning back to the country taking advantage of this doubling of cash assistance, which in that context is a significant sum of money, especially when you think about this like a median household scale. It's a very large amount of money in the context. You see this mass wave of return that could have had all these disastrous effects on the reemergence and intensification of the conflict or escalation of the conflict. Indeed, what we end up seeing is that either the conflict is unaffected overall, or there are some types of violence that go down.

In particular, the thing to remember is that this is one of the benefits of them not returning on their own, they're returning with this effectively a significant economic stimulus, is that that can have spillover effects across households within the affected the target communities where they go back to. Indeed, what we see is this a significant decrease in labor-intensive violence, which is consistent with the story that they're effectively increasing the reservation wage of fighting because they're coming back with cash. Of course, we can't go ask the Taliban how much were they paying their fighters. We can't find direct evidence of that wage mechanism. But all of the evidence points in this direction, especially when we think about what would civilians demand for valuable information. So we see some results there as well.

But of course, when you're in this world, you're budget-constrained, you have an interest in maintaining the production of violence, and now it becomes more difficult and costly for you to produce one kind of violence, maybe you turn to another. What we end up seeing is that there is this reduction in labor-intensive violence, and to be clear, that is the mass of violence. But what they end up substituting into are the types of violence that are insensitive to this shock or largely insensitive to this shock, which is capital-intensive roadside bombings. So what they start doing is they start investing more and that type of weaponry, that is what we see. As an additional test of that mechanism, what you see is not only are the increasing the number, but the sophistication of those attacks increases, as well. The impact that it has on the conflict is increasing.

It's a bit of a double-edged sword. In one sense, what we found is that overall violence is not really moving around that much, but that's actually masking these splits where it is moving in a way consistent with the story about reservation wages and it is moving in a way consistent with an insurgent group, having an incentive to produce violence, but now being constrained in one way. So they're going to substitute, and it turns out when they substitute, they're substituting into the most deadly form of violence. And when they substitute into that form of violence, they're making increased investments in that, it's becoming more technologically-sophisticated and they're harming even more people than they did before.

Like we were talking about earlier, it's all coming full circle. When we think about a policy intervention, you got to think about the first order effects, but then you got to think about second, third, and fourth, third, all those downstream consequences. Because what ends up happening is that Afghanistan overall doesn't become necessarily more violent place, but it comes a significantly more dangerous place, especially in the places that those individuals are going to, and not necessarily because of any fault of their own. It's becoming more dangerous because of a strategic substitution by an armed actor who still has an interest in producing violence to disrupt the state. That's what makes this so hard to think about policy interventions, because when we think about, "Well, we can put our finger on one problem, we can block off one channel." And then that starts spouting off this game. It's a game of whack-a-mole where I'm going back and forth, and now I'm stretched across all of these things. It's like that scene from Star Wars. It may have been a collab between the Asia Foundation and UNHCR.

There are some things that you have to be careful with is the sensitivities of data and how things change. When we began working on that project, there was still the democratically-elected government in Afghanistan. It is like a non-trivial thing because when we have a series of papers, now you're seeing the underbelly of academic publishing is that it takes way too long to actually get papers out. But we have papers that were submitted before the takeover, then the takeover happened and it's like when we initially submitted, we were free to release a good chunk of this data, and now we have very serious concerns about how this data might be appropriated by bad actors in bad ways.

In particular, we have a project on information operations during the war and the impact on civilian collaboration and making that data publicly available in any way, it would basically be a map to collaborators, which collaborators in the sense of they were actively supporting the provision of security in their area. They were just doing it to the wrong actor, or now. When the paper was submitted, they were coordinating with the active government of Afghanistan, but then when the paper was accepted and it was about to be published, now, they actually were collaborating with the former regime. That's the things that you have to be careful with.

I'm glad you brought up the credential program because this is, again, it's opportunities for us to be in thinking about how can we use that as a test bed or how can we think about using that to refine our ideas? Actually, Hannah, you asked this question earlier about a territorial control project, it feels like hours ago now.

You know what?

Jose Macias:

It's the magic of mixing.

Austin Wright:

The magic of editing.

You asked about a project, and actually people in this program, they were some of the first to see that data in the wild, and some of them were giving lots of feedback about how to think about the measurement strategy, how to think about that and shout out to them because this is basically... I got to use that as an opportunity to trial run an idea, to get their thoughts on wrinkles and where it might not work and under what conditions it does work. And that's all tremendously useful.

Again, to go back to those earlier themes where it's so important that we realize that there's an interplay between research and teaching, research and teaching, research and teaching. Because if you use your work to guide your teaching, you can use your teaching to inform the work that you do.

Hannah Balikci:

And then in fact, policy from there.

Austin Wright:

And then ultimately, yeah. Look, I've spent the past week thinking seriously about this. The work that we do is a three-legged stool, one of these legs is research. The core thing that drives universities, especially research universities, the production of knowledge. And that's important.

The second leg is the leg of teaching. Enabling your students to be successful in the world by recasting the way that they think about problems and giving them the toolkits to be successful and to go out and to have the impact that you hope they will, whether they go off in industry, or they go work in the public sector, local, state, federal, international. You hope that you can do that.

And the third leg is doing. The third leg is actually going out and trying to reshape the world, not just through your research and not just through your teaching, but through active policy engagement and policy consultation. I will say that to me, this is the hallmark, the place that is doing its job well. Is that we both think on our own, we train people to think, but we also do, and we train people to do.

As of late, I've been thinking a lot about this notion that there is no higher calling than public service, both in the interest of your state and the interest of your nation and the interest of humanity. And I hope that we play a small part of recasting the shape of the world in all of its multifaceted dimensions by training the people who will go do those things and make it that more just and prosperous and secure place.

Jose Macias:

Just and prosperous.

Hannah Balikci:

Absolutely. You mentioned it as a stool. Is that the stool of the university or who sits on that stool?

Austin Wright:

For me it's a three-legged stool. I don't know who actually sits on a stool, maybe Jose over here. But in some ways, it can't function if one of these is broken or banged or-

Jose Macias:

Special issue over here, let's go. Represent. Austin, where are you at?

Austin Wright:

One of these is not functioning, it's underdeveloped or it's immature. It's not stable. I don't know, maybe this is not the point of university in general because I think that maybe there are some parts of the university like philosophy departments or humanities departments or the liberal arts that should exist in a way that lives the life of the mind. But when I think about what is the aspiration of a place that would like to have an impact, that would like to have influence, this is how it happens. We can't really do that. Think about what is the difference between a public policy school and an NGO? What's the difference between a public policy school and a think tank? NGO is really focused on advocacy, it's focused on doing, and maybe there are some people inside of it that are engaged in research. In fact, many of those NGOs are engaged in research, but they're not engaged in teaching.

When we're thinking about a think tank, the think tank might be actively involved in research and it might actually be actively involved in lobbying, but it's not going to be actively involved in training people. Then, where is the one place where all of these things can collide with one another? Where you hopefully learn all of these things together. It's a university and maybe not university in general, maybe a professional school where we don't just train people to think, we train people to practice.

Jose Macias:

Which is great because it's low-stakes environment to an extent. You can fail here and still grow.

Austin Wright:

Oh, sure.

Jose Macias:

It's going to help you be a better researcher and critical thinker.

Austin Wright:

I thought that was the most dry joke I've heard all day. Low-stakes setting, no big deal, we were just talking about massive relocation of people from Latin America to the United States. No, but I think you're absolutely right. You should think about it, this is the laboratory. It's an opportunity for you to take your time at a place like Harris. In the classroom, you're not having that a direct effect. You can choose trial runs on ideas. I mean, I just did a trial run idea earlier and it...

Jose Macias:

Did it land? No?

Austin Wright:

In one sense, it landed, but it burned. That's a good thing where it's helpful to be able to bounce ideas and get a sense of what other people's priorities are and where they see that going, because then they can give you feedback about your idea before you actually go out and make perhaps a mistake.

I think that's absolutely right. But again, the reason why it's so helpful to have that low stake setting where you get to train, you get to think about these problems is so that when you go out in the real world, you've had that time to reflect. You've figured out the best practices, you know that, before I go out and I do this thing, I should assemble the smartest people I know and ask them for their sage wisdom. Get that advice. The time that you spend here at Harris, I mean, I hope... All of this is aspirational, because I don't know, because I'm not you. I don't know what the experience is, and I'm sure everyone has different experiences, but I hope that you take this...

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:48:04]

Austin Wright:

... and I'm sure everyone has different experiences, but I hope that you take this time to build out your social network, that you take that time to find, oh, here are my trusted advisors that I can go to.

And maybe that's meant in a purely personal sense where I need advice on some life choice that I'm making, maybe some furniture that I'm buying. But meet it in a broader sense as well, which is that you're finding the people, you're building the network that you're going to come back to over and over and over again to seek advice. Because you've been through what I hope is a challenging experience. Hopefully it's not too stressful, but a challenging experience where you are forged in fire to think about things in a similar way.

Jose Macias:

Can confirm forged in fire.

Hannah Balikci:

Right, yeah.

Jose Macias:

Absolutely. It's interesting that you think about that you're sharing your thoughts about how we can think about each other. Like Hannah and I and the entire class here, as advisors. Because I remember I think on day one, or I forget when the kickoff was for admissions, when Regin Daniels stepped up and said, "You should think about each other as your future board members for some sort of firm or some sort of consultant agency."

I'm thinking now, "Yeah, I definitely know who to call if I need help figuring out how do I deflate this value to constant 2022, or my code's not working. Can someone lend me a hand because I don't understand why this is not working so well?" Or just picking an idea. This is definitely a place to generate social capital and then leverage for the future and hopefully to do good, try to apply and change the world using evidence-based approaches.

Hannah Balikci:

And hopefully think about those second, third-order effects too for things that you're doing.

Jose Macias:

Which I think is really a conversation about ethics. And so, I think this is a good setup to transition to asking...

Austin Wright:

I like that segue. I like that segue.

Hannah Balikci:

Smooth, yeah.

Austin Wright:

It's totally natural.

Jose Macias:

Yeah. Brought to you by Spotify.

Hannah Balikci:

Available wherever you get your podcasts.

Jose Macias:

Student discount, let's go. In the policy world, sometimes there's pressures by stakeholders, and you alluded a little bit to it in terms of the change of regime, at least in Afghanistan. Sometimes these pressures come in different forms for a type of research, maybe sometimes like a shiny object or chasing the news cycle. Austin, how do you stay true to objective evidence-based policy research? And has there ever been a project pitched to you that tested the moral boundaries as a researcher?

Austin Wright:

Earlier we were talking about how the skills that you acquire, hopefully the way that we teach you to think about the world helps you realize it's not just ways of thinking about things like counterinsurgencies. It might be ways of thinking about great power competition, near-peer competition. It might be ways of thinking about dynamics of say, population movement.

And I remember, I think most listeners who were here at the time in May-June of 2020, really thinking through a series of events that were unfolding. Both the murder of George Floyd, but the subsequent response. The mobilization of public for demands that there be changes. And of course, one can debate about the merits of those demands and in the end, whether or not they were actually effective at shaping criminal justice outcomes and the interaction between marginalized communities and the criminal justice system, their experiences of the criminal justice system.

But this was a moment of a reckoning and a very personal one for me, which is that my wife is African American, my children are tri-racial, so they're part African American, they're part Hispanic, and they're white. And there was this moment where of course, it doesn't take having to have a personal exposure, I would hope. It's part of being more empathetic. We don't need to just be thinking about things that directly affect us. But in the end, when I was thinking about this episode, what struck me is that it was getting real.

My daughter, all of my children are beautiful. All of them are brilliant. All right. I'm just glad they look like their mother. I suppose most parents would probably say that, but I genuinely mean it. These kids are great kids and I have zero responsibility for making them that way. But I look at my daughter, so she's now 10. And if one were to describe her and one were to pick a race to describe her visibly.

Jose Macias:

Yeah, expressed. Right?

Austin Wright:

They would probably pick white. She has gray-green eyes, she has brown hair, straight brown hair, and she is light skinned. Her physical appearance, one might think that she's actually only one race, not three. And then my son, my first son, his name is Simon. He's got people here know him around the Twitter know him because he's got burnt orange here, it's copper. It glows in the sun. It's incredible and it's curly. And if one were to ask, is this child at least partially African American, the answer would certainly be yes.

And as all of these things were unfolding, I had this moment. I was sitting in our backyard and I was contemplating life and I was watching my children play. And what hit me in that moment was this profound sense of concern that I had no agency to affect the world that my children are going to live in a very particular way, which is that someday Rosie and Simon will be walking down the street and Simon will be racially profiled, but Rosie will not.

And they don't necessarily look like brother and sister. They have some similarities, but he will be racially profiled and she won't be. And there's nothing that can break the heart of a parent more than the idea of their children suffering. And suffering for no fault of their own, in a way that you have such limited locus of control to effect. And again, I want to emphasize that it's like it shouldn't take it being personal for it to matter. These kinds of things just should matter. But in this moment, for me, it was very personal.

And of course, I felt like, man, what value can I have? What value do I add? I work with data, what can I do? I'm not going to affect change immediately with going to a protest. I really...

Jose Macias:

You don't want-

Austin Wright:

Generally, those are not particularly effective modes of actually achieving change.

Jose Macias:

Yeah, driving change.

Austin Wright:

But one thing that did strike me is that I was seeing news coverage of events that were authentic, events that were coordinated by and supported by Black Lives Matter and allied groups. Were coordinated just by like-minded individuals, not even necessarily tied to Black Lives Matter as an institution.

And I was reading news reports of those authentic protests being penetrated by inauthentic actors, members of the Aryan nation, members of white supremacy groups who were attempting to undermine what they were doing. And they were going to do that by engaging in acts of arson, by engaging in acts of looting or making it appear as if they're looting. And then engaging in acts of violence against the police with the intention of triggering a response from the police, which then leads to an escalation.

And then of course, the narrative of what would've otherwise been a relatively peaceful event, making very serious demands, but a relatively peaceful event that gets distorted. Basically, they can hijack the narrative of coverage and make it about something that fits into a trope.

And when I read about this, I was like, oh, finally, I'm of value because I am a data person and this sounds like an empirical question and I have an idea. And the idea is if we can find a way of estimating all of the locations of these events, of the protests that are occurring. Okay, this is going to sound a little scary. If I can then track all of the individuals who participate in this protest, and then I can look at where those individuals come from, then I can discern the likelihood that those individuals are authentic participants.

But more likely than not, the focus would be on identifying a set of individuals who are inauthentically engaging. And whether or not those protests that involved members of the public that may have been inauthentically engaging or may have only been there as agitators or saboteurs there to distract, whether or not those were indeed the ones that were more likely to escalate to arson.

And so I worked with an amazing co-author of mine. We very quickly put together a project. It took us a couple of days. Again, this is when earlier you talked about data access and things like that. This is the perk of having a lot of data, is that you can readily work on projects of interest to yourself.

And we were able to do that. We came up with a method, using cell phone trace data. GPS trace data. For all you listeners who are listening on your phone, or you should know if you don't already, because I say this quite a bit now, that your phone is just, it's a surveillance device that happens to make phone calls.

And I mean that in a very skeptical critical sense, but also in a bit of a comical sense. Because the thing that we're using is actually just marketing data. It's data that when you're on Angry Birds or what's the new thing? The TikTok, the TickyTock, the gram, you do it for the gram. Yeah.

Hannah Balikci:

All LinkedIn all the time. Yeah.

Austin Wright:

Yeah. All [inaudible 00:59:03]

Jose Macias:

Well, here at Harris. Yeah, definitely. This is a professional school, so we use the professional network now. Yeah.

Austin Wright:

That's right. Yeah. That LinkedIn premium. Shout out. Shout out.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

50%. That's right. Wherever you find your podcast. That was really good, Hannah. You're very professional at that. It's almost like you've done that before. I think it's everywhere. Almost everything you do with your cell phone, you're leaving breadcrumbs, at least up until a couple of years ago. You're leaving breadcrumbs that allow me to track basically your patterns of life.

In some sense it's not as scary as it sounds, but in another sense it is absolutely as scary as it sounds. And of course, I'm a scientist, I'm not a marketer, so I'm not necessarily interested in that dimension of things. I'm interested in what I can do with that data. We figured out a way to estimate locations and protests using this data.

But in order to do the harder part, well, the real thing to be able to back out who the inauthentic participants were with high fidelity, what we would have needed is more precise information. We reached out to an organization that had this information. Had a conversation with them, they were thrilled at the idea of the project. They were willing to grant us access to this information at an extremely steep discount.

And we were trying to figure out whether or not we were going to buy it. And then the clarification came. The clarification came that one of the reasons behind this, the willingness to grant this, is because it would be of value to the organization. And not just that organization, but other entities of the federal government.

Jose Macias:

Oh. This is a public-facing institution?

Austin Wright:

Yeah. Other elements of the government that would be interested in what we find and how we found it, and the IP. I had conversations, look, as a scientist, I was torn. I mean, you all know this, I love data. And what they were about to do is keys to the kingdom in some sense. Thinking about, well, you all have seen The Dark Knight.

Jose Macias:

Yeah, I love that movie.

Hannah Balikci:


Austin Wright:

Okay, well thank goodness you all... Have you seen that? Okay. All right, awesome. All right. Think about this as that scene where they're using echo location to do a 3D scan of Gotham to identify the Joker. You all remember the scene? It's kind of wild. Yeah. That's the world where that started off as fiction and then it became fact. And the fact is this data that they were willing to give us access to, is you can map with extremely high fidelity the movements of the vast majority of devices in the United States.

Jose Macias:

That's crazy.

Austin Wright:

Okay. Now what that would allow you to do is to understand where there were locations where inauthentic individuals were going in to engage in bad faith behavior to undermine a movement. A movement for all the reasons that we just talked about earlier I was interested in understanding and supporting. And that has very serious ethical implications. And not in the sense of the immediate thing, although one could think about just should one be able to have access to this in general.

But in the downstream things, and this is where you can't just think about the first-order implementation of what you're doing, because that might be done in good faith. That might be done with what you think of as the best interest of the public in mind yourself. But you have to think that once you have opened this box, once you have revealed the thing and how useful the thing can be, if there is no one there to constrain bad actors who might use it, then you're responsible for what they might do with what you have produced.

And this is the point where you have to begin thinking about is this paper dangerous? Maybe not dangerous today, but maybe dangerous in the future. Or how could it be hijacked for a purpose that was completely unintended? Now, that's probably true of most research that we do. If you tell me how to rebuild an economy, you're also giving me a backwards map to how to destroy it. And if you're telling me these are ways that I can go fix the link between conflict and growth or conflict in some public policy intervention, you're also telling me, okay, how can I go enhance conflict as well?

That's probably true of most of the things that we do. But this was in a very real sense, a natural thing that one could do after releasing this thing, which would be, well, you told me the subset that were inauthentic. Let me just flip this around and I'm going to go find the authentic ones. And not just that, but I'm going to go find the repeats. I'm going to go find the leaders of the organizations behind that, the people who are showing up repeatedly at protests, who appear to be engaging in coordination given their location within the flow of individuals within a site. Yeah. That's one of these situations where we had to think seriously about where there's sufficient safeguards in place.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

And the answer was no. And so what did we end up doing? We ended up shelving the paper. We ended up shelving that paper and we backed away from that project. Now things to know, at the time, this was 2020. I was still fairly early on the tenure track. Every paper matters. Professionally, this was a costly decision to make.

And personally, I felt really invested in what we had done because this project had given me a way that I could do something. I felt powerless in that moment that I could go down the street and raise my voice. But do I actually think that that's going to have a real impact? That's not my comparative advantage. I'm not the person who goes out. I'm not the person who will go lead that movement. That's not me. I'm not the community organizer. I'm a professor. I work with data.

And so finally I had an opportunity where I felt like I could be a value. And then to realize, oh, there was this ethical challenge, a very serious ethical challenge of concern over how it could be misappropriated that dang, the thing that I thought would be my value add might actually have these unintended consequences. And so yeah, we backed away from that. And that was a hard thing to do professionally and personally, but I think it's important to be willing to do that.

Jose Macias:

When someone says, "If you're not going to do it, we're going to find someone else to do it," does even phase you. Do you just take psalm, knowing peace that, well, that wasn't you. I guess I'm thinking about Oppenheimer, right?

Hannah Balikci:

The war to end all wars, like the weapon to end all wars.

Jose Macias:

Exactly. The weapon. Exactly.

Hannah Balikci:

Which didn't work. Yeah.

Jose Macias:

Which no, exactly. That's why I'm wondering, had that guy left and not created the atomic bomb, it was a race until someone else created it. I wonder how do you feel about if you don't do it, someone else does? And someone else is going to maybe get the tenure or somebody else is going to get the praise. How do you deal with, can you deal with it? Doesn't even matter.

Austin Wright:

It does matter. It does matter. I think that if you think the thing that you're going to do is not sufficiently specialized, somebody else can't just go do the thing that you did, then well, that's something for you to weigh in your decision.

A slightly different version of this is let's just say, I think that actually what that person will do is the wrong thing. If they're going to make some fundamental error. They don't have this tweak that I thought of. Then you're like, okay, oh shoot now, now I've got to weigh, not just the idea that someone else is going to go do the thing, but they're going to do it worse than I could have done it.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

Your like oh.

Jose Macias:

That's [inaudible 01:07:28].

Austin Wright:

That weighs too. That weighs too. But I think that that's also the appeal of a scoundrel in some sense, where it's like if you can convince yourself that someone else is going to do it, that's just an appeal so that you feel better about the fact that you really wanted to do the thing and now you're using it as motivation for actually just doing the thing, for rationalizing doing the thing.

These are things to balance. It's like, okay, am I really genuine about the idea that someone else is going to go do this? If they're going to go do it, they're going to do it worse. And it's going to be wrong and it's going to be wrong in really important ways. And if that is true, then you have to take a step back and think, "Okay, am I only doing that to rationalize the thing that I want to do to begin with? Am I only doing that to rationalize the sort of benefits that I might receive from it? Or am I genuine in my belief that it could be done?"

Now, I mean what we did is not terribly difficult. The intuition is pretty straightforward. But do I actually think that other people could do it if we did? I don't know. Doubt it. I mean, we were the first ones that did it. And maybe the answer is, yeah, somebody else would've had the idea and they would've put it together. But the human capital inputs to produce that kind of thing are non-trivial, human capital, real capital in terms of data are r non-trivial to put all these things together.

And I will say, I'm ready to.... We're going to melt... I'm going to burst some bubbles here and tell you that we often have this idealized vision of all the sort of meritocratically selected technocrats who run government or meritocratically selected technocrats who work in industry who are for profit reasons all very positively selected and doing the right thing at the right time because there's either public interest or private interests that are driving.

No, no. I mean, I'm here to tell you when you go off and you're working in the real world, everything has a distribution. And there's a very real chance that you're probably overestimating the capabilities of those entities, those organizations, those groups. Even if they're like-minded, they would like to do the thing that you're doing, they're probably not capable of doing that thing.

I mean, depending on how specialized it is. But get prepared to be frequently disappointed if you go in thinking that, oh, the people I'm going to be interacting with are all...

Jose Macias:

Top notch.

Austin Wright:

The best of the best.

Jose Macias:

No, I think, so for the listeners, before coming to Harris, I had some time to work on the Hill. And I remember coming straight out of undergrad after a year thinking about who runs government. And very much to that extent of it's got to be the top people`. Because it's challenging. It's a really hard place to break into, do some really good work.

But being on the hill, this is not a reflection of the office where I was at, but you realize that fundamentally people are still people. People still need soft deadlines. People don't necessarily have the right tool set to do it. And some people just know the system well enough to put your little idea from point A to point B. And they have their win, and that's all they really care about.

Sometimes it's not even about what the bill does, what the goal is. Sometimes it's just getting a win. I think that's one of my issues with working in the Hill, it's like it became more about theater, political theater than it did and about policy. Still a good experience, got to learn a lot, met some awesome people at work, grew.

But yeah, I think it's very true that we have this imagination because we're taught, I was political science, international relations undergrad, of what the Congress is. It's the pinnacle of democracy. It is the top, but at the end of the day, it's still run by humans. Humans are imperfect. And so I think there's a lot of truth in, yeah, there's going to be some disappointment there. But hopefully you come to a place like Harris to try to change that, to take up that space, to bring your skill set that is incredibly valuable and missing because you matter.

Austin Wright:

Yeah, no, that's right. I mean, I think that earlier we were talking about legacy, we were talking about why we do the things that we do. We were talking about the fact that we're all purpose-seeking animals. And I think that you're absolutely right that a core part of what we hope we can do is that we can affect how many meritocratically selected technocrats there are. And-

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:12:04]

Austin Wright:

Like, how many meritocratically selected technocrats there are, right? And that the people going into these positions of power will be taken more seriously if they have the skillsets that we like to train people to think about.

So yeah, in some sense, I want people to be constantly skeptical. In general, I want people to be constantly skeptical of what they see, the world around them, what it actually means, the relationships that are underneath it. Is it causal or does it happen to just be a correlation? And I want people to be skeptical, but also, at the end of the day, the reason why we like embed within you this inherent, hopefully, state of skepticism, is so that you do your best work. Right, that you go out and you could be a part of that change, right? But I want that, I you to know that going in, you will be surprised just how much growth there is left to achieve, right?

Hannah Balikci:

Right. Mindful of time, I just want to maybe wrap up and ask a couple just concluding questions.

Austin Wright:


Hannah Balikci:

Related to that, you've talked about a couple papers that you recommend to your students in your classes and things that you admire. If there was a paper, or book that you'd say every public policy student, or anybody who's interested in this space, or people who are interested in conflict, or whatever your qualifier is, what paper would you recommend to people, as something to... Paper or book, yeah, what would you recommend to folks to really get a sense of what you're talking about here?

Austin Wright:

[inaudible 01:13:32]. Okay. That's a hard one. All right. So there's a paper called Aid Under Fire, published almost a decade ago now, if not a decade ago now, on a community-driven development program in the Philippines that was at least partially sponsored by the World Bank. And it's an interesting read. I think in many ways, it's an exemplar of how to write a paper. The introduction of that paper is phenomenal. I go back and I reread the introduction of that paper often.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

Because to me, it's short, it's punchy, it's to the point. It says exactly what it needs to say and it clarifies the stakes. And often, as academics, we're not so interested in like, "Oh, you're going to come up with an exact T-test or something like this." Like, "Okay. All right, bro, that's helpful." In subsets, it is meaningful. It is meaningful, it's science. It is science, it is knowledge. And I respect that work, right? But when I'm thinking about, "Okay, what is the work that I find meaningful?" It's not just about, again, thinking about the world or coming up with a better mousetrap. It is something that tells me something unique about an actual setting.

And this is a paper the introduction to which is fantastic in that sense. It's an exemplar. And so it's a teaching tool, I love this paper. It is also a paper that clarifies the stakes of the work that we do. And so the World Bank has been pretty forthright, the benefits of that program were minimal. So this community-driven development program was basically them going out, and rather than imposing a set of projects onto a community, they incentivize the community to come up with the projects that they thought would be the most helpful. So in theory, this should be the driver of change, right? I don't come in with my generally uninformed, generic theory of change or development. I'm going to go in and I'm going to ask the community, the stakeholders, "Where do you see this as adding the most value? Tell me," have a council that decides, and then ultimately the community will get to drive the development, right?

Great idea. Turns out, didn't really work. It didn't really work in generating the amount of growth. There was basically no minimal return on investment. Okay, and World Bank is pretty transparent about that, at least in that particular place, with that particular set of projects, with that scale of funding, it was less effective than they would've hoped. Okay, now what the paper does is say like, "All right, we're not going to focus on that part. Instead, we're going to focus on the fact that running a program like this, you're running in a context of an ongoing insurgency." And what is the nature of community-driven development, but winning hearts and minds by achieving community engagement? And when you're running this program, what should you have at the top of your mind? Risk potential. And because what you're having those communities do who are eligible for the program is meet and coordinate.

And at the core of what they're doing is figuring out, "Do we want to engage with the government?" And in the context of an ongoing conflict, that means that now you're putting civilians in harm's way, by making this choice public, in a way that it would not have been before, by making it high stakes and observable. And so what this paper does is take seriously this potential concern. And the nice part about the project is they've got incredible, incredible data on conflict dynamics. And what they ultimately find is that there is a surge in violence, not overall, a surge in violence in the planning period, when the villages are having to decide whether or not they take the government's money.

And the reason why this is such a well-regarded paper is that the way the aid was allocated was according to a ranking rule. So there's a running variable and there's a cutoff at which point there are some communities just inside of the cutoff who are eligible and some just outside of the cutoff who are not eligible. And your listeners, who have just been through this, you should know this is regression discontinuity. This was like a built-in natural experiment, almost like an experiment. And they find that there's a certain violence in the barely eligible communities. And so that subsides, and who pays the... They're going out, they're targeting government actors. Who's engaged in the violence? Political actors. So the ones that are actually initiating the violence against state are political organizations, not criminal organizations.

And again, it's a reminder of the stakes of the work that we do, that we cannot just be focused on the first-order effects. We must think about the fact that we are embedding an intervention within a complex setting. We're not studying something in a vacuum. When we're making real policy, there are real effects, and we need to learn from that. I'll say one other thing real quick about that paper. So I really liked that paper. That's super nice. Very well written.

Hannah Balikci:

That's Aid Under Fire?

Austin Wright:

Yeah, Aid Under Fire, Joe Felter, Ben Crost. Excellent paper. The setting, though, is super interesting, and lends itself to other research, and got some friends at the World Bank who work on these problems, who think about the Philippines, who think about community-driven development. And one day, they came across a paper that claimed that this program led to extreme deforestation.

Okay, and I will say this was a bit of a wake-up call to me about, as a reminder, right, so to go back to this question earlier about ethical dimensions, sorry, you got to think about who you're partnering with. You got to evaluate, like, "Do I actually believe in the mission of what they do?" Because when you work with someone, potentially, you're giving them a nontrivial part of your life. You only got one life and you're taking that time, that scarce time, your most scarce resource, which is your time, you're giving it to this organization. And you've got to think about, "Am I ready to back their play? Are they serious about the work that they do, or am I just doing this in a transactional way?"

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

And I can tell you that when the World Bank found out about this, they came to me and they said, "Austin, you've thought about related projects quite a bit." And I was like, "Oh, I happen to know quite a bit about this context. I've read that paper way too many times." And they were like, "We want to know, is what they found right? We don't have people necessarily," to go back to the point earlier. They want to build out those technical skills, but they don't have people on their team, and that particular team who can go in and read that paper, and assess, "Is it actually credible that there's that level of deforestation?"

And so they came to me and they said, "We need your help. Could you please help us with this? Because if this is right, we will need to go in immediately. We're going to make a public statement. We're going to go issue restitution. We're going to go find a way to make those communities whole, and we will take this into consideration in future projects." Right? And that was that moment where I was like, "Oh." Like, I've been working with them. I like the work that they do. I think they're serious about the work that they do. They think about evidence. But I'd never been in a conversation like that, where a stakeholder was like, "If we messed up, it's not just, 'Oops,' it's like, we are going to go and make this right." And they were serious about this.

Jose Macias:

It's a lot of power to you. That's a lot of power, as a researcher to kind of drive that change.

Austin Wright:

Yeah, and pretty high stakes when somebody's like, "Hey, if-"

Jose Macias:

It's the World Bank.

Austin Wright:

"If you think this is right, if you think this project is right, we're going to go fix this problem. We'll fix it. We're going to allocate resources, we will take the reputational hit. But that's because we are seriously committed to change. We are seriously committed to the work of the World Bank." And it turns out, I mean, almost everything about that paper was wrong. So I had to go back and I rebuilt all the data behind this paper, and I re-estimated everything. And there were just flaws throughout. And the author had misinterpreted key elements of the regression. They interpreted the wrong coefficient. There were pre-existing level differences across these places, all sorts of things. The paper was just straight up wrong.

Jose Macias:

Oh, my gosh.

Austin Wright:

The whole thing was wrong, the whole thing was wrong.

Jose Macias:

What does it feel like when you find that out? When you just realized you just kind of... I mean, this is not a bad thing, but you kind of just destroyed a paper.

Austin Wright:

Yeah. Well, so what came of that was, and I'm glad that they came, I'm glad that they reached out, I'm glad that they realized they didn't have... Respect to them also for realizing they didn't have the technical skill to fully understand what was going on, so that what was happening. So shout out to them, and in addition to that, knowing that if it actually was valid, that they were going to do something about it. It's like, "This is important. This is a general life lesson that everybody who's listening to this podcast right now, know your limitations and surround yourself with people who can help you." And that's exactly what they did, because they knew their limitations. They went out and they found someone who could help them. And in the end, they were committed to change, if it needed to be changed. In the end, it didn't need to be changed because everything about that paper was wrong.

Now, I can tell you that they were very firm about their willingness to make restitution if something were wrong, that something that they had done did actually have this effect. But I can tell you that they applied equally zealous response when I told them that, "No, the paper was wrong," and they wanted to make it right. And this is the part where, Jose, your question is a serious one, which is like, look, there's fellow academic who made not just one error, but a series of errors, and I mean that, like every single thing in that paper was wrong.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

Every core result in the paper was misspecified, or incorrectly interpreted, or misrepresented. And in the end, I walked them back from the worst-case scenario that they wanted to engage in, to correct the record. And instead, I reached out to the researcher myself. I asked them to give me time to help guide them through the process so that they could arrive at their own decision to remove the paper from the internet. Now, yeah, so it's like, yeah, but that's tough, right? This is a hard thing. We have teachable moments, and that was a teachable moment. Those were mistakes that frankly should not have happened, right? But we all make mistakes. I have certainly made mistakes in what I've done. The work I do is incomplete. I mean, all of our work has mistakes and is incomplete, but that was one that was so profoundly wrong and profoundly wrong in a sense that it was meaningful from the policy side.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

And so it's crucial.

Jose Macias:


Austin Wright:

And again, so you ask, what's a paper to read?

Hannah Balikci:

Right, there we go. Yeah.

Austin Wright:

Pretty frigging awesome paper to read. And in addition, sets you up to think about a bunch of big-picture things.

Hannah Balikci:

Right, yeah. The last question we always ask in our interviews is what's something you wish we would've asked you that you want to talk about? And here's your space to... Whatever you want. What should we have asked you that we didn't?

Austin Wright:

About my sneaker collection.

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah, honestly.

Austin Wright:

Yeah. Honestly, it's the root of conflict.

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah. Go into it. Yeah.

Austin Wright:

I'm teasing, I'm teasing. No, I mean, I think that, look, the sneakers in my office are about to get [inaudible 01:26:02], I'm about to get real. Okay.

Jose Macias:

It's about $10,000 worth of sneakers and gold, just for everyone watching. They're all in case, he has level 39 security locks. It cannot be stolen.

Austin Wright:

Yeah. My door is definitely not unlocked all the time.

Jose Macias:

There's definitely not exams on the table.

Austin Wright:

Definitely. Yeah, exactly. There's definitely not the answers to the final exam. No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. They're not there. So if you're listening to this-

Jose Macias:

This is not an advertisement.

Austin Wright:

This is not an advertisement for All right, so I think that I was joking about the shoes, but I do actually think there's something meaningful that connects back, which is that, so the shoes are there in part because I needed to get them out of my house, because my kids would mess them up. But big picture, look, we all carry with us the residues of our past. We all carry with us the things that have happened to us before, and the experiences that we've had, and the things that we grew up with, and the things that I grew up with is a lack. And it wasn't because my parents didn't work hard. They worked really hard, but there were things that they could not do for me, and some of the reasons why they couldn't do that were outside of their control. But for me, those shoes are a representation of the fact that, in some ways, I've made it. Yeah, I can flex a little bit.

Jose Macias:

You can get the nice things, you know?

Austin Wright:

Yeah, you can get the nice things.

Jose Macias:

No more Payless shoes, man.

Austin Wright:

Wow. Yeah. No more Payless shoes. Well, yeah.

Jose Macias:

There's nothing wrong with Payless shoes.

Austin Wright:

There's nothing wrong with Payless shoes, shout out.

Jose Macias:

They minted this whole generation of scholars here, okay?

Hannah Balikci:

Right, yeah.

Austin Wright:

Shout out to Goodwill, keeping your boy in the flex. But I mean, real, real, for me, those shoes are a manifestation of the fact that I made it out of a bad situation. I mean, not a bad situation. Well, yeah, a bad situation, I guess that's pretty straight up, you know the situation.

Jose Macias:

Yeah, you got to own it. You got to own it.

Austin Wright:

It was a situation that I am extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to move beyond. And for me, the shoes are a very real manifestation of that fact. They're a visual reminder every time I walk into my office that you got to keep it fresh. But also, it's a reminder that with hard work and with dedication combined with luck and opportunity, all is possible, right? And yeah, I mean, to me, when I think about development, when I think about the hard questions that are behind the podcast, when I think about the roots of conflict, these are roots of economic progress, and development, and justice, and security, and prosperity, all of these things intersect with one another. And that's just a very real physical manifestation in my office. It's a visual cue to remind myself that I have, in some ways, made it. Now, there are still other very real things that are constant reminders in my life that the work is not done yet, right?

But every now and then, it's okay to also take time and say, "Look, I've worked hard and I'm going to get myself this nice thing as a reward for the fact that I work hard. And as a reminder of the fact that with hard work comes, hopefully, the fruit that your labor bears." And for me, it just happens to be Jordan 1s. And I think other things that I like about my office, I've got a lot of things. I have a bent piston in there, the arm is bent, and it's a reminder, "Don't get bent out of shape, otherwise you're going to do what? Because that engine blew up." Which for me is not just that, right?

It's a reminder that where I came from, I came from a house where I was destined to be a mechanic. And there was absolutely, shout out to my mechanics listening to the podcast, there's nothing wrong with being a mechanic. There's nothing wrong with hard, manual labor. The world revolves around people who are willing to do tasks like that, right? But it's a reminder that when I was growing up, education was not a priority, that, if anything, I was told not to take education seriously. And that was the path that I was on. It's kind of a reminder of that, in addition to being a reminder not to get bent out of shape, otherwise you're going to blow up. And I've got other things in my office that they're little tokens of the life that I've led, right? I have all these cards. I have a thesis, a bound thesis of a student that I advised ages ago who's now at Harvard in the PhD program, shout out to Maria, and she went through DPSS.

Jose Macias:

Yes, I remember, I remember.

Austin Wright:

Yeah, she was a TA, and it is a reminder of what you can enable in others. And I've had the great fortune of people who enjoy my teaching style, and I love them for it, and I appreciate the things that they shower on me. And I try and keep as many of those little things in my office as a reminder, because every now and then, you have a really bad day, right? And we all have really bad days. You have a really bad day, and you need the reminder that it's okay. There's always going to be me and [inaudible 01:31:33], and today was a bad day. But with tomorrow, with hard work, I can go and recast things and rebuild things. But yeah, no, maybe that was the thing I wanted you to ask, because I wanted to explain, because often people walk by my office and be like... Their reaction is a bit mixed.

If you're faculty, they walk by and they're like, "This is the most extraordinary unprofessional office I've ever been in. And there should be books here instead of sneakers, I don't understand." And other people will walk by and they'll be like, "Well, these are really nice sneakers. It's cool. Why do you keep them here?£ And it's like, "Okay, here's a straightforward answer." And then there are the people who are like, they realize, we lock eyes and they know, because they know my past, and they know that it's a physical manifestation of something that I get to keep there as a reminder, both that I've done hard work, and with that comes rewards, but also a reminder that I remember what it was like and I remember what it was like to be in those communities. And those are the exact place... Those are the exact people that we hope that through the work of Pearson, through the work that you all talk about on this podcast, that we can change, that we can support them, so that they realize that their outside option is not necessarily to participate in the unproductive economy.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Professor Austin Wright. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Jose Macias and Hannah Balikci. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website,, and follow them on Twitter @PearsonInst. Inst is spelled I-N-S-T. Thank you.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:33:28]


Root of Conflict


Gendered Dimensions of Conflict | Maliha Chishti

How do war and conflict give rise to gender-based violence? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Maliha Chishti, an assistant instructional professor at the Divinity School and an associate of The Pearson Institute. Her core research interests are international peacebuilding, security, and development, as well as gender and human rights in post-conflict contexts. We talk about gender-based violence in the context of war, Dr. Chishti’s work in passing Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and the complexities of humanitarian aid implementation today.

Hannah Balikci:

Hi, this is Hannah and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs and use data analytics to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

How do war and conflict give rise to gender-based violence? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Maliha Chishti, an assistant instructional professor at the Divinity School and an associate of The Pearson Institute. Her core research interests are international peace building, security and development, as well as gender and human rights in post-conflict contexts. We talk about gender-based violence in the context of war, Dr. Chishti's work in passing Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the complexities of humanitarian aid implementation today.

Hi, my name is Hannah Balikci. I'm a second-year MPP student at The Pearson School.

Julia Higgins:

Hi there, my name is Julia Higgins. I'm a second-year student at the Harris School and a Pearson fellow.

Rabail Sofi:

Hi, my name's Rabail Sofi. I'm a second-year student at [inaudible 00:01:26].

Hannah Balikci:

I wanted to thank Dr. Maliha Chishti for joining us today in studio. Thank you so much for coming.

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Thank you for having me.

Hannah Balikci:

We wanted to start off the conversation by asking you to introduce yourself and your work.

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. Yes. I am Assistant Instructional Professor here at the Harris School of Public Policy, but I've also joined faculty at the Divinity School, and my field of research is the intersections of religion, culture, gender and politics, specifically addressing issues of women in war affected regions with a specialization in Afghanistan.

Julia Higgins:

Great. I think we'll have an amazing opportunity to get into some of those topics today. I think a good place to start off would be your previous work and how maybe they relate to the current moment and various situations unfolding across the globe. So we know that your doctoral thesis focused on conflict analysis and post-colonial critique in Afghanistan. And according to our research, you argue that the US's intervention constructed, "An outwardly oriented state responsive to the desires and needs of the international community rather than being inwardly oriented and responsive to the needs, expectations and lived realities of the majority of Afghans." So we're curious, as a researcher, do you observe any parallels between this analysis and how scholars will characterize you as support and funding of conflicts that are still ongoing?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Well, you really did your homework. I haven't looked that dissertation in a while. Well, my work really merges two ideas together, ideas that come out, academic research and also ideas that circulate in the practitioner community. So I am an academic practitioner or a scholar activist, and half of my life has been to try and understand how foreign aid operates in war affected countries or it operates in Third World countries. And then to try and extrapolate that in the field theory, critical theory, post-colonial analysis and development of thought and development thinking to merge those ideas together. And the dissertation was a launching pad for me to do that. And then as I was thinking through the impact of war on women, for example, in Afghanistan, you see the same kind of trends happening across the war on terror in other sort of war hotspots. And so my work has been to sort of see these intersections of empire and how empire is connected to foreign aid and how that intervenes and gets resisted, gets reconfigured and remapped by communities.

So the best case is Afghan women. And so my research from that dissertation has moved on to a very specific focus on the impact of war on Afghan women and the global war on terror specifically, which has been an outstanding failure. And what I was writing about 10 years ago, it's almost haunting because when I was defending that dissertation, there was a lot of hope in the air that the goals and the intentions of the war on terror were operating, were happening, were unfolding. But as we found out for 20 years, much of what was happening, we didn't know about. The Washington Post published a series of interviews, 600 interviews called the Afghanistan Papers, that have been declassified. There were interviews with high ranking US government officials at the State Department, the DOD, international agencies, including Afghans.

And essentially, the headline, if you were to summarize the headline of the Afghanistan, was to clearly call out colossal strategic failure of the war on terror in Afghanistan and that how most Americans and Canadians, because I'm a Canadian, didn't know we were sort of shielded from the magnitude of that failure. So we kept supporting it, supporting it, and that support sort of ebbed and flowed. But nevertheless, we're here with the Brown University's cost of war project report that was just published that puts a dollar amount on that failure. And that's $8 trillion with close to 1 million deaths. Deaths of who? Deaths of civilians and combatants as well as journalists and humanitarian workers. And so we're sort of sitting here and having to come to grips with that or perhaps we've moved on.

Julia Higgins:

And I think that quantification aspect is something that we are always sort of keeping in context here at the Harris School. Really interesting to hear about that new research. I think also to continue on this vein, we're curious, have you observed a shift in people's understanding of the US's definition of the war on terror since we pulled out of Afghanistan? And how do you characterize that now?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Right. I think that the war on terror has always been this phantom, it's ambiguous. It's never quite solidified. The terrorist is this elusive figure that comes in and out. And it's very much trope that is given to sort of a singular entity, and that would be Muslim. It doesn't matter if somebody else commits those same acts of terror in other countries, there are racialized differently, et cetera. But the label of terrorists has been targeted almost very specifically to Muslims. And so I think that that trope remains, and it's useful to have, I think, because it's easy to embark on it and then validate and mobilize a war machine to go after it.

And so now, for those academic scholars, activists, organizations that are starting to come to grips with what the war on terror is, especially as we receive these kinds of reports that are coming out of Browns University that call it a colossal failure, then hoping that mainstream Americans and westerners can start to critically interrogate it and to critically interrogate the underlying assumptions, biases and ideas that are associated with them. It's not to say that the entirety of the war on terror is false, it's not. But it's to say that we have a lot of critical work to do as academics, as activists, as citizens to find out what really is at the core of it. That's a conversation that I don't think happens.

Julia Higgins:

Incredibly helpful analysis for us. And now I think we'd like to switch gears just a little bit to transition into a discussion about gender-based violence in the context of war overall. I'll start us off with maybe a question about the gendered media framing that happens a lot of the times in the context of civilian deaths. So many news outlets seem to apply what we see as an inherently gendered lens in their reporting. So for instance, commonly cited reframe in recent headlines is that, to date, two thirds of those killed in Gaza are women or children. And on one hand, this is a factual demographic statement that deserves acknowledgement, but on the other hand, it may portray female agency in a way that is less than optimal. So can you walk us through what you think about the utility of this media framing?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. So maybe we can step back a little bit and talk about Women, Peace and Security. So Women, Peace and Security is framework that engages women's organizations on the ground, international organizations, the UN states, researchers, et cetera. The core underlying idea WPS is that women are disproportionately impacted by war and protracted conflicts. Since I think the 20th century, women and children and the elderly are disproportionately killed in wars. And so the context that's happening in Gaza and reporting that over two thirds are women, that's not new for those of us who research the impact of war on women. Now, I think given that idea of the Security Council Resolution 1325, which very specifically underpins the Women, Peace and Security framework, that Security Council resolution is historic because it's the first time that the UN took women seriously, frankly, and understood that there is a disproportionate impact of war on women.

And because it kind of creates the overarching framework, that piece of resolution, I think, is very important. I helped to draft that resolution, I helped to conceptualize that resolution, and I helped to push it through at the UN. Part of the significance of that resolution is to recognize that women are killed and that they are victims. So one, that they are victims, but second, they have agency, meaning that they are at the forefront in every war context since the 1990s that we have recorded that are promoting peace, that are crossing ideological, religious, tribal, whatever boundaries of difference, protracted difference, women have been sort of peacemakers, peace negotiators, bringing communities together. But their sort of roles are seldom formalized, meaning they're never really sitting at peace negotiation tables. Their voices are muted in international processes of peace negotiation and Security Council 1325 acknowledges that and their important role in rebuilding countries, so peace building and post-conflict recovery.

Back to that question, I have found it troubling. Now, despite we're in an age of sexual media, the narratives of what's happening in Gaza with women aren't coming from women in Gaza. And if they're coming, they are incredibly held in suspect, they're suspicious. They're like, "Well, I'm not quite sure if that's what all women are actually experiencing," death, displacement, hunger. And so you have an interesting sort of situation that unfold that establishment and those in the hierarchy of power at the top, mediate the voices of and start to sift through them. They're not talking to AP, they're not talking to Al Jazeera, they're not talking to CNN, they're talking to local women's organizations. They're talking to local networks and they are mobilizing and engaging in advocacy work for themselves. But we are not really hearing it, or if we're hearing it, we're not prioritizing it. And that's the tragedy, is to look at the mechanisms of power that are in place that mute, silence and marginalize these very critical voices.

Hannah Balikci:

Just one thing to go back on, would you mind just explaining or talking about Security Resolution 1325 and some of the main points and what it's done since it's been enacted? Just sort of for our audience that may not know.

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. So Security Council Resolution 1325, it's considered a landmark resolution, as I've mentioned. First time the United Nations Security Council addresses women as part of their mandate, which is to promote international peace and security. The Resolution 1325 has three core frameworks. One is the protection of women in armed conflict. The second is the analysis and the understanding that women should be at the peace table, so they should be negotiating peace settlements. And the third, that women are active participants in the recovery of their society, so they're a critical role in peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. So that particular resolution has subsequently created a bunch of new resolutions on the block, so to speak, and they're addressing sort of very different issues.

