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


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

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. 

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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.

Reema Saleh:What are the steps that we in the US need to be taking in the long term? What institutions need to be most involved or held accountable?

Nina Jankowicz:So, I think the biggest thing on my agenda, if I were in the Biden administration right now would be empowering an office or a team of individuals to make sure that they are the kind of linchpin of US government policy to counter disinformation in the US government. Right now, we don't have that.

Nina Jankowicz:A lot of the institutions that are focused on counter disinformation activities are either within the intelligence community, within DOD, within the state department. They're not necessarily talking to each other all of the time. The coordination thing is always not necessarily the US government's strong suit, but more importantly, we don't really see involvement from institutions that are on the domestic side of things. I would love to see the department of education, the department of health and human services, housing and urban development, the national endowment for humanities, all of those and more involved in the counter disinformation question in the US government, because as we've just talked about, the domestic disinformation side of things is where it's all happening right now.

Nina Jankowicz:And if we're just playing defense outside of our borders, we're going to be missing a huge part of the game. I think that's the first step. And then we need to look at these really holistic. I hate to say it whole of government, because that's such a buzzword now, but whole of government policies where we are seeing really substantial coordination across government, where we're seeing an investment in generational activities like information literacy, where we're really trying to build up trust back in these institutions that has withered away over so long.

Nina Jankowicz:I think all of that is really important. Right now, we're kind of like a bunch of different hamsters spinning in our wheel, our own individual wheels. Are we powering a light bulb together? Yeah. But could that light be a lot stronger if we were working more in concert if we were all running on one giant wheel? Yes, I think so. And so that's the thing that I think is most important that we've seen governments like the UK do like Estonia, to some extent like Ukraine, although they have some kind of Soviet vestiges to recover from in their own government outlook and infrastructure, but that's the biggest thing on the agenda. So far, we've not seen that come out of the Biden administration.

Annie Henderson:Before this podcast, Reema and I were really excited to ask you about libraries and other offline in institutions of knowledge and what they can do to help combat disinformation, whether it be online or through these other avenues, like you've spoken about.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, I'm really excited you brought that up. I really believe in libraries. I think they are just a great resource for the United States and other countries where they've been employed in the counter disinformation fight because they're so highly trusted. Librarians are among the most trusted individuals, even still today across political parties. What I would love to see is either through state-level funding or federal-level funding, see grants go out to libraries who can host information, literacy classes, especially directed at seniors. Right? People who might need to have a little help for how to FaceTime their grandchildren, but you can also throw in some media and information literacy into that training that you're doing with them.

Nina Jankowicz:Also, when you have circle time with a bunch of kindergartners in the kids section of the library, let's also educate them about advertising and how it's targeting them. All of that sort of stuff is things that are allies like Sweden, like Finland, like Ukraine and Estonia are doing and it is delivered by a trusted mechanism. Again, somebody that knows their community, somebody that is seen as impartial, someone whose job people view it as to navigate information environments.

Nina Jankowicz:I think that's so critical because if we do like a bumbling kind of top-down US government propaganda campaign about information literacy, everybody's just going to laugh at it. Historically, we're not very good at those sorts of things. I would rather hand it over to the experts. Librarians, civil society, organizations that have deep roots in their community and let them be the conduits of that information, give them the funding and the space that they need to do it.

Nina Jankowicz:Make it a priority and I think we'll see great results. In Ukraine, they had a similar program that was funded in part by the US government, the UK government in Canada and they saw such growth in people's understanding of the information environment. They were able to train 10,000 librarians who then went and trained, I think another 80,000-90,000 people in their own regions back home. This program is still going on today, I think both at libraries and in secondary schools in Ukraine.

Nina Jankowicz:If Ukraine can do it, smaller country than us, but still quite a large country, one of the largest in Europe, I think the United States should be able to implement a similar program to great success as well.

Reema Saleh:Misinformation often runs on kind of anger or existing tensions in our society and social media does as well. Like I'm more likely to see a post if it elicits a really strong reaction from me. What should we do when we receive this kind of information and how do we parse through it when a lot of it seems organic or homegrown?

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah. That's an excellent question. I'll preface my answer by saying it's fine to be emotional. Let's just make sure our emotions are grounded in something real, not something that's spun up by a political operative or by foreign adversary. Right? When I am counseling people on kind of how to navigate the online environment, I try to remind people that the most engaging content online as you pointed out, is often the most enraging content.

Nina Jankowicz:And as we've seen from the Facebook papers, which have been and trickling out over the last couple of weeks, that is certainly true on Facebook. And I don't think they're the only social media platform that traffics in outrage. That being said, when you see this content, when you feel yourself really getting emotional about something you see online, stop for a second. Practice what I call informational distancing, which was something that I started advising people to practice at the beginning of the pandemic and consider why you're feeling so upset.

Nina Jankowicz:Is this something that is based in fact? Do you know the source? If you don't know the source, do a little bit of research. If this is a publication or a Facebook page or group, see what's behind it. See who's behind it. Do they have contact information? Is this a real person or a journalist who's published this post? If you can, do a reverse image search on their profile picture or Twitter picture to see if it brings you