Now, this resolution is important because it's coming out of women's voices and women's organizations for the decade. So the United Nations Conference on Women held these caucuses of women in armed conflict. And herein, you had women from around the world for the first time, gathering every 10 years and documenting what they were experiencing in wars. And the international women's movement, academics, et cetera, started to take notice of that because the armed conflict caucuses at the women's conference were flooded with, there were just very engaged dynamic, really. And so everybody was trying to figure out what was going on, what was going on. And we noticed that what women were enduring, we had very little idea about.

So this was coming from the global south, saying that these wars, over 114 in the 1990s, Rwanda, Bosnia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Liberia, et cetera, these women were gathered together and they were looking at how their impact of their particular war was the same in so many ways. And the international women's movement documented those experiences. And the specific attention was sexual violence, that women were used as weapons of war, their bodies were foils of war. Their bodies, their honor was a weapon of war used to manipulate war. And so from that conversation, including 1325, was the first time that the international community recognized rape as a weapon of war and rape as a war crime.

Rabail Sofi:

I know you just mentioned sexual violence and war, and that's actually one of the sections that we're interested in learning more about, because right now we are seeing a lot of sexual violence in conflict zones across the world. We know that the use of sexual torture against Palestinians specifically, since that's really trending right now, is extensively documented since 1948, whether it's in Israeli prisons or during the midnight raids that are going on or just at checkpoints in general, we see that these are sexual violence structures of militarization. And taking this next question away from Gaza and what's happening in Palestine, could you dive a little more deeper into how war gives rise to sexual and gender-based violence?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

So violence against women and sexual violence against women particularly is one act of ethnic cleansing because it targets women's bodies as holding national honor for their ethnicity, their state, their people. And so by dishonoring women, you dishonor the nation and you virtually collapse society. So there's a lot that's been written about it in the context of Rwanda and Bosnia. In fact, what has been so courageous in world history is the testimonies that came out of Bosnia and the massive sexual assaults and rapes. And the testimonies given by those women for the international community to view and to prosecute and recognize rape as a war crime. So that's really imperative that we understand that it's not that it's just not women alone, but that the idea is intentional. It is intentional in the context of those that seek to pursue policies of ethnic cleansing. And they will target women, in fact, to kill women, to target women, to rape women, to impregnate women, to forcefully transmit aids to women. These are all sort of documented across the wars and that they happen regularly.

And now there's a lot of international attention to it. What I think I really want to say is that we're in a very difficult situation right now where we're clawing back from positioning the centrality of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, Geneva conventions, Rome statutes. So we collectively experienced in the 1990s wars I was mentioning, is a new, actually post-World War II, international apparatus of human rights humanitarian law. And we had a lot of formidable new institutions in place like the international criminal court, for example. When we willfully do not recognize violations of international humanitarian law, when we see genocide and don't call it genocide, when we see rape as a crime, as a weapon of war and we don't call it out, when we see indiscriminate killing of civilians and we don't call it out in the language of international law, but we politicize it or provincial it or even sort of ghettoize it as a foreign policy issue of another state, then we essentially crumble the very foundations that we've worked so hard to build up. And then calling out human rights violations in the world becomes hypocritical.

And here's what I'm going to say is the most, what we do when we don't call it out is we practice Western. If we don't apply the very laws that we have created in terms of a civilized society that is bounded by law, that's the whole Western post-Enlightenment project. Isn't it? So when we see it, don't call it, then what are we saying? Either we're saying that the entire international apparatus of humanitarian law, human rights isn't really real, we don't really want to put too much into it. Or we're saying that Palestinians are subhuman, they're not full human beings, their full personhood doesn't count and so it's okay to not apply international law to them. And then when you say that, I don't know, you don't say that out loud, but when you don't have uniformity, especially at the level of the United States foreign policy and statements coming out of the White House calling it a genocide. If it looks like a genocide, talks like a genocide, it's a genocide.

And it's not a genocide because out of moral outrage, it's a genocide because a genocide has a legal definition. That legal definition has been met. And South Africa has compiled 84 pages outlining what that genocide is, evidence-based, and has taken it to the international [inaudible 00:21:58]. And we know that, you look through that document, it's written by lawyers, many international humanitarian lawyers, many lawyers have already called it out. So for us to be in a context here, the year 2024, where the White House is very reticent at calling it the G-word, then we're in hot trouble. We're in hot trouble in the context of how we have become complete warmongering instead of promoting peace. And the fact that we're hesitant to call for a ceasefire, that calling for a ceasefire is becoming politicized, we're in hot waters. And I'm really nervous about what kind of messaging we're sending to the rest of the world coming out of the United States. That messaging is terrifying because we have just folded our tents, gone home and likely the charges against us as being bias, of being lawless are rightly to be considered.

Rabail Sofi:

Thank you so much for mentioning international law, giving that context. I think it's super helpful for our audience. Kind of going back to what you said about testimonials, bringing up Bosnia, Rwanda, we are seeing a lot of very violent forms of violence, sexual violence specifically. Whether it's leaked or just shared, we are of course seeing this in Palestine, we saw this happen in New Iraq, we also saw a lot of stuff leak from Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on the lack of coverage of sexual violence perpetrated by [inaudible 00:23:44]?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. It's the lack of coverage in mainstream media.

Rabail Sofi:


Dr. Maliha Chishti:

But it's solid coverage in social media and alternative media and in the media outlets of the non-Western world. And so that, to me, is a very striking look at what is going on and how our media communications, at least formally, institutionally, is implicated in war machinery. And I think that the average person knows that. I'm probably a rare breed, I'm not on TikTok, I'm not on Instagram, I'm not on whatever else there is, but I am close to other people who sort of have these perspectives and whose perspectives have changed, who have a sense of what's happening in the world because mainstream media is biased. Right? And for those who study media politics, media communications, Noam Chomsky 101. Right? So we know manufactured consent, manufactured media and how media is very closely related to government. So that's why I think that the fact that people and people grouped in social movements are aware and circulate these testimonies, who believe these testimonies, that's what's really important is that when they see women in Gaza, they don't stop and say, "Oh, who is she? And maybe she's faking her tears."

Whereas in the vetting, looking at these images and immediately holding them suspect, that doesn't happen in social media. It's actually quite democratized. So we have much more real dialogue debate that happens on these alternative media platforms than we do by institutional media. And so I don't actually even think of mainstream media as a source of credible information anymore. I don't even want to be validated in those outlets. And I don't think that I'm alone. I think that we're now increasingly looking at alternative media podcasts. I watch a lot of YouTube podcasts. And what's happening is that it's interesting because the people that are in these alternative media podcasts, they're the ones that are doing such interesting work. They would never be given hope, a guest spot on CNN or Fox News, et cetera. So in that sense, I think that as much as it's shut down in mainstream media, it's not in global media.

And I think it's very important for us here in the United States to start to peer into what news outlets are saying in other parts of the world, go on to the news sites. I actually read newspapers in Afghanistan, phenomenal news. They write about what's happening in their country that you can't get a hold of here. It's never interesting. It never makes the cut. You can find out what's happening in Palestine by engaging in news outlets in Jordan, in Egypt. And many of them are circulating in English. And so we do have spots of credible news stories and these atrocities being understood, validated and circulated.

Julia Higgins:

Thank you. I think one of the things that we wanted to ask you was just related to that, what sort of people and or news outlets would you recommend, people want to get more news directly from, as you say, Egypt or Jordan? Is there anything that comes to mind? I think the direct news, I also find that, and especially reading the news in the language is really a helpful way, which not everybody can do, but now there's so many translation services that people could use. Is there a way that we could add, that we could uplift voices directly from these places of war or that any sort of... Are there specific organizations and/or media sources that you think are doing good work in terms of uplifting these voices in a way that isn't making it to mainstream media? And how does the democratization of media in terms of social media either enhanced or detract from uplifting these voices?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. So in the context of women's voices, I would suggest that people look into local women's organizations. And every major women's organization across the world has some kind of a website or some kind of a platform where they circulate ideas. Like for example, in Afghanistan, RAWA, which is Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, it's the largest national secular organization in the country. It repeatedly posts these really impressive press releases that nobody but me reads, but right.

Hannah Balikci:

Right, yeah.

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Nobody reads in the west. And I always look and I look at the analysis and I find it so engaging and so refreshing. And I think when we de-center the analysis from Western outlets and we earnestly look to see what the majority of the world is thinking about it, then we'll be intrigued and we can have engaging analysis and you can really help to have a more comprehensive understanding.

So looking at women's organizations and you can just do basic Google searches for local women's organizations and go navigate on their websites. You can do that with local headlines in different countries, they all pop up. It's really easy to get that information if you are interested in it and you're interested in reading about. And also I would say to read authors that are based in those countries. If you're interested in feminist writings, for example, I read their works, their understanding, their analysis. And what that tells us is it almost opens the world's, what the real perspective is on issues, that it's just not us in our little silo conversations, we're just talking amongst ourselves. But when you kind of have a conversation, and by conversation I mean when you hook into these perspectives from around the world, you get a really good sense. They're just enriching and they're important to read. And I'll give you an example. You've had Professor Amal Hamada on, right?

Hannah Balikci:


Dr. Maliha Chishti:

She is so brilliant. I had a meeting with her. We both teach the same course. I teach women peace and security here at the University of Chicago. She teaches a similar course on gender insecurity at the University of Cairo. And we were talking about 1325. And I just started talking about, "Oh, my students engage with 1325 in this way and that way." And do you know what she said about Egyptian women in her classes? They said, "We don't care about it." And I was kind of held back by it. I'm like, "What? It's such an important landmark resolution."

And she said, "No, they don't care because they say that the western world infringes on human rights, international law, on all of these resolutions, they themselves push them through and are the first to walk away. So why should we even think about it? Why do we have to frame our conversation as era of women on the context of a western instrument that is flagrantly violated at every point by those same powers that push it through and promote it?"

And I thought, "Huh, well that's really interesting. And wouldn't it be interesting if our students got together and had a conversation about it?" So imagine how enriching that is for us to get a sense of how other people perceive what we value. Where I'm thinking the only pathway out of this situation is international humanitarian law, there's a pushback from a group of Egyptian women at a university that's like, "No, that's not our only pathway." And so I'm intrigued. Well, what's your pathway? How do we get out of this mess? And they might have something very intriguing to say.

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah, absolutely. She was our last guest on the podcast. So when looking at these questions, noticing a similar pattern in terms of the work that we would be talking about. And one similar, something on the same lines as Dr. Hamada's work is how do gender dynamics, cultural norms and societal expectations shape the experiences and roles of women in longstanding conflict, whether that's Palestine, Afghanistan, sort of global?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. I think in the context of conflict, there are multiple competing roles that women take on. We know that. We know that know that most women become female headed households overnight. 10,000 children in Gaza have no fathers right now, since October 7th, that number has increased, but the last time UN Women reported it. And so that thrusts women into roles of mothers and mothers as providers and managing resources and maneuvering already shortages of humanitarian aid, taking on the toll of displacement. What does displacement do of 82% of people in Gaza right now? I mean, just one conflict that's right in front of us. These families are displaced and women are at the forefront of having to take on multiple roles just for survival. So the survival, the resilience and taking on multiple roles and also claiming victimhood too. That's a profound role to be in where you are yourself a victim, but you have no choice but to be resilient and strong and be an income provider or a primary caregiver for the most vulnerable and the weakest in your household.

Hannah Balikci:

Yeah, just related to migration, according to UN Women, the conflict has resulted in close to 493,000 women and girls being displaced from their homes. And related to that, how can we begin to think about the generational ripple effects of forced migration on women and girls in the generations to come.

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

The trauma that is happening and the implications of that trauma. There's been such important documentaries actually that came out of Palestine over the last wars in Gaza in 2014, I'm thinking about, and I saw a really interesting film, short film documentary. A young woman who every day woke up in terror because of the bombs that she experienced and the deaths that were happening around her in 2014. And this was years later. So imagine that one documentary was just tracking the life of one woman and you compound that with a population of two million. And what are the implications of that trauma? How does that trauma implicated impact women in their everyday roles? Dreams that were squashed, lives that were killed, identities that were dismantled. And sort of like a quandary, how does a population in such a confined area then rebuild, restore, recover? There are people that specialize in that. I certainly don't know. But I can imagine that we were so caught in the conflict right now, but implications and the reverberations of this conflict are many years going to be unfolding very specific lives, lives of children, women and men.

Julia Higgins:

Right. And just continuing that thread and maybe continuing on specifically using Gaza case studies, since we've gotten into it a bit, we've seen that each day there are 180 women approximately giving birth without water, painkillers, anesthesia for C-sections, electricity, medical supplies. We also know that mothers have been reported to mix baby formula with contaminated water and to go without food for days on end so that their children can eat. And so situations like this really necessitates a need for humanitarian aid. So we're curious, and I know this touches on a bit of your work more broadly, what role do you think the international community plays in ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches women and children in conflict settings and how we increase it?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Right. The compounding tragedies here is the inability of the ceasefire. And that ceasefire is so critical because it's the pathway for humanitarian aid to come through and for international humanitarian actors, well established in the international community, meaning that when there is a war and an emergency, they are deployed and they get there. And I understand that humanitarian aid and humanitarian emergencies are just fraught with other kinds of complexities. Now putting that aside, I do believe a hundred percent that local actors are able to get needs that are being deprived, like basic water, access to water, access to medicine, access to food that has to come in. And the fact that we haven't had, the United States has blocked that is just devastating. It's devastating. And the fact that journalists and humanitarian, UN workers have been killed.

I don't know, but I did read that the death of humanitarian workers has been quite alarming in the Gaza conflict. And so the international community should be alarmed at that. That means that if humanitarian aid workers are not safe in a place, nobody's safe. And that if humanitarian aid workers cannot move their work forward to helping the most desperate and the most vulnerable, then that is a real emergency. And I just feel like, how much more do we have to say about it? At every corner that you go, why are we even having that kind of a conversation? Right? Why is a ceasefire so politicized? Why is access to humanitarian aid so complicated? We have the international instruments, we have the resources, we have the money, we have the people. That can happen in a second. It really can. And so to make a claim for it, to now have to rationalize it, pull out numbers and red flag it, to me, it's really heartbreaking actually.

Rabail Sofi:

I don't have the data on hand at the moment, which I should have prepared, but I know that humanitarian aid workers are being killed or are dying at an increasing grade in conflict zones just around the world. And whether or not humanitarian aid is a human right, I believe that humanitarian aid shouldn't be politicized in that sense. It should just be a neutral thing that should be provided. Do you think that there's, whether or not it's the western institutions that are surrounding humanitarian aid and/or the multilateral institutions like the UN, is there some sort of, I don't know if you've seen this in your research, is there a shift in perspective of these organizations that either their legitimacy or the perspectives of the people on the ground have changed that results in politicizing them more? Or I don't know, is there a way that you think perspectives have changed of western institutions that are resulting in this change in humanitarian aid, the politicization of humanitarian aid?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Right. So yeah. That's a very distinct conversation and there's a lot to say about that. Humanitarian aid has always been politicized. You had, for example, what's called the CNN, [inaudible 00:40:46] nurture. So you have where there is greater media attention, all of a sudden that particular conflict or that humanitarian disaster receives an inflow of resources. But there could be the exact same conflict somewhere else that doesn't receive, either it's completely ignored or it receives a trickle amount. And so many who kind of talk about the politics of humanitarian aid, look at how humanitarian aid isn't always equal or fair across conflicts or across disasters. And we know that because so much money went into Kosovo, but nothing went to Rwanda during the genocide, oh, until much later. So that often becomes the case study of comparing the politics of humanitarian aid.

But to speak sort of loudly, not loudly, to speak generally, and loudly, about international organizations generally. So there is the politics of international development organizations or humanitarian organizations or human rights organizations. They have in different countries a reputation. And much of how they operate often is related to the kind of politics that they're part of in the context of that war or that conflict. In Afghanistan, for example, we know for certain that a majority of Afghans wanted to keep a distance from international organizations. International organizations and the international community, in Kabul, when I was there, they were often referred to cows that drink their own milk, meaning there was a sense that these organizations were just here for their advancements of their careers, were just kind of throwing money here and there, willy-nilly. There wasn't sort of well-thought-out, there was a sense they duplicated and replicated work, didn't engage Afghans or had considered Afghans as just passive recipients instead of active agents in the recovery of their own society.

So that kind of sort of stuck. And we had a Kabul bubble where you had really a paradise for international aid workers coming in, staying at the best hotels, having the best salaries, really coming in for a year and then moving on to the next war zone because it was all about climbing the career ladder. And people notice that. People recognize that this kind of community that's coming in to support us, strengthen us, rebuild us is actually in it for themselves, perhaps more so than us. And we know that clearly from the Afghanistan Papers that were published by the Washington Post, where the United States government officials were actually saying explicitly that, well, we really didn't know what we were doing. We had no stated goals and we were a self licking ice cream cone, meaning money just came in, we have to spend it. We really didn't care about evaluating what we were doing. We were sort of building this, rebuilding that, and there was no accountability. And we know that as a fact, by SIGAR, the inspector general for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, that millions of dollars were wasted. And the end of that is a country, does it look any different than it did in 2000? 20 years, billions of dollars of aid, so many deaths. And if you go right back to Kabul and you were there at 2000, maybe better buildings maybe. Maybe one or two, if they haven't been blown apart. That's telling, that's really telling

Julia Higgins:

I think on this thread of sort of what you're characterizing as the misdeeds and mistrust of these institutions and some of your previous work as well in the context of post-coloniality could be an interesting place to go forward from here. From our view, calls for decolonization include neocolonialism. And for me, the actions of these multilateral institutions, whether that be the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, fall under that scope. So I'm curious from your perspective, what does a better vision for the redistribution of wealth from the global north to the global south look like? And can we talk about that bit?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

Sure. Well, if we go back to Afghanistan, let's establish one very important fact. And this was marked Montgomery and Rondinelli in a report, that published report that came out really early 2003, 2004. They said that the international community [inaudible 00:45:55] in Afghanistan with 50 years of institutional knowledge of how to do peace building and development [inaudible 00:46:06]. And they applied none of it. So we need to have a conscientious pause, why foreign aid organizations and actors arrive in a country they know nothing about and start to rebuild it without drawing from 50 years of institutional knowledge in the knowledge banks of these institutions, World Bank, USAID. We have the toolkits, we have the tools, we've been doing this for 50 plus years. And so I'm not saying you're not supposed to make mistakes, of course you're supposed to mistakes, but we were making mistakes of lessons that we already learned in other places that we kept making those mistakes over and over and over again without any accountability or transparency.

And so that lackadaisical approach to doing development, just kind of like, "Oh, let's see," that is clearly conveyed in the work, testimonies, US officials. So when that sort of happens, then you have a clear idea that there is continuity of what we would call colonial modalities, which are hierarchical relations of those who know and those who do not know, those who are experts and those who are just beneficiaries and they're passive. And so if foreign aid is built on a hierarchy of us and them, and us are always the ones that know everything, we have all the money, we have the discourse, we have the language, we have the funding, the programs, plans, and they are merely recognized as empty passive vessels. And so when you have any aid relationship that is situated in that kind of binary, that is neo-colonial, that is clearly a colonial modality.

And so if you operate on the basis of relationship where Afghans do not contribute to the thought process, imagining, interpreting, understanding their social, political, economic recoveries for themselves on their land, in their country, and foreigners who have no training, who are hopping from conflict to conflict arrive and have the power to create the pathway, this country's politics, economic, social structure and then we want to peer into changing culture, that, you don't sort of look at it in that framework. And if you don't have an understanding of coloniality as a concept, then you would be wondering, "Well, this is just the way aid is done." It's not the way aid is done, it's how aid is appropriated within this colonial matrix of power. And it doesn't have to be because every community that I've worked in the world is open to a collaboration with the international community.

It's not that they want to collapse that collaboration, but they are all incredibly wary and suspicious of the kinds of relations that are fostered, and those relations are not equal and those relations are not liberal. And those relations don't allow for the autonomous, sort of intellectual and social political development of societies on their own terms, using their own language, using their own discourses. Right? We enter Afghanistan, enter any part of the world, and we roll out the carpet of our discourse.

For example, I do gender work. In all of the countries that I work with, there is no equivalent word of gender. Gender isn't in the language of Afghanistan, we have to make it up. In Arab countries, in Ordu, Pakistan, everybody's like, "Okay, let's just use your word. Let's just use your terminology." And so if we can conceptualize an idea of a collaboration where it's truly based on solidarity, it's based on equity and it's based on democratizing conversations, then the international interventions that are happening in Afghanistan will look very different from Gaza, which will look very different from Somalia, Bosnia, Latin America. But the fact that aid organizations treat all of these countries the exact same way, I can take a program, conceptualize a program and roll it out in all of these countries without changing anything, that should be politicized. And that is what we call neocolonialism.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you so much for that. So we will just conclude now, if there was a book, a paper or a website that you recommend public policy students can take away, what would you recommend?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

All right. So when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I was fortunate because I learned from a number of amazing scholars that were born and raised and had their education outside of the western world. And Professor George Day had a very strong influence in cultivating my understanding of the need to constantly triangulate, situate, engage and negotiate my thoughts with scholars from the global south and to read them because they're rarely published in western peer review journals. And so he made that comment that if you're just reading what western educated scholars prioritize, then you're really missing out, and especially if your intent is to understand what's happening in the world. And so he encouraged us to read the work of scholars based in Africa that were having a conversation amongst themselves. And many of them are published in western peer review journals, but many of them are not.

And they meet regularly and they publish online. And you kind of get a sense of what conversations or issues are happening on that continent in ways that we sometimes don't have access to. So the website is CODESRIA, it's the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. And I'm looking at the website right now, it is so much better, more accessible, user-friendly than, they sort of publish a newsletter called Africa Development. And there's a lot of interesting ideas and physicians around women, peace and security as well [inaudible 00:53:03] find and engage with these scholars that are writing it.

Julia Higgins:

That's great. We'll be sure to plug that for our listeners. Thank you. And then lastly, to close out in the spirit of learning from our previous work, what is something that you wish we would've asked you in today's conversation that we didn't?

Dr. Maliha Chishti:

I think the centrality of ethics, which is something that I am increasingly finding we're not talking about. We're moving towards politicizing and a lot of ideology in our understanding of what's happening and what's unfolding the world. And I really feel that ethics has been lost and I've lost it myself because I have realized I'm not trained in. And what I'm positioned into right now is to understand development or politics or war in the context of ethics and morality. And these are conversations that probably now that I'm attached to the Divinity School, they are circulating more in the Divinity School than they are in public policy. And I think a bridge between those two schools, and where I probably think I too can benefit being in both schools, is to start to really deeply engage this beyond theory and into sort of an ethical, moral framework of understanding of war and peace. And in doing so, I think that maybe I'm going to try and find some answers as to why peace has become so problematic.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Dr. Maliha Chishti. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Rabail Sofi and Julia Higgins. Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on The Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website, and follow them on Twitter, @PearsonInst, Inst spelled I-N-S-T.


Root of Conflict


Mothers and Peacebuilding | Amal Hamada

What role do mothers play in counterterrorism efforts? Within conflict, women have traditionally been viewed as victims that need protecting; however, their involvement is much more nuanced than that. In this episode, we speak with Amal Hamada, a professor of political science and gender studies at Cairo University. We talk about the role of gender when discussing conflict, the women’s movement in Iran, and Palestinian mothers today. 

Hannah Balikci:

Hello, this is Hannah and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. What is the role of mothers and counter-terrorism efforts? Within conflict, women have traditionally been viewed as victims that need protecting. However, their involvement is much more nuanced than that. In this episode, we speak with Professor Amal Hamada, professor of political science and gender studies at Cairo University. We talk about the role of gender when discussing conflict, the women's movement in Iran, and Palestinian mothers today.

Jordan Enos:

My name is Jordan Enos. I'm a second year master in public policy student and a Pearson fellow.

Raphael Rony Antony:

Hi, I'm Raphael Rony Antony and I'm a first year MPP student and a first time podcast recorder.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Hi, I'm Isabella Pestana. I'm a first year MPP student and a Pearson fellow.

Jordan Enos:

It's an honor to have Dr. Hamada at the University of Chicago today. Dr. Hamada, welcome. Thank you for being here. Can you tell us about yourself and your work?

Amal Hamada:

Okay, thank you very much for the invitation. My name is Amal Hamada. I'm an associate professor of political science in Cairo University and the director of women's studies unit at the university. I'm trained as a political scientist, but for the last maybe two decades been working more interdisciplinary approaches to see different angles to what I believe everything is political. I felt the need that I need to understand more about different approaches in sociology, anthropology, et cetera. I work on gender issues. I'm [inaudible 00:02:24] of formal politics, meaning the formal, more traditional forms of political participation of youth, women, even citizens. For the last 10 years or more, I've been working on the less formal dimensions of political participation, how ordinary people see, practice politics on their daily life. This is me.

Jordan Enos:

Thank you. Yesterday, you gave a talk on the role of mothers in counter-terrorism. How does the way women are depicted in the media and public discourse influence the public's view and government decisions regarding counter-terrorism?

Amal Hamada:

Okay, this is a very complicated question, because on the one hand, women are portrayed in the media as the sweet, feminine, need protection kind of individual. But at the same time, they're expected, especially mothers, to do miracles. When it comes to portraying women in conflict, the mainstream used to portray women in conflict when they saw them. Because a couple of decades ago, they didn't see women in conflict. When they saw them, they only saw them as victims, victims of rape, victims that need protection, et cetera. Later on, we discovered this is not the case. Women have agency and sometimes bad agency. Sometimes they become terrorists themselves and they are warriors. They are peace builders. But the perception changed a little bit again to build on the expectation of the ability to make miracles, that okay, so you're not a victim, so you are a hero. You're expected to act as a hero.

I think this is unfair, because not all of us are heroes. We're all human. Some of us are heroes. Some of us are victims, and even the same person can be a hero, a victim, and an average person, depends on the context. For the way the media and the policies are categorizing women, it's just too flat. It doesn't see the complexity of the situation. I can be violent at the moment because I feel that violence is the only way to protect my right. But this does not mean that I'm a violent person. Or the whole discourse about survival, a victim of rape, are we victims of rape or survivors of rape? You are taking agency from the woman, deciding that for a moment, I'm a victim. But this does not describe me as a person for the rest of my life. This is why I don't really engage with how the media is portraying women, because it's too flat. Living realities of women everywhere is too complex. It's not that one dimension.

Jordan Enos:

Theme of women's role in the resistance, I hear you, is nuanced and complex and probably depends a lot on context.

Amal Hamada:


Jordan Enos:

Yesterday, you talked about equipping women with the tools, and mothers especially, with the tools to support their family and maybe guide them against terrorism. Can you talk about the tools women need to be able to support their families?

Amal Hamada:

Knowledge. Knowledge, because one of the things, maybe specific talking about radical groups, radical/terrorist, while I know the term is very controversial, so let's go with all the meanings. They propagate an absolute version of truth. They have the version of truth, and it's a very difficult time where the youth, very skeptical about everything. They have doubts about everything. When someone gets to them with an absolute definition of truth, and no one can counter this, it becomes very hard to resist. Imagine a mother living in a small village anywhere with her kid, usually means, it's unfortunate, coming up to the mother to tell her that what you're doing is forbidden, haram, and you're going to be punished by Allah. You're going to burn in hell, okay? And I have the way to save you and to save the rest of the world.

If she doesn't have the knowledge, it's not only that she cannot save him. It's she's going to join. If you provide women with knowledge, specifically what I'm working on, religious knowledge, different understanding of religion, different interpretation of knowledge, counter discourse to the religious discourse, terrorist, this would make a huge difference. She will be able to protect the child herself and the rest of the family, because it's kind of we're losing one by one to the terrorist groups. My main focus is, how can we educate? Yesterday, there was this lady who was a little bit skeptical about me blaming women for their kids becoming terrorists. God forbid, you don't intend to blame women for anything, but just can we equip them with tools to fight back, to know their limits, to know their potential? I think this is the case. So yes, economic empowerment is important. Definitely, it's important. Political empowerment is. Without this knowledge, it's not going to take us anywhere.

Jordan Enos:

Your research includes studies of women's group around the world, women in Russia, Women in Black, Code Pink. Do you think those groups are the best avenue for knowledge that you're talking about for women? Or how do you disrupt a culture in which that underlies in the absolute truth that may lead to terrorism or radicalization?

Amal Hamada:

Well, they might not be the best, but they're there and they are appealing. It depends on what you need. So if you are looking for activism, anti-war, Women in Black would be the perfect venue for you. But if you're looking for a knowledge, abstract religious knowledge, maybe Women in Black wouldn't do anything, wouldn't provide any answers, or other groups which I didn't have the chance to talk about. Islamic feminist groups in the Middle East in general and even in the US, they have very, very interesting, liberating, challenging, controversial kind of discourse regarding religion and religious knowledge.

These might be helpful, but having said this, maybe even them are not appropriate for a woman living in a very distant village. Maybe we need to bridge, because this is a very sophisticated knowledge, not applicable to anyone, not convenient to anyone. So maybe we need new form of groups that can kind of explain and make it more [inaudible 00:09:50] to the average women. But what I'm trying to do is just to highlight the ability and the potential that these groups have. Maybe it's just an example and we can build our more convenient examples depending on the context.

Jordan Enos:

During your talk, you also talked about how mothers around the world share this deep love for their family and commitment for their family and their children, regardless of where they're from. I think another theme mothers experience across the world, especially in times of conflict and strife, is they're often the ones responsible for keeping their families together. You even mentioned that women would do anything to get food on the table for their family if that's the most pressing need. How do you respond to women who may think my goal right now is to keep a roof over my family's heads at night, to keep food on the table? How do I prioritize learning or seeking out knowledge may prevent my children going down a path of radicalization?

Amal Hamada:

But I think this would require women to reflect a little bit about what does it mean to be a good mother, okay? Because shared that I'm a mother myself and I have three children in my eye, but my eldest is 29 and my youngest is 26, so they're not kids. But they're kids, and I think throughout the journey, and I don't want to generalize my experience, but living especially in the last decade or so, it takes a lot of reflection. What does it mean to keep a roof on top of my kid and over their head and food on the table? And how am I helping them face [inaudible 00:11:48]

Because if I'm not equipping them with knowledge and the skills and capacity and trust, it's not about the food and the roof. It's different. In this difficult time, it's even become more meaningful about dignity and food [inaudible 00:12:10] We're not animals. We're human, and human have dignity. Is it only about having food and roof, no matter how do you get the food and the roof? Or as a mother, I need to tell my kids that it's you. You have to live in dignity, even if you are eating a potato fried on wood.

Jordan Enos:

Thank you. Your research interests include gender issues in the Middle East with a special focus on women's daily strategies for their lives and conflict related issues. What are some of these daily strategies? How do women in the Middle East face conflict differently than their male counterparts?

Amal Hamada:

Okay, this is a very good question. I used to believe that maneuvering is not resistance. Resistance is clear resistance. You have to stand up and fight physically or with words. But I discovered from listening to stories of women about their daily little struggles, how they survive and make a living and make a meaning out of their life, that sometimes maneuvering is resistance. Building alliance with other women in the family or even other men is resistance. But I cannot list the strategies. It's different. Maybe sometimes, I know some of my colleagues would hate maneuvering, because they think it's a sign of weakness. But for me, understand the structure. Sometimes the cost, open resistance, is very high and women cannot really ... Because of this structure, they cannot really pay the price.

How do they maneuver, for instance domestic violence? Okay, well the easy way out of domestic violence for a middle class liberal western woman would be walk out of the relationship. Leave. Get the divorce. But this is not the reality of an uneducated woman or even educated, but she doesn't have a job. Or she has a job, but it doesn't pay enough. Or she has kids she needs to protect, and she cannot simply walk out of a relationship. Does this mean that she's happily living, enjoying being beaten and insulted? Definitely, no. Does she resist? Yes, she does. She maneuvers sometimes, different techniques. I think if we pay respect to these forms, maybe we can help her, rather than blaming her for staying. Why are you staying in such a bad relationship? You should respect yourself and leave. But when we listen to her stories, maybe we would as scholars, as professors, we would learn that her experience is teaching us. It's not us telling her what to do.

Jordan Enos:

October in the United States was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I think there is a misconception that, why don't women just leave? And you have the agency, if you are educated. A lot of times, women don't because of various reasons, and I think being there for their children is probably a primary cause for staying. Can you say more maneuvering looks like? Is that figuring out survival in a conflict-ridden relationship or community?

Amal Hamada:

Sometimes, maneuvering would be building, focusing on your kids, rather than yourself. I know this might sound naive, but this is what mothers sometimes do. So they know that maybe I don't have a life out of this, but I can help my kids to have a life, focusing on the kids, rather than on herself. Sometimes, maneuvering would mean even avoiding the significant other in heated conversation, maybe saving money behind his back, maybe giving him the silent treatment, maybe making him suffer in sex, use different things women do. I understand from a feminist perspective, this might be too little, and I agree this is too little. But every individual, every woman, she knows what she's capable of. It's not about, take a jump of faith. No, it's not that easy. Maybe for an empowered woman, yes, it's easy. I will definitely walk out of the relationship, but this is not the case and doesn't mean that the other women are not worth of respect of their experience.

Jordan Enos:

Much of your work involves the theme and the role of women in peace building. Can you talk about how we involve men, particularly in heavily patriarchal societies?

Amal Hamada:

This is the point. I believe women have agency, no matter what, okay? It's just, how do we define and contextualize agency? Okay, this is one. Second, definitely, definitely as much as you can do anything without the help of women, you can do nothing without the help of men, because we're living together. I believe, yes, we do need to bring them on board. The question is maybe focusing too much on the formal level. Women become a threat to men. Reading in strategic and peace studies, there is this belief that when women are occupying formal positions, whether in negotiation, in government, et cetera, men feel threatened that she's taking their position. Maybe working on building the trust that we're not, it's just that we're taking the responsibility for the destiny of everyone, we're doing our part, and working on the informal level. This might help building the trust more. I don't know, maybe.

Raphael Rony Antony:

[inaudible 00:18:36] Hamada. Yeah, so we are going to start talking about, I feel, one of your important interest areas, and that is Iran. We are going to dive into the topic that is what has been happening there for the last one year, especially since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini. The protests that followed after that, in your opinion as a scholar on Iranian history and Iranian politics, how has it changed the protests that has been happening over the last year or so?

Amal Hamada:

I've been working on Iran ever since 1990. That's a very, very, very complicated and interesting example. Unfortunately, there is kind of iron curtain what's happening in Iran. So we don't really know what's happening. We know about the protest. We know about the death, the tragic death of Mahsa Amini. But unfortunately, we don't know much. Though this is very alarming, but I feel that this is very assuring, that something big is happening on the ground. Because nothing is happening, then the authorities would not mind sharing, because it would show that they are in control. So as long as they are trying to keep everybody in the dark, it means that the other party is gaining ground, okay? So I'm not sure whether women are more free now to go on the street without being forced to with their veil or not, but building on my experience in Iran, unfortunately I haven't been there since 2007.

But even before 2007, women, of course they had to wear a headscarf, but it was a fashion statement. They put it on their head flying, so half of their hair is showing. You can tell that if this person is conservative wearing hijab because she chose to wear hijab or she is just complying with the law because she doesn't want to be arrested. [inaudible 00:20:26] Iranian women are very, very exceptional. They're on the street all the time. The first time I went there, it was 2001 and the last time 2007, and was surprised with the number of women on the street moving around, working, having fun, et cetera. I think it has something to do with Shias in specific, because I don't know if you know or not, but Shia Islam has doctrine. It's based on the daughter of prophet Muhammad, Fatimah and her husband. It's the daughter and her husband, and the husband of course is the cousin of the prophet, but it's the daughter. So women in Shia Islam play a significant role in the history of the doctrines.

So there is a sense of pride that we're daughters of Fatimah, and you cannot really separate. It has nothing to do with being religious or not. It's just the cultural aspect of being the daughters, okay? Unfortunately, I'm a little pessimistic when it comes to governments giving in, but I think changing. It's changing on the ground. My main fear, following the news in Iran, was the societal disputes over the need to control women's body. This is my main fear, that societies in general and especially conservative societies feel that they have to control women's body. Actually, it's all society. It's not even conservative societies, because liberal societies feel that they have to control women's body by covering or uncovering. So it's the same. The end or the bottom line, it's the same, being forced either to dress or not to dress. I remember watching very alarming videos of people fighting, average people fighting with young girls deciding to take off their [inaudible 00:22:35] This was really scary to me, more than the authorities trying to suppress women, because this is more scary, more violent.

Raphael Rony Antony:

Okay, coming back to a point that we picked up from your talk yesterday about mothers just protesting outside just to find out if their children are alive or not, to find out where they're buried, if not alive. Based on your experience in Iran and your scholarly expertise, can you explain how that situation, mentally for a mother just to go out and protest or go out and just ask the government, "Is my child alive? If not, can you tell me where his remains are?"

Amal Hamada:

I think this is a very difficult moment, and it's very motherly thing that sometimes mother, she just want to know where she can go to recite or read some verse from the Bible and feel near to her kids, even if the kid is not alive. But she needs to feel the connection. Sometimes, even the sad reality is that my kid is not alive anymore, but at least some comfort will be in knowing that he or she is first buried with dignity and can visualize this kid even under the ground. I remember there was an older incident in Iran of maybe 2013, 2014, Reyhaneh. Reyhaneh was a girl who was sent to death because she killed her rapist.

A guy raped her and she killed him in the post. The judge simply sent her to death, and she wrote a very, very, very moving letter to her mom, telling, I remember ... I don't remember the exact quote, but it was something along the line that you told me that to love the world, but unfortunately the world does not love us. It was really moving, and I think Reyhaneh is dead now, but the legacy is alive, and the grief of the mother is alive. So sometimes, it might mean in terms of gains, what are you going to benefit just from where your kid is? But for a mother, it means a lot. It means a lot. It means accountability. You did it to my son or my daughter, and the body of my son or my daughter is the proof that you did it.

Raphael Rony Antony:

All through the protests in Iran, we read about Voria Ghafouri's arrest who was a Kurdish football star who stood up for the issue. Then I was on ground in Qatar during the workup when Iran National Team, they first refused to sing the national anthem. That time, they were supported by the general public, but then they were threatened by the government and they were in fear of their families' safety. So then they had to comply with the government's request and then they had to sing the national anthem in the next game. They were all public as a mass. They were against the Iranian men's team when it comes to a question like while protesting for the basic rights, but I have to protect my family as well. So in that situation as a man who wants to stand up for people around, and irrespective, men, women, it does not matter, just for the basic rights, what sort of expectations are there, is what I want to know.

Amal Hamada:

Well, as much as we expected from women, we expect more from men. You're a man. You should stand up, okay? This actually does not recognize or respect the limitations. As you said, they had a family. Their families were living in Iran, and they need to protect their family. So I think the first time they refused to sing, they told the story. They sent the message. That was it. The second time, they complied even better, because everybody now knows that they did it because they were asked or forced or talked into doing this. That's what mattered. For me, it's about symbols. It's about the narratives. So this is what it takes. Now we know that even the national team is not happy, more than enough.

Raphael Rony Antony:

Okay, now my last question from my side, more than a scholar on Iranian politics, as a woman, as I would say a Muslim woman, what does the phrase, "Women, Life, Freedom," [Persian 00:27:10] mean to you?

Amal Hamada:

It means a lot, because I remember I'm veiled, but liberal veiled. I'm not conservatively veiled. I remember when I was in Iran, especially the last visits, I didn't take off my veil, but I kind of wore it the way they do, the more liberal. I remember having a colleague coming to me and saying, "Why are you doing this? You are veiled. Why are you not removing, but kind of loosening it a little bit?" I told her that out of solidarity, I don't want them to feel that they are alone, though I believe that veil is a religious duty.

But at the same time, I believe that it's the woman's choice to comply with the religious duty, and it's not my business if anyone else is deciding to wear or not to wear. For Women, Freedom, Life, it's everything and doesn't mean that I want to take this right from men or to take this right from someone else. It's just, why can't we just simply respect the right to live? Even if I believe that your choices are not the right choices, it's your life. Ruin it, as long as you are not ruining my life. It's your life. Ruin it.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

We are recording this episode just about one month since the conflict began in Israel and Palestine. Both the United States and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Do you have any examples or experience to tell our audience of a Palestinian mother and their role in counter-terrorism or disputing?

Amal Hamada:

I'm not a politician, okay? So naming groups as terrorist groups is not my job or my interest, okay? And I think we need to contextualize when we are naming groups. So for me, it would be too difficult to put ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Taliban in the same sentence with Hamas. It's a different complex. This is very important point to start with, okay? Second, I believe it would be too difficult after losing 5,000 lives of women and children, 10,000 lives, Palestinians in a month. Maybe it would be too unrealistic to talk about women in peace, because I was thinking the other day about mothers and building peace. Are there any mothers left in Palestine to build peace, to teach their kids about peace? It's very difficult.

But if we try, and I think this is very tragic moment and it's a missing opportunity, we missed opportunities by this tragic development, by these tragic attacks and the massacre happening in Gaza, okay? So if you want me to share an experience about Palestinian women working for peace, I would share a movie that was done in 2003 by a Palestinian director. He is a son of a Jewish woman and a Palestinian guy. Both were communist, and the Jewish lady was part of building Israel. Then she joined the Communist Party and she married the Palestinian guy and she moved to Jenin, the camp, where she spent her life working with Palestinian women, educating kids about art and theater.

She died in Jenin out of cancer after years. This is an eye-opening example of women living together, educating the kids about the importance of survive through art, okay? The lady, her name is Arna. The movie is Arna's Children, and it shows ... It's a documentary movie. It shows footages of her standing at checkpoints, protecting Palestinian men, women, and children to pass through the checkpoints, et cetera. For me, it would have more sense to humanity if we build on that experience, rather than deciding on simply killing 10,000 plus, half of them are women and children, and then expect mothers to be agents of peace.

Yet on the Palestinian side, it might be too difficult to talk about this. But if you follow the demonstration on the Israeli side, the anti-war demonstration taking place right now, demonstrating in front of Netanyahu house or the Parliament, the Women in Black, the group I talked about yesterday, they're there, and they want to stop the war, and they know that it makes no sense, and it's against human rights. It's against any sense.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Following to my next question, I would also ask you, what are the impacts of this long conflict on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of mothers? And how can this aspect be addressed?

Amal Hamada:

I have no clue. It's amazing, their ability to resist, meaning that following [inaudible 00:32:55] techniques, Palestinian women trying to adhere to normality is actually scary. There are photos of women trying to give their kids a bath in the middle of a wrecked building, photos of women baking a cake for a birthday, celebrating the birthday in the middle of the wreck, a very, very heartbreaking photo of a woman preparing her infant to be buried. She's just wrapping him in the [inaudible 00:33:32] and she seems composed. For me, I cannot describe it in words. Because as a mother myself, I cannot imagine the pain. But also as a mother, she needs to survive because of the other kids, not only her kids, but the kids who lost their mother in the war. There is this sense of responsibility that this is going to end, and we need someone to take care of the kids. Who is going to do this? It's the women. Definitely when this is over, I think part of the reconstruction, we need to pay attention to the traumas and the damage happened to Palestinian women.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

How do you think gender dynamics, cultural norms, and the social expectations shake the experiences and roles of mothers in this longstanding conflict?

Amal Hamada:

Okay, in the Palestinian case, I believe mothers are the buriers of the buriers. They carry the history. They're the one who tell the story. They're the one who tell the story, not only the political story. They're the one who tell the story about the grandparents, the house, the cooking, the embroidery, the small little details, the songs. How do we celebrate marriage? How do we celebrate having a new baby? This is important, because it's not only about the political negotiation over the land. It's how we narrate in order to maintain the memory, the collective memory, okay? So I think this is the main role women are playing. Definitely some of them are playing political roles, et cetera. But my focus and my interest is this role.

Raphael Rony Antony:

I just wanted to ask you another question.

Amal Hamada:

Yeah, sure.

Raphael Rony Antony:

We saw one of your TED Talks from, I think, 2014 about more street politics. In terms of the cultural structure in the way the Arabian Gulf from the Persian Gulf is structured, how do you expect ... It's very difficult for women to just go out and protest in general, especially if you take the Arabian Gulf. We have seen a lot of changes in terms of ... I'm talking about the changes in Saudi and how things have loosened, but yet ability to go out and protest for right, especially for women, is very difficult. What recommendation would you give for them to-

Amal Hamada:

It's not about going out to protest. It's about going out, being present in the public spaces, being visible in the public spaces, the ability of women to occupy, in the good sense, the public spaces. When I teach my students that men don't have to justify why they are in the public space, it's their right. Women have to justify it, to say a reason that you're going out. So for me, street politics is not only about protest. It's about the ability to be in the street and the daily little strategies used by women to be present and visible and to take it as a right. This is what I mean by street politics.

Raphael Rony Antony:

I don't know if you know, there was a couple of arrests in U Chicago yesterday for protesting against the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. So as students especially involved in politics and public policy, again I'm asking for your expertise, your recommendation on what are the best ways to get our voice out there for our rights, our basic ... I would say just getting ourselves out there.

Amal Hamada:

Well, you know your context, so I'm not in a position to give you advices in this regard, but my only thing is that it's amazing that as the war on the ground is taking place, there is another war of narratives. This is the new thing happening, that people get to see other narratives. People have access to other narratives, and no one can take this from you. Maybe the right to protest might be restricted or something, but no one can take your right to tell your story. I think this is the way to go. It's a very long road, but it's very sustainable. It's very sustainable.

Raphael Rony Antony:

One last question from my side, from listening to you over the last two days, we seriously look up to you as a person, as a-

Amal Hamada:

You shouldn't. You shouldn't.

Raphael Rony Antony:

No, as an academic, as a scholar, as a mother. So who do you look up to?

Amal Hamada:

This is difficult. I look up to all the brave mothers who are not as privileged as myself, are less lucky. But still, they wake up in the morning and they have something to tell to their kids. A Palestinian woman doesn't know if she's going to wake up in the morning or not because of the bombing, but she still has the ability to dress her kids and to bake a cake. There is no way of comparing my life to her life. I cannot complain. I have zero to complain about, and so I look up to them. I look up to mothers all over the world who lost their kids because of terrorism, because of war. They kind of moved forward beyond the loss of a child and try to save the rest of the children, not only in Palestine, but anywhere.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

There is a last thing about this conflict I would like to ask you. What are the organizations or activists that you are following that can help provide our audience with more information, what is happening on the ground?

Amal Hamada:

Well, I've been thinking about this question since yesterday, and I decided I will not recommend anyone, because I think it's enough, telling people what to listen to or what to follow. I think it's more important to tell the people that you need to search for yourself and find a narrative that makes you go to bed at night feeling that you tried. You tried to know the truth. You tried to know what's really happening on the ground. It's not someone recommending speaking against anyone, but I feel, truly feel, that I can give you a long list, organizations, websites, people to follow. But I will be doing the same that I criticize, that not you, but the other side is telling you that this is the absolute truth. As the radical groups, they tell you, "This is the absolute truth." No, search it for yourself. You're very lucky. You have the internet. You can decide for yourself.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

What is something you wish we would have asked you?

Amal Hamada:

I don't know, maybe about my kids.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Are they well?

Amal Hamada:


Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

That's so good.

Amal Hamada:

About my dogs.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Yeah, how many?

Amal Hamada:

I have two dogs.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:


Amal Hamada:

[inaudible 00:41:44]

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Good to know. Thinking about our audience, there are mainly public policy students. If there was one paper or one book or even a movie, another movie that you could recommend to our [inaudible 00:42:04] to watch or to read, which one would it be?

Amal Hamada:

Okay, there is a beautiful movie done by a Lebanese director. Her name is Nadine Labaki. The movie is a little bit old, but it's very beautiful. I show it in my class every year. It's called, [Arabic 00:42:24] And Now Where To? [inaudible 00:42:28] very moving, but it's nice. There is this recent book I just discovered. The subtitle is Beyond The Crying Mothers. It's by Springer, 2023. I'm sorry, I can't remember the main title of the book and it's ... discuss. It's an edited book and it discuss. It's not public policy thing, but it discuss different roles of women in building peace as mothers. The subtitle is really, really interesting, Beyond the Crying Mothers. These are my two recommendations.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

Thank you very much. It was an honor to be here with you.

Amal Hamada:

Thank you. Thank you. It was my pleasure, and I hope people listening to the podcast would make them think, reflect about new things.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento:

I'm sure about this.

Hannah Balikci:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Dr. Amal Hamada. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Jordan Enos, Raphael Rony Antony, and Isabella Pestana. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website,, and follow them on Twitter @PearsonInst, Inst spelled I-N-S-T. Thank you.


Root of Conflict


After Authoritarianism | Monika Nalepa

How are authoritarian elites and their collaborators handled in the aftermath of democratic transitions? The modern discipline of documenting transitional justice began with the Nuremberg trials for Nazi perpetrators. The trials shifted the way the international community thinks about accountability for human rights violations committed by authoritarian regimes and are generally the most well-known example of transitional justice. Yet, there exist different procedures of extra-judicial transitional justice—including lustration, truth commissions, and purges—that hold human rights violators accountable and remove them from positions of power without formally sentencing them. In this episode, we speak with Professor Monika Nalepa, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, about her new book After Authoritarianism and her monumental work building the Global Transitional Justice Dataset at the Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab. We talk about the different implications of transitional justice for both leaders and rank-and-file members of authoritarian regimes and the more recent global phenomenon of democratic backsliding. 

Learn more about After Authoritarianism and read it here

Hannah Balikci: Hello, this is Hannah and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a Podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects.

Hannah Balikci: In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict. A research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago. How are authoritarian elites and their collaborators handled in the aftermath of democratic transitions? The modern discipline documenting transitional justice, began with the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi perpetrators. The trials shifted the way the international community thinks about accountability for human rights violations committed by authoritarian regimes and are generally the most well-known example of transitional justice. Yet there exist different procedures of extrajudicial transitional justice, including lustration, truth commissions, and purges, that hold human rights violators accountable and remove them from positions of power without formally sentencing them.

Hannah Balikci: In this episode, we speak with Professor Monika Nalepa, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, about her new book, After Authoritarianism, and her monumental work building the Global Transitional Justice Dataset, at the Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab. We talk about the different implications of transitional justice for both leaders and rank-and-file members of authoritarian regimes and the more recent global phenomenon of Democratic backsliding.

Olga Bednarek: My name is Olga Bednarek. I'm a third-year dual-degree student at the Crown School of Social Work and the Harris School of Public Policy, and I'm a Pearson Fellow. I have the privilege of working at Professor Monika Nalepa.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento: I'm Isabella Pestana. I'm a first-year MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago, and I'm also a Pearson Fellow.

Monika Nalepa: Hi, I'm Monika Nalepa. I'm a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, a former member of the Political Economy PhD program, as well as a Pearson's Institute for Global Conflict Affiliate.

Monika Nalepa: Thank you so much. I want to say that first I feel like I had the privilege of working with Olga. We met just before the summer, and I hired her instantly as a research assistant. And I work on, I think the broadest way of saying it is on regime change and factors leading to regime change and also concentrating on what happens after regime change. Probably the biggest area of my research is transitional justice, which is the way that new democracies deal with members, collaborators, and a vast array of legacies of the previous authoritarian regime or regime that was boggled by Civil war.

Monika Nalepa: I've been interested in this topic for over two decades now. I wrote my dissertation on it. I've written two books on it, given lots of lectures, written a number of articles. Most recently I wrote about, prospects even for transitional justice in Russia following the war Ukraine. I would say that's the greatest passion that I have substantively. But also as a social scientist, I pay a lot of attention to methods and I would describe myself as an institutionalist. Somebody who pays particular attention on the way that institutions structure human behavior and how humans interact in political situations and social situations.

Monika Nalepa: At the University of Chicago where I've worked for over nine years now, I teach classes on game theory, social choice theory, and analytical methods and comparative politics.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento: Super impressive.

Olga Bednarek: Could you please define transitional justice for those of us who are not familiar with the term?

Monika Nalepa: Sure. Paradoxically, it has often a little to do with normative concepts of justice. And it essentially refers to all kinds of mechanisms that are set up in the aftermath of transition to democracy, to handle former authoritarian elites that are collaborators, sometimes bystanders, sometimes victims. And very frequently, the concept actually extends to non-judicial institutions. Following transitions from authoritarian rule, new regimes are often resource deprived or depleted.

Monika Nalepa: Coming up with judicial procedures for handling sometimes huge atrocities that were committed on behalf of the former authoritarian regime, is just not feasible. Hence the reliance on extrajudicial procedures, such as illustrations, urges, truth commissions, hearing commissions, et cetera. And even though these mechanisms often... What else? Opening archives, but with documentation of human rights violations that were committed. And although these extrajudicial procedures don't fulfill standards of rule of law perhaps, and due process, just because of the vast array of actors and actions that one has to deal with in the aftermath of transition, they're better than having judicial processes set up, only reach a few.

Monika Nalepa: I would say that in my most recent strand of research is arguing that, transitional justice procedures that may be skimp on due process and rule of law extrajudicial, but reach a vast array of former citizens of authoritarian regimes are better than concentrating, for instance, just on criminally prosecuting the leadership, the authoritarian regime. There was a normative implication there, if you want to catch me on that, but yes.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento: It's amazing. Please.

Monika Nalepa: The normative implication basically is that, following, I would say, World War II and Nuremberg trials, there has been a shift in the way that the international community thinks about accountability for human rights violations committed by authoritarian regimes. There's been this shift towards believing that, if we hold accountable leaders of these authoritarian regimes and those who are issuing orders, then the incentives to fulfill these orders on behalf of the rank-and-file will disappear. Meanwhile, there are reasons to doubt this.

Monika Nalepa: In fact, we see that, I have a theoretical paper with Stephen Boyd, one of the students from my Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab, where we show that there are actually limits to the strategy and perhaps prosecuting rank-and-file numbers of authoritarian regimes. Those who are fulfilling orders in the long-term can actually be better at disabling these principal agent relationships. Between authoritarian leaders who are issuing orders of repression and rank-and-file members who are fulfilling those orders. I'll qualify that though.

Monika Nalepa: It's better from the following point of view. If we're asking, what kind of transitional justice mechanisms are best suited for reducing the volume of repression that is committed by authoritarian regimes? I'm not saying that it's just to let leaders off the hook or not to concentrate on them so much, I'm just saying that in the long term it reduces or maybe punishing them harsher and harsher at the expense of punishing rank-and-file members, does not reduce the amount of repression that they exert against their own citizens.


Olga Bednarek: Speaking of your lab, could you explain to us how you are gathering this data? How you're studying it? Because it feels a bit ambiguous to us, I think. You're studying such a big topic and so, really understanding how you are would be helpful.

Monika Nalepa: Sure. The idea of the lab came out of, just looking at the geography of transitional justice and how this discipline has unraveled. And it's mostly happening through country studies, right? There's a regime change in confidence on country and country expert from that country, writes about the transitional justice procedures that were administered there. And often this would be very disjoint from similar research on transitional justice from sometimes even neighboring countries. At most the works in comparative politics that dealt with transitional justice would cover two or three countries. There were very few cross-national efforts.

Monika Nalepa: And while I was at Columbia University, my advisor, Jon Elster, was writing a book about transitional justice and historical perspective. And he was actually interested in a more qualitative way, but really surveying over time and across space, how various countries have dealt with elites of their former authoritarian regimes. And he asked me to collect data on six East European countries and their transitional justice processes. And he gave me very little input on how he wants that data organized. So, leaving it largely up to me.

Monika Nalepa: And the first thing that I thought to myself, that instead of just taking a snapshot of what are the transitional justice mechanisms that have been implemented in a different country, why not create a chronology for the entire Democratic period. Starting when the country transitioned away from authoritarianism and focusing on four mechanisms. In my case, it was, illustrations, purges, truth commissions, and victim compensation. Why not concentrating on those four mechanisms? Just prepare chronologies of transitional justice events that took place in that country.

Monika Nalepa: And when coding these events or when collecting data on these events, concentrate both on developments that were advancing the transitional justice process forward, as well as events that were setbacks. Well, if the president vetoes a transitional justice bill or they'll say, opening archives of the secret political police, that's a setback for transitional justice. But if the legislature passes a law, creating a truth commission, that will uncover the passion of abuses committed by an authoritarian regime. That will advance the transitional justice process forward.

Monika Nalepa: And then out of this collection of events, some pushing the transitional justice process forward and others backwards, and we can actually code those literally as zeros and ones or negative ones and plus ones, and create measures of the severity of transitional justice. Using that approach, in many, many years later, after I graduated from Columbia, I applied for a grant to the National Science Foundation and laid out this idea that, we should be collecting systematic data on transitional justice. And I also proposed a theory that I would test with this data because otherwise the NSF does not give money for the data fishing expeditions. And after being funded, I hired roughly 10 research assistants, to help code these data from all democracies in the world that have transitioned from autocracy since 1918.

Monika Nalepa: In the first phase of data collection, we focused on extrajudicial transitional justice procedures. So frustrations, purges, truth commissions. Purges of entire agencies, purges of individual persons, illustrations on truth commissions. And that data set was released in 2021, and that basically concluded the funding from the National Science Foundation.

Monika Nalepa: But, following that, I was fortunate enough to get support from the University of Chicago, including the Pearson Institute. Thank you very much. And we expanded actually our data collection to criminal procedures. We decided to focus, in-line with this paper that I described a little earlier, we decided to focus on, collecting information about, transitional justice events of criminal trials against perpetrators of human rights violations. But focusing both on leaders, so those who are issuing orders, and the rank-and-file, so those who are fulfilling orders.

Monika Nalepa: And that data set is going to be released tomorrow, on the day of the global forum. The first sneak preview of the data set will actually happen during the global forum. And what it reveals, just as a descriptive statistic, is that, indeed, after 1946, there has been this shift towards prosecuting leaders. Those who have been issuing orders rather than those who will be fulfilling orders. But that's just the first snapshot out of the data set. There's lots more that can be done from it.

Olga Bednarek: Could you please tell us, since you're publishing this data set tomorrow, will it be available for the public to view? How will you be basically disseminating to support information?

Monika Nalepa: Both data sets will be available on the website of the Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab. The address for that is, and there is a tab there that goes to the global transitional justice data set. And right now the data that is available is for these four transitional justice mechanisms that are non-judicial, illustrations, two types of purges and truth commissions. And that database is interactive so one can choose a subset of countries to compare the volume of transitional justice mechanisms in those countries. One can look at the severity, the urgency, and the volatility of transitional justice in those countries. And next week, we will make downloadable the data set on criminal trials. So the second part of the data set that breaks down criminal trials against leaders and rank-and-file members. And it will also be available in the interactive format. The website also has a page with the research products of our labs, so papers that have been published as well as papers that are in progress. And it also introduces the members of our lab, so you can see our faces.

Olga Bednarek: Thank you so much. I'll definitely have to look into that and play around with that data set. I do have two follow-up questions. The first one is, could you please define illustrations for us?

Monika Nalepa: Thank you. Thanks for that question. Illustrations, from Latin, it means shedding with light or purifying with light. And it's a transitional justice term that has been used very broadly, to refer to any way of dealing with members of the leadership of the former authoritarian regime, but, in not these non-judicial race. So not criminal trial. Firing them, preventing them from holding office. And in my new book, After Authoritarianism, I actually re-conceptualized the use of the words illustration and purges. Because illustration is also used popularly to refer to, exposing who among citizens of a former authoritarian regime, collaborated with the secret police and preventing those who collaborated with the secret police from fulfilling all kinds of functions.

Monika Nalepa: And one of the things that I point out is that, that's a very different mechanism than purges, right? When we think about purging, we think about, firing from office, from their positions, whether in the enforcement apparatus or in the bureaucracy, people whose status and collaboration with former authoritarian regime was known, right? Who was a minister in an authoritarian cabinet? Everybody knows. Who was the chief of military? Everybody knows. But what people don't know is who the secret collaborators that the secret police recruited to spy women's surveillance of the opposition was. But those are the people who are known.

Monika Nalepa: And illustrations to the extent that they focus on revealing these collaborators or preventing former collaborators from running for office, creates very different effect than purges. Purges essentially are punitive, right? They sanction people for what they did in the past. Sometimes they might correct systematic biases that keep in place pure council numbers of the authoritarian apparatus might create. But what illustrations do is actually remove opportunities for blackmailing former collaborators of the secret police with compromising information.

Monika Nalepa: I'll give you an example. If a former collaborator of the secret police becomes a politician and is in a position of executive power, some executive power, and only he knows that he was a collaborator, and arguably his leading officer or some people from the tight circle of the secret police, that person can now be blackmailed with the threat of revealing this information about collaboration. And can be steered towards implementing policies that they would otherwise not implement. This blackmail ability of former collaborators, makes illustrations or transparency regimes more broadly, actually a forward-looking mechanism rather than backward-looking mechanism like purges.

Monika Nalepa: Even though purges and illustrations have been used interchangeably, they're very different mechanisms. And in my most recent book, I argue that countries following transitions, such as Russia hopefully will be, should focus on transparency regimes like illustrations and eliminating the use of compromise from politics. Whereas with purges, they should use them sparingly and only apply them when actually the bureaucrats or the members of the enforcement apparatus who are being purged, don't have any expertise to offer that could be usable by the new Democratic regime.

Olga Bednarek: Thank you so much for that definition. One more follow-up question. You were talking about studying over space and time. My question is, does transitional justice ever end? How long is your timeframe for studying? 10 years, 20 years, or is it indefinite?

Monika Nalepa: It's indefinite, which basically means that, the Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab is an ongoing process. Because even countries that transitioned decades ago, are still embarking on transitional justice. And I'll just point to a couple of instances here. Spain and Argentina are fantastic examples. In both of these countries, their initial efforts of holding former perpetrators accountable or even revealing the truth about what happened in Spain, both during the Franco regime and during the Civil War, were put on hold. There was this strong belief that transitional justice will distract Spain from setting on a path towards democratization. But putting on hold issues of accountability, often comes to haunt new democracies. And sure enough, decades later, a memory law was passed in Spain, and these discussions basically resurfaced.

Monika Nalepa: And now we're in an era where street names are being changed, information is being circulated. Of course, many people are being held accountable because too much time has passed, but transitional justice doesn't really end for good. Of course, perpetrators might die and become ill, and there's not really a chance to hold them accountable, but there's always truth to be revealed. One of the things that I think come out of my research is that, transitional justice is not really a choice whether to do it or not is just how to do it.

Olga Bednarek: Thank you, professor. We have seen examples of authoritarian regimes transitioning to democracies, but there are also examples of places where democratic institutions seem to have faced some type of fragility. We can talk now about Turkey and some will argue about Brazil. What is your opinion on this topic? And now it's my curiosity, do we also have data being produced about this? It would be the opposite of transitioning to democracy, but places that were democratic.

Monika Nalepa: I'm really glad that you asked that question because that's basically a second strand of my research agenda, which largely started because I'm Polish. And in 2015, Poland that had democratized in 1989 started this process of backsliding into autocracy. And the only reason I can now speak about this process with complete relaxation is because, just this last weekend, the first election in any country actually in the world that has been backsliding for two electoral firms, the election actually reversed the support for the incumbent. And most likely we will, within a few months, have a non-backsliding regime. But liberal opposition will come back to power.

Monika Nalepa: As always, Poland, it's a little bit complicated. It was research interests sparked my developments in Poland but of course, as you noticed, it's a phenomenon that has occurred around the world. And it's a very puzzling phenomenon because especially I think for citizens living in established democracies who've come to believe that who've come to take in their institutions, the democratic institutions and institutions of representation for granted, the fact that the role of restrainers of executives is being diminished. And by restrainers, I mean, courts, other chambers, opposition parties, is very troubling. Researching the causes and consequences of that is another one of my interests.

Monika Nalepa: And I would say that the biggest focus of this research has been on diminishing the role of vertical restrainers. Vertical restrainers are essentially voters. What do incumbents do to prevent voters from voting them out of office, when they start undermining democratic institution? It's puzzling because presumably voters want to live in a democracy, the elect into office an executive who is undermining democracy, such as, firing judges of the Supreme Court, trying to take over control of the media. Why do voters keep voting for that incumbent?

Monika Nalepa: In one of the papers that I've written with a couple of co-authors, Catherine Chiopris and George Vanberg, we posed that, voters are uncertain about the true intentions of these executive incumbents and may be led to think that these incumbents are actually pursuing policy goals. And that making some changes in these constitutional institutions, such as courts, such as electoral systems, are merely an instrument to achieve those policy goals. And because voters want to see those policy goals implemented, they give these incumbents the benefit of the doubt. And then the incumbents after being re-elected, turn around and use the fact these institutions of control have been weakened, to stay in power forever. This is of course, a shortcut from Adam Szybowski, but, basically main difference between autocrats and democrats is that, democrats are willing to step down when they lose popular support, autocrats want to stay in power even when they lose popular support.

Monika Nalepa: In this paper, which I just described, we actually were fortunate enough to carry out an experiment in Poland a couple of years ago. So writing a little of the electoral cycle, and we were able to find supporting evidence for this mechanism. That once voters become less uncertain about the true intentions of the incumbent, they can actually reverse their decision and vote against an incumbent that they formerly supported.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento: So it would be more about the short-term outcomes of some policies then.

Monika Nalepa: Let's talk about Poland for a second. We actually just talked about this yesterday. What happened in Poland that could have made those former supporters of the populist backsliding government, revert to voting for the opposition or just from staying at home? We know that PiS, the law justice party that was ruling for the last eight years, lost half a million voters, which is not a huge amount. Actually, the opposition gained way more voters than the incumbent lost. But one of the things that we were talking about was what made that half million change their mind?

Monika Nalepa: It could be simply displacement. It could be that the old voters for PiS and young people switch their vote over to the liberal opposition. It could be corruption scandals that exposed that really, the PiS government was just about filling its coffers. It could have been also something deeper. It could have been reactions to the refugee crisis in Ukraine, it could have been in a variety of things. We're now in the process of trying to get survey data from, what was it? Two weeks before the elections? Everything I shared with you, Olga? Yeah. And see what's going on there.

Olga Bednarek: And in your opinion, there is spillover effects that you were talking about researching just in one nation and having also these cross-national studies. Do you think there are spillover effect, and we are facing some of them or not?

Monika Nalepa: Yeah. That's right. Methodologically, my approach to studying global transitional justice, is very different from studying backsliding. And I think the reason is because, for these incumbents to stay in power, they have to be re-elected by voters who have to make these individual decisions based on their beliefs. There was a huge advantage of doing sub-national studies to test these phenomena, even though the mechanism that I explained, I think works in a broader set of countries on spillover effects.

Monika Nalepa: For the longest time, I think people believed that, Hungary and Poland are sort of working in tandem, right? At first, both democratized very rapidly. In Hungary the opposite Fidesz, backslider Fidesz, at first was in the opposition for a very long time, then it came to power, started gradually dismantling democratic institutions, starting with courts, got into trouble with the EU. And in Poland, basically the same thing seemed to be happening. Many people are saying that, "Oh, Kaczynski is just following Orban's playbook up till now," right? Because basically, while Orban managed to secure victory in the third consecutive elections, in Poland it seems that that fund was reversed.

Monika Nalepa: And I think that one of the reasons behind this difference is, the legacies of opposition resistance in Poland, which, I don't think are as prevalent in Hungary. Let me turn to Olga here, who basically, when she was hired as my research assistant, she was tasked with this gargantuan task of coding the city where oppositionists who were interned in Poland in 1989 were. Poland during its most threatening to the autocrats authoritarian crisis, had martial law enforced. And during this martial law regime, about 15,000 of members of solidarity, the Independent Trade Union, were arrested and basically placed in isolation, which is known as internment.

Monika Nalepa: Thanks to the Institute of National Remembrance, we have now a database of the orders requiring that specific persons be arrested and interned. What this allows us to do is actually to trace the density of opposition networks in communist Poland. What Olga is helping us do, me and Hanna Bosz, a co-author of mine from Stanford, is we're trying to see if these patterns, these opposition activity from the communist authoritarian regime, were by any chance recreated in resistance to the populist backsliding regime in Poland. We have a hunch that these legacies of opposition activity don't die out. And because in Poland they were just so prevalent, but we think that we'll still be able to find a link there. But it's basically just a hunch hypothesis that we hope to test.

Olga Bednarek: Thank you so much for explaining your research to us. Could you explain if there's any way to relate your findings over the past 20 years to what's happening in the U.S. at all?

Monika Nalepa: Thanks. U.S. is a very tricky example because it's an established democracy, at least at the national level. And because of that, I feel that the sensitivity to issues of transitional justice is somewhat depressed, because you need to have regime change to realize how important transitional justice is. And the U.S. democracy has just lasted for quite some time, and it was just interrupted with the Civil War interval. However, an often-neglected fact is that, actually it was transitional justice, both after the War of Independence and after the Civil War.

Monika Nalepa: After the War of Independence, there was a push for lawyers from the colonies to disbar loyalists, so people who had collaborated with the British. And the goal of that was actually very common to the goal of a lot of new democracies, which was to give a chance for the lawyers who were affiliated with the Independence Movement to have jobs. And following Civil War, there was a similar push to remove from positions of power and control, elites who had collaborated with the Confederacy. Now, those attempts were actually unsuccessful. Confederate elites, as we know from Jim Crow, were able to return and even entrench themselves. But because of lack of transitional justice at the elite level, there were a lot of acts of spontaneous justice, which I won't refer to as transitional justice because they were not really procedurally sanctioned towards the rank-and-file.

Monika Nalepa: What this meant is when confederate spies were found, they were instantly hanged, and they were court-martialed and summarily trialed. Actually, the U.S. does have a history of transitional justice, it's just not acknowledged or research history with one exception. There are several political scientists who are experts in truth commissions and have researched truth commissions around the world. And what they have been documenting is the creation of local truth commissions in the U.S. for dealing acts of racial violence. The problem, however, is that, all of these truth commissions are tasked with researching only very specific and very narrowly defined events. There has not been basically a nationwide truth commission or a nationwide transitional justice institution, such as the one that would make it, for instance, into the global transitional justice data set. So the U.S. is not even a dataset that we released.

Monika Nalepa: But of course, as the events of 2020 suggest following the murder of George Floyd, there is an enormous need for accountability of racial injustices in the U.S. Not just racial violence, not just racial physical violence, but also, unfair housing policies and a history of discrimination. There's definitely room for people interested in doing research on the U.S. to work on transitional justice. There are tons of questions that are still unanswered. And I think we have now developed by working around the world on transitional justice, the tools for doing that. I would encourage students who are listening to this podcast, to turn their interests there.

Olga Bednarek: Amazing. And do you also see the reflections of your work in today's global policy?

Monika Nalepa: Yeah. It is a very tricky question to ask for somebody who's not affiliated directly with a policy school. I work in the political science department, and I've always been focused on researching these basic institutions. How to reconstruct institutions of transitional justice. When do they work? When do they not work? And I think largely, shying away from consulting, but of course, there's no way of hiding policy implications of my research. Like I said, forced policy implications, I will offer them. And in this most recent article that I published in for Soviet Affairs on Transitional Justice Options for Russia, we actually do make some suggestions.

Monika Nalepa: And of course it varies from place to place, but the overall normative implications is, if the goal is to ensure democratic stability, then transparency institutions work better than punitive institutions, such as purges. And to the extent that, criminal responsibility should be administered, which of course this is contingent on having the judicial resources, et cetera, et cetera. And actually having peace in the first place, it's really not worth neglecting the prosecutions of rank-and-file. Because they're just as important, if not more important than prosecuting leaders.

Monika Nalepa: And on that note, there is the, if one looks at the way that international criminal tribunals have been set up, this overarching goal of reaching order givers or those who are leading regimes that give orders of repression, has led some of these tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, to actually pre-bargain with rank-and-file members, as well as middlemen, so mid-level officers, in order to get them to reveal information about leaders issuing orders. And I would say that that is a terrible strategy. Because it essentially lets off the hook people who have committed crimes with their own hands sometimes, or have committed the most brutal acts of violence, and sacrificing a justice done to them in order to punish the leaders. And we don't even know that punishing the leaders is in the long-term effective.

Monika Nalepa: Meantime, victims are observing this and just feeling that, the testimony that they gave to go after these rank-and-file, has been completely wasted. I would say, I've shied away from making policy implications, pretty long time just focusing on these basic institutions. But I feel pretty confident in giving those two pieces of advice. Transparency institutions on the one hand, and then not neglecting prosecutions of rank-and-file.

Olga Bednarek: Perfect. And now turning to our audience. If there was one paper or book that you would recommend, which would it be?

Monika Nalepa: Wait. It's not going to be a book, it's not going to be an article, but it's actually going to be something a bit better. It's going to be a blog. A few years ago there was this part of the Washington Post, which is called the Monkey Cage. Maybe some of the listeners will recognize it. And it was a space for political scientists and social scientists to describe their research, especially if it was relevant for the interpretation of current events, in a way that's accessible to a broader audience. And unfortunately, because of the way the news market works, the Monkey Cage was closed down. And for about a year, they basically were homeless, but now they have recreated themselves as Good Authority.

Monika Nalepa: It's essentially the same model, political social scientists commenting on current events based on their own research. And interestingly, they're not opinion pieces, so they're not op-eds. In fact, authors are given very explicit instructions to shy away from opinions, they're rather analysis pieces. And I think there are two advantages of reading that. But one is that it's gives you an opportunity to very quickly learn what the current research tells us about this event. But also it allows readers to familiarize themselves with who is an expert on this topic. And you can go to their academic webpage and read their most recent article. I would definitely put a plug in for Good Authority.

Isabella Pestana de Andrade do Nascimento: Amazing. Thank you very much, Monika.

Hannah Balikci: Thank you so much for all of your insight today. It really does seem like your research is incredibly important and can have some long-lasting implications, especially when thinking about today's current conflicts and all of the atrocities happening all over the world. We really appreciate you taking your time to be here with us and your decades worth of work on the issue.

Monika Nalepa: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to speak to you and to speak to the product audience that is listening.

Hannah Balikci: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Professor Monika Nalepa. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balikci and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Olga Bednarek and Isabella Pestana. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute, for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website and follow them on Twitter @pearsoninst. Inst is spelled I-N-S-T. Thank you.


Root of Conflict


Kurdish Women and Resistance | Rez Gardi 

What role did Kurdish women play in Iran's protests last year? The death of Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iranian authorities sparked mass demonstrations for women’s rights under the rallying cry of "Women, Life, Freedom." But the Kurdish minorities behind this resistance have largely been erased—and their movements co-opted before the international community. In this episode, we speak with Rez Gardi, a Kurdish New Zealander lawyer and human rights activist, about how, despite becoming the symbol of a revolution, non-Kurdish activists and news coverage have continually denied Jina her true name and identity. We talk about the long-lived Kurdish resistance against state oppression in Iran, Syria, and Turkey and the broader history of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and self-determination in the Middle East. 

Root of Conflict


Lives Amid Violence | Mareike Schomerus

What mental models underpin international development? And how do they hold back actors working in conflict-affected countries? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Mareike Schomerus, author of Lives Amid Violence and Vice President of the Busara Center, one of the first behavioral science research labs in the Global South. Drawing from ten years of research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, she argues that the international development sector, in its current form, often fails to take into account the experiences and perspectives of people living in contexts of violence and conflict and offers a new language for transforming development in the wake of conflict. We talk about the colonialist thinking underpins international development, how the sector's unflinching faith in causality creates blind spots for practitioners, and what it means to envision this space anew. 

Learn more about “Lives Amid Violence” and read it here: 

Reema Saleh:

Hi, this is Rima and you are listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the study in resolution of global conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

What mental models underpin international development and how do they hold back actors working in conflict affected countries? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Mareike Schomerus, author of 'Lives Amid Violence' and Vice President of the Busara Center, one of the first behavioral science research labs in the global south. Drawing from 10 years of research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, she argues that the international development sector in its current form often fails to take into account the experiences and perspectives of people living in violent contexts. And she offers a new language for transforming development in the wake of conflict. We talk about the colonialist thinking that underpins international development, how the sector's unflinching faith in causality creates blind spots for practitioners, and what it means to envision this space anew.

Hannah Balikci:

The following is a PSA from the University of Chicago's Pearson Institute for the study and resolution of global conflicts presenting the Pearson Global Forum. A thin line divides human realities. The fundamental desire for simple human existence remains the same, yet reality is dramatically disparate for many. Join us on Friday, October 20th to hear from global experts as they discuss the topic of disparity and how it impacts people around the world in places like Iran, Afghanistan, and Mexico. This in person and virtual event is free and open to all. You can find more information at the Thank you.

Reema Saleh:

Hi, my name is Reema. I'm a Pearson fellow and a student at Harris.

Julia Higgins:

Hi there. My name is Julia Higgins, I'm an MPP student at Harris as well, and also a Pearson fellow.

Umama Zillur:

Hi everyone. My name is Umama Zillur. I'm also a student at Harris and a Pearson fellow.

Mareike Schomerus:

And hi, I'm Mareike Schomerus. I'm a visiting lecturer at Harris and also Vice president at Basara.

Reema Saleh:

Alrighty. So can you tell us a little more about why are you here this quarter at Harris? What courses are you teaching?

Mareike Schomerus:

So this is my third time that I'm teaching at Harris in the spring term, and I teach two courses this time. I teach qualitative research, which is of course within Harris, a little bit of a novelty since this is not a very qualitative environment. So I think it's one of the few courses that you can take at Harris where you learn qualitative research and get to do a little experimentation with your own qualitative interests and approaches and so on. And the second course I teach is a hybrid course that we teach across Busara, which is my home organization in Kenya and here. Where we have people design a behavioral experiment, and the actual part that we do in class is the so-called formative research. So where people set up the first round of research where they're trying to understand what really is the context like in which they're going to implement this hypothetical experiment. And so we do a little bit of data collection so people can actually experience what it's like to design an interview instrument, analyze qualitative formative data, and then how to use that for experimental design later on.

Reema Saleh:

Can I ask what first drew you to this intersection of behavioral science and conflict studies?

Mareike Schomerus:

Yeah, it piqued my interest probably by now six, seven years ago. In fact, after I did a lot of ethnographic field work, very qualitative field work in conflict resolution and peace protest and armed groups and so on. And it really became very clear to me from reading more and more about behavioral science and from cognitive biases and cognitive processes, and primarily actually the point where it becomes very clear that people start remembering things very differently as time passes and change their own recollection of what it is that brought them to a particular place. And which I had seen a lot happening if you do qualitative conflict research, you see that, of course you see people changing their stories and so on. And I thought, I wonder what that is. And I've read a lot more on behavioral science and then thought, I think qualitative conflict studies is really missing a big perspective or it doesn't engage more with behavioral science.

Because behavioral science, at the time even more so than now, sits very separately, sits as a mainly quantitative discipline still, even though it's also hugely qualitative and anthropology is often very behavioral and so on. And so I started looking into what kind of research could be really useful to try and interlink a very serious qualitative perspective, which is what I bring, and a very serious behavioral science perspective. And it turned out there wasn't a lot of that around. And so I set up a little research project to try a particular approach, which we then implemented, and that's kind of how I ended up at Busara.

Reema Saleh:

That's amazing. Can I ask how that's informed? We'll be talking a lot about your book, 'Lives Amid Violence'. How did that inform or what inspired the book project in the first place?

Mareike Schomerus:

So the book project was inspired by a very technical requirement. I was the research director of a big research consortium, the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, which ran for 10 years. Was hosted at ODI in London, funded by, at the time, the Department for International Development, which is the UK's development secretary really at the time was called DFID. And it was looking into that seemingly very simple question of how people survive in situations of violent conflict. And survivor being quite a holistic category, not just security wise, but also in terms of really income, food, services, health services, education, things like that. How do they manage in these situations?

And I took over as the research director for my predecessor in 2017, something like that. And then the project came to a close in 2021, and the final deliverable for the final research director was to step back and answer the big question. Say, well, if we do 10 years of research with really dozens of partner organizations all over the world, we have over 150 outputs from that particular research consortium. All very specific on many, many different aspects of this question in many nuanced ways.

But really what is a big picture answer that you can give about what you learn? Which is actually a really tricky question to answer. You have a huge amount of material from very, very different methodological perspectives, very different voices and so on. And so that task fell to me as the research director. And I guess the only way that I could answer that question really was to do something very different. I wouldn't have been in a position to really summarize the research. It's too nuanced, and I make that point very often in the book that really each individual piece of research stands alone. And if you're interested in a particular part of this broad range of questions, you would really need to go and read the research on this.

So I wanted to look at patterns of insights that arise from this. And the patterns of insights that were really striking to me were that over these 10 years, these many outputs, the recommendations that almost every piece of research has to the policy makers, decision makers, program designers and so on, were very, very similar. They hardly ever seemed to change. And yet also alongside the hardly ever change in recommendations, hardly anything else ever seemed to change either. And so I thought, well, why it? Why can you keep saying the same things over and over again and nothing seems to shift in this? And so that's my inspiration for what the book actually ended up being, was recognizing these big patterns.

Reema Saleh:

That makes sense. Can I ask where kind of the title came from originally

Mareike Schomerus:

The title of the book? So 'Lives Amid Violence: Transforming Development in the Wake of Conflict'. So 'Lives Amid Violence', I think came to me quite early because it was very clear that I wasn't going to write actually primarily about the people whom the research was about, the people who were living in situations of violence. But also a lot about the people who were on the other side, on the implementing side, on the side of trying to deliver development programs and so on to support those other lives of people who were living amidst violence. And so I thought that was a phrase that caught both the fact that everyone's lives gets wrapped up in these situations and in often very unhelpful ways.

But it also, I really wanted to have an emphasis on this understanding that amid violence lives also go on, they continue. They are often brutally interfered with, interrupted sometimes, but remains really crucial to pay attention to how people live. And I think that's particularly crucial for the people who then make decisions over how to support those people. Because I would argue that very often their decisions are a bit misguided, because they interpret things in a particular way that is not very helpful.

The second part of the title, which is a bit grandiose, transforming development in the wake of conflict, I actually mentioned that in the book that I had to say that out loud quite a few times to myself to see whether that sounded completely ridiculous. Because everything that has transforming in the title is a little bit cringe worthy to me, but it's also important to highlight what direction the book is going in. And so from a publisher's point of view, it's very important that people know that this is about international development and that this is in the wake of conflict.

So it doesn't do that division between we're now in conflict and we're now post conflict, which is usually the jargon that is used. And the transforming part, I think the publisher, who was very supportive of this title, felt that it is a book that called for a genuine transformation. And that it's quite serious about this despite the fact that I find it quite hard to let the word transforming come out of my mouth. But it is, it's asking for a real shift. And so that's how the title comes about. But negotiating a title is also not something that the author does alone, I'm just saying. So I think my very original title was a lot more creative, which would've never made it to the bookshelves.

Reema Saleh:

Oh, can we know what it is?

Mareike Schomerus:

Yeah, I don't remember embarrassingly, I shouldn't have said that. But it was definitely something more creative.

Reema Saleh:

Oh, we'll definitely follow up. We won't. No, but to me, I admit it always struck me as, because I feel like the book writes a lot about, it's hard to define when a conflict starts or when it ends for people. So it kind of captured that for me.

Mareike Schomerus:

Great. I'm delighted to hear. So it does work kind of.

Reema Saleh:

So I think we're definitely going to get through what needs to be transformed about development and how we think about aid, state building kind of things. But first, can you walk us through what is a mental model? And what about the mental model underpinning international development needs to change?

Mareike Schomerus:

So this is exactly where I landed when I looked at all these many outputs and recognized this pattern of recommendations were always the same. And they were basically in one way or another, every recommendations were saying, you have to work being politically aware, things have to be context specific and context appropriate, and any planning needs to be flexible and it needs to work with local realities. And I mean, these are very common policy recommendations that you see and yet they never really changed. And so I thought, well, why is that? And as I was trying to understand, literally letting it emerge. People can't see me, but I'm grasping things in the air with my hands, which is very much actually a reenactment of how this process felt like. Because I was sitting often and I was walking around talking to myself and trying to really grasp what it was that I was seeing.

And at some point it was very, very clear to me that what I was seeing was a mental model underpinning these international engagements in conflict situations that wasn't ever going to be appropriate for what the realities were. And so what that means is, so a mental model is something that we all have in multiple layers and multiple versions, which is basically our go-to, often subconscious or unconscious explanations of how things work. So you fall back onto, you make sense of the world through the interpretative patterns that you have ingrained in yourself based on your personality, based on your background, your upbringing, your culture, your surroundings, your learnings and whatever. And you just apply that very snappy and say, "Okay, this is why these things are in a particular way."

And so mental model aren't, it's not correct to say this is your way of thinking because it's much more visceral than that. If it was your way of thinking, it would be much easier to say, "Oh, let's articulate this thinking and now let's rethink," which is how this is often done. But a mental model is deeper than that. It's the blood that flows through that thinking where people say, "But I'm deeply convinced that there's one particular way in which something works and the mechanisms through which something works." And the way I unpack that in the book is through looking at what some of the major approaches are in these situations of violent conflict. And why in a way they never really change in their approaches despite the calls for being context specific, despite the calls for being politically appropriate and aware and so on.

And how that emerged to me in front of, as I was grasping with my hands in the air for explanations, was that I realized that the language in which international intervention of development speaks about this sounds like you're talking to a bunch of engineers. So it's almost like you're sitting in a room with people who've written a blueprint on how to now create a post-conflict society. And I say this a little bit flippantly, but actually it's not that flippant. It's quite stark.

If you look at the language that's used in this, it's state building and institution building and building blocks and blueprints and pathways. And I mean it's all very, very technical engineering language. And what that does is it really speaks to one mental model, which is the need for certainty. So there's a real deep need I think for people who work in that field to feel somewhat able to say, "No, we're on top of this situation. We're in control of this situation. We have a plan, we have sequencing."

So yes, clearly we need to, this is a situation that was, for example, a peace deal has been signed, so now we need to go into the institution building and we need to stabilize this. Again, stabilization, like build a foundation that can't slide. Very, very architectural. We need to stabilize this. We need to build these institutions. These institutions then need to become accountable. They need to then start acting on behalf of their citizens, at which point the citizens then stop contesting the legitimacy of these institutions. And that's how you bring about a peaceful society.

And that mental model of this engineering mindset, I think for starters is really misleading. The second part of the mental model is that ultimately all of this thinking that happens and the many nuances in, for example, a state building effort and so on, really speaks to an idea that deeply believes that economic growth in one way or another will solve all problems, is completely necessary to solve very complex social problems. And that also with the idea that economic growth and economic resources is the most important thing for people, everything becomes a transactional relationship rather than a social relationship where people maybe build an economic transaction on top of a social relationship.

The mental model of international development flips it and says, "Well, the most important thing for people is resources, material wealth." And that's interesting because we see time and time again that this very established idea of the hierarchy of needs, where always the economic need is the big foundation of the pyramid gets flipped in situations of violent conflict. Or contestation where actually people put other needs, where they forego economic opportunities for social connections, for example. And this mental model that ultimately, in really bare bones words, it's the mental model that informs still the idea of homo-economicals, the rational driven by the aim to get the best economic decisions done and gain the most benefit from these decisions. That is still a mental model that underpins a lot of the analysis of these contexts.

Umama Zillur:

So on that train of thought, and just maybe looking at a more long-term view of this, all of this I think is... I mean, my original question was, what's wrong with international development and its relationship to colonialism and ongoing conflict? But I want to rephrase that and ask you, do you think the relationship is a prominent part of the development economic discourse currently? And then unpack why that link or the fact that the link is missing is an issue.

Mareike Schomerus:

The relationship to colonialism. So I think that well, colonialism had has at its heart the same mental model. And so let me nuance that a little bit more what I mean by that. So colonialism, I think often when people speak about it, they think of it actually weirdly, again, the mental model of engineering and administrative things. So very often when people speak about decolonization, they think about the administrative parts of this. The first wave of debate on de-colonialization was countries becoming independent. So actually a very technical administrative act. And now I think the debate has moved on, luckily, a lot more and has realized that there's also deep thought patterns, deep prioritizations of what kind of knowledge is important, what kind of knowledge is even readable to people. And sometimes readable quite literally, whatever is written down still holds a lot more power than something that is spoken and so on.

And so I think the relationship that I see between colonialism and these mental models of international development is, I guess has a couple of elements to it. One is economic growth, trying to get the best economic gain out of a situation. I would argue it's really profoundly part of colonial thinking. I would also argue that the idea that you can put people's experiences into certain boxes of administrative units is also part of a colonial... Colonial administration, that's how they administered people, by segmenting them by populations, segmenting them, even within one person there would be segmentation of what this one person was about. So it wasn't a very holistic view of humans, not a very holistic view of human experience. And I think in so many ways, development replicates that.

So you have that replicated through the various sectors. It's very hard for me to really understand how you can separate the health sector from education or how can you separate health and water and sanitation. These two are very intertwined, yet they're completely different sectors in international development. The second way I think, in which or third way maybe in which this is replicated, is in this really, really difficult subject of targeting. Of how NGOs, non-governmental organizations actually deliver their programs to people.

They always do this by identifying categories of people that are most, in their view, most eligible or most needy, most in need of what they want to implement. Which sounds like exactly the right way of doing it, because it kind of seems very commonsensical. You identify who's in need and then you deliver your program. But in this categorization, actually a lot of thought patterns I think continue that take people out of the entirety of the holisticness of their being, their nuances into a very, very narrow identities that aren't necessarily reflective of how people feel.

And the work I used there is from a colleague who worked in Uganda a lot, and he gave us an example that in Uganda, a lot of programs would target female headed households. So women who were the head of the family for whatever reason, and they were often targeted with a very particular set of programs, non-food items, so wash basins and soap, and sometimes also food items and so on. But his argument was that a lot of them were actually embroiled in land conflicts, and they were trying to battle the right for their land, which they had lost. And really what they needed was legal advice, legal support. And so while they took the non-food items, it didn't really gel with how they themselves experienced themselves.

And so this fragmentation of identities into these very operationally, easily implementable categories, I think also is very much part of this relationship between international development and colonialism. Because that was an element of control during colonial times was to say, "Let's segment people. Let's put them into categories." I mean, categorization along administrative lines was a pretty popular tool in colonial administration. So that I think indeed would be one of those mental models that categorization is a necessity to implement anything. That is quite a challenging one.

Umama Zillur:

Thank you. That's a really helpful way to look at that link, I think. And do you think that that link is now a prominent part of the discourse when it comes to international development?

Mareike Schomerus:

I think it depends. It can be and then it also isn't. So it can be, let's start with a more constructive one. I think it can be because, well, weirdly, I think, sorry, let me rethink how I start this because this is complicated stuff. So it can be when people make it visible that some of these thought patterns still continue. That is definitely, I think, very helpful. I think it's very helpful that there's definitely an awareness now that the model of implementing programs that are designed in New York or Washington, Brussels or London or Oslo or wherever, and then they've flown into any other part of the world and implemented in similar ways. I think that is very much established now that that's really not the way to do it.

It gets more complicated in many other ways. The first way in which it gets more complicated is that of course a lot of the debate continues to be held along the lines of categories. So weirdly, and this is what's so fascinating and so frustrating and also necessary to have about this identity debate. I would say that the debate that says, we need to really make sure that the discourse on international development isn't held by western people, but weirdly that still works with categories. Really, that is still quite an unnuanced and quite clunky way of actually thinking about what does collaboration between people need to look like. Collaboration, that from where I stand, has to rest in the realization that some countries are where they are right now because they took from other countries. So I think that's, for me, that's a very, very good platform for which to have that debate.

The then very categorical debate is trickier, because on the one hand I understand it, I can even support it. On the other hand, I find that it does replicate some of these patterns that aren't particularly helpful. But that's a difficult debate to have. I think we need to engage on the substance of this, and we need to try and figure out ways in which some of these power relationships become very visible. How identity-based directions are guided in certain ways in certain traditions that replicate power patterns. All of that is hugely important. But I don't know whether we get that far if we are simply doing this based on identities. Because the dirty history doesn't get changed by that, but the future truly has to be collaborative. There's just no other way on this planet, that's the only way that we can work together. So I'm very torn about how to have this in the best possible way.

And then of course, I'm also very aware that based on my own identity, it's tricky for me to be the one to say how this debate should be held. So this is the cycle in which I then get caught up. And then at the same time, I also think it's too important for people not to show up for it. So that then also includes me. So this is really very nuanced and contradictory. But I want to say that also one of the things that I feel is a mental model that's not helpful is to try and get rid of contradiction, which a lot of international development tries to do. It tries to find the one way in which it seems seemingly this is the right way, and that is very problematic. It will always be contradictory. It'll often always be ambivalent, ambiguous. It will feel uncertain and it will be uncomfortable. So in my own learning with this debate, I also try to then remind myself that I truly believe that it needs to be uncomfortable and contradictory. And it often is.

Umama Zillur:

I think it makes sense to be torn about something like this, because it is tricky and it is difficult. I know you touched a little bit about this, but at the core of the two books and just your life's work is that we need to handle the experiences and perspectives of the people living in context of violence and conflict with care. Can you walk us through your vision for how to transform development in the wake of conflict? And what does responsible engagement in these spaces look like for you? What are some of the ways you hold yourself accountable when existing in this space?

Mareike Schomerus:

Yeah, I mean always in incomplete ways, that is I think also true. So what does transformation really look like? Again, I can only, truly I can only speak from my perspective and I can only say that I think it requires an acute awareness of these mental models. It requires an acute almost check-in mechanisms with oneself. And this is where it gets, again, very tricky because sometimes when I talk about this, you can feel a palpable sense in the room where people go, "Oh my God, she wants to sit around the campfire and sing songs." I'm like, "No, this is not a touchy-feely thing. It's really a necessity to understand why you are seeing certain things in the world in the way that you do." To really recognize that that is also shaped very much by, not just by personality, but by background and culture and education and all these kinds of things.

And then take that as a real invitation for self-awareness and say, "But where's my role in this? Why am I pushing for something like this? Is it because my mental model that I fall back on? Is it because it's my sense of this is my seat at the table, so let me take that seat at the table?" So these processes are really important. They have nothing to do with me going and hugging a tree, because they're actually very, very incomplete in a lot of these processes. So that is where I would argue that's where their transformation really needs to start.

And then bringing the perspectives in of the people, again, is one of those seemingly really obvious things to say. And then once you put it into practice, it gets very tricky. So a lot of the times people say, "Well, that requires spending more time with people where you're doing research so that you do better research." That is true, but that doesn't then give me the license to claim that I've now adopted the perspective of someone. It's also true that simply by virtue of someone being from the same country then doing research in the same country, that person isn't necessarily closer to the people with whom they're doing research. Because stratification doesn't just happen along national borders.

So this idea that prospective representation is a straightforward thing by allowing others to speak through you is a little bit simplistic, because the whole point of research is the research creates the knowledge, they become the interpreter. And it's tricky when they start speaking for the people with whom they conducted research, because there is always a translation process. So I would embrace the imperfection there and do by all means everything that is possible. And obviously our research methods are a lot more aware of this now, we have much more participatory methods and so on. But I think it also remains the case that the process of research of someone else coming in and working with people to ultimately extract information about their lives from them, there is always a certain power of relationship in this. And then being the one person who is then able to write that down in a linear story that then somewhere else can read.

So this is I think another moment of embracing contradiction and trying to do the best that you can. And the best that you can, the accountability that you were asking about I think just comes from continuing to check, continuing to reflect on why I have certain perspectives. I grappled with that a lot and really also stopping myself often and taking a step back. And I had a jargon dictionary while I was writing this, and I wrote the first draft and also realized that there were many things that I couldn't explain without the typical international development jargon. So I kept a note and then at the end when it was almost finished, I did a word search of the whole document to try and get rid of the jargon that I really find awful, like beneficiary and all these kinds of things.

But actually, I also realized that very often once I got rid of the jargon, I mean I didn't have the vocabulary anymore. So even being aware of this, that sometimes I use language that I dislike because it's the only way that I can speak about this, because I'm so embedded in this system as well. Is a contradiction that is one to then make visible, but not necessarily one that I can get rid of. So that to me is very important that it will always be imperfect. And I fall on the side of saying, "It's still worth trying with the imperfection." Others fall on the side of saying, "It's not, you shouldn't try that. But that's a good debate to have, I think.

Umama Zillur:

Yeah, I think the love hate relationship with academia is something a lot of people can relate to.

Julia Higgins:

I think this whole conversation really illustrates how insidious colonial legacies are in development work and how complex engaging with these ideas can be. To shift gears a little bit now, I think a theme that really shines through in your writing is the fact that relationships are really crucial to state building and institutional capacity development. Can you walk us through exactly how relationships function as currency in post-conflict settings? And if I recall correctly in the book, you focused on a couple of really interesting case studies in the DRC and Afghanistan.

Mareike Schomerus:

So there's many elements to this. So the engineering mindset of state building is very much based on this idea that you build an institution, and an institution in that image is almost imagined as being quite literally the building. And fill it with administrative processes, which is where this notion of capacity building comes in very strongly. So building a capacity for a country means to train civil servants to do the very technical aspects of their job. I mean, a lot of capacity building is done on spreadsheet training and things like that. Very technical stuff.

And it really overlooks that, of course, institutions always are hardware and the software and that what the building projects very often is very different from what happens inside. And that's true for anywhere in the world. There's the hardware and the software version of the institution. And the common capacity and state building approaches have overlooked that a little bit. And they've overlooked it, because I think as a little sideline, because I think they took Max Weber's ideas about the state a little bit too seriously and a little bit seriously too long over a century, saying, "This is the only way that a state should look." I think that's a tricky one.

But also because the idea of the state in that particular imagery is one of a leveler and a neutralizer. And it really is the idea that the institution should try and counter the social relationships that might've existed in situations where there isn't a democratically elected government, but that's not the format of governance. So this idea of the neutralizer and leveler still underpins this and often is projected as so often these things are in international development into an infinite future. At some point in the infinite future, this institution will function so that it pays equal attention to all citizenry in the country. But when exactly that future will happen, we don't really know.

And yet what we see, of course, that in a lot of situations of violent conflict, the very same structures and dynamics that created the conflict in the first place, and often conflicts are very long-running. They will of course continue once there is a state building effort and humans are very clever. So they will usurp the state institutions to make sure that they function in the interest of the people who held the power before a conflict officially ended. They will make very sure that that continues to be the case.

And so what that also means is that despite institutions being built, there will be continued relationships, and this relationship, state run on relationship is very important. And the example that you're alluding to in the DRC was done by two scholars who did this very interesting work where they unpacked the relationships that provincial governors had with the capital in Kinshasa. And then tested this relationship often based on length of knowing the president and so on against how efficient their provinces were run, their districts were run. And efficiency being measured in the ability to pass legislation and budgetary resources and so on. And that it turns out that the stronger your relationship is, the more efficient you can become.

So relationships are a real capacity builder, of course, in the kind of state building mindset that's the worst version. Because the way I described it, is one way to describe it, the other way to describe it is patronage. And that's the one thing that the idea of the state as a neutralizer and balancer wants to avoid. But it actually is the more efficient way to govern, if you are allowing the inside that relationships are capacity, that they aren't just something that needs to be neutralized and controlled away, but that they can be a real engine.

And that's very tricky because of course these relationships are often held amongst elites. And the international state building effort wants to make sure that the elites don't run the country to their own interests only. But that's again, one of those contradictions that requires a little bit of unpacking in each needs context. Now, is it ultimately maybe better for the populations that are removed from the elites, if the elites feel secure in the resources they have access to, and actually it is better for ordinary citizens? Or is it ultimately better for ordinary citizens if the state building efforts continue to try and break the grip of elites on the state resources, possibly then continuing battle for authority and resources and ultimately continuing conflictual dynamics?

Julia Higgins:

Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really interesting to think about relationships as a tool to pull us out of this infinite future that you've referenced and into more of a concrete present. Very interesting.

So again, to pivot to a little bit of a different topic here, in your previous work you've engaged pretty extensively with the violent conflict in Northern Uganda, between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army. And in the context of that work, you and your research team applied the concept of a mental landscape, which I think is pretty closely intertwined with the mental model framework that you were describing previously as well. But essentially how I understood it was that it is how people perceive, interpret, and experience their circumstances today and how that can be shaped by legacies of war or violence in their particular setting. So I'm wondering, can you speak a bit how you utilized these mental landscapes to contextualize your work in Uganda specifically, and also how you apply that framework to other conflict settings?

Mareike Schomerus:

Yeah, so the mental landscape conflict as a concept is a concept redeveloped through this work. And it really came out of this realization that was quite confusing, that some of our survey work showed that even in situations where the hard indicators had measurably improved for people. So it was measurably more secure, there weren't any more attacks. People were walking at night on the street, there were streets where there hadn't been streets before. People were growing crops that needed longer to mature, all the kind of indicators that you would look at to see whether a security situation is improving. And so even in situations where we saw that, when you ask people whether their lives were improving, they were saying, "Well, no, they're not."And this was actually one of the moments where I thought, this is where we need to bring in behavioral science into this conflict study, because we don't get far enough by asking people because it's confusing. The answer is confusing, contradictory yet again.

And so we basically went in with this question to say, is there something specific about people who have been through a very multi-layered experience of conflictual dynamics, of vulnerability, of uncertainty that makes it harder for them to experience their own recovery? If that's how you want to call it. Because arguably, if you can't experience your life getting better, then it's not getting better. It doesn't matter whether I tell you 10 times that "No, your situation has improved." And so that's when we used people's own stories of...

We didn't even use their own stories of conflict. We asked a group of people whether they could tell us something that was important to them or that happened that was important to them during the time of the conflict. And then we asked another group of people whether they could tell something that was important to them two weeks ago, very, very recently. Because you have to think very, very carefully of how you talk about these things in an ethical way. And then we asked people to make decisions through some very established behavioral games on altruism and their risk preferences and so on. And we saw that even on this tiny little difference of asking people to situate a particular memory, and not everything that people talked about who talked about the time of the conflict was specifically about the conflict. That there was a noticeable difference in how they made decisions.

And so that's where the concept of the mental landscape was born, because we then did a lot of qualitative interviews as well. And it's very clear how people carry many, many layers of memories and sense-making with them at all times. And some of them are contradictory again. And we know, I mean, there's a lot of very quantitative research done on the question of whether the experience of violence changes your behavior and your preferences. But to me, that question is almost too narrow. So I wanted it to be a little bit wider, and I thought, but it's more than the experience of a particular violent act. It is your individual memories, your communal memories. It is your own experience of being able to access a particular resource or not.

So a continued experience of marginalization, which you then might explain through one of your individual memories, so it becomes reinforcing. So it's really complicated. And it also changes, because if somebody, for example, has a religious faith, they then interlace their own sense-making a lot with their religious faith. So it's very complex, changeable, movable landscape that really has seasonality. Like every landscape has, where sometimes the mountain looks very gray on a day, and then the next day it looks very green.

And I find this a very helpful way of thinking about this, that moves us away from the much more bare bones perception survey. Which basically asks people, how do you perceive your situation to be and demands of them to give you a snapshot of what it is in that particular moment. And this mental landscape where you also then say, "But what are some of your communal memories? Why do you think this is the way things are for your community? Why do you think this is the way things are for you? What kind of also disappointments have you had, for example, with generations of international development programs?" Who very often come in and offer a lot of hope and a lot of promise of a better, again, future somewhere in the far, far future. Which then cannot deliver this?

So you have an added layer of people being permanently disappointed and needing to preserve for themselves their sense of hope. So they become very reluctant often to engage in the next round of program. And because hope is a precious currency, you can't spend it freely because you need it to keep going. That things will ultimately be okay, is really an important thing to carry with you. So the mental landscape one is trying to nuance a lot more what prior was only ever captured in really quite dry perception surveys. And tries to very explicitly what I've mentioned earlier, bring the many, many elements of humans back together in a way that is still graspable.

This is also my problem with, even though I kind of came up with this concept as a mental landscape, and I need to work on it and nuance it much more. I also find it really difficult, because of course, at the same time, it still tries to capture, give a catchy term to something that is very, very nuanced and multilayered and complex and changeable. So while I'm trying to say, "No, there's a lot of fluidity and it's nuanced," I'm also saying, "And here's the label, the one label that makes it really comfortable to talk about it." So again, it's tricky, but if it helps towards an understanding, even in this one element of communal versus individual memories, then I think that's already much, much more than we have right now.

Julia Higgins:

Yeah, much more comprehensive.

Umama Zillur:

In 'Lives Amid Violence', in one section you describe the success of peace building as being presented as an Excel table that shows the number of attendance at a meeting. I think that this really captures how much of the current practices surrounding evaluation of development projects really miss the mark. Because we want to quantify impact and change, we only look for things that are quantifiable and in the process, what ends up happening is we're missing rich insight into actual impact. Whether that's positive or negative. So I want to ask, how can those working at the intersection of evaluating peace building efforts strike a balance between measuring progress with precision and avoiding the flattening of personal stories and structural narratives? And that's already a long question, but I want to add onto that. Do you think the broader friction between qualitative and quantitative research feeds into this reality?

Mareike Schomerus:

So I want to preface what I say by saying on any of the points that I make, there are always good examples. And I say that because I know that a lot of organizations also do fantastic work. And wouldn't measure their peace building efforts in attendance at meetings, but many also do. And a few good stories don't make an approach a successful thing. So this is very, very important. And often obviously people come back to me and say, "But this particular program, it did great work." I'm like, "Yes, I don't dismiss that at all. But there are still underpinning mental models that primarily then make many more programs look in this other way."

So how can organizations counter this? I don't know whether the burden is necessarily just on the organizations, because this is another thing that I write about, and this is a very established area of discourse in international development. Is the cognitive dissonance with which many international development professionals operate, where they implement things, do things, count attendance at meetings so that they can put it on the M&E spreadsheet, while knowing that that's ultimately meaningless.

It's really, I think, not to be underestimated how many people work with that permanent cognitive dissonance, because they also believe that the small parts of some of the efforts ultimately are a good thing to do. Or a lot of people also buy themselves some freedom by delivering the spreadsheet based M&E and say, "Well, once that's okay, nobody will look too closely in what I'm doing, so here's what I'm actually doing." And that I think is quite constructive. So that cognitive dissonance is not to be underestimated.

But I also think that the main responsibility on changing this isn't really necessarily just with the implementing organizations, because all implementing organizations look to their funders. And the funders will often request these things, will often want reassurance. And there it is again, the mental model of certainty and reassurance, and also of that tricky bit of trust. How much do they trust the implementing organizations to really do something constructive? They get a bit of reassurance from seeing the spreadsheet in which the attendance was marked. And that's complicated to change, because the funders then sit in the treasury of donor countries and ultimately at some point in time get called in front of parliament and say, "This is why we're spending money on this."

And there's work on this political narrative that needs to really change in this, which is that the idea of the money that is built as foreign aid isn't money that is so directly improving people's lives. But it's really a political tool of the donor countries as well. And once that narrative would be shifted towards that, then it would be much easier to account for it in parliament, and a lot of these slightly performative practices might change. So a lot of this I think needs to change also in the donor implementing relationship.

And then I forgot now the second part of your already very long first question, but just remind me.

Umama Zillur:

How does the broader friction between qualitative-

Mareike Schomerus:

How I forget? How could I forget that question? So the interesting thing is, the friction for me is not as frictious as it might sound to you. Because for me, no method is perfect and they all need to speak to each other. And despite the fact that I'm a qualitative researcher, I'm really no purist on this. And I really think of the way I teach qualitative research is to say there are certain questions and certain types of answers that you can only elicit through certain kinds of methods. And some of them are very suitable for just quantitative approaches, and it's very helpful to have a quantitative answer to establish obviously the scale of a phenomenon and things like that. But that's not particularly valuable if you don't then also pay attention to saying, "Well, why do these things happen?" And even in the quantitative work continue to highlight that this doesn't yet help us with understanding the nuance.

So the two methods really speak to each other. And so for me, that divide actually, despite the fact that I am quite at home in the qualitative methods, that's actually quite a helpful contradiction rather than a friction. Because it also allows these broader questions that need to be asked about, when is knowing the scale actually important? Is knowing the scale part of a political theater that allows for the very quick soundbitey, election driven arguments and policies? If that's the answer to this, then that's a very, very useful insight to have and say, "But then we need to change that that's what people want to hear." And at the same time, we can say, "But when is something that we know for a fact is only been experienced in a particular way by one person," because we only ask this one person. When is something like that so powerful and resonant that it can actually change people's minds more broadly, and it's completely irrelevant whether this is a phenomenon experience by one person or by 2 million people? That to me then recreates exactly the humanity that we talked about.

But the two need to speak to each other, need to work in tandem with each other. And they also, as philosophical approaches really benefit from having a conversation with each other. We wouldn't have had the kind of insights that we had without both a quantitative survey and then a lot of qualitative and ultimately also some experimental work, and without a lot of conversations between people. This is the other thing that's always underestimated. Research is not a lonely undertaking. It becomes a lot better if you speak to each other.

Reema Saleh:

So what are the biggest takeaways that you think policymakers should take away from this book? And what should we have asked you in our hour together?

Mareike Schomerus:

What are the biggest takeaways? So I would say this idea of a takeaway is a very, very unhelpful mental model, because it always... No but it's, I know everyone's laughing and I'm laughing at myself, but it's true. Because ultimately it again tries to head us towards some sort of certainty, some sort of nugget of insights, some sort of solid ground on which to work. I had a one-hour conversation and I walk out with five takeaways, which is exactly the kind of thing that is really unhelpful because you can't condense this complexity endlessly. You can't endlessly synthesize.

So actually, I would say that a good takeaway is one where everything feels a bit unsettled. So not one in the lines of recommendation and, "The government should do this, and the implementers should do this." But in the line of, "Wait a second, what am I listening to? Why am I doing the work that I'm doing? What can I contribute? What can I not contribute? What fulfills me in this that then might become helpful to others? What fulfills me and might not be helpful to others?" I think are really useful questions to ask. And continuing to ask oneself, "Why do I believe that things work in the way they do? Why do I fall back on certain explanatory patterns? Why are they so ingrained in me?"

So the main takeaway is uncertainty and contradiction, but that's a really, really tricky thing to get your head around. And it feels weirdly unsatisfying when people walk out of an event and go, "Well, that was a bit fluffy. Well, she didn't really tell us what to do." People very often ask me, "So what's the solution?" I'm like, "Yeah, that's the mental model, the solution." How could there be one solution? These are complex, long, deeply rooted thing. There isn't one solution beyond continued engagement and learning and discussion and realization and so on.

Reema Saleh:

I feel like it almost reminds me of, there's a Susan Sontag quote that often comes back. "The only good answers are the ones that destroy the questions," it kind of reminded me of that. But I don't know, it's a scary thing. How do you even know what is underpinning your own mental model? How do you go beyond just rethinking it?

Mareike Schomerus:

It's very scary. It's very scary to me, and it was very, very hard for me to write this and to also say, "No, this is really what I think. This is actually how I think about these things." Because it's very clear to me that some people will really like it and others will think this is really naive. I had a comment from someone who said, "But your whole idea that this is not about economic growth unless redistributed properly, otherwise nobody can benefit. But don't you understand that that means some people will have less?" I'm like, "No, I do understand. That's the whole point of redistribution." So it's not as if I make some naive suggestions here, but I do understand completely that for some people, this idea that deeply the mental model isn't always applicable to every concept, it's very, very challenging.

And I catch myself out all the time. I almost would've given you five takeaways here because I'm so conditioned for this as well. And obviously my own mental models can be ripped apart by someone else on a daily basis. So it does feel very scary, and it feels also, I don't know, the way I then always think about this is to say, some people listen to me and go, "Oh, that's a bit naive and cute." And I'm like, "Yeah, but people still talk about trickle-down economics as workable." That's pretty naive and cute. But nobody talks about it in this way. For some reason that's an accepted way of thinking about this. So I'm trying very hard, and I don't mean to suggest that I succeed all the time, but I'm trying very hard to embrace that, that it feels scary and uncertain and that I can be attacked and that I represent contradiction in this. And that that has to be part of this as well.

Reema Saleh:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Mareike Schomerus. This episode was produced and edited by Rima Sala and Nishita Karun. Thank you to our interviewers, Julia Higgins, Rima Sala, Umama Zillur. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.


Root of Conflict


Sudan’s Political Transition | Ibrahim Elbadawi

What does an interrupted democratic transition look like? In this episode, we speak to Dr. Ibrahim Elbadawi, managing director of the Economic Research Forum and former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning in the Republic of Sudan. In May of 2023, Dr. Elbadawi joined us in Chicago at the sixth annual Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Lecture to discuss Sudan’s political transition and economic policymaking. The lecture took place just weeks after violent conflict erupted in Sudan. Fighting between two military factions has forced millions of Sudanese to flee the violence and cast a shadow of uncertainty over Sudan's ambitions to transition to a civilian-led democracy.  


Hello, this is Hannah and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

What does an interrupted democratic transition look like? In this episode, we speak to Dr. Abraham Elbadawi, Managing Director of the Economic Research Forum, and former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning in the Republic of Sudan. In May, Dr. Elbadawi joined us in Chicago at the 6th Annual Reverend Doctor Richard L. Pearson Lecture to discuss Sudan's political transition and economic policymaking. The lecture took place just weeks after violent conflict erupted in Sudan. Fighting between two military factions has forced millions of Sudanese to flee the violence and cast a shadow of uncertainty over Sudan's ambitions to transition to a civilian-led democracy.

Hisham Yousif:

My name is Hisham Yousif. I'm a second year MPP here at Harris. I'm also a Pearson fellow.

Kirgit Amlai:

I'm Kirgit Amlai. I'm a first year MPP and also a Pearson fellow.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

My name is Ibrahim Elbadawi. I am currently the Managing Director of the Economic Research Forum for the Middle East and North Africa. I joined this forum back in 2017. It's a forum of distinguished economists from the region and outside the region. It's really a very interesting forum that produces research and reports on the development and public policy issues. Before that, I was Director of Research at the Dubai Economic Council in Dubai, which is a semi-government institution on policy-oriented economic research. However,




the majority of my professional experience was developed while at the World Bank Development Economic Research Group, which I joined in '89 and then I resigned in 2009 and came back to the region.

I was a graduate of the University of Khartoum and then I had a PhD from Northwestern University and North Carolina State University. So we lived in Evanston for two years and my wife and I and our elder daughter who is with us here, Dr. Lina Elbadawi, she's a medical doctor, was born in Evanston. So it's really a great pleasure to be back here in Chicago. When I was a graduate student, we used to come to the Department of Economics of University of Chicago to attend some seminars and so on. So I've always been impressed by University of Chicago.

Hisham Yousif:

All right, so before we start with the questions, just kind of a framing, we have as our kind of working title, a retrospective on democratic transition interrupted. Many people studying conflict and folks that listen to this podcast, the civilian transition after the toppling of a dictator obviously is the most sensitive and fragile part of the transition. That process of democracy, you got headwinds of entrenched former regime elements, you got the army, you have various civil interests, you have protestors out in the street. So ultimately, we'd like to hear what it was like to be in Khartoum during that transition in a place of sensitive posts during that period, and how we got to where we are today. Obviously, you can't flip on the news without hearing what's going on in Sudan.

But before we get to that, tell us about your upbringing. Where are you from in Sudan and how was it like growing up in good old Sudan?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Despite the political instability and what we come to know in our kind of political culture as the Sudanese political syndrome, which are all of these coups and uprising and the alternation between short-lived democracies and long-reigning dysfunctional authoritarian military regimes.

Nonetheless, for my generation, we lived in a country that enjoyed a legacy of strong institutions, educational system, efficient bureaucracy, and to a large extent, a judiciary system and services. I enjoy it actually as the rest of my generation the benefits of meritocracy and being able to study at the University of Khartoum.

Of course, before that I was raised in a medium-sized city in central part of Sudan, in the region of Kordofan, which is a region that reflect the mixture of various cultures at the crossroads of various tribes and communities. And so, I studied my pre-university in my city, in my home city, and then I moved to the capital to study at the University of Khartoum, which was then in the late-70s or mid-70s was considered one of the best learning higher learning institutions in Africa and the Middle East.

For example, one of my professors, he was a physicist who actually became so renowned in his research on astrophysics so much so that he was contributing research to NASA at that time. I remember in the early 70s when I was a student majoring in mathematics at the university, he gave a talk about general relativity. And of course, we didn't understand much, but it tells you about the standard. We have an Arab linguist who was considered one of the major contributor to the history of the Arabic literature and so on and forth. And as well, as of course, economists, because I transferred to economics after my first year in mathematics. So what I was saying is that actually it was really great growing at that time, despite the fact that they were coups and militaries and so on.


The major setback to the Sudanese society and politics as a nation was the coup of 1989. That coup actually reflected or came as a result of a movement that we call in Sudan now an Islamawest. Not an Islamic because actually that movement effectively used the great religion which constitute the face of the majority of the population in order to advance very narrow-minded sectarian kleptocratic gains or agenda. Since then, actually Sudan was never before.


I personally was fortunate because in '89, I got an offer from the World Bank to join the Research Department of the World Bank. So six days after the coup in June 30th, 1989, I left the country. But my colleagues who were there, they really suffered. Because I used to teach at the University of Gezira, which is the second largest university in Sudan. They actually basically mismanaged everything. For example, they thought that they will feed themselves so the country will feed itself, so they destroyed the cotton industry and tried to grow wheat in a climate that's not conducive to high-productivity wheat. That's just one example. This is in one of the major agricultural projects in the country, the so-called Gezira scheme. Two million acres of irrigated agriculture, which was a backbone, so they destroyed that. That's just one example.

The Sudan Shipping Corporation that used to have a thriving maritime transport capacity, they basically sold that. Privatized and sold at fair sale prices to their membership. They did the sort of privatization that very much akin to what happened in the former Soviet Union when the former Soviet Union collapsed and chronic capitalism emerged. They disseminated the army and the civil service so much so that during the waning days of the regime, many of the leaders of that movement, they regretted what they have done. So it was a situation where you have kleptocratic ideologues taking over a country and destroying the elements of vitality in that country and that society.

That is why when the youth who were basically raised under the reign of that regime, 30 years and below, because that regime survived for some 30 years between early 90s up to 2018 when the revolution started in December, 2018. So these very youth who were raised under that regime, they actually they were the one who rebelled against the regime. The stories abound about their bravery and patriotism and their lyrics and literature and all of the wonderful things that the social media have reflected.

So myself, and my generations, who felt really challenged by what this new generation have done and that we failed to do, we've looked to serve in all capacities, including in myself. In my case, I resigned from my, I would say, comfortable position as Managing Director of a major research center based in Cairo to join the transitional government.

Hisham Yousif:

So before we get to that point, it was good timing on the World Bank that you were able to leave right as that regime took hold. A family member has described that period of time of they had an energy, but it was all directed in the wrong place. The privatization or the intensification of the war in the South or like you said, the destruction of the military and then having these parallel militia groups essentially where a lot of young people were conscripted. The 90s was a rough time for the Sudanese population. During that time, where were you headquartered? With the World Bank? Were you in ... ?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Headquartered at the World Bank. But like all Sudanese in the diaspora, we were not oblivious about what was happening, the atrocities in Darfur, the religious war in the south and the persecution and brutalization of the political movements and so on. So what we did was, or in fact personally I did, was to join the opposition in my own teams. Obviously as an academic and a researcher writing papers and participating in discussions about how to develop, for example, an alternative economic agenda, national agenda.

Then in 2005, an opportunity came for me to be directly involved from my perspective of the World Bank, which was the peace agreement between the Sudanese People Liberation Movement of the late Dr. John


Garang. With the support of the international community and the US and other members of the UN Security Council, a peace agreement was arranged between the then government of General Omar Bashir and the Sudanese People Liberation Movement. I was invited and asked to actually join the international group to support this process.



So I used to travel to Nairobi where we met with the two delegations, the government and the rebel SPLA movement, and we discussed issues about the future in terms of economic agenda, and the needs and the support that the World Bank and the UN system could provide in terms of technical support, in terms of training officials from both institutions, from the government institutions and their counterpart in the South. And so, that was a great opportunity for me to be involved and the first time actually in my lifetime to visit South Sudan. Because Sudan is a huge country, so I never had a chance to go to the south. The amazing thing is that we were staying for two weeks at the headquarters of Dr. John Garang, SPLM, the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, and then they were cattle rusting in the neighborhood. So we came with a plane from Kenya, but the weather actually, there was a storm, and so the plane could not come back. By the way, this is the same area where Dr. John Garang actually died as a result of an airplane crash.

Hisham Yousif:

That's right.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

It's called New Site. So we spent two weeks providing training and discussions with the technocratic leadership of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement. And so on the way back, the commander of that camp or the base decided to actually escort us with the Sudanese People Liberation Army.

Hisham Yousif:

Oh wow.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

And so, when I went back to Kenya in a town near by the border Sudanese/Kenyan border, that was a kind of an interesting point of discussion with my friends about that it was the first time for somebody like me to be escorted by the Sudanese People Liberation Army, which in the north, or at least the discussion was that this is an army of the rebels and what have you.

Hisham Yousif:

The enemy for a long period of time.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

But it's amazing that it's so unfortunate that the SAOs has to succeed as a result of the policies of the former regime. Because the young man that I was actually sitting by him and he was driving the car was playing Sudanese music, a famous singer, the late Mohammed Wardi, who was very popular in Sudan.

Hisham Yousif:

Oh, wow.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:


This is supposed to be the rebel movement that was supposed to articulate grievance and a different culture and so on. So there were so much in common. If, for example, the thinking was right about their Sudan is ultimately a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, and we need this political system that actually accommodate all of these diversity.


Hisham Yousif:

It truly was a lost opportunity, unfortunately. The fact that as Bashir came to power, you were able to jump to the World Bank. That in retrospect is actually a positive thing in the sense that you were able to escape the closed environment that gets created in a dictatorship like that. So when an opportunity presents itself for services to the country, after the regime gets toppled, you were able to create these alternative ways of looking at the economy or rendering services, a thought process that happens outside of the country. And so, you have a very interesting journey here. So describe to us how you came to be in a position to be in the Finance Ministry, the Finance Minister, during such a pivotal moment playing such an important part after Bashir was gone.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

I think obviously part of it is that, as I said, like many Sudanese professionals in the diaspora, I was quite concerned Sudanese first and foremost, but also a quite concerned professional economists who would like to help. Therefore, I was involved in a variety of activities during the 30 years, attending opposition events and presenting papers. And so, there was almost like a consensus about that I was a person that might actually be a good choice to lead the economic agenda, especially since the regime actually destroyed the economy, and it was by its own politics because of the sanctions and the listing of Sudan in the state-sponsored terrorist list. But also because of the mismanagement of the economy and especially the fact that they were unprepared for what we call in Sudan ... sorry, in economics, the sudden stop. The sudden stop is that when you have an economy that depended on a resource, whether capital flows by investors or an actual resource, and suddenly that stream of income stopped.

So what happened was that actually most of the oil more than 70%, or in fact 75% of the oil proceeds come from oil wells produced in the South. So when the South succeeded, they thought the ideologues of the so-called Islamic front who controls the government then, they saw that this is a time for them to exercise full control on Northern Sudan as an Arab Muslim country. But then they didn't really, their economic calculus did not really take into account the huge implications that an economy will suddenly lose this significant resource. That is why that the beginning of the end for them economically. Obviously the revolution was a revolution for dignity and freedom and so on, but it was aided by economics, economic crisis.

And so, when the transitional government or when the agreement, when the revolution succeeded, and the coalition that came out to be known the FFC, the Forces of Freedom and Change, which is a large coalition of freedom forces and political parties and civil society and so on, they decided to form a government for two years in order to prepare the country for elections and democratic transition, but then also in the interim, to manage an economy and to prepare the legal infrastructure for election, for the systems of government and what have you. I was one of those who were considered most qualified to lead that agenda. I'm quite grateful for the opportunity given to me.

I think despite the political instability and the setbacks and so on, the economic agenda that actually I was responsible for as the Senior Minister in charge of the economic sector remains the best hope for Sudan to chart a path of renewal and nation building.

Hisham Yousif:


Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Right now, I think there is a general consensus that hopefully when we return back to the constitutional process, we will go back to the same agenda, the unfinished agenda.



Hisham Yousif:

So before we actually get to that agenda and that period of time, which is pretty interesting, you also had the military kind of in the background. So one of the interesting things that I think people want to know is how much freedom was there to be able to implement such an agenda during the transition? But how did you come to the attention of the Forces of Freedom and Change, the FFC? How did that transition come about? How were you able to join the government in that direction?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Because of my activism during the period, the 30 years period. For example, as early as 1994, I presented a paper about the alternative economic agenda at the Sudanese Democratic Forum then in the 90s. Then in 2011, in Sudan, after the peace agreement and some opening up of the political system, I went to Sudan and there was a major, major conference or workshop organized by the Umma Party, which is one of the largest party in the country. Even though I'm not really an explicit political activist, but I am associated with the Umma Party.

Hisham Yousif:

I see.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

And so, I presented the alternative economic agenda in 2011, which basically constituted the basis for the program that I tried to implement during my reign as a Minister of Finance.

Kirgit Amlai:

Wow, I mean, that's interesting, with years of experience and all you've been able to contribute. I just wanted to, if you could share more back in 2021, the Juba Power Sharing Peace Agreement, which you talked a little bit about it. We know that it was designed to promote peace and democratic transition in Sudan, and evidence showed that provision of effective inclusion of previously marginalized ethnic groups could increase chances of peace. What went wrong? Any hope for this agreement to move forward?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Actually, perhaps maybe the intentions were good. The expressed intentions. But really the Juba Peace Agreement entailed much more than meet the eye. The Juba Peace Agreement, it started when I was a minister. It was basically overtaken by the military partners in the government. And it turns out that actually the reason why they pushed for the Juba Peace Agreement was that they wanted actually to reorder or to move the balance of power towards their hidden agenda, which is basically to disrupt the civilian democratic transition by building alliance with the so-called what we call in Sudan freedom fighters. But they're really leaders of militias who proclaim to represent the aspirations of the marginalized people. Of course, they fought and paid heavy prices, their armies, but at the end of the day, they were also military institutions.



They were not sure about their political power base, civilian power base, even in places like Darfur or the Sudan Blue Nile or the Sudan Kordofan. That actually created a dilemma for the Sudanese political discourse because they basically were quite ready to concoct a deal with the military leadership in Khartoum. Except for one leader, all of them, they actually joined the coup that took place in October, 2021. That was a litmus test as to their commitment to the democratic process and to the true aspirations of the people of the marginal



right regions. Unfortunately though, they remain powers to contend with because they have fighting forces and so on.

But I think the future, thinking ahead, the Juba Peace Agreement has to be integrated into a national peace conference in which all the stakeholders, civilian stakeholders, should have a seat in the table. That is the only way to ensure that peace is a democratic peace. Because actually what was happened in Juba was essentially, as in hindsight now we know, was basically a collusion of military institutions, military forces in Khartoum in terms of the army and the rapid support force, which is of course now they are fighting it out in Sudan and in the capital on one hand, and the rebel movements. And so, that actually kind of repeat the experience of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese People Liberation Movement and the regime of Omar Bashir.

Because when you confined, in fact, I wrote a paper and presented it at the Copenhagen Consensus Forum, which is a forum in Copenhagen concerned with peace and development. I criticized the agreement then of the 2005 as an agreement between two military protagonists who eventually will control the process and exclude the civilian stakeholders who have every right and legitimate right to be part of the process. So I think my answer to the question is that while it was a process that at least silenced fighting, but it wasn't enough, and it should have been integrated into a broader context. Unfortunately, part of the hidden objectives was actually to consolidate the militarization of Sudanese politics

Kirgit Amlai:

Considering your experience over the time both in Sudan and outside of Sudan, in every conflict there are always stakeholders be it within and external. If you could just share more, what has been the role of external actors such as neighboring countries, regional organizations, and international communities in responding to the crisis in Sudan and how their actions have influenced the trajectory of the crisis.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

This is a very important question, I think. The external actors have substantially influenced development in Sudan and will continue to do so. I think if I take the African Union, I think in Sudan and in all of Africa, I think the African Union has come a long way. The African Union actually has now matured and emerged as a respectable, genuine regional organization that actually promotes peace and security and development.

Obviously, not all African countries are democratic, but it is very clear that Africans as a collective body of people and political discourse and culture, I think they are much closer to democracy and democratization through the various interventions like for example, not recognizing a government produced by a coup. That has been very helpful for the case of Sudan after the 25th October, 2021 coup that reversed the political process.

I think the UN system obviously is impaired by the lack of consensus in the Security Council and the role that the autocrats in the Security Council play. Because China and Russia, they basically prioritize sovereignty, national sovereignty, and economic agenda over human rights and political rights and so on. But then also, I think probably the West also has own some other interests that may not necessarily align with these ideals. But by and large, I think the European Union and the US have played a very positive role in supporting the democratic process in Sudan, has provided immensely needed resources to support the program that I have


been responsible for, which I understand I can speak about later. So I would say that the external influence, largely positive.

The Arab countries obviously are not as advanced in terms of embracing democracy and democracy ideal as the African part of our belonging as Sudanese. But nonetheless, I think the more recent role of Saudi Arabia is really very commendable and supportive and neutral. Working with the United States now is, I would say, the only hope for the Sudanese people to help stop this violence. Because right now this violence is not like a


standard civil war. It's actually a high intensity military conflict between two branches of the armed forces. And so, this is the sovereign institution fighting it out. So it does require positive neutral external intervention to stop the war first. Then, we're very heartened actually the vibes that come out of the two sponsors, the recent reiteration of commitment by the Secretary of State, that the ultimate goal is not just to stop the fight, but also to ensure that there is a democratic transition. And I think he went further, which is really very encouraging, that actually the security reform should be under the auspices of the civilian administration. That's really very important.

Hisham Yousif:

Looking at the situation now and see that these two branches, as you call it, of the military fighting it out, they've had control of this situation or at least the government for a while. So while the Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks about having security reforms under a civilian transition, we're kind of a long way from that. Before we get to that point, we need to understand that what happened the last time the civilians were in control and how that kind of unraveled.

And so, there's going to be two questions here. One is going to get us to the role of the civilian institutions, whether it be the Sudanese professional association or the forces of freedom of change and how they did not want to support President Hamdok on the second try when he came back after reversing the coup. But before we even get to that, the period of transition where the Hamdok regime was in power, they were met with a lot of resistance, secret resistance from the army. And one major part of that is that the army has a large stake in the economy. Being a Finance Minister responsible for jump starting this economy, you must have had bumped up against that obstacle.

So can you tell us about that transition period? Because it started off very optimistic, there was a lot of energy and President Hamdok was saying all of the right things and the civilians were moving in the right direction. If you can take us from those first optimistic days to right before the eve of that coup in October and how it all unraveled.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Actually, as you said, the revolution itself, or what we call in Sudan, the Glorious December Revolution itself, injected huge feeling of optimism about the future of the country. I was going to say tomorrow in my speech about the meeting that I had with some group of staffers from the Congress who actually requested a meeting with me when I came in September, 2019 to attend the annual meetings of the IMF and the World Bank. I was really pleasantly surprised about their knowledge about Sudan and also about their admiration of the Sudanese youth and their expression of support. That makes me feel quite confident that actually the US and other countries that really wanted Sudan to move forward as an example of a democratic system. And it did happen obviously in terms of the various programs that they supported. So all that, in addition, in fact first and foremost, the support of the Sudanese youth and commitment and so on, not only actually filled us with optimism, but it was in the first place the reason why we flocked to support the new system.



Unfortunately, I think the impact of isolation has actually created a huge impediment to us in the government. As a Minister of Finance, I had to deal with two major sources of headwinds. The first one obviously and the most challenging one is the military itself, as you said. But we thought that we will be able to overcome that through the agreement with the IMF. The staff-monitored program is a famous agreement that usually the IMF try to arrange with countries coming out of conflicts that are highly indebted countries or countries that are highly indebted in economic crisis and dysfunctional kleptocratic system, like what we experience.

One of the clauses in that agreement, which I think was the genesis or the beginning of the motivation for the coup of 2021, was that in June, 2020, I signed a framework agreement with the IMF in which in addition to


the standard economic reform, there was a clause that stipulates that the HIPC program, the High Indebted Poor Countries program that was going to actually provide unprecedented debt relief for Sudan. Actually the HIPC was going to reduce the debt of Sudan from 64 billion or above 60 billion to less than 15 billion. About 50 billion will be relieved. That would constitute one-third of all the resources is spent in the HIPC program since it was established in 1996. So this is a really, really huge deal. This will open up opportunities in terms of investment, in terms of attracting businesses, in terms of a huge transformation in the very well-endowed Sudanese economy.

I thought as a Minister of Finance that will be enough to convince the military. I tried to actually, because as a Minister of Finance, I was a member at a very important forum, which is called the Security and Defense



Council. I was also a member of the Supreme Peace Council. These are all led or chaired by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan as the Chairman of the Council of Sovereignty. We used that as a way of introducing, of course in addition to our normal business at the Council of Ministers, the Civilian Council of Ministers. I was presenting this program as a program that is going to enhance and enlarge the economy, and therefore the share of resource allocation to all functions of government including the military. I was one of those who thought that this will be enough to convince them that you go for the bigger pie in the future in lieu of a smaller pie that eventually will not be sustainable.

I think that particular clause, if you think about it and how two main actors react to it, I think will give you an idea about the challenge and why eventually things collapse. That the military for some reason, they don't seem to be willing to abdicate their hegemony on the economy and the illicit activities in the gold sector, as well as of course the budget, and so on. That is one major impediment. This is because of kleptocracy. I think the Sudanese situation teaches us that when you have a kleptocratic regime that remains in power for so long, it creates a culture of kleptocracy and of kind of political marketplace in which the actors basically corner the resources and their political calculus that let us stay with the current and the future is uncertain. So, they don't really gamble on a prosperous future. They want to retain what they have in a very kind of myopic scheme of thinking.

The other actually impediment was the isolated political class, especially the left-wing Sudanese political class, especially like the Communist Party and the Arab Ba'ath Party and so on, who were actually very influential in the FFC, in the Forces of Freedom and Change. They didn't see the agreement with the IMF, which came by the way as a result of a national vision that actually we developed very carefully as Sudanese economists and Sudanese thinkers, that actually we need to undertake reforms because actually these reforms were not sustainable. The country was spending deficit financing through deficit financing, one third of the budget on fuel subsidies.

I was very embarrassed really when the visiting Minister of Energy from UAE, from United Arab Emirates, who is a very good engineer and told me about the prices of energy in the world, and that Sudan, Iran, and Venezuela where the three countries that provide the cheapest energy prices, sell energy at the cheapest prices in the world. Iran and Venezuela are major energy producing countries, but Sudan, he just mentioned that to


me. I knew about it but the lessons became very clear. How would you actually expect us to support you if we are actually pricing energy at a more costlier and more realistic price than yourself?



So basically we came up with a communication strategy that I tried to preach very widely in Sudan through the radio and television and so on, was that we are not lifting subsidies. We are actually graduating from supporting commodity subsidies to directly empowering Sudanese people. Our two main instruments for that empowerment was a very comprehensive salary review program that basically addressed the distortions in the


salary structure, and also increasing salary in order to actually meet the high expenses, the living expenses. The share of salaries and benefit in the government in Africa was on average about between 8% to 10%. We inherited a share of about 3% to 5%, which shows the impoverishment of the civil service as well as the military rank and file in Sudan. So, we have to address that.

Then also, the Family Support Program, but which I can speak to, but I think your question is geared to different angles. So I would say that you'll find the military on one hand, and supposedly the supporters of the revolution and the political parties, some of them, very opposed to any kind of reform. But nonetheless, of course, even though I left the government, but the program that I was responsible for was implemented later.

Now when I go back to Sudan, or have been going back to Sudan actually recently, everybody I meet in Sudan as well as outside Sudan in the diaspora, almost everybody, especially the young educated people, they would tell me that that was a learning process. But unfortunately that learning process was slow. But everybody now seems to be in agreement about the agenda that we had to do. But unfortunately, the lack of support by the military as well as by some partners in the civilian camp basically created a situation of apathy and undermined the hopes and aspiration, and I think contributed to the coup.

Hisham Yousif:

By the way, I think that's an element of transitions that are not talked about enough in the sense that there is two parallel from what you just told me. There's a mirror ring that happens. So the army and the kleptocratic regime is afraid of economic reform because they don't want to give up what they have now for positive things later in the future.

But there is a parallel to that in the civilian population as maybe isolated elements, left-wing elements of the civilian coalition, that there is a subsidy dependence. There is no way that they can give up the security in such a precarious economic situation to be able to get economic growth, which they see on charts. They really don't understand what that means. And so, being able to get to that democratic transition is not just ballot boxes or economic opening. It's convincing two different elements, kleptocratic and civilians that are concerned about subsidies being lifted. And that's a really difficult challenge that I don't think many people understand that democratic transitions have to go through, and it opens up a lot of difficult questions and difficult decisions, and how can you implement unpopular policies that are good for the long-term that are not good in the short-term that creates an effect.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

If I may very quickly, I would say that-

Hisham Yousif:


Ibrahim Elbadawi:

... we basically were very aware about this dilemma. That's why we introduced the Family Support Program, which by the way was very successful. The international community provided about 800 billion ... 800 million, sorry, $800 million for this program. $400 from the World Bank and the other $400 from the bilateral donors.

The start of this program was based on creating direct links with the families, and if the time allows, I'll tell you a nice story about that when I presented this program at the Security and Defense Council. One of the top leaders, I won't mention his name, but he's now one of the top leaders who are now involved in this unfortunate conflict, asked me about how much we are going to give to the families. I told him that we will be giving about $5, which then would be about 500 Sudanese pounds.


I went on to explain, a family of six will be receiving about 3,000 Sudanese pounds per month. Imagine a family in isolated village in Darfur, that family, the only thing that they remember or they experience vis-a-vis the central government is conflicts and warfare and atrocities and what have you. That event, the head of the family, the woman, the mother or the father receiving the 3,000 will be the most important event for them. And that will be tantamount of a new social contract. That is how I try to present it. You know what that leader told me? He said, "If you really manage to do that effectively," and that was before the Juba agreement, "those rebel movements will not find fighters to fight for them."

So it was really a big deal. But unfortunately, people who were isolated for a very long time, it's hard for them to appreciate the potential. In fact, I will tell you that I had a discussion with the Director of the World Bank, the Regional Director of the World Bank for Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, who actually, he's from Senegal, who was actually transferred from Vietnam. He was the Director of the World Bank office in Vietnam. When I actually explained to him that I'm facing some difficulties, and I believe these difficulties is because of the isolation and some of political activists could mostly really appreciate the potential, he said, "How about actually inviting some Vietnamese officials from this Vietnamese Communist Party to come to the Sudan and explain their experience?" And so, you have a very powerful ruling communist party in Vietnam, and of course before that, in China, who really understood because of the elongated experience they went through, that actually they need to reform the economy and they need actually to have an efficient economy in order to finance the social agenda that they care for.

Hisham Yousif:

And so, that requires certain innovations in communication with the population, certain ways to persuade that this is how we're going to deliver. What happened?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

What happened, of course, I left the government. Before, I had my own differences with the Prime Minister, but because maybe I was hoping actually to move forward as quickly and on the agenda before, and because maybe the divisions within the FFC itself kind of complicated the process. But right now, I think the main point really is that now the real concern is the military. But actually, If you manage to get an agreement whereby the military, and that's a different story, but the military is cleansed from this Islama west group that actually ignited this conflict in the various place. Also, the other branch of the military, the Rapid Support Force to be integrated into a unified professional military. I think the politics now is fully aligned. I think everybody now, almost everybody now understands that the program that I tried to implement is really the way to go. The Sudanese people themselves now I think will be very much from this experience. Perhaps maybe you have to go through this experience to be able to appreciate the end result.


Hisham Yousif:

Especially the kind of a missed opportunity. So the next time it comes around, I think everybody will seize it. So you said you had differences with the Prime Minister and you left the government. I think, what, about three months before the coup? Is that right?

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

No, I left actually in July, 2020.

Hisham Yousif:

Ah, I see.


Ibrahim Elbadawi:

So much later. By the way, I will tell you also that actually after the Prime Minister resigned, I was approached by the military leaders to come as a Prime Minister, and of course I declined.

Hisham Yousif:


Kirgit Amlai:


Hisham Yousif:

Go ahead.

Kirgit Amlai:

I mean, we've had a lengthy discussion about economy. I know the issue of subsidy in most African oil-producing countries is like a major, major issue, but it's something that I know we're not really going to delve into, but I just want us to just look at other things. Earlier we were having a conversation how Sudan was once the largest country in Africa, which you also kind of give us some details how the separation affected the economy and so on and so forth. But I wanted to ask, Sudan fought one of Africa's longest civil war. The first one was in 1955 to 1972. The second was the largest that lasted 22 years. With all the things that happened, I just wanted to ask just what are the lessons learned? What were the mistakes that led to what is happening now? How can Africa learn to avoid issues like this moving forward? Because it is a global issue now and almost everyone is watching and it's a learning curve for almost every African country. I was just wondering if you could just shed more light on this.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Thank you. This is a very important issue. I remember in 2000, the World Bank, I was a task manager for a project that produced a widely circulated and discussed report called Can Africa Claim the 21st Century? That was the name, that was the title of the report. One fundamental conclusion or message from this report was that unlike the historical Asian experience where an authoritarian regime, developmental authoritarian regime, could be counted on to actually create huge economic transformation, eventually subsequently leading to democratization, as in for example, Taiwan and Korea, this experience is not transferable to the case of Sudan ... sorry to the case of Africa, as well as the Arab world, by the way, because of Africa is dominated by social diversity and in many countries actually social polarization. And so, even if you have a developmental authoritarian regimes, and there are quite a few of them, take the example of Ethiopia, that regime under Meles Zenawi was able to transform Ethiopia in about 15 years where the economy grew more than four times from 2000 to 2018.

Nonetheless, at the end, because of lack of democracy, a civil war erupted as we know, and Ethiopia had to deal with warfare and conflicts and so on along ethnic lines and so on. So I think what we need in Africa is really is to give much more premium to the importance of democracy. But not democracy as electoral competition. It has to be democracy as an instrument, as a platform for discussing how to develop resources and how to distribute these resources. And so, I think we need an economic legitimacy for democracy.

That has been actually for the cause of Sudan one of the problems that Sudan inherited from the British system, a west ministerial democracy. And we had elections in 1954. It's one of the early elections, fair and elections and open in Africa. But because it was a system imposed on a backward society and kind of primitive economy, it did not survive. And there was a disconnect between the educated minority kind of



class in the center of power in the Nile River region of Sudan and the rest of the country, especially the marginalized regions, the far reaches of the country in Darfur and the south and so on. And so, uneven development was the main cause behind the conflict. Then when the conflict was resolved temporarily as part of disagreements that we talked about, it was not a democratic peace building. It was a militarized peace building. I think these are the main lessons that perhaps we need to have.

Right now, I think for the case of Sudan, hopefully if this conflict is resolved and the demilitarization of the Sudanese politics was addressed and a full civilian government came to power. The civilian itself, even after this tragic experience, if they did not learn the lesson that actually we have to have a decentralized political economic system that gives power and resources to the various regions and so on, I'm afraid that actually we will still might face another setback.

Hisham Yousif:

So there are kind of getting towards the current situation and maybe a perspective look to what you think how this is going to develop, there are two questions that I think are important. One is how you've observed the civilian government after you left it, that observation of it all the way to the coup, there was a chance for the Prime Minister to come back, which he did, but he didn't have civilian support, which led him to resign again. And so, that's probably the point where we can mark the loss of civilian influence in the Sudanese government. Then it gave us about a year, year and a half, or however long it was of where the military kind of took over and decided to talk about transitions, which is ending in the military breakdown in this fight between these two factions. So to get us to where we are today, just a word on how the civilian relationship splintered and failed, and then how this military relationship is splintering.

Ibrahim Elbadawi:

Actually, what has happened is that after the Juba Peace agreement, especially given the context behind the agreement, the government was transformed from a technocratic to a large extent apolitical government as it's supposed to be during the transitional period. To a government of political parties and freedom fighters movement or rebel movements. And so, I think to a large extent, the authority of the Prime Minister was diminished because the reference point for these ministers are their movements that actually, or parties, and I think that was a major or a fatal setback to the meritocracy and efficiency of the government. Obviously as a result of that transition, the situation did not improve and the progress was actually was halted.

One important milestone basically was like the straw that broke the back of the camel, which was that the leadership of the Council of Sovereignty was supposed to be moved from the military to the civilian. That was actually the trigger of the unfortunate developments that took place, that actually the military leadership and of course with the support of their new alliances of the signatories of Juba, they wanted to retain the leadership of the Council of Sovereignty. They also were not keen about, there was a major thing which is related to the investigation committee that supposed charged with investigating the violent disbanding of the setting, which was the epicenter of the revolution. As you know, there were so many atrocities and this violent disbanding by the military forces and also some elements from the so-called National Islamic Front and so on, was to be investigated. But then nobody want to touch it. The committee was phoned, but they never really came up with any reports or anything like that.








So all of these issues prompted the army or the leadership of the army to mount the coup, even though being fair to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was trying actually to mediate these conflicts, these divergent views between the FFC and the military and so on. But then, I think after coup, the fatal mistake I think that the Prime Minister committed was actually to give in to the army and sign this agreement before asking for an opportunity to explain to the youth and the freedom and democracy camp about why he wanted to do that. That actually created the condition that deprived the new deal between the Prime Minister, between Dr. Hamdok and General Burhan of support by the general public. And so, it ignited actually counter actions through protest in the streets and what have you, and obviously also the international community were not convinced that actually this is a return to the constitutional process, which actually eventually obviously forced the Prime Minister to resign.

Since then, there was no any constitutional process. The head of the army was the ultimate ruler. He was actually ruling by decree and there was no any constitutional process until actually we reached this stage. Before that obviously because of the pressure and the economic crisis, that became so clear. Basically Sudan was returned back as a result of the coup to the last phase of the former regime. And so, the military leadership was forced to come back to the table of negotiations and the process was going fine. But then an issue that was not really discussed before was who should control the military? That is when the two branches of the military see themselves in huge difference.

Obviously before this fight happened, everybody was stalking arms and fighters and so on. So the atmosphere was very clear. And this is very important point, but the trigger, lots of evidence which was conveyed in social media and everywhere during the last 10 days of the holy months of Ramadan, the National Islamic front and the followers of the former regime who were disgruntled and never accepted that there was a revolution that deposed them. And famously, the former leader, the late Sadiq al-Mahdi, he described them as the disgruntled far right. And so, this disgruntled far right basically seized the opportunity that actually now the military itself found itself divided and in discord and so on. And so, it is widely discussed now in the media that actually the bullet was fired by the brigades of these followers of the former regime at the camps of the Rapid Support Force, which then ignited the conflict between the two who caused the Rapid Support Force attack the army garrisons and so on, and that was the beginning.


So I think any kind of credible, viable resolution has to also account for who started this and to be held accountable legally and politically. Because I think as long as this subversive element continue to operate freely, the future of Sudanese democracy and transformation will be in doubt, even if the military finally come to terms with an agreement that a unified force professional army will be formed. Because as long as their elements are in the army, the future democracy of Sudan will never be secured. Not only him, but of course all the politically motivated elements in the army.


Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Dr. Abraham Elbadawi. This episode was produced and edited by Hannah Balochi and Nishita Karu. Thank you to our interviewers Hisham Yousif and Kirgit Amlai. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit their website, and follow them on Twitter at pearsoninst, inst spelled I-N-S-T. Thanks.


Root of Conflict


Precarious Protections | Chiara Galli

What is the human toll of the U.S. immigration bureaucracy? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Chiara Galli, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Her latest book, “Precarious Protections,” chronicles the experiences and perspectives of Central American unaccompanied minors and their immigration attorneys as they navigate the asylum process and pursue refugee status in the United States. Spanning six years of research between the Obama and Trump administrations, her ethnographic research examines the paradoxical and precarious criteria that decide who is deserving and whom we should protect—and how U.S. asylum laws fail to protect children escaping life-threatening violence. We talk about her work, how recent immigration changes are impacting unaccompanied minors, and how Chicago will grapple with an unanticipated migration influx. 

Learn more about “Precarious Protections:”

Reema Saleh:

Hi, this is Reema and you are listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You are listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Reema Saleh:

Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh:

What is the human toll of the US immigration bureaucracy? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Chiara Galli, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Her latest book, Precarious Protections chronicles the experiences and perspectives of Central American unaccompanied minors and their immigration attorneys as they navigate the asylum process and pursue refugee status in the United States.

Reema Saleh:

Spanning six years of research between the Obama and Trump administrations, her ethnographic research examines the paradoxical and precarious criteria that decide who is deserving and who must we protect. We talk about how US asylum laws often fail to help children who are escaping life-threatening violence, how new immigration changes are impacting unaccompanied minors and how Chicago will grapple with an unanticipated influx in migration.

Natalie Reyes:

I am Natalie Reyes. I'm a first year MPP student at the University of Chicago, and I'm also a Pearson Fellow.


Gabriela Rivera:

And my name is Gabriela Rivera. I'm a one year student at the MA and I'm from Guatemala. I'm a lawyer, so it's amazing for me to be here today.

Reema Saleh:

And my name is Reema. I'm the producer of Root of Conflict and I'm a second year at Harris.

Chiara Galli:

My name is Chiara Galli. I'm assistant professor of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. I'm the author of Precarious Protections: Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum in the US.

Reema Saleh:

Yeah. So you joined the Chicago faculty pretty recently, right?

Chiara Galli:

Yeah, I just moved here, what was it? Last summer. So this is my first year joining U. Chicago. Yeah, it's been a great year thus far.

Reema Saleh:

Yeah. What brought you here kind of as a sociologist here in the Comparative Human Development department?

Chiara Galli:

Well, they hired me, so I was very glad to come and accept their offer.

Reema Saleh:

How did you first get involved in kind of international migration studies?

Chiara Galli:

Well, so I'm an immigrant myself. I migrated to the US as a child with my parents, and actually we came to the northern most suburbs of Chicago. So for me, coming to U Chicago is kind of a homecoming of sorts, you know I spent my life between suburban Illinois and Rome, Italy where I'm originally from. So I've been interested in immigration from like my personal experience for a long time. And I worked in the immigration policy world in the European Union before starting grad school. But I was really interested in being able to ask my own questions and define my own research agenda, which is why I chose to pursue a PhD.

Reema Saleh:

So what brought you to the topic of Central American migration and unaccompanied minors?





Chiara Galli:

Yeah, so I've been interested in Latin American studies for a long time, and that was kind of the focus of my bachelor's degree in development studies and then in my master's degree as well. And I'm fluent in Spanish, so I'm really a believer that you need to be to speak the language really well in order to do good in depth

ethnographic field work. So it was kind of my draw towards studying Latin American populations, and I was interested in immigration policy and how it impacts people's lives because of my experience in the policy research realm. But to be completely honest with you, I kind of stumbled upon the topic of this book. It was my very first year in grad school and I had just moved to Los Angeles and I needed to find a field site for my ethnographic field methods class where we would do hands on, learning the method by doing ethnography.

Chiara Galli:

And so I reached out to a lot of nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles offering to volunteer with my Spanish skills in exchange for research access. And so I heard back from an organization that had a long history of helping Central American seek asylum in the US. And so this was what was happening at the time. It was just shortly after summer of 2014 when the Obama administration declared that a humanitarian crisis was underway as increased arrivals of children and families from Central America arrived at the border, these asylum seeking kids and families. And it seemed to me that this was such an important and understudied topic. And so after having fortunately stumbled upon it, I decided to stick with it and I ended up doing six years of research on the topic.

Reema Saleh:

So let's talk about your book. What first drew you to begin writing after you had started this field work?

Chiara Galli:

So this book is born out of my dissertation, and initially I actually started doing the research with asylum seekers from Central America of all ages. And it was only later on during the course of my dissertation that I decided to really center in on the case of children. And that was both because I noticed that not very much had been written on the topic, whereas there's quite an extensive literature on asylum seeking adults. And this was despite the fact that increasing numbers of children are migrating alone to seek asylum worldwide in rich countries like the United States.

Chiara Galli:

But I really think that the case of children in the asylum process is an interesting one for the purposes of thinking through theories of immigration as well, because you know we have this contrast between these two forces, these two competing forces at play in countries that are liberal democracies that receive asylum seekers.

Chiara Galli:

On the one hand, on the face of it, we say that we respect human rights and the rule of law, but on the other hand, very much receiving countries of immigration want to be able to control their borders, regulate immigration flow, and exclude those categories whom they see as undeserving or undesirable. And so you know when human rights belong to foreigners, then it brings this tension into play. And I think that not just in the US but really in countries all over the world, including in Europe, the rights of asylum seekers have been chipped away at more and more because of this tension.



Chiara Galli:

But in the case of children, it's a lot harder to do that, right? Because we widely agree upon the fact as an American society that children should be protected. And so this is what gives rise to these protections for this population of unaccompanied minors in the US asylum process. But unfortunately, I show in the book that when they're implemented, they're precarious protections in practice because we're still trying to chip away at them in various ways. And so this is what leads a lot of kids to actually not be eligible for asylum and not obtain the protection that our laws promised despite the fact that they escaped from violence in Central America.

Gabriela Rivera:

Well, first of all, as a Central American, and I must say that I really appreciate you writing about Central America. As you very well said, it is an understudied area. So really thank you very much. So one of the things I found more interesting in your book is that through all of these stories that you heard from minors, you found that there's not only a lot of suffering, but there is also a lot of strategies that the families and the kids themselves have to make in order to show exactly what types of suffering they lift and the amount of suffering, the intensity of the suffering to be able to be protected by law. So what are other categories that you think should be introduced in asylum law in the US or in the process to be able to capture these particular types of suffering these kids are going through?

Chiara Galli:

Yeah, so in the book, basically, I argue that these children are defacto refugees, right? Because they flee conditions of life-threatening violence in Central America, which is a place where you know teenagers are especially at risk. And one of the things that they're especially at risk at of is forced gang recruitment and being targeted and victimized by gangs, which is not a valid reason to seek asylum in the United States under the current state of our case law.

Chiara Galli:

So this is what kind of leads attorneys to have to search for other eligibility grounds that do satisfy existing case law, such as child abuse, such as persecution on account of one's race, which is sometimes a type of case that indigenous Central Americans pursue. So a very kind of straightforward fix would be to recognize these experiences of forced gang recruitment and victimization as eligible for asylum. And indeed, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they believe that those experiences should count as valid reasons to be granted asylum. So really the United States has a more restrictive interpretation of refugee law than the UNHCR recommendation.

Chiara Galli:

So that's one thing. And then more generally, I think that we should have an asylum law that protects people who are fleeing their homes, and that seems like a pretty straightforward point to make. But the truth of the matter is that our asylum law currently does not protect those individuals who are fleeing violence, including children.

Gabriela Rivera:

And in your book you talked about introducing this concept of humanitarian capital and how minors and the people representing them gather this in order to make them eligible for differently held protections. Could you tell us more about this concept of humanitarian capital?



Chiara Galli:

Yeah, so this humanitarian capital is kind of drawing on a Bourdieusian framework, and I define it as a form of symbolic capital that lawyers activate as they interview their clients in order to make their suffering legible to the decision makers who have such great powers over their lives and can decide whether or not to grant them relief on humanitarian grounds based, yes, on formal criteria and legal definitions, but also on a host of discretionary criteria that really hinge on these evaluations of who is deserving, who is compassionate and whom we should protect.

Chiara Galli:

So I think the concept was helpful to me in explaining the process because it allows me to highlight all of the paradoxical ways in which human suffering is translated and then counts or does not count in helping people obtain protection. So a good example of this is, you mentioned that children and their families have a lot of strategies. For example, also in planning escape from the home countries, they have to navigate and mitigate conditions of violence, and they do so in several ways, for example, by helping kids go into hiding while they accrue enough resources and savings and loans to pay smugglers to get them out alive, Right?.

Chiara Galli:

So of course, these strategies are carried out by family members who love and want to protect their children, but then these go on to carry unexpected weight in the asylum process and play out in negative ways. Because the paradox is that if you flee too soon and before anything really bad happens to you and before the right, the correct type of bad thing happen to you, then you might not have enough humanitarian capital to make a case that you've suffered enough to meet this bar of persecution. So these decisions that these loving caretakers make to protect their children then go on to actually harm their chances to get protection in the US asylum process.

Natalie Reyes:

You actually talked about this a little bit in your previous question, and it's something that Gabrielle and I have been talking about, so there's this enormous dichotomy between the adult responsibilities given to the minors and then fulfilling the necessary expectations of what childhood is supposed to look like Right?, to extract the compassion from those in the immigration system. What results have you seen on the development of these kids?

Chiara Galli:

Well, so that's a hard question in the sense that to be able to really answer that question, I will have to write a second book after following the respondents for a long time. And the adaptation trajectories and how they lead to positive or negative outcomes in terms of the integration of immigrants is one of the key questions that interest sociologists who study immigration. So you know to really answer that question, someone will have to do the research in the future, but I do identify some mechanisms that I think do give us a hint as to what the effect might be.

Chiara Galli:

So for example, in the book I write about this process of legal socialization, which is how kids learn about the law and acquire all sorts of values and attitudes about their law, their position in society, their relationship with the state and the rights that they have or do not have. And they undergo this process of legal socialization really quickly because from the moment when they first step foot on US soil, they're channeled through this complex bureaucratic maze. They interact with all of these actors from border patrol officers in holding facilities at the border, office of refugee resettlement, so-called shelters, which are detention facilities. They go to court, they interact with immigration judges, with asylum officers, they interact with their immigration attorneys, they're integrated into migrant community.

Chiara Galli:

So all of these adults who are surrounding these kids are sending them different messages about what it means to be a newcomer in this society, what it means to be an asylum seeker, and how they should behave if they want to have a good chance of being able to stay. So this is where all of these kind of infantilizing messages and these contradictory messages come into play.

Chiara Galli:

So kids are told to behave in an innocent way, to not demonstrate adult-like desires or aspirations. They're told to be very compliant and well behaved. And attorneys also tell them about their rights that they have because they are a protective category in the US. But what I found unfortunately is that kids retain much more the information that they received about how to be well behaved, how to be good kids, and they retain far less information about their rights as a protective category. And so I think that this really shows that undergoing this asylum system is a disempowering process. It's not a process that will produce a lot of activists or a lot of people who will want to change American society. Rather it's going to produce people who will be very afraid of being deported, very fearful, who will know that they have to be exceptional and exceptionally compelling to win asylum and also unlike people like them.

Chiara Galli:

So it also creates these discourses of distancing from other individuals in communities and kids reproduce these discourses of, "I'm not like those other bad immigrants, or I'm not like those other bogus refugees." So in this sense, I think that this kind of foreshadows some of the things that we might expect about this population and their long-term trajectories in the United States.

Natalie Reyes:

So this actually brings me to my next question. So throughout the book you talk about how the minors internalize all of these stigmas about, quote, unquote, "bad immigrants, bogus refugees, and then the deviant Latino teens", and they learn to perform their deservingness in contrast to these identities. So how do you see this mental narrative influence how they then interact with other groups once released?

Chiara Galli:

So this is also a tricky question. So something I had wanted to do for the study that I wasn't able to do was actually, because of course, one can never do everything when writing a book, but I really wanted to embed myself more in the communities of these children and their everyday lives, and I would've very much liked to be present during their peer to peer interactions. So that just didn't end up being feasible. First of all, just to the sheer scope of the project, I ended up focusing much more on children's relationship with the state as it was mediated by these attorneys and these nonprofit organizations.

Chiara Galli:

So I got to see kids kind of reproduce these narratives and perform these behaviors in these spaces of the nonprofit of the legal clinic. And then really the only glimpse that I got into kids' everyday lives was through a formal research interview, sort of a formal research encounter. And as much as I made a lot of efforts to make that as informal as possible in the sense that I didn't want to reproduce the encounter that kids had with their immigration attorneys and these interviews that have the goal of producing an asylum narrative, because those are very re-traumatizing interviews, they're very anxiety filled encounters.



Chiara Galli:

So I met with them in local parks, sometimes in their homes, oftentimes at Starbucks. That was a very popular meeting place, and we spent a lot of time chatting and getting to know each other before getting onto to actually addressing the research questionnaire. So beyond the fact that they kind of reproduce some of these narratives with me, and they said that they did that when they were in other spaces, including community spaces, I really can't answer that question. And I guess this is a limitation of the study or a study that can be taken up by another scholar who will do an ethnography that's less kind of an ethnography of the state or an ethnography of the law in action and more an ethnography embedded in migrant communities. And that's very difficult to do with teenagers because the age difference creates a big power differential.

Chiara Galli:

I mean, there's always a power differential between the researcher and the research subject, but the age issue kind of heightens that. So someone would need to come up with an innovative research design to do that. And people have done studies of children.

Natalie Reyes:

Okay. Yeah. Thank you. So I'm going to go ahead and change the subject to something that you've mentioned a little earlier, and that was the Office of Refugee Resettlement Shelters or detention facilities like you said. There was a section where you described how militaristic they are. There was an alarming rigidness about the rules, even arbitrary ones in which girls weren't allowed to hug one another or even brush each other's hair. And that made me curious because when there are plenty of opportunities implement rules regarding schedules appropriate activities, why do you think these shelters feel the need to intervene in such emotional or personal interactions?

Chiara Galli:

Well, what I argue in the book is that it's by design to teach compliance to these kids. And this kind of resonates with the messages that shelter staff give them. They give them a lot of advice about how to be well behaved, how to stay on the state's radar, show up to courts, make sure they don't get in trouble. So teaching compliance is part of the institutional kind of mandate or agenda of the office of Refugee resettlement as is caring for children. And in some way, these two things do overlap. I mean, I think that in some ways it's not just, let's say like an evil agenda. We do tell children what to do to protect them as adults. And I think that the shelter staff could probably come up with reasons and rationales for why they do this. I know that they're very concerned about kids harming themselves or each other.

Chiara Galli:

So they're trying to limit interpersonal contact without supervision. They have to manage a large number of kids in these facilities. But the truth of the matter is it does teach key lessons about compliance. And most importantly, unaccompanied minors, they experience these rules in a way that's kind of punitive and constraining and frustrating and arbitrary. So they would complain about the shelters to me. I mean, I will say that there are different types of facilities from more emergency facilities, which are on the far side of the spectrum, like the famous tent court in Hampstead, Florida, which are really abysmal conditions. One of my respondents told me that several children fainted every day because it was so hot under the tents.

Chiara Galli:

Then there's more like mid-range facilities, which have a lot of kids in them, and they have these kinds of arbitrary rules like no touching each other or braiding each other's hair, things like that. And then there's more foster care like arrangements. And I will say that some of the kids who I interviewed describe these arrangements as something like when you do study abroad and you stay with a family, they reminisced about these kind families taking them on field trips. So there was a spectrum of treatment, of objective treatment.

Chiara Galli:

But I think that a quote by one of my research participants says it best, he called the shelters a fancy prison, and he said, because they treat you well, but it's a prison, right? Because you can't leave. So we can't forget that these are detention facilities, these are facilities that are surveilling children where their liberty is deprived. They're not free to leave. And so even though we have some protections, it stemming from the florist settlement, this key lawsuit that created a series of legal protections for children in US detention facilities that adults don't benefit from. So that's improved conditions and some care must be provided, some schooling must be provided. They're still fit prisons despite the fancy aspects that some of them might have.

Gabriela Rivera:

So we saw in the book that a lot of the minors spend a lot of time in these facilities, but then eventually go out and they have access to legal services. And you spend a lot of time shadowing these interactions between the lawyers, the paralegals, and these kids. And I must say that as a lawyer, I felt very validated when you explained this work of legal translation that lawyers and paralegals do.

Gabriela Rivera:

So was that very different? Do you think that's very different to the general idea people have about lawyers? How was your experience shadowing these interactions? Because we all think about lawyers as just people in a fancy office just signing contracts all day and not doing all of these different things that you talk about in the book.

Chiara Galli:

Well, first of all, I'm very glad to hear that you felt validated as a lawyer in reading the book because that means a lot to hear that. It means I did a decent job in describing, as you say, this crucial role of legal translation that these individuals do. So I mean, first of all, just a briefly about the context. I mean, immigrants are not guaranteed free legal representation in the United States, and this includes children. So in some ways, the children who I followed were somewhat privileged because they had gotten access to services from nonprofit organizations. And these lawyers, their place of work and what they do does look pretty different from what people imagine in the sense that their offices are really not fancy. These nonprofits, they're strapped for resources. They're working with very limited resources and trying to represent as many kids as they can with a lot of resource constraints.

Chiara Galli:

So in the organizations where I did my work, lawyers could represent as many as 70 or 80 cases of kids at the same time. So it's very difficult work. Lawyers report a lot of secondary trauma, burnout. They're doing exceptional work considering the very scarce resources at their hands. And I think that there's another way in which the legal translation work that these lawyers do is fundamentally misunderstood by the general public.

Chiara Galli:

So President Donald Trump called asylum lawyering a big fat con job, and he said, "Lawyers sell asylum seeker's story." So I think that this is a widely held misconception among the American public and also in other countries. But it's not at all true that lawyers sell their clients' stories. Rather what they do is they try to ascertain which facts in their clients' narratives of escape fit with our existing interpretation of refugee law, which is an exceptionally narrow definition, which doesn't guarantee that if you escape from life-threatening violence, you are going to qualify. And they don't make anything up. They just ask questions until they can find some detail that fits.


Chiara Galli:

So for example, when a child fled force game recruitment, that is not an eligible experience for asylum, but if that child also suffered severe child abuse at home, then that is an eligible experience. And so they'll focus the legal narrative on that. So it's their job to teach kids what asylum eligibility is so they can volunteer relevant facts about their experiences and then to make these experiences eligible. And that's central to their legal translation role. And sometimes all they can do is tell their clients, I'm sorry, you don't qualify. And that's that.

Gabriela Rivera:

Yeah, that was very interesting to read when you highlight that the reason why they end up applying for asylum or for any kind of labor protection is often not the exact reason why they left their countries. And as I read it, it seems like it's a very surprising moment for a lot of these kids to realize that their reasons are not necessarily the useful ones. How did you see this moment of surprise? Because sometimes culturally, a lot of the things that are considered serious harms against a young person here are culturally acceptable in Central America, or at least in the context where these kids lived. So how did you see that process of realizing, well, maybe my whole life made me eligible for one of these protections and I didn't even know it.

Chiara Galli:

This is a big issue, I mean, there's a level of normalization of violence within vulnerable low income children and indigenous children in central America. And that stems from a longer history of violence becoming normalized is since the civil wars. And so a lot of the things that may seem commonplace to these children, they wouldn't even think to disclose them. So something that's child specific is the example of child abuse.

Chiara Galli:

So some form of corporal punishment may seem appropriate according to their perspectives. It's something that is part of child rearing practices. It's something that they've seen in families around them, and so they wouldn't necessarily disclose that. Another example that is really interesting where kids really pushed back is so these children not, these children not only apply for asylum, but they also apply for this form of relief called special immigrant juvenile status, which is a form of protection for children, abandoned, abused, or neglected by one or both of their parents.

Chiara Galli:

So the neglect category was fascinating because the definition of neglect is a definition that comes from state law. So in the case of where I did my research in California law, and the parent doesn't need to have had an intent to harm the child for the lawyer to be able to prove neglect and get relief for the child. And so one of the things that constitutes parental neglect is working from a very young age or working in certain types of jobs or working in dangerous conditions. And so that was extremely perplexing to kids.

Chiara Galli:

And attorneys would ask them things like, well, they would ask him things like, how young were you when you started working? What kind of work did you do? And they would never portray this as something that they didn't want to do as something that they were forced to do. For boys in particular, it was a source of pride to be able to enter the labor market to support their families. It was something that they wanted to do. And they found satisfaction in these jobs, even sometimes in very exploitative or intense jobs that they did in their home countries. And attorneys would ask some things like, did you enjoy work? And they would say, yes, I did enjoy work and no one forced me to work. So that was a real moment, kind of a major dissonance between children's subjective understandings of their lives and these narrow legal categories.


Chiara Galli:

And then attorneys would make a big effort to try to tell kids, it doesn't matter that you didn't feel this way, but for the purposes of your eligibility and being allowed to stay, you still qualify under US law. But there was a lot of perplexity that you could read with body language. There was a lot of pushback too. Kids didn't want to speak ill of their caretakers. They had complex relationships even with abusive family members. There was love and abuse in families happening at the same time oftentimes.

Chiara Galli:

And then finally, kids had a lot of trouble. And this comes back to for asylum eligibility, they had a lot of trouble focusing not on why they fled, which oftentimes was because the gangs wanted to kill me, but rather on describing the persecutors motivation for targeting them. So this is required in order to satisfy the refugee definition that requires that you show not only that you were persecuted, but that you were persecuted on account of a protected ground like race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. So that's where the describing the why of the persecution is really important, and that's just not something that makes a lot of common sense to a person of any age, but even less so to a young person.

Gabriela Rivera:

Do you think these categories are so narrow or there is an element of the historical bias against Central American migrants? What keeps these legal categories so narrow that a lot of these experiences can't fit?

Chiara Galli:

Yes, absolutely. This is crucial. So we have a long history of denying asylum to Central Americans in the United States. Since the 1980s, especially Guatemalans and Salvadorans were fleeing these right-wing regimes that were being supported by US funding in the Cold War era. It was a very deliberate denial of asylum to Central Americans. Only about 2% were granted asylum at the time. And this was in the context of the geopolitics of the Cold War era where you would deny asylum to people fleeing your allied countries and granted to those fleeing enemy regimes such as the Soviet unions such as Cuba.

Chiara Galli:

And things have changed somewhat since then, and they've changed thanks to the legal advocacy that's been done since trying to get protection for people who are fleeing violence. So for example, so matter of ARCG was a case law that was a result of 20 years worth of advocacy to protect women fleeing domestic violence. And there were cases of women, Central American and Mexican women that contributed to this case law.

Chiara Galli:

So while the current context isn't as restrictive, the grant rates are higher, the fact that the refugee definition isn't expanding is absolutely a product of that longer history. And if you see the legal battles to where the particular social forced game recruitment, attorneys are trying to argue that this should be a recognized particular social group in the courts. And you read the written decisions of judges in these cases, the narrative, the justification for denying is that they're worried of opening the floodgates to excessive numbers of arrivals. And this isn't happening in a vacuum. When they talk about floodgates, they have particular people in mind and they have Central Americans in mind. So in this sense, this is a population that's seen by the US government as undesirable and a population to be excluded. So that's absolutely rooted in this longer history of exclusion of Central Americans in the United States.



Natalie Reyes:

So I'm going to back up here and try to tie in your tides to you talked a little bit about EU migration, and it was funny because throughout the book I was reminded of The Swimmers. I'm not sure if you've seen the Netflix movie about the Syrian sisters who make their way from Syria to first Greece and then Germany. Would you anecdotally be able to compare how legal socialization differs for unaccompanied minors in Europe versus the US?

Chiara Galli:

So initially I wanted to do a comparative study actually, of the reception of unaccompanied minors in Europe and the US and then for pragmatic reasons of kind of resource and time scarcity, I decided to focus on the US because there's so much to say just on this context alone. But I do have some insights because I did spend some time thinking about this.

Chiara Galli:

So first of all, generally the European Union countries actually provide more protections to unaccompanied minors than the United States. So for example, countries like Italy, they give unaccompanied minors a work and residency permit. So they have the right to reside legally in the country until age 18, and they get access to all sorts of benefits in the meantime, including housing. And this is not detention, this is housing where people are free to come and go and leave. They get access to Italian schools, vocational training, access to legal services, so all sorts of things.

Chiara Galli:

So the legal context in European countries is more protective than it is in the US. Of course, the major contradiction arises when these kids turn 18 and age out of the protections very abruptly. And it's then where they really have to fight for their right to stay. And different countries have different ways in which unaccompanied minors are able to do so. In the Italian case, they can apply for asylum and they can try to apply for a work permit if they're able to find jobs in different sectors. And there is some support for, as I said, vocational training to try to help them have that transition, make that transition successfully rather. And of course, there's always a big gap between the law on the books and the law and practice. So it's not like everything is rosy there, but it does matter that legal protections are more protective on paper.

Chiara Galli:

And that I do think has an impact on how people perceive their relationship with the state and the kinds of messages that they receive. So based on what I've read, based on other people's work, and there's a very rich scholarship on unaccompanied minors treatment in different European countries.

Chiara Galli:

In a country like Italy, people aren't really worried about deportation because we don't really have a deportation machine of the same magnitude of the United States that's so well funded. So it's much more rare for people to actually be deported. So kids, as they come of age, they face a series of vulnerabilities and they're very much at risk of kind of blending into the larger undocumented population, but they're not so much at risk of be being returned. And that of course shapes the decisions that people make.

Chiara Galli:

But there was a very interesting book that compared the treatment of unaccompanied minors in the UK and Italy and what they've found, because since the UK does carry out deportations of minors who come of age, what they've found is that some of these kids who come of age as unaccompanied minors in the UK, they turn 17 and a half, 18, they then migrate to Italy to avoid deportation.

Chiara Galli:

So migrants learn about the law and they strategize. They make decisions for their life, their life course trajectories, and in order to work around these laws that really constrain the choices that they have at their disposal and that they learn about in imperfect ways. So there's never 100% transparency and knowledge of the law, which is what I talk about in my book, that's also very much true in the European context, but migrants learn what they can about the law and then they make decisions accordingly.

Reema Saleh:

We're hoping to kind of talk a little more about current border policy and how that's impacting unaccompanied minors. We've all been hearing about the expiration for Title 42 just happening tomorrow, May 11th. Could you tell us a little about what is Title 42, who does it apply to, and how has it impacted unaccompanied minors?

Chiara Galli:

Yeah, so Title 42 is an obscure public health policy that ostensibly has nothing to do with border enforcement, that the Trump administration strategically mobilized and decided to use to close off the US Mexico border just one month into the Covid Pandemic. And what was interesting about the use of Title 42 is that the Trump administration had experimented with all sorts of new policies to curtail the rights of protected groups, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.

Chiara Galli:

But really in terms of being able to access the border, unaccompanied minors had been spared from the worst of these attacks because we have this law, the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which says that unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous countries are allowed to be admitted without undergoing any hurdles such as the credible fear interviews that adults have to undergo before being allowed entry into the United States. So what non-contiguous countries means is essentially kids from everywhere but Mexico because there aren't a lot of Canadian unaccompanied minors seeking entry to the US obviously, because we're similarly rich countries, et cetera.

Chiara Galli:

So Title 42 applied to everyone. It was a hard closure of the border that really violated the United States' commitment to the non-refoulement principle, the idea in international refugee law that you should not expel someone to a country where they fear persecution, where their lives are at risk. This policy essentially functioned as a state of exception. So the Covid Pandemic was framed as this crisis that required the border to be closed off despite the fact that public health experts actually never supported the policy. They thought that actually it would backfire by pushing people into crowded refugee camps in Mexico, and that would actually promote viral spread. You can't control a pandemic based on national borders because viral spread doesn't take a person's passport into account.

Chiara Galli:

But that's what the Trump administration did. And so they excluded everyone coming in at the border, including unaccompanied minors. And something like 10,000 kids, I believe were expelled in the first few months of the implementation of Title 42. And by kids, I mean unaccompanied minors.



Chiara Galli:

And I know that the Biden administration likes to say that it exempted unaccompanied minors from the policy. But the truth of the matter is that unaccompanied minors started to be exempted from Title 42 in November of 2020 because of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. And so this shows you kind of the power of advocacy work, right? The ACLU said that the Title 42 was unlawful, that it was a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. And so since then, unaccompanied minors have actually been allowed to enter the US and to seek asylum, but Title 42 remained in place for asylum seekers from many, many other countries. So this had the interesting effect of producing a situation in which for months on end, really the only asylum seekers being allowed entry into the US were children.

Chiara Galli:

And then the Biden administration entered office, it decided to continue not applying Title 42 to unaccompanied children, and then it started applying Title 42 with caveats. So giving quite a bit of discretion to the border patrol to decide who to let in, when to apply Title 42, and when not to apply it. So some people have been able to gain admission at the border such as Ukrainians, for example, for a period Venezuelans and Cubans were allowed in, but that's no longer the case.

Chiara Galli:

And now, tomorrow, as you said, Title 42 is set to expire. And what's very unfortunate is that the administration has been trying to find other ways to curtail access to the US asylum process by essentially resuscitating the, what advocates called the Trump era asylum bans, right? The idea that if you transit through a country that is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention and you should have applied for asylum there, you don't have a right to apply for asylum in the US. And there's nowhere in refugee law that says that this should be the case or to make people who cross between ports of entry ineligible to apply for asylum.

Chiara Galli:

So these are policies that the Trump administration experimented with first that were struck down by the courts, and that the Biden administration is trying to reintroduce with a series of caveats for vulnerable populations, for populations who use this CBP One app at the border. But really, I mean, the substance of the policy is very similar. Right?

Reema Saleh:

Yeah, no, it's definitely interesting to see how a lot of Trump era border policies just kind of came back in different forums. I keep reading about just app crashes for the CBP One app and just that being required now for authorized entry, and it's definitely strange to see it happening. Yeah, I guess this is kind of impossible to ask, but what do you expect that people will start to see in the near future for people at the border?

Chiara Galli:

Well, I can't predict the future, but I mean, I will say this, I think that the Trump administration set a series of dangerous precedence by really curtailing the rights of asylum seekers by undermining our commitment to non-refoulement. And so this puts us in a very dangerous territory, and I know that advocates are very well organized. They were energized initially during the Trump administration, maybe now, well actually, I know that towards the end of the Trump administration, people were exhausted, right? Because they felt like they were fighting all of the time through impact litigation on behalf of their clients that they represented individually. But the work that advocates do, and this is one of the messages that I try to send with my book, it's so important because if it weren't for advocates, trying to keep the government accountable, we really would see human rights be dismantled much, much more.

Chiara Galli:

So that's happening on the one hand. On the other hand, the Republican Party has now introduced a bill that's taking us in a very, very concerning direction, which is not expected to pass, but it does kind of signal the movement in which a segment of the American political system and specifically the Republican Party, would like to go in, which is essentially an end to asylum. And there's a provision in that bill that would do away with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, protections for unaccompanied children, the ones that allow them to be admitted at the border.

Chiara Galli:

So while it's unlikely that that act will pass, it is concerning that it's being proposed. I will say this, I mean, it's not the first time that Congress tries to do away with TVPRA protections. Asylum has already been under attack once before in the 90s when there were debates leading up to the illegal immigration reform and what is it, IRIRA, a series of restrictive policies that were introduced in the 90s to limit access to asylum.

Chiara Galli:

And this is what I was so interested about, the reason that I wrote this book, to see the interaction between these protective and exclusionary forces. This is not new. This is kind of a constant in the US immigration system, but just how that will play out in the years to come is quite concerning because each time you set a precedent undermining human right, it becomes that much easier for future administrations to do this. So I've purposefully not made any concrete predictions because I don't have a crystal ball, but we'll all be following the news very closely in these upcoming weeks to see what actually happens. But it's not a time to take a vacation from advocacy work, that's for sure.

Gabriela Rivera:

So you were talking about all of these different types of barriers that the US puts on immigrants. Some are physical borders, some are legal barriers, try to deter people from coming, and they have changed in time and increased, but also in the time period that you tracked in your book, the amount of unaccompanied minors coming into the US has also increased steadily and sharply. So what do you think this means, what it represents, that all of these different measures seem to be failing, right? Because the amount of children that are coming to the US is not decreasing. All of these deterrence policies are not being reflected in the amount of children that are coming. So are they failing? What is it that policymakers in the US are not seeing?

Chiara Galli:

Well, in some ways, a lot of our policies are actually producing more unaccompanied minors because when you have a system in place at the border where it's easier to gain admission as an unaccompanied minor than it is for an entire family who's traveling with their kids, this leads families to make really difficult decisions sometimes to send their children to the border alone, to save their lives. And they do this because they have no other option. These aren't easy decisions. These aren't decisions that families want to make, but we're really tying their hands with our policies.

Chiara Galli:

So for example, when the Trump administration introduced the migrant protection protocols, forcing asylum seekers to apply from tent courts in Mexico, and unaccompanied minors weren't subject to that policy, asylum seeking families found themselves in a situation of real danger. Being stuck in transit is very dangerous. There's been reports by human rights watch, a lot of kidnappings, rape, extortion, deaths happening in Mexico to Central Americans who are extraordinarily vulnerable.


Chiara Galli:

So of course, families would send their kids alone to the United States. So that's part of it. Another part of it is the fact that the border was closed for a long time due to Title 42. People were traveling less because of Covid. And so now we're kind of seeing a backlog too, of people including children who want to seek refuge and a better life in the United States. And there's also some interesting research that shows that when you have increased rates of violence in specific sending communities, this creates a spike in out migration. But then that out migration stream balloons over time. So there's a snowball effect.

Chiara Galli:

So of course these flows will increase over time. And this similar things happen for voluntary migration. Once migration starts, it's a process that tends to sustain itself over time. People create migrant networks, they make connections, and all of these things kind of ease the constraints on exit, migrants loan each other money to pay for smugglers, et cetera.

Chiara Galli:

And all of this is happening while, of course, we spend more and more money on the externalization of border control, and we've been funding Mexican border enforcement to apprehend and deport Central Americans on route to the US and now Guatemala border enforcement as well. But the fact of the matter is that people who are fleeing violence will continue to flee violence regardless of our immigration policies. So even though we try to regulate, we try to externalize enforcement, we give Mexico money to apprehend and the poor Central Americans. If the conditions of exit don't change, people will continue to flee their homes and children continue to be at the risk in Central America today.


Natalie Reyes:

So bringing our focus back to the process in the US, you focused on LA as a research site, but I was wondering if you could comment on or maybe compare the advantages or disadvantages between Los Angeles and other cities, maybe Chicago for example. How is the immigration advocacy landscape different here than it is in other cities?

Chiara Galli:

Well, so in many ways, Los Angeles was a best case scenario to study this phenomenon. So I think it's telling that I tell a relatively bleak story in the book about our protections and our humanitarian laws failing to protect many children when they're implemented in practice. But I also do tell a somewhat optimistic story about the power of legal advocacy to help kids who would otherwise not have a chance of getting asylum and to stop the government from implementing policies that chip away at established protections and human rights.

Chiara Galli:

And I think I was able to observe that because as I said, LA is in many ways a best case scenario, and that's for several reasons. First of all, it's a sanctuary city in an immigrant friendly state. So people aren't afraid to go to engage with the court system to seek out legal representation. The state and the city funded nonprofits providing legal services to immigrants, but particularly so providing legal services to unaccompanied minors. So there was enough funding that there was actually an organizational landscape that could provide legal services for these kids. It wasn't enough to go around. Not everyone was represented, but there was a far more access to legal representation than, for example, in a rural area or in an anti-immigrant state.


Chiara Galli:

I have a new project where we're comparing state level representation rates, and we're seeing that in Republican states, unaccompanied minors access to legal representation is much lower than it is in states like California. LA also has a long history of immigration advocacy, immigrant rights organizing, and this long history of the sanctuary movement, the movement that helped Central Americans who were fleeing violence in the 1980s. So all of that legal infrastructure kind of dates back to that movement, to this longer history. And so these advocates know what they're doing. They have a lot of expertise to deal with this population.

Chiara Galli:

Many of them are second generation immigrants, Latinos, the children of Central American asylum seekers in some cases. And who selected into this profession because of their social justice motivations to give back to their community. So they have the linguistic skills necessary to do this work. They have the cultural competencies necessary to do this work. So you can imagine that in a rural area, an immigration attorney who doesn't speak Spanish, who's representing their first Central American cases would have a lot more trouble. It probably wouldn't be such high quality representation.

Chiara Galli:

So I think it's interesting that this is the kind of a best case scenario. And it's also finally, I'll just say it was in some ways a best case scenario also in terms of the institutions who decide cases, because the Los Angeles asylum office does have a reputation for being staffed by liberal young asylum officers, some of whom have gone to law school or some of whom have sociology or anthropology degrees. And this is very different from other asylum offices. There was a report that was recently published on the Boston Asylum Office where virtually everyone is denied asylum because institutional culture is important because discretion plays a big role in these decisions. Who the decision makers are really matters for whether people get protection or not.

Chiara Galli:

And there's always more immigrant friendly and anti-immigrant decision makers in courts and asylum offices all over the US There was just a higher concentration of individuals who wanted to grant cases using the legal protections at their disposal if they could compared to other parts of the country. But all of these differences, I think, create a lot of interesting research opportunities for people who want to do the next ethnography on unaccompanied minors experiences. I think there's really interesting comparative work to be done taking into account, particularly I think rural-urban comparisons or comparisons of different cities, right? Cities where there's fewer migrant networks, where there isn't a strong community of Central Americans, like the one that exists in cities like LA, Washington DC, that all have really strong, for example, Salvador and immigrant communities.

Reema Saleh:

So Chicago has seen a pretty big increase in migration, partly because Texas Governor Abbott is busing migrants here. And I think generally city officials, like the departments seem kind of unprepared. People kind of comment a lot that there's not the same infrastructure here as in other cities for housing migrants and delivering services. I guess, what does Chicago have to do to adapt to this?





Chiara Galli:

Well, I think we're experiencing a very interesting moment because it's actually never been the case that we have housed migrants and asylum seekers. I mean, we've detained them, but we haven't given them housing. So I actually think that it's exceptional what's happening in this city of Chicago and seeing these reception centers and these shelters being set up to house asylum seekers whose cases are pending. This is actually much more similar to the European bottle in which asylum seekers are not only detained, but they're frequently housed in facilities where it's not like they have amazing conditions and they're particularly fancy, but they're not detention centers. They have the right to come and go as please and to leave.

Chiara Galli:

So really, I think it's quite interesting, this historical moment in which we're seeing that a lot of resources like the state of Illinois has invested quite a lot of resources to support this population that's been bused in from the border. And I think that in part has to do with the political differences of takes of the Democratic and Republican parties on immigration. There's a desire to present the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago as a welcoming place for immigrants because I do think that that plays into the national politics of immigration that has become such a contested issue.

Chiara Galli:

Now, of course, again, there's a resource scarcity. The city was unprepared. This tends to be the case generally when asylum seekers arrived to new places. I mean, during the course of my field work, there had been some people who had been bused into LA. So this kind of scrambling to find support is kind of a key characteristic of the phenomenon of trying to help immigrants. And there isn't a very institutionalized system of reception in the US. So really we're seeing something new that I think in many ways is encouraging the fact that the city and the state have been trying to find ways to house asylum seekers and provide them at least a short term place to stay while they adapt to their new homes.

Chiara Galli:

Of course, there's lots of things that we could do to provide more support. For instance, providing housing for a longer period of time. I know that in some of the shelters, they're now requiring asylum seekers to leave after 30 days. That's really not enough time for people to get on their feet and find jobs and find housing, particularly so because it's taking forever for asylum seekers to get work permits right now. Asylum seekers have the right to get a work permit once they apply, and usually the so-called clock would start upon their applications and they would get their permits after six months. But because of a series of changes the Trump administration made, now it's looking more like nine months to a year.

Chiara Galli:

So there's a real mismatch between the amount of time you get a roof over your head and the amount of time it takes for you to get a work permit that's going to enable you to get a job where you can actually pay rent in the city of Chicago. So perhaps we should be housing people for a longer period of time, but the fact of the matter is that there's very scarce resources to go around. So I think the city is trying to distribute those resources as it can because people continue to arrive.

Gabriela Rivera:

So we have been talking about all of these difficult topics, violence and this difficult journey to the US and the super complicated conditions that people face when they come into the US. But what I think makes your research so fascinating is the fact that you decided to focus in this group of people that are going through this intense period of their lives. Most of them are teenagers. So how was it to work with teenagers going through these very complicated period in their lives and going through all of these incredible changes at the same time?

Chiara Galli:

I think that teenagers are a fascinating group, right? Because not only were they in a state of legal limbo between the potential promise of protected refugee status and the risk of being denied asylum and potentially becoming undocumented or being deported back to their home countries, but they were also in a liminally social position in the life course. A teenagers are kind of in a hybrid state between childhood and adulthood. And so they're very interesting group of people to work with. And they exhibit inherently both kind of what we think of as childlike dependent traits and adult-like traits of wanting independence, of seeking independence.

Chiara Galli:

I mean, of course, disadvantaged poor indigenous kids tend to grow up much more quickly in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras than teenagers do in the US where they're much more sheltered. And of course, I mean, there's a racial dynamic to this. There's a class dynamic to this, but white middle class kids are especially sheltered in the US, less so for a working class minority kids. But in Central America, kids do tend to grow up more quickly than they do in the US, which is why they feel infantilized by this need to show their childlike innocence, et cetera.

Chiara Galli:

But in some ways they also do retain some childlike trade. So for example, a lot of my research participants were hoping that they would be supported by their family members when they got here. Some of them actually wanted to stay in school and continue to pursue their education, and they were quite disappointed when they realized that the family members, sometimes aunts and uncles who they didn't really know well, they hadn't had a lot of contact with prior to migration. These individuals had promised, "You can leave ORR and I'll help you finish school and you can live with me." And then they found out that actually they would have to work to support themselves because their aunts and uncles that were supporting their own kids in Guatemala, so they couldn't afford to have them continue in this childlike dependent role of being in school and then continuing on to get their education in college.

Chiara Galli:

So they felt betrayed and they felt a lot of a sense of strong responsibility, a big burden on their shoulders because they had to work, provide themselves, sometimes send remittances back home, payback debt they had incurred due to their migration. So all of these adult-like responsibilities weighed really heavily on their shoulders. At the same time, they had all of the wonderful dreams and aspirations that teenagers have. I think teenagers are very future oriented. They dream about the future. They dream about who they want to be as adults, what are their aspirations for the kinds of jobs they want to do, the kinds of things they want to study, the kinds of people they want to be.

Chiara Galli:

And so something the kids would talk about, I have a story in the book about this Honduran girl who I call Linda, she wants to feel womanlike and she wants to buy things that will make her feel sexy essentially, right? Stiletto heels, mini skirts. And so this nonprofit organization where I was doing research told Linda, "We have these volunteers that want to give donations to kids, so what do you want?" And so she made this list that had these items on it, the stiletto heels, the platforms, the miniskirt. Because she had just turned 18, of course, she wanted those things. When we're teenagers, you're trying to signal that you're adult-like. It's part of your metamorphosis process as you try to look like an adult, to behave like an adult. You have your romantic relationships, et cetera. And it was very sad because the organization told her, "There's no way people are going to want to donate these items to you because you're an unaccompanied minor. You're a poor kid. They're going to want to give you things that you need, not things that you want."

Chiara Galli:

So I thought these teenagers are really not allowed to have the wants and desires that teenagers have as they transition to adulthood. At least not in any formal capacity. When they're trying to get help, they're trying to get support, they're trying to get legal status, they have to perform the childlike state in that space. And then of course, in their everyday lives, they very much signal the adult-like behaviors. And they're very much teenagers in the sense that they dress quite fashionably when they have little bit of money to do so.

Chiara Galli:

But it's a really fascinating population to work with, and they're a very inspiring group of young people. So I think that if only we did a little bit more to support them and a lot less to make their lives impossible by making it so hard for them to undergo this legal system with so few resources, they could really thrive and contribute in amazing ways to American society.

Reema Saleh:

So after spending so much time with unaccompanied minors and the immigration system, how would you say that things need to change? If there is anything that policymakers should take from your book, what should it be?

Chiara Galli:

So, well, they should read the policy recommendations that I make in the conclusion. And there's lots of things that should change. First of all, we need to completely rethink the immigration system in the sense that I make a case in the conclusion that I think that protections for vulnerable categories, including unaccompanied children, should be supplemental to a basic human rights protections for all immigrants. And this is really in line with the spirit of the convention of the rights of the child that says, children have human rights like all individuals, but in addition, we give them supplemental protections because they need protections due to their unique vulnerabilities because of their stage in the life course, their position in society, their developmental needs.

Chiara Galli:

So I think that this should be the logic of the immigration system, and that's not what the current logic of the US immigration system is, but also it's not the logic of what the European immigration systems is, which is to kind of chip away at the basic rights of immigrants, do away with asylum protections with access to asylum, make it harder and harder, and then create spaces of exceptions for vulnerable categories such as children, unaccompanied minors. In the European Union, there's some exceptions for migrants who are ill, for pregnant women, but really those protections need to be supplemental on top of what we give basic human rights guarantees for everyone. So this is a huge systemic change that I think needs to happen in the US and worldwide.

Chiara Galli:

And then the asylum system needs to change. I think that we should interpret refugee law to protect people who are fleeing life-threatening violence in their homes. And we've seen some evolution of the refugee law in the past that's been encouraging, such as protections for victims of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence. And so this shows that these changes are possible. It is possible for the interpretation of the refugee definition to expand, to better reflect the conditions that are pushing people to flee their homes today. So we need to continue to do that work. And then finally, I mean, I have many, many ideas, but just to say one more, I think that we need a universal legal representation system for people who are facing deportation proceedings, removal proceedings in immigration court.


Chiara Galli:

And I say people and not children because I think that no one can prepare their asylum case on their own because it's exceptionally difficult to do so because of the complex nature of the law and our bureaucracies. And so we don't have a public defender system in the immigration courts because ostensibly these are civil proceedings. But if you think about it, really the impacts that the outcomes of these proceedings have on people's lives are much more similar to criminal proceedings. It's the deprivation of liberty. You can literally lose the right to stay in the United States and be sent back to a country where you might be facing life-threatening violence. So we should, at the very least, give people the resources that they need to actually fight their case in court and qualify for protections that they might very well qualify for. And because we know that the impact of legal representation is really important in producing these positive outcomes in the immigration system, and there's a lot of research to back that up.

Reema Saleh:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Chiara Galli. This episode was produced and edited by Reema Saleh and Ricardo Sand. Thank you to our interviewers, Natalie Reyes, Gabriela Rivera, and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the and follow them on Twitter.


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Root of Conflict Podcast

Episode: Somaliland’s Independence


Bashir Goth

interviewed by

Deqa Aden and Joshua Charles

October 26, 2022

Full Transcript

Reema Saleh: Hi. This is Reema, and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts.

Reema Saleh: You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you’ll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh: The Republic of Somaliland is a de facto sovereign state in the Horn of Africa. Declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland is a self-governing country with democratic elections and a distinct history on the continent, but it’s still considered part of Somalia by the international community. In this episode, we speak with Bashir Goth, the head of the Somaliland Mission in the United States about how Somaliland has navigated state building without international recognition. We talk about democracy and development, and what Somaliland has to offer the world in the coming decades.

Deqa Aden: I’m Deqa Aden, a second year Master of Public Policy student and a Pearson Fellow.

Bashir Goth: I’m Bashir Goth, a Somaliland Representative to the United States.

Joshua Charles: I’m Joshua Charles. I’m a second year Master of Public Policy candidate and Pearson fellow.

Reema Saleh: Hi, my name is Reema. I’m a second year Master student and Pearson Fellow.

Joshua Charles: I think to begin, could you introduce yourself? What do you do? What’s your background?

Bashir Goth: Okay. Currently I’m the representative of Somaliland to the United States. You can say an ambassador. So, I do what any ambassador in the world does. Before that, I was working in different areas. I work in the oil industry as a corporate communication advisor. I work in the media as a journalist. And I worked in international organizations also as a communication advisor. That’s my background.

Joshua Charles: Okay. That’s quite dynamic. And so given that you have extensive experience working in the intersection within the policy space, and when thinking about the relationship between Somaliland and Taiwan, it’s pretty clear that there is a synergistic dynamic that mutually embraces each country’s path towards independence. To what extent does Somaliland have similar relationships in place that are a characteristic of the country’s relationship with Taiwan?

Bashir Goth: Taiwan’s relationship was a very strategic decision for Somaliland. We are two countries which are in similar situations, political and geopolitics also. We are both existing states in the world, democratic states, but not recognized internationally. Both of us are bullied by bigger countries, China in terms of Taiwan, and for us, although they kind of bully us, we’re very weak, our neighbor, but they claim Somaliland as part of their country. So that’s what brought us together. And not only that, but we have common values, like democracy and human values and free market economy and all kinds of things have brought us together. So that’s how we established ties with Taiwan.

Deqa Aden: Are there any other states like Taiwan that are also seeking independence that Somaliland attempted to build a relationship in?

Bashir Goth: No, actually, because Somaliland has a unique status, a unique situation, historical background, and the only one that’s actually similar is Taiwan. But other countries that are struggling… they have their own problems that are quite different from Somaliland. Somaliland was an existing state before, during colonialism, and after colonialism they became independent, and now they just went back to their past status. Taiwan is almost the same. Taiwan was ruling China, and then during the Civil War the rulers of China were defeated, and they ran to Taiwan and kept the Chinese government in Taiwan. So actually, they claim that they are the real Chinese government and represent the Chinese people. And they were representing China in the Security Council in the United Nations until 1971, when the United States recognized China, and then China took the United Nations seat. So, we are similar states, but we don’t reach out to other countries which are in a different situation.

Joshua Charles: Wow, and so when thinking about Somaliland’s path to independence, do you believe there… What do you think is required to get there? And do you believe that a strategic partnership with Taiwan will be significant to Somaliland attending its independence?

Bashir Goth: No, they will not, because we are both struggling for independence. We are both struggling for international recognition. So that’s what brought us together. But Somaliland relations with Taiwan can play another role, which is Taiwan is a very, very close friend of the United States, both economically, strategically, and politically. And they have a great influence in the United States also. So that could play a role in bringing the United States closer to Somaliland, because any country that establishes relations with Taiwan will definitely be, by default, a friend of the United States, because the United States cares about that. And any country that actually severs or cuts relations with Taiwan, the United States gives them [a] hard time also. So that’s one way, but the search for independence will just go on in its own way and through different other channels.


Deqa Aden: Just to follow up on that, I think it was very important that you highlighted that shared interest and similar stories are important for Somaliland, which is why also Taiwan’s path is quite similar to Somaliland as well. And since this relation that has been formulated very recently: in what ways has Somaliland benefited from Taiwan’s strategic partnerships? In what way did Taiwan benefit from Somaliland as well?

Bashir Goth: Somaliland benefited definitely. Taiwan is an economic giant in the world today, especially in what you call information technology. It is one of the leading countries in semiconductor and chips and making things like that. And in that way, Taiwan is helping Somaliland in different areas, in agriculture, in health, in IT. Recently, they started actually something that’s similar to a technology park in Somaliland. In training our coast guards… even yesterday some members of the Taiwanese coast guards arrived in Somaliland, and they were in Berbera. So, they’re helping Somaliland in different ways, in different sectors economically and in investment also. They’re investing in Somaliland energy, they’re starting oil exploration in different parts of the country very soon, next year actually, in collaboration with an international energy company. And that’s what they’re doing. So, they’re helping Somaliland in different ways.

Bashir Goth: Taiwan is also benefiting from Somaliland, because Taiwan needs a foothold in Africa. And they have relations with only one country in Africa, that’s Eswatini. No other country. So, when they establish relations with Somaliland, that gives them a foothold in that strategic area of the Horn of Africa. And then at the same time, Somaliland can play a role in winning friends for Taiwan from our neighboring countries, and that’s another way. One particular thing is that China is in Djibouti. They have a big base in Djibouti. So, when Taiwan is in Somaliland, and they’re watching what China is doing there, it’s just next door. So, they have a lot of benefits also from there strategically.

Joshua Charles: So, it’s quite interesting to hear that within Somaliland there will be oil exploration in the next year. Aside from oil, what other commodities and materials are untapped right now?

Bashir Goth: Somaliland is basically a virgin country. It’s untapped. We have a lot of minerals, we have a lot of resources that are buried underground, and it has to be tapped. And currently we know that we have oil and probably gas. It’s a great potential for that. But the economy of the country, actually the backbone of the country’s economy, is livestock. We export a lot of livestock on the hoof—that means live animals—to the Gulf countries, especially to Saudi Arabia. So mostly we earn our economy from livestock, and we have some other local companies that produce for domestic use, domestic consumption, but not for export. Usually for export for the country also depends on the diaspora remittance, which actually is like $800 million a year of remittance. That plays a huge part also. And then the local revenue, whatever. Berbera Port is a growing port and a very important port. It’s going to be a hub in the Horn of Africa soon, and that will actually be a game changer for the economy of Somaliland and for the whole region.

Deqa Aden: Speaking of economy, one of the main reasons people are always impressed with Somaliland is how self-sustaining it is, because Somaliland doesn’t get any foreign investment, it doesn’t have a seat in any of the major multilateral organizations. The question is, how does Somaliland manage to do that? And I’ve seen and heard that you are very much about Somaliland sustaining the way it is. And to quote what you said earlier, which is really a beautiful statement, is that we don’t want aid, we just want partnerships. And I think that is something that’s quite unheard of. I was just curious if you can just touch base on that a little bit more, for the people to know more about it as well.

Bashir Goth: Somaliland has actually proven that any African country can live without aid. It’s really a real example, if you want to see a country that’s surviving without aid, and we did it. We did it because Somaliland… Number one, there is a will. The will of the people, that they have to live with the conditions that they have. They found themselves in this condition by default. They found themselves that they cannot access international financial organizations. Then they have to find a way to live. That’s human innovation. Where there’s a need… necessity is the mother of invention. So they decide, the government of Somaliland and the people of Somaliland, decided that they have to live by their own means. So the revenue the government generates goes to usually public things like the government employees’ salary, the armed force salary, and some kind of public services. But the country actually survives by the private sector. We have a free market economy. So the free market, the private sector plays a big role. Almost 80% of the country’s economy is run by the private sector. That’s how we survive.

Joshua Charles: Wow, and so when thinking about the need for investment and thinking about the potential or a current existence of a domestic bond market, what does that look like at the moment? And if the domestic bond market isn’t developed at the moment, do you see that being a tangible solution to address some financial deficits?

Bashir Goth: We have a domestic market and a domestic private economy that’s actually ready for international partnership. They’re ready. They can do anything. They have the latest technology, they have a lot of money, they deal with the world, private sector. So they’re ready for partnerships. So the moment Somaliland gets international investors, the atmosphere, the environment’s ready. So that’s what we are counting on. Already there are some companies have come, and others are now on the way. And I think very soon Somaliland will have very good investment and partnership from the world.

Deqa Aden: Other economic partnerships that came to my mind is UAE, which has built a port in Somaliland, which has shown a great interest in the region, and DP World as well. And this made me think of this world of international affairs, where if you made an ally in one space, then you are also sending signals to also their enemies at times, or maybe their competitors in the market as well. Has there been ways where, when Somaliland partnerships with one state economically, that other states may reach out as well and show an interest?

Bashir Goth: Yes. For example, number one, DP World of the United Arab Emirates was the first one that broke the taboo that nobody can deal with Somaliland, because how can you have a signed international agreement with the country that’s not internationally recognized? Because later on, if there are problems, where are you going to go for and things like that? So that was a problem. Dubai DP World is a world port operator. They have I think they operate more than 83 ports all over the world, including ports in the United States. So, they know how to work, and they know Somaliland because Somaliland people and the United Arab Emirate people had a long history together of migration, working together, all kind of things. So they know the Somaliland people.

Bashir Goth: So they came, they saw the port, they saw the potential of the port in the whole region, and where it’s placed historically. Berbera Port in the ‘80s and Berbera Airport also in the ‘80s, it used to be a Soviet base. Then when the Soviets left, it has become an American port base during the Carter administration. Berbera Airport has the longest runway in Africa. One of the longest… Actually, it’s the longest when you look at the part that’s not run by plane, it is the longest runway in Africa. And the United States used that runway at one time as an emergency landing for the Space Shuttle in the ‘80s. So, Dubai came, they saw the potential of this and said we’re going to invest money in this. And the signed an agreement with the Somaliland government. They’re spending $450 million on that in two phases. First phase is over, second phase will be finished next year, and then it’s going to be state of the art port in the whole region. That’s number one.

Bashir Goth: Then the UK, after Brexit, they were looking for markets. They came to Berbera, and they know Somaliland. There’s nobody who knows Somaliland more than the British. And they said, “Okay, we are joining hands with DP World and we are going to invest in five even African ports, including in Berbera in Somaliland.” One in Egypt, one in Senegal, and some others, but Berbera was one of them. And the British are spending like 200-something million dollars for Berbera Corridor, roads coming from Berbera all the way to Ethiopia. And others will follow. I cannot say it now exactly, but I know that when I was talking to the Minister of Investment and Minister of Trade, they told me there is a number of companies that approach Somaliland for investment. So, it’s coming. It’s coming.

Joshua Charles: That’s exciting. That’s exciting. So, when thinking about UK’s relationship with Somaliland, it’s clear that there’s been some type of financial incentive for the UK to operate or to allocate capital to Somaliland projects. But outside of that financial relationship, politically, culturally, is there any type of dynamic that is of interest to you?

Bashir Goth: Yes. Culturally there is because Britain used to be the colonizer of Somaliland during the colonial period. There is a huge Somaliland diaspora in the UK, and Somalilanders have been in UK for a long, long time. Since 19th century, Somaliland seaman have been… They have established even areas in UK where they’re known. So culturally, there are long cultural ties. But yes, UK is after its own economic interest, but at the same time its strategic interest, because the place where Somaliland is located in the Horn Africa, the Gulf of Aden… You know, the Gulf of Aden sea coast, more than 11% of international oil tankers pass through that. Imagine that. So it’s a very strategic place, why all these countries are coming to have bases, for example, in Djibouti and other areas, because this is an economical nerve for the whole world. So they have an eye on that also. So a lot of things…

Deqa Aden: Going back to my also previous question. With all these new partnerships and all these companies coming from these different countries, you don’t also have to answer it either, has there been any negative consequences from building partnership with their opposing allies as well, or that’s not the case…

Bashir Goth: Not yet. Not yet.

Deqa Aden: Okay. That’s good.

Bashir Goth: Because we don’t have that many companies that have come. So not yet.

Deqa Aden: Okay. That’s good. That’s good to know. Now, moving back from economy to democracy, I think one of the most fascinating things about Somaliland is the latest freedom health score in 2022, which Somaliland scored higher than a lot of sub-Saharan African countries, including the Middle East, also including UAE as well and Qatar. And that is something that a lot of academics are really fascinated with. So, first question is, how did Somaliland build this democracy that people are just fascinated with?

Bashir Goth: Somaliland has actually built a democracy that’s a blend or a mix between traditional way that Somalilanders used to run their affairs and modern democracy. So, after the Civil War and the collapse of the former central government of Somalia, and when the people came together and they reclaimed their independence, they had to build their country back. So, they have to resort what they knew. Resorting to what they knew is how they used to run their country. So Somaliland people used to have a kind of pastoral democracy, which was natural democracy. People come, sit together under a tree, discuss things, no age barrier, sometimes gender barrier, everybody will have a voice. And then they will discuss, they’ll make a decision, and then that decision will be binding for everybody. And that’s how we have to do. When there is, for example, a conflict between clans, that’s how they used to solve. So that is our tradition.

Bashir Goth: And then with modern democracy, which we have to give credit to our founder, a guy who considered as a founder of Somaliland, who is Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, he was our independence leader in 1960, the first prime minister. And he was one of the independence leaders in Africa at that time. So he was a man who knew how democracy works. He was a man who went through this struggle of independence. So he became the president and he laid the foundation of Somaliland, modern democracy, and he knew how to deal with traditional… and win the trust of people, and he worked with that. So it was not a one person, but he was the leader, and the leader makes a difference everywhere. Mandela made a difference for South Africa, for example.

Bashir Goth: So he actually led this democratization of Somaliland. The Somaliland people were willing to do that, they adopted democracy. And over the last 31 years, there are more than five presidents that peacefully took over from each other the power. We are the only country in the Horn of Africa, for example… The second country could be Kenya. Kenya from 1963 when they became independent until now, there are only five presidents. Somaliland in 30 years, half of Kenya’s age, there are five presidents that replaced each other by universal election. One man, one person, one vote. That’s how we do it every time. Our parliament, our presidents.

Bashir Goth: And the unique thing about Somaliland, which is actually the only country that did that, the whole world, is we do our elections by… We use iris recognition, biometric identification. So that rules out any irregularities or rigging the election or things like that. So we are the first country in the world to use that biometric iris recognition. So international observers come to our elections, and there is not a single time that the international observers, including the IRA, which was the first to come, there is not a single time they did not testify that Somaliland elections was free and fair. Yes, in any election there’ll be some little here and there irregularities and problems, anywhere in the world. We have here in the United States, and we know that. But Somaliland actually has a very good record in that.

Bashir Goth: And that’s how the freedom… We have other problems also, for example. Freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is very, very good in Somaliland. Anybody can say anything against the government, against any institution, and against any organization. And we actually say in Somaliland we have more freedom than necessary, because anybody can say anything. But at the same time, we are a young democracy, so sometimes we have issues. For example, some reporters may be detained by the government because they said something, but that’s not literally because the government is against criticism, but it’s because we are fragile state, surrounded by a very tough neighborhood. These young reporters who are mostly unprofessional and untrained can just go to anybody and interview somebody who can say any flagrant statements that he wants to say against another clan, and that could cause a clash. That’s the time for some that person is detained. So things like that happen, which we don’t like, because freedom of speech has to be freedom of speech. But comparatively in our neighborhood, actually we’re the best.


Joshua Charles: Wow, that’s quite interesting. When considering the evolution of a democracy, like you mentioned, there will always be some issues that remain unaddressed in America. You have it within the politically elected officials, the representation can be more proportionate to the actual American population. Within Somaliland, from my understanding, there’s a lack of female representation within parliament. When that translates to policy, to the policy making process, what are some of the consequences of that, and what are some of the policies in place to amplify female representation within politics?


Bashir Goth: So generally, you’ll talk about political inclusiveness, inclusive politics, whether it’s female or any other people. Let me first go back a little and answer the question Deqa asked me. There [is a] very important factor I forgot. In Somaliland, we did not just dream when they came up with democracy. It went through a long process. And this long process was, for example, after we reclaimed our independence, we had more than probably ten community conferences in different parts of the country, where people came together to resolve local conflicts and local issues and things like that. And these went through states until it came to the grand meeting in Burao in 1994, where all the clans and everybody came together and they drafted the national charter for Somaliland, and Egal was elected. So it went through… It was a community-based process that started from the grassroots and then grew up all the way to the top.


Bashir Goth: Coming back to your question, political inclusiveness is always not an easy job. It’s a very, very difficult thing. You cannot satisfy all people all the time. There will always be gaps that has to be... There will always be improvements to be done. So we have these gaps, we have these shortcomings, but we try our best, and think all the communities are represented in Somaliland political institutions and political bodies. There are not elected women in our parliament, but they’re also represented in the government. They are in different parts of the government and departments and organizations and civil societies. Actually, women are very, very strong in civil societies. They have the strongest voice in civil societies. So they will come also to the political leadership one day, and they’re fighting for that, and we are helping them. But otherwise, we are moving forward. That’s what I can say.


Deqa Aden: I think just to build up on all the things you’ve said, mass misinformation is a threat to democracy, not only in Somaliland, across the world, and even the U.S. also struggling with social media and how that’s a threat to their strong democracy, which complicates freedom of speech. So this struggle you mentioned, it’s a struggle that a lot of countries have, and there’s a lot of debates about it, of how do we move forward? Because we want people to know the correct information and wouldn’t want misinformation to be the cause of civil war. As you said, we are a fragile state itself, and we’re right next to Somalia. And I think that’s really important to highlight, so I just wanted to also reemphasize that.


Deqa Aden: But going back even before that, I think the history of Africa in academic context, or in this part of the world, somehow it starts colonial times, as if there was no Africa before colonial times. So to me, it was really important when you mentioned that there was pastoral democracy even before colonial times, and there was Somaliland before the British came, and then that was part of the ingredients that made the democracy that we have right now. So the unfinished part of democracy, because there’s always going to be an unfinished part, and there’s the part we always admire, I’ve always been one of those people who admires Somaliland’s democracy because just no one knows about it, and it’s really fascinating. Where should the unfinished part focus on in the next couple of decades? Where should Somaliland’s unfinished democracy should work on… And as you said, democracy’s a project…


Bashir Goth: Yeah. Exactly.


Deqa Aden: It’s always constantly improving. So the unfinished part, how should we envision Somaliland in the next couple of decades?


Bashir Goth: The most important part for the unfinished parts would be women participation in Somaliland policymaking or decision making. That’s number one. Number two will be general political inclusiveness, which there are always grievances in Somaliland. Another thing will be, for example, every country has a constitution, but the constitution is a living document. It has to go through change all the time. Somaliland, over the last 30 years, we did not look back at our constitution. And that has to be done, and that will address a lot of constitutional problems in democracy of Somaliland. So I think these are the areas that we have to go through in the coming decade or years.


Bashir Goth: And another one will be youth employment. That’s a problem not only in Somaliland, but all over of Africa. By 2050, predictions are African population will be like 4 billion, and maybe 80% of that will be below 30. Imagine. How are you going get employment for that? It’s called the youth bulge. And the other African countries are suffering from that, and unemployment is really very high. What do you think of Somaliland, which doesn’t have access to international financial markets? It’s pretty difficult. So that’s another area also that we have to actually address.


Deqa Aden: Mm-hmm. Definitely.


Joshua Charles: Right. Youth, that’s the future of any society, and I have quite a few friends who live in Uganda, and one of my friends, she just graduated from Makerere University within the last few months. She jokes around and she says, “I’m an unemployed youth.” But that’s an unfortunate reality for many people within that region of the world. So thinking about… Okay, it’s clear that Somaliland is not well integrated into the international financial system, but there is certainly potential. From the government’s perspective, what can be done to enhance the job market for youth? What are some of the strategic partnerships that can be in place to actually support the youth employment?


Bashir Goth: For now, what Somaliland government is doing, not only Somaliland government, but Somaliland government and together with the private sector, they are trying to do a lot of things actually. Number one is employment, whoever they can employ. That’d be a very small number. The private sector can employ more. That’s one thing. At the same time, it’s giving skills to young people, young graduates for example, skills that they can start their own businesses. So that’s another one. Give them small loans that they can start their own small businesses. That’s another way they can do it. And attracting international investment, which is a huge thing, because once investment comes to, for example, now Berbera Airport. It’s employing a lot of youth who have been trained and skilled, and they’re working there. So when investment comes, it will generate a lot of employment. So, when the economy grows, employment also grows with it.


Bashir Goth: So that’s what we are trying to do a lot of… but it’s very difficult to catch up, because thousands of students graduate every year, just like any other country. And they come to the market, and the market is very small, so imagine. But we are trying to find ways actually, every single day the government and private sector are coming up with new ideas and new ways. Even the youth are coming up with their own new ideas. So we’ll think that some of these will work out. Maybe like we survive without international aid, maybe we can also teach the world how to create employment for the youth… Could be.


Deqa Aden: Absolutely. Another point that I thought of was… I was also in Somaliland last year, especially working on a business incubator for youth for finding jobs. And it was shocking to me because oftentimes we market Africa as a… “There’s no education. We have to educate women. We have to educate the youth.” And I was like, no, education was never the problem. In fact, education itself is the problem, because you have a mass of graduates who are really high skilled, who are ready and want to use their skills. And that can lead to a lot of frustration, so sometimes the youth just want to leave the country and want to come to this part of the world where they can put their education to use. Has illegal migration… Has it been a problem? Because I couldn’t pinpoint, with just knowing how unemployment is such a big deal, where are these youth going?


Bashir Goth: Somaliland actually never had that big a problem with mass youth immigration, illegal immigration. We had some of our young people who actually went through illegal immigration, and they traveled through, for example, Ethiopia, Sudan, and from Sudan to Libya, and all the way to the Mediterranean, taking boats from the Mediterranean, from Libya. Some of them did that. A number of them did that, actually. But usually, we didn’t have that mass migration like other African countries have. For example, like the Sahel countries that thousands of young people, hundreds of young people, are every day crossing the Mediterranean and dying many of them there. We don’t have that. We don’t have that.


Bashir Goth: But the good thing about Somaliland is that we are a very close-knit community, so people help each other, families help each other, communities help each other. So young people don’t get actually… They may be unemployed, but they will always have a place to sleep, a place to eat something, a little pocket money. They will always have that, because their family, their larger family, will be helping, whether they are in the diaspora or inside or wherever. So the social cohesion of the Somaliland people is very important and helps them. But that will only take you so far, actually…


Deqa Aden: Only so far.


Bashir Goth: If you know the Middle East, what actually caused the Arab uprising was youth unemployment. And the Arabs have a lot of money, but because of the political system, youth could not get employment. So that’s what caused the Arab Spring. But then when the Arab Spring took place, then it ended up with a disaster, because when there is a movement and there’s no leadership and vision, then it ends up with chaos. So that’s also a good lesson for other countries, so Somaliland youth also see that. And I don’t expect anything like that happening in Somaliland, or maybe anywhere in Africa in the future. But it’s a problem worldwide, even in the United States. We have a lot of unemployment here, especially now. So that’s a big problem.


Joshua Charles: True. Especially within the last three years, unemployment rates have skyrocketed within America as well as in other parts of the world. When I have conversations about Africa, it seems that many people find it easy to generalize certain characteristics of individuals within the continent. But in reality, there are so many different identities, just like any other part of the world. So when thinking about the communal aspect of Somaliland, how do you think religion reinforces that propensity of the collective society?


Bashir Goth: Religion was traditionally part of our culture. It was just part of the Somaliland people’s culture. Religion was never a problem. It was not something that was separate from the Somaliland culture. But in the ‘90s and after the ‘90s, an alien type of Islam came to the Somaliland people from Arabia, like anywhere else in the world, and that infiltrated into the community. And what you see today in Somalia and Al-Shabaab is actually an alien culture, alien kind of Islam that came to our region, came from Arabia, especially from Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabism. And that’s a radical school of Islam that doesn’t tolerate any other lifestyle.


Bashir Goth: So actually, we suffered from that for quite some time, but because of our traditionally strong foundations of Islam, we came over that. So we don’t have that problem. That’s why we don’t have in Somaliland any radical violence in our country. We don’t have that. So our traditional Islam came back, that’s a Sufi Islam, traditional Islam, that was part of the people’s culture that was spiritual. And we live with that. That’s our culture. That’s our culture.


Deqa Aden: Mm-hmm. And I think that’s also another shock to the world, how is Somalia a hub for one of the biggest terrorist organizations, and Somaliland is nothing like that, and they’re right next door to one another? So I’m glad you mentioned that it somehow all comes down to culture and the traditions and the infrastructure that was there before all these problems.


Bashir Goth: Exactly.


Deqa Aden: Speaking of research, one of the main gaps across Africa, even the most developed countries, is lack of investment from the government to invest in research. And research is the bridge that takes the continent and shares that information with the rest of the world. So often when people ask me, “What’s a Somalilander?” They always say, “We’re interested, but we know nothing.” And I always say, me too, I just know my lived experiences, but there’s not a book that I could recommend or something strong. Do you see any future for Somaliland investing in its own research? Because with all this wisdom you share today, or lessons, we have to put that into writing, for a book for the world to read.


Bashir Goth: That’s actually an advice that I always give to Somaliland universities when I meet them. Whenever I go back to the country and I meet them, I always tell them research, research, research. Because a university without research will not benefit the community in which they exist. Because they have to look at the community, look at the problems with the community, and they have to make research about it. Governments rely on universities for their policies. For some, like your school here, probably you produce so many papers on different policies of the United States. So this probably would be taken by the Congress or by politicians, and then they implement it. And that that’s very important. Whether it’s science, whether it’s political science, whether it’s art, everything.


Bashir Goth: So we are very weak in research. We have to build our research capabilities. We have to find funding. Public funding would be the best, because when you have private funding, then there will be an interest in that. But also, private funding will come on board. So I know for example now the universities of Amoud and Hargeisa, actually they started their own research departments, and they have went through a lot of training, and they’re doing good work now, but it will take some time until they pick up. I think Amoud and Hargeisa, both of them now produce some kind of journals, research journals where they publish their papers, and I hope that increases also. It will come.


Bashir Goth: But that’s actually what… Not only Somaliland but all Africa suffers from that. And I was actually thinking, probably Africa has to create their own research or scientific journals. Because if the best African paper comes out from any university in Africa, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to publish in one of these scientific or academic journals in the Western world, because they have their own… It’s like clubs. So you have to be a certain race, you have to be certain something. You know, you guys. Otherwise, you cannot publish it. I have read a story where two actual researchers, they were Europeans, made research about that, and they couldn’t publish their papers. Then they took the names of famous, well-known academics, scholars, and they sent their papers with the name of these scholars, and they were published. Same papers. So, there is a racism and discrimination also in academic journals in the world. So probably it’s time that Africa, Latin America, whoever, have to create their own.


Joshua Charles: That would certainly change the tides of the academic space, especially how people from abroad, they often come to America, go to Europe, to advance their education, to get master’s degrees, PhDs, LLMs. But if there are some opportunities within Africa to contribute to the academic space in a meaningful way, in lieu of taking a trip outside of the continent, then I think there would be a lot of incentive from citizens from Somaliland, as well as from other citizens across the continent.


Joshua Charles: So just thinking about… Shifting gears a bit to the Central Bank. Infrastructure development… it sounds like there is tremendous potential for infrastructure development, and there are currently a lot of large projects in place that are scheduled to be done in the next year. Political stability is crucial to seeing the completion of these projects, as well as in the case of force majeure, say war or something like that, it’s crucial that infrastructure projects have a way to cross the finish line. So just thinking about the role of the central bank, what are some strategies in place that can be employed to actualize some of these infrastructure projects that are on the to-do list? And in what ways can these projects be employed that appeals to stakeholders like America, continued support from the UK, from UAE?


Bashir Goth: Actually, we have a central bank, but the Central Bank doesn’t have any role or have oversight on projects. They control the financial system of the country, for example. They looked at the country’s inflation, they have to control the inflation. They have to control the currency and the rate of the currency. They have the money of the state. They can give loans to the state or even private sector who wants that. And that’s their role as a central bank, like any other bank in the world does. But the oversight of projects and infrastructure and all these things have other departments, whether it’s ministries or independent departments, there are departments who are looking on that.


Deqa Aden: Mm-hmm. And now I’m going to ask you the last question. I think it seems like Somaliland is a really young country, and the current leadership and the previous one, you guys have sacrificed a lot to sustain the way it is right now. It’s a hypothetical question. If Somaliland was the most developed country in the world and you didn’t have to sacrifice anything, what path of career you would have chosen for yourself? And what would Ambassador Bashir would have been, if Somaliland was the most developed country?


Bashir Goth: Professor.


Deqa Aden: Professor?


Bashir Goth: Of a university. Especially on literature and probably international relations, but mostly on literature. Because that’s my…


Deqa Aden: Your passion.


Bashir Goth: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That was my actual ambition when I was a student. But then when I finished university in Somalia and I left the country and I went to the Middle East and I was on my way to the United States, my father got sick. And I was the eldest of the family. All my brothers and sister were in the middle of school, and who would take care of them? That’s why I just started to work. But my intention was to be a professor. I was a good student. So that was my… But I did not stop. I’m a lifelong learner. So I don’t have the title, but I do a lot of things, so I don’t regret that.


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Bashir Goth. This episode was produced and edited by Reema Saleh and Ricardo Sande. Thank you to our interviewers, Deqa Aden and Joshua Charles. Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on The Pearson Institute’s research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.


Root of Conflict


Trust After Betrayal | Erin McFee

How do ex-combatants transition back into society after conflict? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Erin McFee, a political anthropologist and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the London School of Economics. Focusing on Colombia and the reintegration of the FARC, her team studies reconciliation in post-conflict societies—the interventions that create interpersonal trust between former perpetrators of violence and former victims of violence as they build their everyday lives together. 

Root of Conflict


Gender and Conflict | Lina Haddad Kreidie

How do war and displacement disproportionately impact women? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Lina Haddad Kreidie, a political psychologist and Academic Director of Gender Studies at the Lebanese American University. Her research centers marginalized communities, mainly displaced and refugee women in the Middle East. We discuss her work with the Intisar Foundation—studying drama therapy as a mental health intervention for refugee women and how it’s impacted communities within the camps. 

Episode: Gender and Conflict


Lina Haddad Kreidie, political psychologist and academic director of gender studies at the Lebanese American University

interviewed by

Hannah Balikci and Zareen Hussain, Pearson Fellows

Thursday October 13, 2022

Full Transcript

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema and you’re listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You’re listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. In this series, you’ll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

How do war and displacement disproportionately impact women? In this episode, we speak with

Dr. Lina Haddad Kreidie, a political psychologist and academic director of gender studies at the Lebanese American University. Her research centers marginalized communities, mainly displaced and refugee women in the Middle East. We discuss her work with the Intisar Foundation, studying drama therapy as a mental health intervention for refugee women and how it’s impacted communities within the camps.

Zareen Hussein:

Hello, my name is Zareen Hussein. I am a second-year public policy student at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Hannah Balikci: And I am Hannah Balikci. I’m a first-year student at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: My name is Lina Haddad Kreidie and I am the academic director of Gender Studies at the Lebanese American University. And I am a research consultant for an NGO for the Intisar foundation. Intisar Foundation works with women empowerment for socioeconomically disadvantaged women who are impacted by war and violence.

Zareen Hussein: Could you tell us how you came to your work? What brought you to this intersection between gender, mental health, and conflict?

Lina Haddad Kreidie: Just to rewind a bit, my degree is in political science, and I did a concentration in political psychology. So my gender focus and work on women came as a result, what we call experiential learning. And based on my own experiences and my own observations and analysis of the different theories and readings I went through. I found that women are invisible, mainly in the political field. And even when they are in, they are subordinated, they are used as tokens and not as effective decision makers.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: So this brought me to try to explore more on the causes and the barriers that lead to such gender discrimination. I also wanted to see this in different cultures. So I’ve read a lot about gender inequality in the western world, but it was not enough explanatory basis to understand the gender inequalities in the Arab world. And my work now, I moved from University of California Irvine to Lebanon to do the work on conflict management and to teach in political science. But I wanted to base my research on gender, starting with women. But with my new position, I’m expanding to look at all marginalized communities and intersectional inequalities where we use race, ethnicity, class, disabilities, and women and men, because gender is not only about women. So this is where my research is landing now, and my academic and intellectual work is at the University. My teaching and the student-based learning process that’s taking place on campus is also linked to my work with Intisar Foundation and the approach of empowering women.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: And I noticed that this drama therapy intervention, which I was suspicious at the beginning, of its effectiveness, is an excellent and effective approach that brings in not only psychoanalysis, which I’ve read a lot about, and cognitive behavioral therapy and EDMR and all those individual approaches to helping people with psychological issues and specifically people who are impacted by compounded traumas.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: In cultures where psychological counseling is considered a stigma and where women are, and men, usually don’t see psychologists or psychiatrists because they would be stigmatized as crazy, and men would with their hyper masculinity, “No, I’m not crazy,” And women would be afraid to do so. And in academia also I noticed that even in my promotions and academic life, because I got married young and I had children, I would see myself and all the women around me as delayed in their progress. This is at the workplace sector.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: In the humanitarian field, I noticed that women are prominent and specifically in Lebanon where CSOs and the NGOs took the place of the government in terms of providing services. And it was usually women who started and founded and are active in such NGOs. So I noticed that there is a parallel of the role of women where in some sectors they are subordinated, they’re weak, but they are given the care, which is also the associated role that was subscribed to them since birth. Women are the caring, men are the providers. So yes, this is what’s happening, this dualism in functions in Lebanon where the NGOs are run by women, they are the ones who keep the social fabric of the society in a country that is broken by divisiveness.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: So not to expand too much on this but to focus on mainly marginalized communities, which is a subject you are interested in, the Intisar foundation is the field work where I felt myself, I’m not only needing analyzing and writing policy recommendations based on synthesizing literature, but also I am doing it in the field. This is what really brought me to Intisar Foundation and this work.

Hannah Balikci: How did you first get involved with the Intisar Foundation?

Lina Haddad Kreidie: It was in a meeting at the Lebanese American University. Actually, my husband, who’s a neurologist and a psychiatrist, met with the CEO of the foundation and they were talking about their work to him because he’s a neurologist, and he said, “No, no, my wife is best, she’s a political psychologist, she’s interested in women empowerment and she keeps talking about gender issues,” so here comes the man. He said, “This is women empowerment, this is not my job,” although they wanted to recruit him. So he referred them to me and this is where we found each other, actually. And it was the best time where I could translate my work on the ground. And I met Sheikha Intisar AlSabah, who is the founder. She’s from the royal family of Kuwait. And one would think that they are not involved with the people, but she’s very much involved with the people. And for children we manage bullying, but for women it’s the drama therapy intervention.


Zareen Hussein: Before we get into understanding what drama therapy is, can you help, for those who don’t know, what is political psychology?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Excellent. Political psychology is a field that focuses on the micro level of analysis When we are analyzing any issue, whether it’s electoral issue, electoral campaign, leadership, decision making at the level of the government, the behavior of individuals and groups, political psychology explains the why question. Meaning, for example, to explain terrorism, we don’t judge, we explain why those groups chose to do this. So we look at the emotions, we look at the psychology of fear, we look at identity politics, we look at the cognitive behavioral aspects in the sense of the group-think aspect, the conformity aspect, what we consider as cognitive dissonance, meaning we have mental schemas, we have norms. So when something happens that contradicts our mental schema, we give it the deaf ear and the blind eye. And how we build empathy and altruism, and all those factors are part of explaining conflicts and other issues pertaining to human interaction.


Zareen Hussein: And that’s really interesting because, for example, when talking about ISIS, the uninformed thought is that it’s just extremists joining an extremist group where there’s a lot more caveats to that.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes.


Zareen Hussein: So Dr. Lina, could you give us an example on everything you’ve just said, maybe in Lebanon or with ISIS specifically?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: You know, I will start with my own. As I mentioned, everything comes with experience. When I was in Lebanon in the ‘80s, I saw around us that religiosity has been increasing, and there is a resurgence of Islamist groups, Muslim Brotherhood and others. And women who did not wear any covers, we started seeing more women with cover. I said, “What’s happening? Why is this happening?” And then there was the political tension between the US and certain groups in Lebanon, and we started seeing hostages taken.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: And at every corner of the road, it’s the Islamists. It’s the Islamists who are doing the harm and so on. And I believe this because we saw that there is this. And Libya came to train certain Islamist groups. Iran came to train other Islamist groups, and the whole region was involved in Lebanon. And this is during the Civil War. So I wanted to do this study, but I could not because of the threats the professors had from Islamist groups. The professor I was working with was a British guy: he was kidnapped in Lebanon, and I thought it was because of the study he was helping me with, and it was not.

Lina Haddad Kreidie: So I had the question of why blame Islamist groups? So to make the story short, to understand I wanted to look at the economic, the political situation. I could not find the right answer. It was always insufficient. So I thought into that. I went into the individual level of analysis, to understand the difference between how they view the world versus how the West views the world. For example, what does terrorism mean to them? What does self-sacrifice, a freedom fighter versus terrorist? What does democracy mean to them? Because we’ve learned that there is no democracy in Islam, but they do have an understanding of democracy completely different. They base it on justice, while in the US we base it on individual freedoms. So there are different understandings. So this was based on my political psychology background.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: For the ISIS situation, also the concept of yes, there are Islamist groups who are using Islam as a political tool, and they are vulnerable because of the marginalization they lived in. So whether they are men and women, who lately started joining ISIS, because we have these misperceptions that only men do that, but also women, yes with a lesser number, because they felt they were marginalized in their communities and they found an answer in this ideological, religious, emotional attachment. This could be an example, but the Palestinian camps and the Syrian camps are hubs of extremism. So when you have extreme poverty, marginalization, certain perceptions of people as being prone to being terrorists. So when you give them a certain role, they become the role, and it becomes them. So political psychology helps us understand how to explain, so we can solve the problem better. That’s the idea behind political psychology.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: In addition to, we did analysis of the Gulf War. And how a country like the US where we have leaders who are in power and they are supposedly intellectuals and the best in making decisions, they come up with defective decision making and it’s based on certain phenomenon that’s called groupthink. When you are working in a group and you want to belong into the group, even if they’re making a bad decision, the misperceptions of the situation, the in-group, out-group, “I love my in-group, I hate the other group.” So you tend to make defective decision makings and personalities and the right-wing authoritarianism and all of this.


Zareen Hussein: So definitely an us-versus-them mentality?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: It is the us-versus-them mentality.


Hannah Balikci: In regards to what you were mentioning about refugee camps, we know that women and children make up over half of all refugees, internally displaced and stateless people. Why is bringing a gender perspective to conflict and displacement important in the context of refugees, and what happens when it’s not taken into account?


Zareen Hussein: And also definitely in political psychology, why are the women not in that discourse?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Men usually are the ones in the war. So when there is displacement and forced migration, the majority are women who leave. And during that time women are disproportionately impacted because they are the ones who take care of the house. They are the ones who take care of the children. So when their husbands are not around, they have a double burden. They have to provide, and they have to care. So it’s both jobs are done on them.


Zareen Hussein: So it’s a shift in the gender roles, almost.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly. There’s a shift. So this is one. On the other hand, if men are also with the woman in the house, and she’s not a single mom, as we mentioned, his role becomes less because humanitarian agencies with their mindset that we have to help the women. So it’s not the right approach because when you give the woman, I remember from my work in Jordan with refugees, the woman would get the 20 dinar to spend, and the male is sitting at home and he feels “What happened to my role? I am the man of the house.”


Zareen Hussein: Demasculinization.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly. Demasculation. And his hyper-masculinity gets attacked and hurt, and this is where the toxic masculinity starts to work and he transfers it on his wife and children, mainly girls. And this is where domestic violence rises at times of crisis. So there is a need to definitely support men and women, but more so women because they are disproportionally impacted, and they are the backbone of the family.

They do both jobs when needed. They do revert to informal jobs, and they don’t ask for much, which is something that’s not good. Because they are used to, “I have to do it. I am the mother, I sacrifice.” Most of their work is unpaid, but they try to do everything when they need to. So it becomes their motherly work and their informal work where they get paid less. So they tend to be the ones hired more than men, but this adds to their trauma, this adds to their bad relationship at home with their husbands and brothers.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So there is a need, and supporting women meaning supporting the family and supporting the community. And I believe, if the mother is able to listen to her husband, not in the sense of being obedient, in the sense of understanding the background of his violence and being able to communicate with him better and not accepting what he does by being more self-confident, by reporting if she has violence, if there’s any violent attacks against her.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Because usually woman in those communities tend to be afraid of reporting because this might increase their violence. So with the drama therapy we do, we help them report. So it is important to make those communities more peaceful, to reduce the vulnerability to extremism so their children would learn from them the significance of communication, the significance of speaking up, the significance of finding other ways of expressing their anger. It doesn’t have to be transferring it on other people and so on. So yeah, that’s mainly some of the factors that are helpful.


Hannah Balikci: Great. You’ve said previously that women who have experienced trauma, such as war and displacement, usually don’t seek help because of their inability to know that they need help. What are the consequences, like you were just mentioning about the effects on their children, what are the consequences of not taking this trauma and how it impacts people into consideration?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: I think it is very important. First, to bring awareness to all, and more so to women because women are suppressed and, as I mentioned, they don’t report their situation. They feel that they are responsible, and they have to take it in: “I’m not going to get angry at my husband or report because I have to keep the peace in the house.” But they are actually destroying themselves from within. So they need to be become more aware of the need for psychological help. And this is something that needs to be done via NGOs or even for girls at school to start with this. So as this will bring more awareness and then the way they raise their children, the way they speak to their husbands and to their community, would be more effective. Just if you want to repeat the question because I think I missed an aspect of it.


Hannah Balikci: What are the consequences of not taking this trauma, and how it impacts people, into consideration?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: If you don’t treat psychological illnesses, they could become more physiologically destructive. Meaning, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, the more it becomes severe, the more it impacts the brain, it affects the memory, it affects the emotions, they become more angry because of the low impulse control, they tend to be aggressive. I did a study on the link between post-traumatic stress disorder and violence, and there was a significant correlation between PTSD and aggression because people tend to react with anger and they regret it after, but they keep repeating it and they know that they did something wrong, but they cannot control their emotions. So imagine a community where, like among Syrians, every three Syrians in Lebanon, one has PTSD. Every four, one has generalized anxiety.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So if you have a community with all those psychological disorders, then you have a tendency for more violence. I know there are many studies on the macro level that blame Islam or blame the culture or blame economic situation. Yes, these could be factors, but if you have a healthy mental health or a healthy psychology, then you don’t have any psychological disorders, then you can manage the situation better. You can manage your poverty better, you can manage marginalization. We all, as women, we go through this. If we have the ability to deal with it in a healthier way, then we reduce use the problems of... There are many studies done in the US on the veterans with PTSD when they come back from war, and we have higher rates of suicide, we have high rates of domestic violence, specifically because the government is not spending enough to support them.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Imagine in countries like Lebanon or Syria or Iraq or Yemen where the government is lacking and they’re not providing. If NGOs are not active, or any institution, in helping such communities, then we are leading those countries into disasters. So yes, mental health is very important. I think reconstruction of zones of conflict or when you want to build peace, you cannot have peace if the levels of psychological traumas or compound traumas are not relieved, then we don’t build highways if we don’t have people that are productive and healthy.


Zareen Hussein: Absolutely. And I think using the US veterans example is perfect because I know our conversation is about women and how they respond to the lack of resources while also experiencing PTSD, like you said, there’s violence, domestic violence. But imagine on the flip side, men who are also in this exact same situation. There’s an immense high rate of suicide amongst US veterans, and they’re going through the similar things: PTSD, lack of resources. So it’s almost not even a binary gender situation, it’s just a humanitarian issue, but we’re addressing it through a gendered lens.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly.


Hannah Balikci: Would you say that the PTSD levels of refugees in camps is a factor in terms of the gender-based violence that is... We know that gender-based violence surged during COVID-19 as a shadow pandemic, and it’s also very prevalent within refugee camps in general. Is the factor of PTSD amongst the camps, do you think, related to the increase in gender-based violence in refugee camps?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: There’s a variable, or a confounding variable. For the patriarchic system and the masculinity factor, it becomes toxic at times of crisis. Refugees live in crisis. When they live in a camp, it’s a crisis situation. And when males are unable to provide, so their masculinity factor impacts their relationship with their wives, and even boys who are seen as lesser than them. So definitely the gender factor, the patriarchal system. But then PTSD is an added factor because they have low impulse control, they have been going through trauma. And the trauma, it could be war and violence, but it could be also their inability to meet the masculinity expectations. So this is an added trauma for men, which I think should be also resolved.


Zareen Hussein: And Hannah, just going off of what you asked, I can also see how those suffering from PTSD in these camps are attracted to extremism. Because like you said, they’re demasculinized, they have these violent tendencies. And I’m talking about both men and women in this situation because a lot of women, young women, joined ISIS.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yeah, I agree 100%. And there are other psychological disorders, but there are studies that have proven that there is a link between PTSD and violence because of the low impulse control, and it depends on the level of PTSD, the severe ones versus mild or moderate ones. So yes, it is a factor.


Zareen Hussein: Dr. Lina, we’ve been talking a lot about what happens when there’s a lack of resources. You, alongside the Intisar Foundation, you work a lot on drama therapy as a, not necessarily alternative to CBT or EMDR but a…


Lina Haddad Kreidie: An intervention, a group therapy intervention versus an individual-based intervention. Definitely, psychoanalysis or the couch psychoanalysis or the CBT or the EDMR can help. Some of them, they have to be within a short period of time. For example, with PTSD, if you don’t really treat the person who witnessed aggression or who suffers from drama within a certain period of time, it’s helpless. It does not help, psychoanalysis or CBT.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Drama therapy applies also for people where the witnessing of the event passed for some time, so it has an added value. And it is group therapy, which is one of the criteria also from reading the VA history, that social cohesion, social support, is very important. In the US, we know that they talk about it in the family, it’s well reported, but in refugee camps they keep it a secret, they don’t even know about it. So when they are suffering from a problem and they go to an NGO for help, they start becoming aware. They tell them, “Oh, you need counseling,” or “You have depression,” or “You could have the PTSD.” And definitely the diagnosis is built only on clinical and not the other factors. So when we are using drama therapy, we are basing it on clinical analysis done by other NGOs and psychiatrists and psychologists. So it’s an intervention approach that has its own value on its own, because it can happen after a long period of time. It doesn’t have to be within this short period after the event itself.


Hannah Balikci: And I think it’s an interesting point you’ve made about drama therapy and the group aspect of it. How has it made an impact within the refugee communities you worked in and how do you evaluate? If you’re taking into drama therapy, how do you evaluate the pre and post impacts of it within the communities that you’ve worked in?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Drama therapy in itself is a very intensive program and the main purpose of this is to improve emotional awareness and self-awareness, to create a sense of belonging. Something that refugees, men and women, in our case, the women, have an identity crisis. In Lebanon, specifically, they are displaced. They’re considered internally displaced because Lebanon is not a signatory to the refugee situation, and Lebanon and Syria have a kind of relationship of less borders. They go into this dilemma, so they needed a sense of belonging, and drama therapy tackles negative psychological symptoms, focusing on providing structured and sequential mental health intervention.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: And there is a five-phase model, the way we do the drama therapy. The first phase... Do you want me to explain? Okay, the first phase, which is a dramatic play. It allows the group to develop a rapport and to build trust among each other and the facilitator. We have a drama therapist. The same one goes for the 12 sessions because they build trust with the woman. During this phase, what happens is name games. They get to know each other, and they would say, “What do you want to call yourself?” So they give, other than the real name, how they see themselves. And then we try to bring the women—first, there’s an individual meeting and then group meeting with everyone. And this game encourages participants to gradually build towards personal disclosure as they see and hear others in the group sharing their life details. There is one of the games that’s called image, where smaller subgroups are tasked with using their bodies and working together to create a still image that presents a certain concept.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: For example, I mentioned the example of four, and they would do the image and they would stand still. And you would be the ones watching me, then you would imitate me. And there is a group who’s not seeing but from what they are feeling, then they would do the same thing just from what they heard. And this is—we kind of train the memory from just using their sensories, like their hearing sense. And “What do you think?” So they would stand up and try to imagine what the people were doing, the other women were doing.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So it’s a game of senses, the vision, the listening, and then trying to revive their memories and to use their collective memories in explaining what certain concepts mean, what certain situations mean. For example, we show them a picture of people moving as refugees from, let’s say, from Ukraine, not the Syrian, and how would they see this? Do they see it as similar to their situation or is it different? So it’s bringing the reality on the stage and how they respond to it. So this is the first phase. The second is the scene work where we use games to introduce the participants to theater techniques that help them better manage and understand their emotions. To express yourself, how can you do it better? How can you manage your emotions? How you can explore yourself when I say anger, when I say being happy, all those terms, how do you express it? Then we do certain forms of meditation and the breathing exercises, certain physical relaxation exercises.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Then comes the third phase, which is the role play, which encourages the use of imagination to distance oneself from their own issues, to gain a different perspective, play the role of someone else, and then to build more group solidarity and sense of community. And here comes also guided meditation is used to encourage the participants to discover areas of themselves that they do not speak about or acknowledge openly. And here we have more advanced games like the life map, typically used where one participant uses the space within the room to map out her life in a monologue style, highlighting the life-defining events that she experienced. This exercise is performed while the rest of the group seated in an audience formation as witnesses, which introduces the participant to the idea of exposing more personal aspects of her life to others, so this kind of exercise. The fourth phase, which is culminating enactments, uses previously developed skills such as personal insight, memory, recollection, and trust in the group to give the participant a safe space to openly express their personal issues and experiences. And this is where the play comes and how they act their experiences.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Which takes us to that dramatic ritual, either by singing… There is Fairuz, in Lebanon, a very well-known singer, and her songs come from themes. So we use the theme of her song, and we give them different songs and then we ask them, “Which one would you choose?” And interesting that they choose the ones that after we have looked at them and analyzed, we think that this is the song that would fit or this kind of group game that would fit, and they would choose the same one. So after this song time then we kind of create a play or a collection of vignettes.


Zareen Hussein: Dr. Lina, I think it’s really interesting that you bring up Fairuz, who is such a famous singer in the Middle East and originally from Beirut. Which leads me to ask, when you’re doing drama therapy in the five phases, how important is it to consider cultural context and cultural nuances? Because in America, mental health is getting more and more recognized day by day, but still a long way to go, whereas in some countries it’s nonexistent. So using Lebanon as an example, can you talk to us more about the controlled context that’s considered while treating people with drama therapy?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes, I think this is very important. Drama therapists that do the work are trained using books that come from the western world so-


Zareen Hussein: In Western, in America?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: American, European. There are more European works on drama therapy and art therapy. So this is one aspect of it. Then they have to take this and customize it to really the fit the group of women they are helping. And believe it or not, it’s not only about the Arab culture or the Islamic culture or the patriarchic system in that part of the world, although there is this big umbrella of such a culture. But doing drama therapy in Chatila camp is different than doing drama therapy in the north in Tripoli, in Akkar, or doing drama therapy in a town in the mountains.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: They have based on different religious backgrounds and sectarian backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic needs. So we customize to that level and this customization does not happen before, it happens after we meet the woman. We do the biographic background and listen a bit to them. And of course, the drama therapists who are doing the work are from Lebanon and they know the cultures and they work in theaters and they do playbacks. They are highly involved in aspects of coexistence and helping resolve conflicts, so they are experts on this. So yes, definitely, the cultural nuances are very important. We cannot parachute norms, values, ways of dealing with people.


Hannah Balikci: Going through the different cultural differences within Lebanon itself points us to the fact that Lebanon currently hosts the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometer in the world, currently estimated at 1.5 million Syrian refugees and around 300,000 Palestinian refugees, if I’m correct. Do you have any insights, or I think, could you go through just the general background of the camp that you were working in with drama therapy and the different populations you were working with and similarly to the cultural questions, how the camps…

Lina Haddad Kreidie: Culture?


Hannah Balikci: Yeah. Could you go through how, within the camps, the cultures of the different communities that are living there coexist and how drama therapy has impacted the communities?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: I think this is an excellent question. I mentioned that there are different ethnographic cultural differences within Lebanon, based on the geographical location, based on the class level or sectarian or religious background. The camp is a small area, let’s say Chatila camp, because we did another camp. Chatila camp hosts Syrian, Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees are as old as 1948. Syrian refugees started to come to Lebanon in 2012. And Lebanese who are below subsistence level, who have no ability to rent or buy outside the camp, and they usually go and live anywhere. It’s not that you have to pay. In addition, all those who are running from justice or criminals who hide in the camp because they get the protection there. Nobody would come, the police, no one will go in to take them. So it’s not secure place. But all those challenges, all those, I would say traumas, live together in this community. So how to deal with that culture.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: The first study we did, we on purpose chose only Syrian refugees. Then in the second group we have second Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese women. The first phase when we met them individually, they would talk about their life, their situation in the camp and each would blame the other. So they were blaming each other. “They took my space and this is where we live…” The Palestinians talking about the Syrians and the Syrians saying that the Palestinians hate us and then the Lebanese say, “This is our land.” All of this was happening.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So the challenge was putting them together and creating a common space for people of different perceptions, different fears. They have traumas, violence, displacement, etc., etc. But they all have comparing themselves to the outside world in the sense of outside the camp. So we started telling them, “You have similar situation.” And then we would shed light on their humanity and on their needs. So we bring them together on that factor and then they start feeling comfortable and this becomes a safe space. And at some point, we allow them to tell the other why they hate them, to speak openly about that, and this creates tension. But then they started laughing at this situation. “How come we all have the same problems? You have the same problems with kids. I have the same problems with my husband and with the Lebanese people,” and so on. So they started taking it with more manageable way, and it created friendships and trust. And this is where we would like to follow up on this later on after we finish the sessions. We don’t want this to be stopped there.


Hannah Balikci: Great. It sounds very cathartic, especially for women. It’s like going through, as you were going through with the five phases, women unpacking trauma, especially older women have more trauma, we know.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes.


Hannah Balikci: Did you find that between the ages of the women that you were working with that it was more impactful for, say, older women versus younger women or the ranges that you were working with?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: In the first two studies, we noticed, based on observation, that young women tend to be easier and faster in responding to our goals. However, the study that we are doing now to compare different groups and to compare different age groups to see the significance of the change pre and post the therapy. Sometimes young people can make it a fun thing and dancing and playing games and maybe at the end the impact is not that high. But while older women, when they are so impacted, a 20% change might be a relief, might be a positive, might be more significant. So this is the psychometric analysis we’re doing now to see the pre and post change, based on the age and different demographics.


Zareen Hussein: Dr. Lina, this week you’re at University of Chicago as part of the Pearson Global Forum, a day-long conference at the university on discrimination and marginalization. You’re speaking on a panel focused on the past few years, addressing the crisis that is going on in Lebanon. Firstly, could you give us some contextual information? So for those who don’t know, what has been happening in Lebanon over the past years, and then what are you going to be speaking at the Pearson Forum?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Lebanon, you said the past few years, but I could go back to the days of the inception of what’s called the Nation State of Lebanon. Since its inception in 1943, Lebanon was created on the wrong foot, meaning the different religious groups were not taken into consideration in a way where they would come together as a nation. And it was done by the French for Lebanon. So the Lebanese elites and the Lebanese people were not involved in the Sykes-Picot agreement, and they did not sit at the table. It was decided upon them, with the context that we need to protect the Christians in Lebanon because the Christians in Lebanon represent the Eastern Christians and Lebanon is the symbol for that.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: And the Maronites were good collaborators with the French, so give them some benefits, while the rest would be added to the system. So by having such a confessional start, they called it consociational democracy. They thought we are in Belgium, but it’s not because it only divided the political representation and among the elites of the Lebanese, so the elite Maronites, elite Sunni, elite Shia, elite Roman Orthodox, the Jews. So it did not take into consideration how this could circle from the top elite to the people.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: And so the elites took over in building the relationship with the people. So the relationship was the clientele system. Each felt that there’s a threat from the other sect. So they need to collaborate to create an equation where they politically can work together. And they all had, they were on the verge of “If I don’t protect my sect…,” but actually they were protecting their own self-interest to stay in power, “then someone will take over.”


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So this inequality between the different sects, mainly between, let’s say, all Muslims and all Christians, was more obvious when the Palestinians came to Lebanon and they were allowed in to form a military movement, with the Arabs accepting this, with the Americans and the Europeans saying okay, not explicitly saying but implicit, by not saying no. So the Palestinians formed the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon, and they started their mission of fighting Israel from Lebanon. At the same time, the Lebanese government did not give the Palestinians who came to Lebanon their rights as human beings. They only dealt with them as refugees who have a cause for right of return.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So if you give them citizenship, if you give them work permits, if you give them all those aspects, they wouldn’t go back. So this will take away from the cause. This led to marginalization. This is the Palestinians. It led to the Civil War. This is a factor. The inequality between the different Lebanese sects, the poverty, the elites were in power were rich, the rest were poor. So we have a recipe of a civil war, and this is what happened during the Civil War. So when the Civil War ended, to solve this problem, they managed this problem by keeping the same war lords in power and creating a new agreement called the Taif Accord, which they said, “Equal representation between the different sects in the government,” but the president is Maronite, the prime minister is Sunni, the Speaker of the House is Shia, so a confessional system… saying in the Taif Accord, “But we need to abolish the confessional system, gradually.”


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Never happened, because managing the problem with the same people who were the warlords stayed in power. They have no interest in changing the system that makes them superior to the people under them, the constituencies. “I’m protecting our sect.” You know, now every time a politician is blamed of corruption, if he’s Maronite, the patriarch will come out say, “He’s a red light. You cannot touch this person.” If he’s as Sunni, the Grand Mufti of the Sunnis will say, “No, this is our…” So you cannot reach them because of the fear aspect that’s present and the people would come and stand by them because—


Zareen Hussein: Tribalism, almost.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly, it’s like tribalism, but based on this confessional sectarian fear. This is where political psychology comes. So every time the problem is managed, it’s managed in a wrong way, by keeping the confessional system, by maintaining the corruption system where the elites use their dirty games by saying, “I’m helping my community,” but at the same time, they’re actually stealing the money. They’re using victimization and fear to promote their own interests rather than the public interest. Same applies for those political elite, they not only rule in the public space, but they also own banks. They have shares in the banks, they have shares in every big business where the public benefits from. Because in Lebanon the electricity is public, the water provision is public. There’s a social security system, of course, that is definitely government. But this social security system is also very discriminatory because you only provide social security to people who are employed. So I am employed, I pay, I get social security.


Zareen Hussein: And I imagine that excludes the refugees.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly. It excludes refugees, it excludes people who work in private businesses. Because of that corruption, there is avoidance of paying taxes, so you don’t pay social security. And if I have a private business, I hire people for three months, I fire them, I rehire them, so I don’t pay social security fees. See? So there is this culture of corruption that’s adding to marginalization and to setting the foundation of conflict and instability and fragility of the government and the country.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So even when Rafic Hariri, late prime minister, came to Lebanon to save Lebanon, to reconstruct Lebanon, also he reconstructed Lebanon on a wrong basis because he turned Lebanon into a corporation. Many people owned property in the downtown area that was completely destroyed during the war. And he built a beautiful facade, beautiful buildings, and roads, but the Lebanese people cannot afford to live there anymore and to even go to a restaurant there. So it’s not for the Lebanese, it’s  for the image of Rafic Hariri and the elite in Lebanon. And it was mainly personified in him and in his entourage. So some actually called his work as effective corruption, which is still, but you’re feeding the people at the same time. It’s not Robin Hood because he made so much money out of—


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yeah, he just made so much money out of it. And that, the Lebanese government, 100 times more than it used to be before.

Zareen Hussein: It’s almost as if the twisted assumption of what people think socialism is.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Exactly.


Hannah Balikci: Given the current situation in Lebanon, we also wanted to give you the chance to share briefly about both your fears and hopes for the country. What is the biggest challenge and fear at this point, and what is your biggest hope?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Okay. Definitely, Lebanon is in almost a failed state. The only foundation that’s kept in Lebanon is the military. Lebanon was based on the banking sector, the tourism sector, the health sector, the educational sector. The educational sector is losing a lot. The banking sector is down. The health system is unable to provide for the people, only the military. So there is hope in keeping the military standing, although there is a lot of dissatisfaction among the soldiers and the people in the military because their salaries, if they used to get paid five million, five million was around $3,000. Now it’s $125. And the prices in Lebanon are international because we are not a country of industry. We are a country of services. And if you don’t produce, you buy everything. We import most of the products, so they are poor.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: There are some external supports. The US supports them, literally just to keep them standing. So we need to build on this. But at the same time, the banking sector, the IMF is highly involved in putting conditions on the same political elite to reform the country before any loan can be given to the country. And I have a problem with those two. First, the political elite have no interest in reforming something that threatens their power. Two, I have no hope that a new liberal system that takes away the support of the government and by making people pay more taxes to be able to pay back the loans will really help.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Because we have many examples of where the IMF came up with solutions for underdeveloped countries or countries in conflicts that really flourished. So actually, it maintains the status quo of poverty and just live and let others live in a way, just barely minimal. I have hope in the Lebanese people that are trying to manage their everyday life. I know that everyone… there is a few who have abilities, who have the fresh, what we call the fresh dollar, the money that comes from abroad versus the dollars that were put in the banks before 2019 and are stuck in the banks, because the banks loaned them to the government, the government went bankrupt, so there’s no money to give back to the people.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So there is a bubble. There’s something happening on the bottom of the country where people are managing their situation. So what they need is external support, not the way it’s being conditioned. Because even with their power to adapt and build, they still live in this culture of corruption. So they’re survival of the fittest. It’s the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. This is what’s happening in Lebanon. So to create a new system where what people are doing becomes institutionalized in good governance.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: We need new policies, we need new political establishment to say, call it establishment. We had hope in the 2022 elections to have a change. But it seems that the fear of each other made many of the people who went to the revolution… we thought that this would be the change. And it failed drastically with very minimal… I would say changes only from a woman’s perspective. Because women became more seen and their issues became more on the table, to be discussed. They’re still on the menu, but women are not sitting at the table to make decisions.


Zareen Hussein: Not yet.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Not yet. No, not yet. Even now we have many women ran for candidacy, but they did not make it because they need the financial abilities, they need networking and so on. So not to delve into this, there is hope in the people. There is hope in the Lebanese expats. There has been a major exodus of highly educated Lebanese people who still have hope to send back money and help Lebanon. But this is not enough. We need more institutionalization of good governance from the bottom up.


Zareen Hussein: And just a background for American listeners: Dearborn, Michigan is the highest concentration of Lebanese expats and diaspora outside of Lebanon.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes.


Zareen Hussein: So their work connects back to Lebanon country.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes, yes. A lot. Many of the Lebanese, not only in Dearborn. There are 12 million Lebanese expats all over the world. In the US, I don’t know how many, I don’t know the number, but there’s a good number of Lebanese who actually send money to their families. After September 11, this became less so because of the fear of money transfer.


Zareen Hussein: Of course.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: And, “Oh, you’re sending to Lebanon. Who are you sending to?”


Zareen Hussein: Of course.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: So there was those restrictions, but still family support more than big money that’s coming in. But what we need is our projects… first of all to get those political elites in power out. It’s time. It’s time.


Zareen Hussein: It’s time. It’s been 80 years?


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yeah.


Zareen Hussein: It’s time for an overthrow.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: It’s enough. Yeah, exactly. The same warlords, the same families, little change, but still, as if you go into the swamp and you become part of this culture.


Zareen Hussein: Thank you, Dr. Lina.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Thank you.


Zareen Hussein: It’s been insightful, impactful, and as women in the public policy sphere working on conflict and refugees and just two days ago was World Mental Health Day.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Yes. Monday. Yep.


Zareen Hussein: The intersection has been profound. Thank you so much.


Lina Haddad Kreidie: Thank you.


Zareen Hussein: I’m Zareen Hussein.


Hannah Balikci: I’m Hanna Balikci.


Zareen Hussein: And thank you, Dr. Lina Haddad Kreidie.


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Lena Haddad Kreidie. This episode was produced and edited by Reema Saleh and Ricardo Sande. Thank you to our interviewers, Hannah Balikci and Zareen Hussein. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute’s research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.


Root of Conflict


African Political Economy

How does African philosophy shape African political institutions? And how have they evolved separately from European models of statehood and development? In the latest Root of Conflict episode, students speak with Dr. Francis Njoku, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a visiting scholar at the Harris School.

Reema Saleh: Hi. This is Reema, and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy

Podcasts. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and

the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and

practitioners who conduct research, implement programs and use data analysis to address some of

the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in

collaboration with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research

institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh: The following is a PSA from the University of Chicago's Pearson Institute for the

Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, featuring The Pearson Global Forum, an in person and

virtual convening on discrimination and marginalization. Join us to hear from global experts as they

discuss various topics, including the social cost of discrimination, the crisis in Lebanon, and bias in

media coverage of conflict. This event is free and open to all on October 14th. More information at

Reema Saleh: How does African philosophy shape African political institutions, and how have they

evolved separately from European models of statehood and development? In this episode, we speak

with Dr. Francis Njoku, professor of philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a visiting

scholar at the Harris School. We talk about his research and how homegrown solutions to African

problems can come from within.

Christelle Inema: Hello, my name is Christelle and I'm a first year MPP student at the University of

Chicago. I'm originally from Rwanda, and my policy interests are at the intersection of data analytics,

social equity, and development.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Hello, my name is Francis Njoku, professor of philosophy from the University

of Nigeria, Nsukka. Presently I'm here doing a one-year sabbatical at the Harris School, and it's been

a very great experience.

Christelle Inema: So it's very nice to have you here and to get to interview you as a professor and

also a visiting scholar. So my first question is: you're a visiting scholar with The Pearson Institute.

Can you talk more about your work here at the University of Chicago, like the classes you're

teaching, the research you're doing?

Dr. Francis Njoku: Yeah. When I arrived here in January, so we started a course on African political

economy or political theory. I taught with Professor James Robinson, and it was quite an interesting

course. We were able to discuss part of African philosophy, African political theory and some of

them deal with African existential problems. It was interesting, we were able to interact: it was

audited by a diversity of students, and it was very enriching, I know. So I think so far my experience

has been great, and our research has continued on African themes like religion, politics and race and

African philosophy. Because I've always thought that part of the way to solve an African problem is

to find the elements from within and then address them. It must be a solution from one who's an

insider actually. So that's what the research is going in on looking in Africa, the non-philosophical

purpose of materials in Africa, see how they can indicate towards a way to solve an African

problems, especially sociopolitical problem.

Christelle Inema: Yeah, that's an amazing answer and to that I have a couple follow-up questions.

The first one, what does it mean to examine African philosophy and how do you define it? And then

the second one that actually ties into using African philosophy, in terms of thinking about

development. Why is it important to examine the philosophy underpinning African development,

and how have you done that in your research and your work?

Dr. Francis Njoku: So I don't have to take a [inaudible]. Well, African philosophy is a certain

gateway to human reality. As I start to say that, everyone deserves to know, while you say that, but

to know this or that is a situated experience. So to talk about African philosophy is to take a

standpoint, look at the universal human reality from a particular perspective, because you can't begin

from nowhere, there is no place or position exposition. So if we move from African experience,

African environment and there is the universal human reality, then Africa will make her own specific

contributions, because our people say that the firewood in a place cooks for them. So if you want

homegrown solutions to African problems, it is better to begin from within, to look at African

environment of occurrence and find the instrument for solution and then those same instruments

will cast light on how to understand the universal reality.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So that's why—talking about African philosophy, there are many ways where

people have seen it differently. But just, and I call it an aesthetic viewpoint to understanding, asking

the right questions, taken off from ones point of view and then looking on with the universal

question of knowing, being of knowing reality, no matter the shape reality presents itself. Reality

here, I mean, anything about God, environment, man, human institutions, all this come under the

heading of reality. And to solve the problems… as it faces each particular group, there is an

emphasis to begin from one’s standpoint and then find solutions, instead of waiting for solutions to

be imposed from outside. I'm not saying that when you must have found you have solution within

your own environmental occurrence, that it cannot be generalized, it can. But as a human

standpoint, you have to begin from a specific point to address the issue.

Christelle Inema: Thank you for your responses, and it really, I can relate to that as well, as a fellow

African. So my other question touches on democracy, because you're talking about finding solutions

to African problems from within, from thinking about African philosophy, but the concept of

democracy comes up a lot whenever we talk about development. So why is democracy important to

African countries? And another question is, why is it not important to African countries? Because is

it important? Is there a way to disentangle African democracy from western countries and find a way

to actually build institutions that cater to our needs?

Dr. Francis Njoku: Yeah. Democracy is a form of government, and surely Africans would like that.

But when I talk about homegrown solutions, I think it's better to look at African institutions and

African people, and then see the specific form of government that can be well adapted to it. So we

have this understanding that democracy works everywhere, whatever that means. Even autocratic

governments call themselves democrats, so I don't know what that means. And if you look at history

of sociopolitical theory, not many like democracy. If you go back to Aristotle and Plato, actually

democracy is actually a degeneration of the third best in terms of, I mean, systems of government.

Someone like Plato who think that their best form of government to be a monarchy or aristocracy,

and then you have their degenerations. So the best term from political degeneration started, it gets to

democracy, which is the worst. It's not even the third best, but the degeneration of the third best.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So I'm not saying the democracy, if you, the only thing that salvages democracy

in all these things is a rule of law. The problem with African countries is that people don't obey the

rule of law, if you obey that. But coming down home, my people say that if you know the partridge

egg, you know how to handle it, call it the egg of a dove… first, why do you have to know it? If you

see a set of egg, you know that the egg might resemble that of snake. One is to have the caution to

distinguish snake eggs from the eggs of a dove. If you make that fundamental mistake without

distinguishing well, you are in trouble. The wisdom there is, you need practical reasonable need to

make proper distinctions. Not only will you use that knowledge to identify something, but you need

some practical reasonable needs to know how to handle it.

Dr. Francis Njoku: If you don't know a situation, if you don't know who the African is, it is difficult

to address realities about him, it's difficult to manage him and his affairs. So the first philosophy 101

about the African is to have these two versions. Knowledge of what is doing and practical reasoning

as to how to respond to those problems. Because if this is the egg of the snake, certainly you don't

collect the eggs and put it inside your pocket, already that your knowledge is translated into rules of


Dr. Francis Njoku: So if you look at the African environment, look at the institutions, and then you

can begin to divide a form of government that derives from what people know. I use the e-work

example, our people are very egalitarian, and if you look at available instructible institutions, people

like to come and discuss their problems, instead of waiting for someone to oppose it. Discuss, no

matter your opinion, make your thoughts known, they can agree and disagree. At a point, they have

a consensus, they agree on what to do and everyone works towards that.

Dr. Francis Njoku: That is also a form of democracy, should mean government of the people. But in

actual sense, if democracy is government of the people, this is the initiated democracy from

grassroots level, because people will gather and discuss and take a position on a particular issue.

Unlike modern democracy, where the so-called people who claim to be representatives of the

people, impose it on the people, make laws in their so-called headquarters and then bind them. But

democracy, if one would be serious, the people are sovereign, and this is the sovereign that makes

the laws, as simple as that.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So go back to the roots, the people make the rules, and those guys over there are

their representatives, not the other way around, you make a rule, impose it on people. That is why

consensus democracy you might call it, or what I call initiative democracy, is better than the socalled

representative democracy which we cooperate. And that democracy now has been hijacked by

people with all kind of influences, money and the rest of them. And each year you see a dichotomy

between the people, the so-called sovereign marginalized by their trustees.

Dr. Francis Njoku: If you look at Loc, Loc System will say the people formed a political society, so

the government accounts to them, those they appoint to rule them or to work in government as

trustees. So the agreement was meant, the people made an agreement, not with the government,

they didn't make any pact with the government. They made a pact with themselves and then

appointed trustees to take care of everything. But I don't know whether that is what you see in the

so-called representative democracy. I'm not saying it might work, but it might not work. I'm not

saying that it might work in that place, but if we want to have an African blend, we must pay

attention to this understanding of reality from within, from the grassroots. People initiate political

action and then there it develops to the center. That's the point I'm making.

Christelle Inema: Yeah, and that's perfectly explained, and I truly believe that kind of democracy is

how people can actually gain access to the institutions and define what development also looks like

for them.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Yeah. You see, if you create a social reality through dialogue, construction of

reality and people will see themselves as part of it, it is sustainable. Now from there we can derive a

system of development or government. Now if people come together, make decision, and take a

decision: its Africans are known for making pacts or covenants. They give the roles to themselves,

they agree on something, they have a social pact for it. Everyone knows that, and I used to call it

covenants, a solemn promise made by them by an oath. It doesn't have to have involve blood, but

the important thing is that people come together through their differences, their dialogue. They may

have even enemies before, but important thing now through dialogue, discussions, they're able to

create a central reality and bind themselves to it.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Now if you have this form of thing, if you have this form of this setting, things

come up. Now you begin to have a new reality created that will be a basis for future relationship. If I

make a pact with you, a social pathway agreement, an ethics of encounter will come up. How I now

relate with you in the new dispensation, and also, some system of laws will come up, it's no longer

business as usual. So from there we can make laws about ourselves, about our institutions. We have

ethics of encounter, how we relate to one another, these things they match. And what is very

important, one element that is always there in covenant making in Africa, is what you call the third

person, the witness in a covenant. In marriage ceremonies, in pact between communities, there's

always a witness. Now the witness is not a member of that pact, he's there as a witness, the pact

between those persons. He's there to ensure there is impartiality.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Now if at the end of the day, the covenant runs to into a problem, those who are

involved, the participants will call the attention of the witness, who will come and try to reconcile

them. So the system of covenant has an inbuilt mechanism for taking care of conflict resolution.

They come here because the other man has fallen away from their pact, then you carry on, gone. No,

there are systems, even in marriage, if the union is not working, you report to the parents, if they're

not, the parents will go back through the witness. There are steps, it gives the human that robust

human situation to come back again.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Then another thing, when I propose that theory is, if you have created a reality

where people come together as participant in a covenant… there are two possible systems of

government that can emerge. With a covenant you have created some kind of society, two systems

of government that can emerge. First, I call the first-person perspective. You can elect a member of

the covenant, those participants, one of them to take care of the goods of the members. So if you

know you are organized, you are managing property, a common good you are also a part of. So

there's every indication that you do it as your thing, because you have a share in it, so you are


Dr. Francis Njoku: So that's one system. So see a leader as someone who knows your “doing” is part

of the game, is part of that common good, he's sharing in it. So you put everything you have in it.

That's one form of governance. So if our leaders can see themselves, not our people who bought all

kinds of ways and then got there, and they don't talk the public good as they're good, they don't see

themselves as part of the whole, they're there to represent their own interest. That's part of the

problem in Africa.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Another system of government is from what I call the third-person perspective.

This is built on the witness, who is called to be a leader of the covenant group administer the goods

of the covenant. In the 15th-century, Italians had this, they call it the podesta. So the podesta was a

member of another city, for example, maybe someone from Massachusetts, Northern American

maybe, you call him to Chicago to be the mayor, but he was a paid worker. So his job is there to

grant justice and be impartial. He's not part of that covenant, but he's paid to make sure that the

rules are followed and justice also. So if you use this third person perspective, you are invited now,

paid, to administer this set of rules for the people. You are likely to do it well, you are paid, you

don't have any sectarian interest. Basically, you just take the position of the witness, whose position

in the covenant was to maintain justice, to make sure that no side cheats the order.

Christelle Inema: That's a very interesting take, actually, that I hadn't thought about, because usually

we think of leaders as having to be from the communities in order to lead well. But I also think

there is power in having someone from the outside, who actually has no stake in it, who is able to be

impartial. And another thing you touched on that was really interesting, is people coming together to

solve their own problems. And I saw an example of that from Rwanda, where I come from, where

after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, people came together under Gacaca to actually solve the

issues and talk. Do you see it happening elsewhere in Africa? For instance, in Nigeria, there has been

some conflict over the years. Have you seen any indication that that can happen, or what would be

the best way to bring people together when conflicts are still emerging to this day?

Dr. Francis Njoku: See, Nigeria has not faced that. People have been calling for a national

conference, that the constitution being used now is a fraud. Nigeria government doesn't want to

listen, because too many people are benefiting. People want to talk, that's why people, some want to

go, so we cannot be in this union again, there's nothing there for us. Based on discrimination and all

kinds of evils, so let's dissolve it, but Nigerian law doesn't want to do that. But that call, people call

for discussion, it's an African way, at least for discussion. Let's go back to the drawing table to see

what is happening, you know. Look at what happened in there, people came back and discussed,

took on to unbelief, but Nigeria doesn't want to serve them.

Dr. Francis Njoku: What our problem is that this is something from, is not a system that is from our

side. Given our people, the way we behave, the institutions, we can come and discuss and say this is

what we want. We don't need to stay there and let another person to come and do it for us. No, it's

our own problem, we can solve that. And you create a disposition that some of those people already

know. They know what it means to have covenants, and they take it seriously. Those pacts, they take

relationships of in-law, friendship, they take it seriously, and they know when you make a pact with

people, you can collaborate. There's nothing to fear, they're not going to poison you.

Dr. Francis Njoku: The closest you want to come in a covenant relationship is brotherhood. If

someone is abroad, you can't get closer than that, because it is stupefied by the sense of blood,

closeness of familyhood. In Nigeria, we talk about familyhood, everyone's talking about familyhood,

the which man has familyhood, you treat other person as your family. The basis for familyhood is

actually blood. So what they're doing in that covenant situation is a ritual in a very performative

sense, to say that this communion we have shared this closeness we have now: we define it as a

blood closeness. This water we drank individually from the same cup. We have done that as a

member of family, and we hold it that we have shared somehow in that same blood that holds

family together. That's the performance—and since we have said it, committed ourselves, then it is

and then you begin.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So imagine in a country where those diverse persons take themselves as brothers,

they are people that can relate with, you know. It's going to change, but in Nigeria it's not there. No

one has been persecuted in Nigeria for discriminating against another person. Your name says what

you did. In fact, if you mention your name, that you're from Nigeria, if you mention your name, I

can tell you where you're from. Whether you're from south or east to west, which doesn't happen

here. You can answer to Jackson or anything you like, but Nigeria, those names.

Dr. Francis Njoku: And another thing I observed, I said, that's not been strong civil society as a

nation, people saw themselves. I mean, the British came, and they organized a certain society for

their own economic end. So the various people from various tribes came, found themselves together

in the capital, and we are working. But when the white man left, there was nothing to hold them

together. The Yoruba man does not see the Igbo man as his brother, now the Hausa man seeing the

ethnic person as his brother. There was no civil society. The civil society like law will say is an

intermediate group coming out from the state of nature. We are not yet at a political society, but this

is a society of peace. We want to live in peace, even if there is no government, we live in peace to

safeguard our property. So that was not there, because the people don't see themselves as people

who have the same end of security for themselves, there is not. That's why everyone wants to be at

the center, because if you are not there, you are forgotten. All the tribes cannot be at the center at

the same time.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So it goes back to that we lack the civic of political disposition to be a state or a

nation, we have not harnessed that. Even with the present agitation of groups, if you don't develop

the right dispositions, socioeconomic, or moral dispositions, social dispositions, for people to live

together as a people, it wouldn't work. A nation is a choice like a family, you choose the person you

want to marry, you marry, you have kids, have families, families form communities in the nation. It

is a choice. It's part of the principle of human action.

Dr. Francis Njoku: In fact, when [inaudible] was writing about operations of reason, he looked at

human reason at four levels. And he wants to see where he would locate the civil society, the family.

So he said there are four operations of reason. First is the operation of reason in the natural

sciences, who check at the time were called natural science and now maybe physics, chemistry. If

you are studying soil, you're not bringing anything new, you just want to know the contents of this.

That's one operational reason. The second operational is what we bring into our thinking, like logic.

You know, you want to know the correct form or the laws of human reasoning. Now, I'll leave the

third, I'll come back to the third. The fourth one is a level of mechanical sciences where you bring

through your works, you bring an implicit image in something. Like these three, you can use it

instead and cover something and get an image.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Now the third one, which was this major point of his commentary on the

network analytics of Aristotle. He said, this is what we bring in through our deliberations and

choices. And in this third level, he comprehends politics, economic sociology, ethics, and here he

comprehends family, civil society, the state, because these are products of decision. If you want to

marry, you decide. The state is not an act of chance, it's a natural thing. Family is not an act of

chance. And when you bring it about, remember when you are making choices to do human action,

you decide to do it at your end, find a means to realize in it, and then get the right dispositions. If

you're driving to Michigan, and you'll be driving like a mad person, you won't get there. So you need

the required dispositions to actualize your end. So your end is the state. There are dispositions

required of citizens to bring about the good, or reach the end of the state.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Part of the problem of African nations is this inability to train their citizens to

have the right dispositions as it is even as leaders themself, because there are the right dispositions of

leaders. Plato said that the leader is like a ship captain, who's exerts himself driving the ship, the state

to safety. If he doesn't know his way, as if he lacks the proper dispositions, he will ruin himself and

ruin the ship. You see that? So he is not magic. So some Nigerians like to pray, Holy Ghost fire

there, keep… You need appropriate disposition, there is a disposition for being a student, a good

student, you want to have first class. Every day you are sleeping, you're not reading, that is not the

right disposition.

Christelle Inema: Yes, you are right and you talk about a nation is a choice just like a family.

Dr. Francis Njoku: It's a choice.

Christelle Inema: So do you see something or any dispositions that different ethnic groups in Nigeria

have that can potentially bring them together to make that choice?

Dr. Francis Njoku: They have to decide to come together, to work together, to get that themselves

are the same people, that have the right disposition. Not to discriminate on accounting anything, to

stand in for others, to try and to work for common good. You don't just get Abuja if there's no one

there, you take the whole thing. Your job, you only give the people from your own ethnic group.

They are criticizing the vice president of Nigeria who wants to run for the president. That since he's

been there, all the people he's been helping are members of his church. That's not the only thing in

the church in Nigeria. You understand me?

Dr. Francis Njoku: So if every Nigerian stands in for the other, people are not bother. If you are

there, and I know I'm represented. So I don't have to be there, my brother does not have to be

there, everyone is there for everyone else. So we need to cultivate that attitude of one. In fact,

Nigeria, I shall tell people, Nigeria is a state that calls ourself a nation. Nigeria calls ourself a nation.

The people of over 250 tribes, they are calling it a nation. That's in Nigeria: a nation is a people of

the same, maybe blood, ethnic ancestry or something. So how do you make a people of over 200

tribes a nation? It means that you have to cultivate, you have to make everyone realize that they

belong. You know something you do have because Nigeria's actually a state. Now if you recognize

that Nigeria is a state, what do you do?

Dr. Francis Njoku: Aristotle said, dissimilar form a state, similar do not form a state. A state is made

up of different kinds of people, is a place of diversity, they come together. So that's why they need

their dispositions. In fact, one of the social virtues is friendship. You need the dispositions of

friendship, justice, equity, to soften the rough edges so that people can unite together, so that the

dissimilar form a state, unlike Plato. Plato had a homogenous state, and he says, no, the state—if it's

so homogenous, you end up becoming a military continent. That's what you have in Nigeria now,

some group wants to run the whole place. So from presidents to everything, they own everything.

They cannot be a state; a state is a place of diversity. I have the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, is mixed. You

know what, you corner more to culturalism and the rest of them. That is the basis for a state,

because actually as I said, our diversity can bring us together and we have a great blend.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So African countries, I don't know any African country that is one state ethnic

group now. I don't even know which, even Israel is mixed somehow, because I'm sure there are

some Ethiopians who have Israeli blood or something like that. So it's difficult to have, most states

now, even the so-called one ratio state, difficult to have one single. So even if it is one person, the

whole label, even Igbo groups within themselves are not a homogenous group. They have all kinds

of migrated groups and all kinds of means of origin. Even though you will say that they belong to

one race, we still have to manage diversity, even in the same family. Some like to do medicine, others

have disposition for engineering.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So there must be diversity, even as a person, sometime you want to go and walk,

instead of flying. It is part of it, just that the degree of management and the degree of extension of

diversity. So if we harness these things together, we can come—it doesn't mean that there wouldn't

be friction. That one person who made a distinction between the politics and the political. Politics

are about management of the state, but the political in terms of human beings have sociopolitical

tensions between groups who continue to be there or workers who continue to protest. Some

groups social, some human right groups who continue to protest about certain things, those are

tensions that go with civil society. They must be there, even when we have solved our political

problems, they are human sociological problems.

Christelle Inema: So this brings me to a question that ties into one of the democracy that you

presented, where you can bring a third person like the witness. So in this case, with Nigeria having

over 200 ethnic groups and diversity. And maybe this is a trick question, I'm not sure, it's for you to

decide. But do you think there would be a better approach to a way to govern, like bringing

someone else in because they're not going to have any stake in any of the ethnic groups that are

available? And if we decide in this world that we are making that that's the way to go, who do you

think would be there? What kind of qualities would that person need to have to be able to bring

Nigeria together?

Dr. Francis Njoku: This is a model, those are models of… theoretical models. But before you do

that, you have to do the groundwork. Whether it's a Yoruba man there or a Hausa, you have to do

the groundwork, that people are where their profit virtues. And they consciously make that choice,

make a pact, and respect it. So it doesn't matter again, whether the person there is from north or

south because he knows the goods on which the society is built, and he pursues that common good

that he is also a part of his group. It is a theoretical standpoint.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So if I see myself as a leader now, then I need to commit myself, I see that this

thing I'm doing, I've also a stake in it. It's a different disposition, I'll do what? But if I also see it, the

same leader there that now these things, all these guys, not come from my own ethnic group. So my

role is to be impartial and make sure that everything gets. So is a theoretical position, it's a

rationalization. The same person can see himself as a member of covenant… good, he'll work with a

lot of zeal. The same person also can see himself as a safe guarder of the covenant. He's not there to

manipulate. So it's a theoretical… and whichever disposition that a man is, from these positions,

whichever disposition is good enough to manage the affairs of the group.

Christelle Inema: Yes, and as one of my last questions, I'm just interested, it's going to be a fun

question now. What book would you recommend that relates to Africa, African proverbs and issues,

the best, your favorite book?

Dr. Francis Njoku: Well, I don't know what you mean by that.

Christelle Inema: I don't know, any fiction, non-fiction, just for people who are listening to the

podcast too.

Dr. Francis Njoku: Well, there are kinds of books or novels that talk about African proverbs, it

depends on what you want and what you want to do. When I use some African novels, for example,

what I've been doing lately is to rationalize, to derive philosophy from literature, from what African

writers are saying. When you read James Ngugi, Weep Not, Child, or Achebe's, Things Fall Apart, and

the rest of them. They say literature is not philosophy, but it can give you materials for

philosophizing and so it depends on your interest. And some of African realities are documented in

these novels in… it depends what you are looking for.

Dr. Francis Njoku: When I came back from Israel, I'd say that I was going to do something for my,

I have to articulate the philosophy and do it from, with using the materials I have. I listened to

folklores, to proverbs… we have stories, in some of mine, I tell stories. Then I think our job is to

draw or make explicit the philosophy implicit in this non-philosophical. So it depends what is your

interest. See, if you're interested in literature, I have a body of literature, and there are also some

who, like I said, will be blaming the white man, no problem. I know that we can blame, and there

was a lot of manipulation of African reality. But I think it's a long time, we started to find the

solution from within. If we do what we are supposed to do from within, then we'll be strong enough

to face the external learning. There is no free meal in international market, no. You understand me?

Dr. Francis Njoku: And there's something Euphrates said, he said that we should be careful. Some

people… the first devastation of Africa was when the colonial people came and imposed their rule

on us, but he said there's a second one, he warned people. The people will be talking about African

unity, you think they're interested in your unity. No, they're not interested in your unity, they lend

you money, they're not interested in that. Sometimes they lend you money, bring their own

expatriates to undermine the whole project. We experience that in Nigeria with the Romans, with

Ghana, and the rest of them.

Dr. Francis Njoku: There's a folk story. The lion visited the sheep and asked the sheep if any of the

children could come and babysit for the lion family, imagine that. So the sheep thought long and

hard, he said, "Okay, no problem. That should get back to the lion." Then when the lion left, the

sheep called the children and said, "How many of you, how many times will someone do something

to you before you retaliate?" They began to answer, this one said, "If you do something, the first

one, I will ignore you. The third, the fifth, maybe the tenth one, I'll retaliate." The sheep watched the

children answer. The particular child, we'll call it the lamb with luck, or the lamb with practical

reasonableness. He said, "Mom, before you do something for me, even if before you think to harm

me, I'll retaliate." He said, "You are the right guy to go and babysit for the lion."

Dr. Francis Njoku: Our leaders are there. How can you be complaining? We know out there is a

state of nature. So leaders have responsibility to represent their families, their country, you need that

to be able to… we know there's danger out there, but we have to navigate it. The president,

Nigerian Minister of Transport, they signed an agreement with China, and the thing was that Nigeria

could see sovereign to Chinese, they say, "But what about it?" He didn't read, or they didn't read

their thing written in Chinese, and they're representing their country, their own people.

Dr. Francis Njoku: So it means that even the children, they came and raped our mother. Still the

children have disappointed the mother, the land. So if you're expressing dissatisfaction, both with

the present children of Africa, we have disappointed. Because some have gotten education to reason

at the level of the so-called external people. Still, because of the little benefits you get, then you sell

the whole continent. When you are there in the position to do something for your people, you

sabotage it. Now it is high time we stopped concentrating on—for the meantime, for sake of

argument—concentrating on the threat from without and then concentrate on the threat from


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Francis Njoku.

This episode was produced and edited by Reema Saleh and Ricardo Sande. Thank you to our

interviewer, Christelle Inema. Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued

support of this series. For more information on The Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


The American War in Afghanistan | Carter Malkasian

What should we learn from the aftermath of the US War in Afghanistan? And what decisions could’ve brought a better outcome? The fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year marked the end of America’s longest war in history, with former Afghan government unable to retain control of the country. In this episode, we speak with Carter Malkasian, a historian and author of “The American War in Afghanistan: A History” – a comprehensive history of the US intervention, conflict, and withdrawal in the country. A former advisor to American military commanders in Afghanistan, Malkasian has extensive experience working in conflict zones and has published several books in his career. 


Reema Saleh: Hi. This is Reema, and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.

Reema Saleh: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world, and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world. Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P, in collaboration with The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Annie Henderson: What should we learn from the aftermath of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and what decisions could've brought a better outcome? The fall of Kabul to the Taliban marked the end of America's longest war in history, with the former Afghan government being able to retain control of the country. In this episode, we speak with Carter Malkasian, a historian and author of The American War in Afghanistan: A History. It provides a comprehensive history of U.S. intervention, conflict, and withdrawal over the course of the war.

Carter Malkasian: Hi. I'm Carter Malkasian. I like to think of myself as a historian. I am a professor at The Naval Postgraduate School right now. I've spent lots of time in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and that's what I wrote a book on, and I try to speak Pashto here and there, and try to study Afghanistan, study other historical topics. I think that covers me pretty well.

Annie Henderson: To start our conversation, the war in Afghanistan spanned across four U.S. presidents. Can you give us a brief history of how the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has shifted over the past 20 years?

Carter Malkasian: Yeah, that's no problem. If you want to talk about our approach in broad strategy, we started out in 2001, after Osama bin Laden attacked the United States, wanting to go into Afghanistan, capture him, destroy Al Qaeda, and topple the Taliban movement that was associated with Al Qaeda, but we often judged as being one in the same. In reality, they weren't, but we kind of thought that at the time. But we went in with just a small number of troops, at that time. By the beginning of 2002, there was still fewer than 8,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Carter Malkasian: After we removed the Taliban, then we had to help establish a new government in Afghanistan. That government ends up being run by Hamid Karzai. Our idea is, at that time, we want to continue to maintain pressure against terrorist groups. We're also going to help build a democracy. During these first years, we kept a small number of troops in the country. We tried to do a few things with helping democracy, and slowly, we started doing a little bit more to help with nation-building, and we did things to help with women's rights.

Carter Malkasian: We didn't want to have too large of a footprint, because we thought that wouldn't be sustainable, and we were overconfident, and thought the Taliban had been totally defeated and weren't going to come back.

Carter Malkasian: This starts to change in 2006. The Taliban had reorganized by then, and fighting was breaking out throughout large parts of the country. So, we slowly start to send more troops into Afghanistan so that we're getting upwards, by 2009, we're approaching about 40,000 troops in the country. The goal has stopped being just to create a democracy and do terrorist operations. The goal has now become to… The goal was originally to defeat the Taliban, but now, that goal reemerges. That goal returns, because we had though the Taliban were defeated, and it turned out, they weren't. So, between 2006 to 2008, the goal becomes, we are going to actually defeat the Taliban and remove them. We don't want to send too many troops to do it, but that's our goal, and we're not going to stop until that's done.

Carter Malkasian: President Obama comes in, and he shifts some of that strategy. He is willing to send in more troops, and so the number of troops under him, between 2009 and 2011, raises to 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, which is the peak level that we get to. But his goal is not to defeat the Taliban. His goal is to break their momentum, make sure we defeat Al Qaeda, and to help the government enough that it can stand up on its own.


Carter Malkasian: So those forces and that stays in place until 2011 when President Obama starts to begin drawing down our forces. He draws down the forces down to about 9,600 by the end of 2014. He also wanted to get out, but he wasn't able to do that. Our goals in Afghanistan at this time again shift dramatically. Our focus just becomes on giving advising and assistance to the Afghan security forces. Our goals become to continue to operate against terrorist groups, but our goal certainly isn't to defeat the Taliban. It's really to stop having combat with them at all.


Carter Malkasian: That changes again in 2016, for a variety of reasons. Really, the strategy then turns into is we don't leave Afghanistan. We stay there, and the idea is, we'll have a small number of troops, and it's always around 10,000. We stay there. We prevent things from going bad, prevent the Taliban from taking over. Goals like nation-building, human rights are really not there. Now, protecting democracy and protecting human rights, that does kind of retain itself throughout. Democracy is more explicit than women's rights. Women's rights is more of an implicit goal that continues to exist in Afghanistan.


Carter Malkasian: Then finally, by the time that Trump comes in, the strategy changes more. We enter into negotiations with the Taliban to try to leave within 14 months. President Biden comes in, and we do that. So, that was a very quick overview of the war, and I'm not sure I covered everything you needed me to cover.


Annie Henderson: No, I think that's very helpful, and some of it is, we're trying to just ground people in so many different events that's happening. So, just trying to give people a good sense of where a couple of things have been happening. One thing I'm really curious about is, one of your books is War Comes to Garmser, is that how you--


Carter Malkasian: Garmser.


Reema Saleh: Garmser.


Carter Malkasian: It means hot place in Dari.


Annie Henderson: Well, it's in Southern Afghanistan ...


Carter Malkasian: Yes, it is.


Annie Henderson: So it is very aptly named, I assume. This was modeled after War Comes to Long An, which is a book about the Vietnam war. So, I'm really curious, as a historian, how do you view the comparisons that have been made between the Afghanistan and the Vietnam wars?


Carter Malkasian: On the one hand, when you're talking about how the U.S. does strategy and policy, you start seeing similarities, the length of the war, the fact that the earlier part of the war, we don't have a lot of forces. Then, we increase the number of forces. That increase in forces doesn't produce anything. We have phases of the war where we think counterinsurgency will work or nation-building will work, just like we did in Vietnam, and it doesn't succeed.


Carter Malkasian: We eventually get involved in negotiations with the adversary, and yet those negotiations follow a startlingly similar path, that in both cases, we're trying to get the adversary to concede, and in neither cases do they do that. In both cases, we're trying to trade our withdrawal of our troops to get the adversary to do something, and in both cases, we get very little out of the adversary, further withdrawal of our forces. In both cases, the end is a humiliating withdrawal from the capital of the country.


Carter Malkasian: Now, on the other hand, there are dramatic differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam, which are probably more important. At its height in Vietnam, we had about 600,000 troops on the ground. 100,000 is the height here, and for most of time, we had far fewer than that. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. In Afghanistan, it's still incredibly tragic, but the number is just shy of 2,500. So, there's a dramatic difference in that.


Carter Malkasian: Also, Vietnam, we have the draft, so people can be conscripted to go and fight. There's no draft in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, we have protests and riots throughout the country on a regular basis against the war. I challenge you to think of a single protest against the Afghan war. I don't even know of one at Berkeley, where I did my undergrad. I suspect there was one, but it's an indication of how the war had incredibly low salience for the America people. The American people maybe didn't think the war was necessary, but people weren't standing up to stop it. There was no real political cost for presidents staying in, somewhat of a political cost to getting out, if things went bad. So, these are fairly significant differences between the two.


Carter Malkasian: The other thing to really remember is that Vietnam did not involve a direct attack on the United States. The domino theory, that doesn't come from a direct attack on the United States. Afghanistan did have that, so that creates a greater reason to stay.


Carter Malkasian: I think, to nail the difference even more, that Afghanistan was a forgotten war while it was going on. It's likely to be forgotten quite soon. It's already being forgotten. Vietnam's not going to be forgotten. It's a part of the culture. It's deeply embedded in how America thinks about itself. So, that is also a dramatic difference between the two.


Annie Henderson: Can I ask why you think that is? I guess growing up, I don't really think of anti-war movements against the war in Afghanistan. I think that is a very marked difference, and I'm not sure why.


Carter Malkasian: The easiest way for me to say… The easiest ways to say it are, not as many Americans involved, not as many people having a son or… well, women weren't conscripted at that time, having a son drafted, being sent to go to the war, and possibly dying in the course of the war. Versus here, American service men and women volunteer to join, and they're sent out by choice, and those numbers are much smaller than the number of people who were going to Vietnam and being exposed to combat. So, that just means, on its own, you have a smaller base of people who are going to be most affected and most upset.


Carter Malkasian: Then, you have how we've treated the war because the war involved an attack on the United States, I think the press did certain things differently. There aren't pictures on the TV of wounded U.S. soldiers, or marines, or sailors, or airmen. That was the case during the Vietnam war. So, you don't see these highly traumatic pictures of what's going on. Now, there's battles and other, and there's plenty of coverage of it, and you can read about many things, but that level of really visceral feeling isn't there the same way. So, I think those help us understand it in a way that, how that's different from Vietnam.


Reema Saleh: Coming into your career a little bit more, you spent two years in Garmser, which is in Southern Afghanistan, as we discussed. You were there as a political officer with the State Department. What was your experience like, living in Afghanistan, meeting with the people there?


Carter Malkasian: It was one of the greatest experiences I have had, I think, because I got to go out, and you saw the Afghans every day. You saw the people coming into the base for something, and you'd go out places, and you'd go to the districts just about every day to see all the people that were coming into the lineup to go talk to, whether a village elder, someone coming in with a problem, policemen, religious leaders. They would be there to talk with.


Carter Malkasian: Then, occasionally, some women would come in. We had a few of the women on the team, and they would do most of those conversations, but sometimes, I was lucky enough to get to hear. That's very much a hidden part of Afghanistan, for most of us. You may see some women, especially if you're in Kabul, but if you're in the villages, you're not seeing many. You're not really supposed to talk to women.


Carter Malkasian: There's a lot about Afghanistan we still don't know, but there's a whole part of their society that was secluded from us, partitioned from us quite purposefully. It's disturbing in many, many ways. I say that in a sense that, I was lucky enough to see that, to have some small, very, very small window into that.


Carter Malkasian: Then, we would go to the villages, and eventually, things were good enough in the district that I could go to the villages without marines and go with the Afghans there, and spend time in those areas, and whether walking in the fields or sitting in a compound. When it was getting close to the time I was going to leave, kind of wondered how I would leave. I was sitting in a meeting. I was looking across at a variety of tribal leaders with their turbans on, and we were discussing politics and where things were going. I thought, "Wow, how am I going to leave this?" This is so unique, so different, in such a completely different, engrossing environment, that I thought, "How can I leave this?" But it's best for everyone's health if one does leave. If you stay somewhere for too long, I don't think it's a good thing.


Carter Malkasian: Then, I kept in touch with many of the friends there over time. Their lives are shorter than our lives are. They look at life a different way. There's many more things that are going to cause them to have an early death, and they know it. A lot of it's very, very random. They can't control when their time is going to come, not that… none of us can really control it, but they can't reduce it much. So, the next day is of much greater value than it is to us. Enjoying the moment, enjoying the night, enjoying the meal, enjoying the music, matters more. Worrying less about working every single day matters, because working every single day may not matter in the end, because something random can happen.


Carter Malkasian: You notice it in terms of, you have a certain… you're used to, in the United States, the rate at which people leave us. But in Afghanistan, if you're there for a while… Yeah, so that two years wasn't the only two years that I stayed there. I went after that, and then I kept in contact, and then I went there again. But you notice that the rate of people who are dying, who you know, is much greater than in the United States. That just enforces to you about how their lives are different.


Carter Malkasian: That also makes us understand how people feel about the Taliban right now. Why do they  want to increase the risk that they're going to die early, increase the risk that they're going to extend the war? If letting the Taliban come in gives them a few more days of peace, it just helps one understand that situation.


Reema Saleh: I think that's a very interesting take. It's very refreshing to hear from someone who looks at this through a human lens, instead of, I think there's a lot written on how the Afghan people feel that comes from I think more… lacks a level of empathy about how they're actually living and experiencing their lives. So, I really, really liked what you have to say about that.


Carter Malkasian: Thank you. I appreciate that.


Annie Henderson: President Obama announced the beginning of troop draw-downs in 2014, and this was right before he became Special Assistant to Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford. How did this announcement impact your role and your work?


Carter Malkasian: President Trump's announcement or President Obama's?


Reema Saleh: Did I say President Trump or President Obama?


Carter Malkasian: President Obama in May of 2014?


Reema Saleh: Yes.


Carter Malkasian: At that time, I was in Afghanistan. So, I remember that specifically. That had come after a long period of discussion about what the U.S. policy was going to be in Afghanistan, and how many troops we were going to keep, because it wasn't known if we were going to down to no troops, if we were going to keep maybe 10,000 troops, as roughly was kept, if we were going to have 12,000 troops, and what the role of those troops were going to be. There was a lot of concern that we would leave entirely, and the country could fall apart, a lot of it's on the part of the Afghans, and some in the U.S. government about that.


Carter Malkasian: So, there was careful negotiations, careful discussions about that, that were very well-handled to make sure they didn't get into the press, and they weren't politicized. Well, everything's politicized, but that they were less politicized than other things were. That ended up coming out that we would have a draw-down, down first in that year to 98, 9,600 and then that number would stay until 2015. Beginning of 2016, we would drop down to 5,500. Then, at the end, we would leave.


Carter Malkasian: Honestly, the sense that we had at that time was, we're pretty much doing things on track. That this will allow the Afghans to have some more advising, some more time with the Americans. It will help cover our security interests during that time. And then, the U.S. forces will leave. At that time, it also wasn't clear okay, so how many forces will stay at the embassy? What kind of role will they be having? So, it was kind of well, the future could… this could play out in a certain way, and we move forward.


Carter Malkasian: There wasn't a lot of negative reaction to that decision, at least where I was. It was, we're moving forward, and this is how things are going. Now, later on, those decisions get reversed, and they were reversed, like I mentioned before, because the Islamic State threat, but also reversed because the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, as the Taliban were taking more ground, so that if you're not there, if we go down to zero, then the Taliban will be able to succeed, and that will create terrorist threats upon the United States. That was the thinking.


Annie Henderson: So, as you move into this new role as Special Assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could you maybe just inform our listeners how civilian and military leaders work together on a conflict like Afghanistan? I think this is one of those things, as an expert I'm sure is very clear, but I think to a lot of people who are not familiar with how the U.S. works on this particular issue, it'd be really great to get a lay of the land.


Carter Malkasian: All right, so first of all, my role as a civilian is, there was to advise General Dunford. I was not a decision-maker. I was just someone advising him, really advising him for the advice he was going to give, or how he was going to interact in an engagement with a foreign leader, or maybe getting information for him, to help do things. So, I wasn't a policymaker myself.


Carter Malkasian: Now, how civilians and the military interact, the military has different high-ranking generals and admirals, which are often called four stars, and that's for the number of stars that they have on their collar, and sometimes on their… this is not a lapel, this is a shoulder. Those generals have a great deal of influence. Some of them command a service, like the Air Force, or the Marine Corps, or the Navy. Some of them command large commands, like Central Command, that you may have heard of, that handles the Middle East, or IndoPaCom Command, which handles all of the Pacific and out into the Indian ocean.


Carter Malkasian: Then, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is a forcer. He's the most senior of them. He doesn't command them all. The person who commands them all, the way that chain of command works is, it first goes to the Secretary of Defense, so he has authority there, and then the President has authority there.


Carter Malkasian: Now, when a decision on a policy issue is made, it's usually made by the National Security Council, which at its highest level is going to be the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense civilians, and then usually the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a military representative. Sometimes, other generals may be there too, like the Centcom Commander and the IndoPaCom Commander, just depending on the situation. But when those decision are made, it's the President gets ... and there can be other people in National Security councils, like the Intelligence Director will be there. I'm just trying to give a general sense of what that looks like.


Carter Malkasian: The President makes the ultimate decision. The job of the military, the military cannot decide to enter a war, to leave a war. The military does not set policy goals. It doesn't say, "This is the reason we're in the war, and this is the reason we're going to attain it." What the military does is designs how to attain it and often gives options to the President or Secretary of Defense about how this can be attained.


Carter Malkasian: Now, for any particular issue, the chairmen or other military can offer their advice to the President about what to do, but that advice generally should stay out of… should definitely stay out of domestic politics, and should also stay away from policy goals. Everything's blurry. The domestic policy is not blurry, but the policy goals for the war that's very blurry, in terms of what's involved, who should have say in what, and who should be doing others. But in general, the military leadership should try to stay away from talking too much about the goals of a war.


Carter Malkasian: Why? Because you don't want the people who… Well, the main reason is, you don't want… the crucial thing is, you don't want them encouraging us to get into war. War is their business, so we want to keep that separate. But there's other reasons too, if there's anything about getting out of a war, it's perhaps best that the military is not giving advice on that, that that also works well for the President or what the goals of a conflict are. So, at the highest level, the civil military interaction works like that.


Carter Malkasian: But it works its way onto the lower level too, because within the Department of Defense, there's the military side. There's a whole nother office called the Office of the Secretary of Defense. So, they have lots of civilians in there, and they will help set policy goals, help with planning, help with giving… managing the force and making sure the policy goals are implemented, and then helping the SecDef, the Secretary of Defense, shape what he wants to do, and create his plans for what he wants to do. The military is kind of working in the same direction and will either give their advice separately to the Secretary of Defense or will work with OSD to give a common set of advice to them.


Carter Malkasian: Now, within these groups, I mentioned that there was the National Security Council. The National Security Council is a word with two meanings to it, which can be confusing. One is the National Security Council I just referred to, with a small number of people involved in it, one of whom I forgot to mention is the National Security Advisor. So, if you've heard of Henry Kissinger, I'm sure, or Brzezinski, more recently H.R. McMaster, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, they were all National Security Advisors. Their role is to advise the President on national security, but probably more important, to coordinate that National Security Council meeting and the interaction between those other major players I mentioned at that National Security Council.


Carter Malkasian: Okay, so the other need for the National Security Council… I mentioned that one. The other one is the staff that serves the National Security Advisor and the President on national security issues. So, that staff that exists, they help coordinate those meetings, coordinate between all these different… the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Intelligence. They help do the coordination between them, and they're often the ones that write the papers, that will go to the President and explain the issue in the first place, or write papers that explain what the decisions were of the various meetings.


Carter Malkasian: So, there's a combination of military on that staff and civilians on that staff. The civilians will interact both with the military on this stuff, plus they'll interact with the military and the Department of Defense. So, they will be creating their own issue briefings and their own ways of addressing topics that they are then talking to the military with.


Carter Malkasian: The last element of the civil-military relations, as I try not to turn this into a total lecture, is a relationship between Congress and the military, which is extremely important. In fact, the relationship with… You can often forget just how important that relationship is, because Congress confirms who… the three and four star generals up. They were confirmed by Congress. They have to report to Congress. They have to share essentially any information that Congress wants. There are certain political things and certain decisions that can be kept quiet or held in a classified session until it's coordination necessary that Congress needs to know.


Carter Malkasian: But Congress has a right to know these things. Congress approves the budgets. So, that is an important mechanism of authority, and checking and balancing against the military. But it's the answering to Congress that also ensures that the military is not overstepping its bounds and is probably more powerful in that respect than certain other elements of the government. The President is very powerful, and the Secretary of Defense is very powerful in that way, as well, but it's the combination there that plays a very big, big role.


Reema Saleh: Yeah, so I guess how did the wants of civilian and military leadership balance each other out, at the time, I guess, different aims kind of interact?


Carter Malkasian: They played out in different ways throughout the conflict. Early in the, say, in the Bush administration, it often played out with the civilians getting what they wanted on things, and that it's often highly criticized that in 2003, the military didn't have enough of a role in giving advice and setting planning, and allowed an invasion to go forward that shouldn't have gone forward because the military didn't defend its ground, didn't argue strongly, didn't show how difficult the situation could be, when many, many knew that.


Carter Malkasian: So, that later leads to a little bit of a recalibration at the end of the Bush administration, in which President Bush starts relaying on General Petraeus to get things done, because he feels that General Petraeus can actually take action, and he removes Rumsfeld. So, the generals, General Petraeus, McChrystal, some others, Mullen, who's then the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they're able to have a lot of influence. Then, they have the success in the Iraq surge.


Carter Malkasian: It doesn't go as well in the early Obama administration. In the early Obama administration, there's a great interest on the part of a lot of the military in sending a large number of troops into Afghanistan, trying to resolve the situation in Afghanistan. They feel they can do that because of the success of their operations in Iraq previously. So, the same generals that had gained influence, the same generals that had gained influenced under Bush come into the Obama administration with that point of view, with that mindset, and that leads to friction with the new incoming Obama administration.


Carter Malkasian: In this case, a lot of military leaders feel that Afghanistan is very important to go into, to resolve the situation there, whereas President Obama, in his book A Promised Land, discusses this in great detail. It is a great book. He is more worried about the country as a whole. He's worried about the recession that's happened. He's worried about his healthcare package. He's worried about all the other things he has to worry about as President.


Carter Malkasian: So, he doesn't want to commit large numbers of forces to Afghanistan forever, because it costs about a million dollars a year for one soldier in Afghanistan, which that means for 100,000 troops, that computes, with a little bit additional that's there, it computed to 100, 120 billion per year. So, over the total, over the whole tenure, the petroleum dollars, that's the size of the Economic Relief Package. So, he thought, I'm not spending this kind of money on an engagement in Afghanistan, compared to economic relief for the American people. He was not comfortable with going in that direction, so there was friction there.


Carter Malkasian: Then, there was more friction because the military didn't present a lot of options to the President. One of the most important things that should be presented to leaders are options, different ways to go about solving what a problem should be. But they didn't do that, and so that made it hard for President Obama to have choices on what to do.


Carter Malkasian: The biggest problem there at that time was what Biden and others defined as, the generals, to a certain extent, wanted to… inadvertently or purposefully boxed in the president, because they started talking on TV about how their option, which was counterinsurgency and sending more forces, was the best option. They did it in front of Congress. There was an op ed; McChrystal did it in London. There was a leak of McChrystal's assessment that this should be done.


Carter Malkasian: So, what all this does is, it makes it much more difficult for the President to do whatever he wants to do, because the military has laid out there, "This is my plan." So, if the President doesn't do that, and anything goes wrong, all the critics are going to say, "You didn't listen to the generals." The new President incoming, so it's even more difficult to deal with these problems. You asked about the friction between the civilians and the military. That is a foremost example of the friction, the difficulties that existed.


Carter Malkasian: Later on, it improves, probably because some of those generals left, for various reasons, and it improves because the generals that followed them, and the admirals that followed them, were much more concerned about maintaining trust of the White House. Also, they were just less… They believed less that you could actually win in Afghanistan.


Carter Malkasian: You talked about the 2014, Obama's decision to withdraw in 2014. That whole process was managed very carefully and kept secret because everyone was so aware that letting it loose previously had been problematic. Everyone's intent was, we're going down the same path, and we're going to find the best solution. We're not going to get stuck into arguing for whatever option we particularly might think is best. It's not about what options is best. It's about laying out a way forward that's a good process and doesn't create problems and issues. So, that went better. Anyways--


Annie Henderson: No. That actually is really helpful, because I was going to ask you about your personal experience. You mention transitioning between Presidents, and you've served under both Barack Obama and President Trump. So, I'm curious, how was that transition for you personally? What was it like, switching your advice from one president to another?


Carter Malkasian: Because I was advising General Dunford, it wasn't that hard for me, because I didn't have to… I had the same boss. I had the same leader who I was giving advice to. I was working in the military structure, not in the civilian structure. Civilian structure requires lots of new leaders. The military structure just went about doing its thing, right? They have a whole process for when generals come into certain places, and officers come into certain places, and they go to a new place. So, that process just kept on going the same way it was before.


Carter Malkasian: People know that the Trump administration was very turbulent, but I was in a place where I didn't have those similar experiences because I was there advising the same boss that I had had previously. Did the issues change? Yes, the issues changed. The approach to Syria was a little bit different. The whole North Korea crisis with Kim Jong-un, and shooting missiles into the air and fiery rhetoric, that was all there. We worked a great deal to try to make sure that situation was dealt with responsibly. Over time, President Trump shifts the Afghan policy even more to talk about getting out, and so I was involved in those negotiations. So, there's no doubt we were dealing with different issues.


Carter Malkasian: But personally, it wasn't that tough. Look, there's all kinds of other ethical and other issues regarding that administration, but I was divorced from that because of the place I was in, which gave one a comfort in what they were doing.


Reema Saleh: Let's talk about the withdrawal. You were part of negotiations with the Taliban under President Trump, which resulted in the Doha Agreement in 2021. Could you talk us through these negotiations, and what was this approach to ending the war in Afghanistan?


Carter Malkasian: First, there was a realization that… this was about 2017 actually, that a lot of the military operations should be support negotiations, that a negotiated solution could be a way out of the conflict that satisfied everyone's interests. At that time, the idea of withdrawing all of our troops wasn't really… that wasn't really there in 2017, although some people, myself included, said, "Look, you're not going to get a deal unless you do that. The Taliban are not going to stop fighting if there's U.S. soldiers, so whatever the deal involves, it's going to have to involve withdrawal of our forces."


Carter Malkasian: There's President Trump, who kind of enforces that and wants that to happen, such that Ambassador Khalilzad then… after negotiations start, which is really in the autumn of 2018, then he puts that on the table, and then things start shifting, where the Taliban are willing to give a little more.


Carter Malkasian: What we wanted from the Taliban was for them to… We wanted a few things from the Taliban. One was that they would guarantee that they wouldn't help assist Al Qaeda, wouldn't let Al Qaeda launch any attacks from Afghanistan on other countries. So, that was one of the most… That was negotiated intensively, and of course, we want as many guarantees as we can get. They want as much freedom of action as they can get.


Carter Malkasian: So, that goes back and forth. But the Taliban did promise, "We won't train, equip, recruit, fundraise, allow any of that to… allow any training, equipping, fundraising to happen inside of Afghanistan. We won't allow there to be attacks from Afghanistan on other countries." That was in return for the idea that, at some point, we would completely withdraw our forces.


Carter Malkasian: We wanted a ceasefire. We also wanted there to be a political settlement between the Afghans and the Taliban. We wanted them to come together, go through a new political process, write a new constitution, set up a new government, so that it would be inclusive and all sides would be brought together, a negotiated end to the fighting.


Carter Malkasian: Now, to make that happen, eventually, it's decided to withdraw ... within 14 months, to withdraw all of our forces. So, negotiations go in that direction. Look, dealing with the Taliban, it was fascinating. It wasn't my first time dealing with them, but I can tell you that they were very committed, believed in their cause, believed in establishing Islamic law throughout Afghanistan, were deeply religious, not fake. They really do pray five times a day, and they really are committed to Islam. Four of them had been in Guantanamo Bay prison and had been released earlier, and they were now part of the negotiating group. They were, of course, interesting to talk to. Some of them didn't seem to like Americans very much. Others were more okay with talking to Americans. One of that group was particularly athletic and enjoyed playing football and such, which was interesting.


Carter Malkasian: The Taliban generally were standoffish, and that's kind of a combination of two things, I think. One is that we were their adversary, and the other is, they are established, accomplished people in their own respects, so they just might've felt that that was appropriate to do. But they could, at times, be warm and interested, and I certainly learned a bit about Islam from them, and certainly learned a few new words from them. So, that went really well.


Carter Malkasian: But anyway, so the agreement was signed in 29 February of 2022. A friend of mine calls it the Leap Year Agreement. That stipulated the withdrawal in 14 months. What it wasn't able to stipulate was on a firm ceasefire. It wasn't able to stipulate real political negotiations. It said political negotiations to start by 10 March, I think, so it was about 10 days. It had certain small requirements about what those negotiations should establish, but it wasn't detailed and firm about it. It didn't say that you need to have a constitution by now, or that we will only withdraw if these things are met.


Carter Malkasian: So, it's open-ended. It's what in diplomatic terms is called constructive ambiguity, which is the idea that if two sides don't get on very well and have lots of differences, if we can just look at, what is a common goal we have in the future, and say, "Okay, we're both after that goal," then we can at least advance in that direction, and the process can get moving. Without specifying what each side is going to give, what the negotiations are specifically going to look like. We just have a broad agreement on principles.


Carter Malkasian: So, that was the idea behind this, but in the end, there weren't enough details in it, I think, for it to survive. So, after that's signed, well a few things happened. First, the Taliban are intransigent, and they won’t—and by this time I’m not part of the negotiations anymore—the Taliban are intransigent. They are not going to concede on any further movement until they get every single thing that they want out of the Afghan government.


Carter Malkasian: Another part of it is that the Afghan government, President Ashraf Ghani, wasn't terribly interested in making a lot of concessions, partly because he thinks, "I don't have that much more left to give. Why am I going to give more? We have to start negotiations some time, and they're making me give everything before I get to negotiations. I'm not doing that." His position is certainly understandable. Whether it was right for us or turned out the best is perhaps a different question.


Carter Malkasian: The third reason though that things didn't go well was that President Trump withdrew our forces ahead of the schedule. We have a certain rate of what the draw-down was supposed to be. He went ahead of that rate. As we withdrew more forces, we were less able to hold things together on the battlefield. So, the Taliban could sense that they were gaining more ground and could sense that we were not going to be determined… that we were going to carry out the 14 months, or something close to it. So, there wasn't a lot of reason for them to continue to negotiate with us. We were losing our leverage.


Carter Malkasian: So then, by the time President Biden has to make a decision, he's judging between go to zero or keep 2,500. Well, keep 2,500 could perhaps have done some things, like still going after terrorists and such, but 2,500 wasn't going to be enough to convince the Taliban to come seriously to the negotiating table with concessions, because they knew at 2,500, they could control a lot of the country.


Reema Saleh: This actually leads into the next question we're hoping to ask you, which is, President Biden did largely stick to the agreement that was laid out and the plan I think that had come out of those agreements. So, I'm really curious, did this surprise you, or would you say that President Biden had any kind of additional changes to that plan in any meaningful way, besides pushing back the timelines?


Carter Malkasian: He pushed back the timeline. It depends how you look at the agreements, is a better way to say it. The agreement by one point of view, the view that Zalmay Khalilzad the envoy often said, was that nothing's agreed until everything's agreed, which meant that if the Taliban don't meet what we want… They even say this verbally. You can hear Pompeo say this and Khalilzad say this, "If they don't come to a political settlement, well then we're not withdrawing. Our withdrawal is conditioned upon them meeting what has been agreed upon at Doha." Now, some of the things agreed upon at Doha, if they're not written down, they become fuzzy and ambiguous. So, we would say that.


Carter Malkasian: But the biggest thing President Biden basically did is, he moved off that point, and we were withdrawing. I guess we could debate whether we see it as a fundamental change or a minor change in what was done. But he moved off that. Now, between the… At the time, I thought the decision between staying and leaving, they're both viable options. We could have done either, but leaving, from a strategic, big picture view appeared to be the more compelling of the two choices. Again, that doesn't mean staying was not viable, or ridiculous, or crazy or something. It wasn't. It could've been done.


Carter Malkasian: It wasn't going to solve the war. It wasn't going to end the war. It was just going to protect our interests. Even me saying it that way is the wrong way to say it. It puts greater insurance against our interests. We don't know if it protects it or not. There's greater insurance against it. So, that's a viable strategy, but leaving was also a viable strategy, and given, for all the reasons that I talked about previously, by this point, much more compelling to leave.


Reema Saleh: Was this approach popular with the military? How did the military leadership view the process of leaving?


Carter Malkasian: I think that probably varies a little bit, and I wasn't privy to the discussions in 2021 in any serious kind of way. So, I can tell you that the decisions to leave and to go forward with negotiations, and press forward with negotiations, that the generals whom I worked with, General Dunford, General Miller, General McKenzie, General Votel, they were all behind the negotiations. They did not argue against the negotiations. They did not, when decisions had to be made about negotiations, I mean including the final agreement, they didn't say, "Oh, we're not going with this. We reject it." Because they believed that it was the military's job being in support of the diplomacy, they supported moving forward with the negotiations and with that final agreement.


Carter Malkasian: Does that mean that there weren't debates and issues between the civilians and the military? Of course not. On a variety of little issues, and little things, and can't we get more here, and why do we give so much here, of course there's debates and issues on that. But there was no, "We refuse to go with this agreement."


Carter Malkasian: Now, in the open press, when it comes to President Biden's final decision to leave, it said that various generals, including General Milley, thought that we should've kept more forces there, and thought that this was better… Now, this is just in the press, so I can't confirm anything that's there, because I don't know. I haven't talked to anyone who's in those meetings. I obviously haven't seen meeting notes on it. So, I don't know what actually happened there, but that's probably just indicative of, once we're in the process of leaving, it just becomes harder.


Carter Malkasian: So, it was one thing to say it's the more compelling choice to do in early 2021, it's way different to see it playing out on the ground, and when you're seeing Kabul fall, and you're talking to people you know over the phone, and people are worried, people think they're going to die, some people are dying, and everything's crumbling and falling apart.


Carter Malkasian: You don't need me to tell you. You can read it various places, that there's obviously, on the part of a variety of military and a variety of civilians, great concern about how we left and what happened, and why did we just spend 20 years sacrificing everything for this to be the result? I think a lot of that's natural, given the stress and such, that the situation was in then.


Annie Henderson: I think you've touched on this a little bit, but I want to ground us a little bit more and then ask for a little bit wider view on this, which is, in July of 2021, President Biden said, and I'll quote here, "The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army. They're not remotely comparable, in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you're going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy."


Annie Henderson: I think he obviously came to regret that specific statement in comparison. After President Biden made those remarks, months later, the Taliban had conquered Kabul, and the Afghan President had fled the country, and we also had a suicide bomber kill 180 people, including American service members outside of Kabul's airport. So, I'm really curious, why was there such a large difference between the public expectation for the withdrawal and what actually happened, as someone who's sat advising the people who are making these decisions. I'm really curious, in your mind, where do you think some of those differences came from?


Carter Malkasian: It was always possible Afghanistan was going to unravel quickly. Afghanistan's history has a variety of occasions when, when the wind starts to blow one way, people try to ... groups shift in another direction. It's not entirely unique to Afghanistan. It just happens to be, we can look to immediate history and see some occasions of this in Afghan history, especially our advancement into Afghanistan in 2001, which the Taliban didn't put up much resistance. They just folded and went away. Depending on how we look at it, we can see it's even in the same amount of time that that all happened.


Carter Malkasian: So, this was always a possibility, that that could happen. It's hard to estimate the number of months or weeks in which something will happen like that. When you're looking at it, you have to consider okay, what are the things I think could happen for this to go to… that would make this go quickly? So, that's the Taliban are organized enough for, that they have enough logistics to move fast from place to place, that the government's Northern Alliance forces don't stand up, that no outside country gives greater assistance. These are some of the common things that are there, but you don't know. You don't know which way things could go, and you also don't know how much the Taliban would be inspired, or how much the government forces will be inspired.


Carter Malkasian: That should leave you, I think, if you're good to say, or if you're thinking broadly, to say, we don't know. There's a range of time in which this could happen, and I need to consider the different times in which this could happen, and the different things we might do for each of those. So, I guess you could say that that uncertainty is why President Biden said, "Well, no. It's not like that. It could be different."


Carter Malkasian: Another way to say this is, we can't predict the future, right? No one can predict the future. So, we shouldn't really expect politicians to do it. We shouldn't expect intel analysts to do it, as smart as they are, because it's an unrealistic thing to expect of someone. That's probably somewhat of a lesson from this. We have to think about, what's the broad range of ways this thing could work out, and are we ready for dealing with things, and have we laid out the indicators to see how it could change? What are the flashing red lights that we should be starting to see, that will make us say, "Okay, it's not going to fall in six months. It's going to fall in three months. It's not going to fall in three months. It's falling now." How do you start to translate that?


Reema Saleh: This might be an unrealistic question, but what conditions do you think would've been necessary to produce a better outcome?


Carter Malkasian: In Afghanistan?


Reema Saleh: Yes.


Carter Malkasian: That's a good question. It depends what you mean by outcome, but when we take something that would be realistic for an outcome, our realistic outcome for the war in Afghanistan was not winning. A realistic outcome for the war in Afghanistan would be something that lost fewer American lives, cost less money, and could've been managed better.


Carter Malkasian: So, what would've been needed to do that? Well, after defeating the Taliban, we shouldn't have been so overconfident. I mean, after toppling the regime in 2001, we shouldn't have been so overconfident. We should've thought that there's different ways history can play out, and one of them, for an insurgency, is that the insurgents return and form a threat.


Carter Malkasian: So, if we weren't overconfident, then we might've thought well, how can we deal with the Taliban? Can we negotiate with them now? Also, what kind of military forces do they need if they need to fight them? In a good world, that maybe would've prevented the war. In the much more likely world, it just would've made the war easier to manage, less costly.


Carter Malkasian: So, overconfidence there. Later on, take the surge. We probably shouldn't have surged. Why did we surge? Because we were so concerned about the threat from Afghanistan, and we cared so much about one option that we crowded out the other possible options that were there. President Obama should've had more options. One option could've been not to surge at all. Another option could've been to take away a few troops. I don't think you could've gotten all of them out.


Carter Malkasian: Another option could've been to surge a few troops. An option could've been well, don't decrease the numbers but stay long. You're going to have to stay long if you want to do any of these things. All of those things could've prevented a situation that would've lost fewer lives and cost less money, and a lot of those are related to our overconfidence, or not considering enough options, or not understanding that history… that the future's going to play out in different ways than you actually think it's going to play out.


Carter Malkasian: So, a lot of it gets down to the flexibility of one's strategy. A lot of it gets into: how overconfident are we? So, I think those are the things that I think we could've done differently to get to somewhere else.


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Carter Malkasian. This episode was produced and edited by Reema Saleh and Ricardo Sande. Thank you to our interviewers, Annie Henderson and Reema Saleh. Special thanks to UC3P and The Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. For more information on The Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.


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Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema, and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcasts. You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies, and policy issues it affects. In this series, you'll hear from experts and practitioners who conduct research, implement programs, and use data analysis to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world.

Reema Saleh: Root of Conflict is produced by UC3P in collaboration with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflict, a research institute housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Reema Saleh: In this episode, Annie and I speak with Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a global fellow at The Wilson Center. We talk about her debut book, How to Lose the Information War, which takes the reader through several case studies of how western governments are impacted by Russian disinformation tactics and how to navigate the future of conflict.

Reema Saleh: As a note, this episode was reported in November of 2021 before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So, keep that in mind as you're listening. In the past month, we've seen misinformation and disinformation efforts ramp up. So, it's important to understand how these strategies work and what threats they pose. We also talk about her upcoming book, How to Be a Woman Online coming out April 21st on how to deal with gender harassment and abuse and online spaces.

Nina Jankowicz: My name is Nina Jankowicz. I'm a global fellow at the Wilson center, which is a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank here in Washington, D.C and I'm the author of How to Lose the Information War, which came out in 2020 and the forthcoming book, How to Be a Woman Online, which will be out in April of 2022.

Annie Henderson: Could you tell us a little bit about your first book?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, so this book came out of my experience when I was a Fulbright public policy fellow in Ukraine. I was lucky enough to be advising the government of Ukraine, specifically the ministry of foreign affairs and the spokesperson there on strategic communications and counter disinformation efforts in 2016 and 2017, which as you can imagine was a pretty interesting time to be in Ukraine.

Nina Jankowicz:I kind of felt, especially as the United States woke up to the threat of Russian disinformation specifically, but just kind of information warfare or online influence more broadly that we approached the problem with a certain hubris that I found really distasteful, especially from my seat in Ukraine. It was as if we thought we were the first country, the first people to ever deal with this problem, when that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Nina Jankowicz:Central and Eastern Europe had been dealing with disinformation, especially of the Russian variety for decades and had been really familiar with this new iteration of Russian online disinformation. And so I thought it would be useful to policy makers, but also to normal people who want to follow the news to understand how this phenomenon developed in Central and Eastern Europe and what the government and civil society there had been doing to try to combat it where they won and where they made, unfortunately, a lot of missteps as we tried to chart our own course in countering disinformation.

Annie Henderson:How are you defining disinformation? As you talk through all these different topics, I just want to make sure that our listeners understand the term that you're using.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, absolutely. I'll give you kind of the lay of the land as I see it, because these terms often get used interchangeably, which doesn't do the listener or the viewer really any good and frankly confuses a lot of people.

Nina Jankowicz:I use the definitions that First Draft News use. They're a great organization that focuses on how journalists and the media can identify and counter disinformation. And the definition they use for disinformation is, "False or misleading information used with malign intent." Now, that's different than misinformation, which is similarly false or misleading information, but it doesn't have that malign intent behind it. So, we're in the holiday season now. We're all going to be seeing our family soon.

Nina Jankowicz:We've all probably have that one family member who traffics in conspiracy theories. They're not necessarily sharing disinformation; they're just sharing their crazy theories because they think they're interesting or they might have something to them.

Nina Jankowicz:That's misinformation. That's all a little bit different than propaganda or fake news. I try not to use the term fake news in any academic writing. It is in the subtitle of my book, which is Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict. That was something that my publisher insisted on as a signpost for curious readers. But fake news doesn't really describe the full breadth of information operations that we tend to see in this realm.

Nina Jankowicz:Often, the most successful disinformation campaigns aren't necessarily fake. They're not false and fully fabricated. They are grounded in emotion or a kernel of truth. So, let's take the coronavirus as an example. A lot of the distrust of the vaccine or distrust of government initiatives to counter COVID comes from a deep-seated distrust of either institutions or institutional medicine. If you kind of pull back the layers with people who are in the anti-vaccination community, that's what you get at when you get to the root of the problem.

Nina Jankowicz:So, it's not fully fabricated, it's playing on something that's very real for those people. And then propaganda is often thrown into the mix as well, but propaganda has a different meaning at least to my ear and that is propaganda is a little bit more for political purposes. It serves to support or promote one political ideology.

Nina Jankowicz:If you look at what Russia has done particularly in the last 15 years or so, they have supported groups and spread disinformation on all sides of the political spectrum. Sometimes directly working in opposition to one another, just to create polarization. That's very different than the propaganda that we saw during the Soviet period, which promoted the Soviet worldview, Soviet ideology, et cetera.

Nina Jankowicz:It's a little bit more like what China is doing today, promoting the CCP and Chinese ideology and a positive interpretation of how China is viewed in the world. A little bit different. I wouldn't call what Russia does, propaganda, at least in the international realm.

Reema Saleh:What makes new forms of disinformation so difficult to combat?

Nina Jankowicz:Well, I think what's happening today. What we see today is the use of disinformation paired with the micro-targeting technology that social media platforms offer and that actors like Russia or some domestic political actors have become expert at using. This means that pretty much anybody with a social media account and an understanding of these platforms and how they work can target their messages at exactly the people who are going to be most vulnerable to them.

Nina Jankowicz:Sometimes you can do that with the assistance of ads, but more recently it's become really easy to segment populations or to identify vulnerable populations simply through things like Facebook pages and especially groups. We've also seen a lot happening on messengers lately. So, things like WhatsApp or Telegram where people self-select into certain groups or channels, and once you're in, you can certainly message and broadcast your views to a group of people where there's trust for your messaging and where there's a lot less content moderation, right?

Nina Jankowicz:Especially on those encrypted platforms, unless you're in the group, the platform themself is not going to have any oversight over what you're doing. It makes it very difficult to combat. And then again, outside of the technological question, we're also looking at narratives that are very, very deeply seated in people's human distrust of systems, of governments, of science sometimes and a lack of understanding in how nuanced most events in the world are.

Nina Jankowicz:Things aren't actually as black and white as we like to make them out to be sometimes. And because of a lack of media and information literacy along with all the technological and social factors that I mentioned before, we kind of have this perfect informational storm, so to speak.

Reema Saleh:What misperceptions do people have about modern disinformation campaign?

Nina Jankowicz:I think the biggest one is that these are just silly cut and dry, false things that trolls on the internet make and they have no real-world implications. As I said before, these traffic and emotion and often they do drive people to take offline action. As we saw around the January 6th insurrection and a number of events during the COVID pandemic, the Reopen Movement and other protests that have inspired violence or threats to public safety. I think that's something that a lot of disinformation researchers have been warning about for a long time, because we've seen it happen in other countries. Again, the United States and a few other Western nations have approached the problem with such hubris that we thought our institutions are strong enough, we're going to be able to withstand this without the types of offline effects that we've seen in other countries.

Nina Jankowicz:And that's just been proven not to be true. There are two other kinds of demographic misconceptions that people have about disinformation. One, is that young people are going to be more susceptible to it because they use the internet more. What we actually find through a lot of data is that young people are a lot savvier about how they get their information. They understand that when they're watching their TikTok for-you-page, that that is not being generated organically, that the algorithm knows them and is sending them the content they're most likely to interact with and be engaged with and stay on the platform for and they recognize that and know how to navigate those platforms a lot better than let's say their grandparents do.

Nina Jankowicz:It's actually the boomers end up that have the most problems with information literacy. They're used to having a gatekeeper for their information. Having watched the nightly news for so many years and don't really fully grasp that on their Facebook pages or Twitter timelines, I doubt many of them are on TikTok, but if they are, that that is an especially curated stream of information, that's targeting them individually.

Nina Jankowicz:That is something that unfortunately, we have a lot to contend with and that population is voting more reliably than the younger folks as well who may not even have the right to vote yet. That's one demographic misconception. And then another one is that we often think that disinformation only targets folks on the right of the political spectrum and there are a lot of examples, especially from Russia in which disinformation targeted folks on the left. It's less frequent, but it does happen, and it doesn't mean that just because you're a registered Democrat or whatever, that you're immune from disinformation. You still need to take the same precautions online as folks on the other side of the political spectrum.

Annie Henderson:You talked a little bit about how disinformation is different than propaganda. I'm curious about where the modern concept of disinformation started. Is it really an internet age invention or does it have roots earlier than that?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, so Russia used disinformation during the Soviet period as well. Thomas Rid has a great book about Soviet era disinformation campaigns called Active Measures that I would highly recommend to anybody who's looking at it.

Nina Jankowicz:But in terms of our modern understanding of disinformation, certainly that began, I would say in the mid-2000s as the social media sphere was becoming more ubiquitous. A lot of the techniques that we see Russia using in particular, are holdovers though from the Soviet era. As Rid describes in his book, using these preexisting fishers and hot button issues and disagreements in society to further polarize, to further turn different sectors of society against one another, in order to gain political leverage is something that Russia has been doing since the Soviet period, since the early Soviet period we could say. I've been reminded by policy makers before that disinformation has long existed.

Nina Jankowicz:It's just a bit of a horse of a different color when it can travel as fast and as far and be as precisely targeted as it is with social media, with the platforms that we have today, where things can go viral in an instant and change our perception of events and make it very difficult to fact check or debunk after the fact in a way different than it would've been if newspapers were the ones being considered.

Nina Jankowicz:The famous example of Soviet disinformation campaigns that we often talk about is the Soviet operation to convince the world that aids was an American invention and that actually did gain some purchase, but it took a lot longer than it would have in the internet age because they had to launder their information through different print media and it took much longer to target certain populations abroad, especially and it was much, much more connected with kind of covert operations than the things that we see today, where a lot of these campaigns are kind of farmed out to different non-state actors like the Internet Research Agency, for instance.

Nina Jankowicz:So, disinformation as a concept has been around for a while. The Russian variety has some certain hallmarks to it and certainly is buoyed by the technology that's available today.

Reema Saleh:You compare the United States approach to tackling disinformation, to playing a game of whac-a-mole. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Nina Jankowicz:Sure. I actually call it whac-a-troll because I think that's kind of funny. But what I think we have been focused on basically since the very beginning when we figured out that Russia was attempting to influence the elections is removing fake accounts and posts that are harmful. There's been a lot of focus on that during the COVID pandemic as well.

Nina Jankowicz:But it's not a very systematic approach. It means that we are constantly on the back foot, constantly reactive, and it also means that essentially, we're always going to be chasing after these inauthentic actors who really have no reason not to continue to create fake accounts, not to continue to put out misleading information because the cost is very, very low for them. It takes much, much more effort to identify these fake accounts and identify the harmful posts than it does to create them.

Nina Jankowicz:And so, while it is important to put pressure on the social media platforms, I'm not making excuses for them here to make sure that they're identifying that content as quickly as possible and removing what it goes against their terms of service. But we also need to think more holistically. So, like how can we dis-incentivize actors like Russia from creating this content in the first place? thinking about that. Not that I think punitive measures are the end all, be all. These operations cost very little for Russia and for other countries.

Nina Jankowicz:So that is part of the toolkit, but not the panacea. We also need to think about how to educate our populations so that they're going to fall for these things less. There was such a debate. It feels like a long time ago now, but for most of the Trump administration, there is a big disagreement in Washington as to whether Russian disinformation was something we should worry about or not or whether it even happened.

Nina Jankowicz:It did happen. There's plenty of open-source evidence to that fact. And it certainly bothers me that an adversarial nation was attempting to influence our electoral discourse and I hope that any voting American would agree that that's not something that we should be okay with.

Nina Jankowicz:Instead, we just kind of looked at our shoes and allowed the hole that we're in to get even deeper. So rather than thinking about those generational ideas, those generational investments that we need to make that countries like Ukraine or Estonia or Finland in Sweden have been making, been in the case of Finland and Sweden, for generations in the case of Estonia and Ukraine for less time, but certainly making a large impact, we've been and cool in our heels. I think that is really, really unfortunate. And instead creating all this hubbub about removing content when that's only part of the solution.

Annie Henderson:Speaking of these other countries, I love how in your book, you don't just talk about the US, you talk about how a variety of countries are addressing the disinformation problem. I'm curious, do you see one approach emerging as the best in class? The gold standard for managing disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz:The best approaches all have things that are in common. I think of the countries that I look at in my book, which are Estonia, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, Estonia has of course the privilege of being the first that Russia hit with some of these campaigns way back in 2007. They've got hindsight. They have really developed some systems that are quite robust, and their systems not only look at internet security, as we've probably all heard about. I'm sure this is very erudite audience, Estonian votes online. They have a lot of their government services online.

Nina Jankowicz:As a result, they're quite the leaders in cybersecurity in the trans all into community, but it's not just about hermetically sealing their online space. They've got an ethnic fisher that Russia likes to exploit, with the ethnic Russian population in Estonia. That was what led to the Bronze Soldier Crisis in 2007, in which a monument was moved and Russia through its media and some covert operations instigated protests in the center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Nina Jankowicz:I think as early on, Estonia realized that it wasn't going to just be these cyber operations or cybersecurity that protected it. They needed to address the elephant in the room. And in that case, it was integration of the Russian speaking ethnic Russian population in their country. And so along with all of their cyber measures, which are, again, some of the best in the world, they also invested in integration through education, through Russian classes for Estonian language for Russian speakers through other kind of cultural and investment opportunities for Russian speaking areas.

Nina Jankowicz:If you look at the integration statistics, things are really changing in Estonia. A lot of the younger ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are adopting an Estonia identity that isn't grounded just in culture or Estonia language. It's grounded in this kind of new Europeanness and being a digital leader in the EU, this sort of thing.

Nina Jankowicz:It seems to be really, really taking off. Is it perfect? No, very, very famously Estonia has had a couple of far-right politicians be elected to their parliament recently. So, watch that space, but certainly they seem to be doing a little bit better than many other countries. Now, they are a country of 1.3 million and people and have fewer societal fishers for countries like Russia to exploit. But if plucky little Estonia can do it, I am not sure why larger countries can't take another holistic approach with the resources that we have, let's say here in the United States to counter such operations that we're getting hit with pretty constantly at this point.

Annie Henderson:As you go through and talk about how each of these different countries handle their disinformation problems, do you think that that's the right approach? Should it be country by country or should there be any kind of international coordination? If you do think that there should be some international coordination, what should it look like?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, I think there is a unique problem for each country to solve. The campaign that Estonia was met with and continues to fight is going to very intrinsically look different than what's going on in the United States or the UK or Germany.

Nina Jankowicz:Russia is extremely good at identifying the unique weaknesses and vulnerabilities that each country has. That being said, we can always stand for more international coordination. There have been some nascent attempts at creating body that will share information and attempt to coordinate responses to disinformation crises that cross borders in particular.

Nina Jankowicz:One that was really quite successful, I would say is the response to Skripal poisoning in the UK in 2018. I think it was 2018 in which Russia, very famously used Novichok to poison a former spy who was living in the UK, Sergei, Skripal. As a result, when that operation was uncovered, the international community came together not only to expel Russian diplomats as a punishment for this egregious violation of UK sovereignty, but the UK government also shared and declassified very quickly, the intelligence that allowed them to say without a shadow of a doubt that this was the work of Russian intelligence operatives.

Nina Jankowicz:That was shared not only across governments, but with media, with experts who gave credibility to that message. I think in my perspective, that was a really successful international coordination operation. Not every disinformation incident can rise to that level, of course. But I do think there are moments where international coordination, particularly in terms of punitive measures can be extremely successful, but we haven't seen a lot of success in that area and unfortunately have seen more duplication than I would prefer.

Annie Henderson:One of the things that I love about your book is that you don't just talk about what's happening online. You also talk about how disinformation can kind of reach out the internet and have real monetary impact either through lobbying or the direct funding of groups or even just as a business for PR consulting firms who specifically focus on disinformation. What can be done about that? those actions that are happening outside of just online platforms.

Nina Jankowicz:So, this is another misconception maybe that I should have mentioned before. We think of disinformation as something that's just about online memes, but really there is a lot of offline action from the funding of these groups, as you've just mentioned to different political manifestations and unfortunately, this is where we get into kind of the murky area of anti-corruption reform.

Nina Jankowicz:This is something that I think we are going to see the Biden administration focusing on a lot more. It has been a priority for them. It's something that we really need our allies to help with as well, to uncover these networks and make sure that dirty money isn't moving around and funding these operations.

Nina Jankowicz:But if you look at Sheldon Whitehouse, the Senator from Rhode Island, if I've got that right, I'm pretty sure I do. He's very focused on anti-corruption. I did a hearing with the Senate judiciary committee in 2018, and that was his main thrust, that if we shut down the networks, the financial networks, through which these campaigns are funded, they won't be able to go on anymore. That's very true in the Russian case. With PR firms, it's a little bit different in that their clients are trying to distance themselves and they're often political actors trying to distance themselves from the disinformation and having somebody else do the dirty work.

Nina Jankowicz:We've also seen Russia do this recently, either the internet research agency or other oligarchs are buying services from PR firms, let's say in Ghana, which Clarissa Ward very famously uncovered in a recent investigation for CNN.

Nina Jankowicz:Again, that's not necessarily illegal. It just makes it a little bit more difficult to uncover these operations when the time comes. Now, the social media platforms actually for their part have cracked down on those operations, those PR disinformation or as some people like to say, disinformation for profit operations because they're quite misleading in their providence. And so, they feel that it goes against their terms of service. So that's one way that we're cracking down when there isn't illicit financial flows involved.

Reema Saleh:Disinformation doesn't just come from foreign actors. You write a lot about out how there's a rise in domestic disinformation actors and how they can be sort of amplified without knowing it. Should efforts to combat disinformation change depending on who is perpetuating that disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz:Absolutely. I think for too long in the United States, we have viewed disinformation as just a foreign problem while we are ignoring the problem underneath our noses. We have seen major political parties in the United States and high-level elected officials engaging in disinformation. Unfortunately, we don't have domestic regulations dealing with disinformation. We can point to different federal election codes and say, "Okay. Russia can't buy ads on Facebook in support of one candidate or another."

Nina Jankowicz:That's easy enough to say. But when it comes to disinformation that's coming from domestic figures online, it becomes very, very difficult to really clamp down on. We have rules governing advertising in print, on radio, on TV for elections, but when it comes to online ads, we don’t, and Facebook and other online advertisers and advertising marketplaces have been reticent to be the "arbiter" of truth for political ads.

Nina Jankowicz:Instead, saying this is free speech, it's in the public interest for people to see these lies. We've seen where that leads. It leads to insurrections that attempt to overthrow election results. I think we really need to get our federal regulations into place for this sort of stuff, especially because we have seen a proliferation of disinformation over the past 18 months that has not only affected our democracy, it's affected public health and public safety. We have to recognize that the longer we allow this wound to fester, not only do we create a bigger problem for ourselves at home, but that means that we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to foreign interference as well.

Nina Jankowicz:Because as you mentioned, we see foreign actors who identify these vulnerable individuals or people who are trafficking in disinformation, and they use them to launder their own disinformation into the American ecosystem. A great example of this from 2020 was Rudy Giuliani. As the director of national intelligence stated in their report on the 2020 election, which came out in March, I believe of 2021, it's pretty likely the IC assesses that Russian intelligence operatives fed Rudy Giuliani his "intel" on the Biden family. It was either fabricated or stolen. That was all with the express intent of manipulating American voters and using Giuliani to launder that information as a trusted conduit into the American ecosystem.

Nina Jankowicz:We have to think about this stuff. We need better awareness built about it. We need more rules about how campaigning can work with contributions from foreign governments and how that can be amplified online. Without even the foreign question in play, we need to discuss whether disinformation and just bold face lies that can affect public safety and public health can be amplified on the internet. I think there is a way to do that without endangering freedom of expression, if we keep it in an electoral atmosphere.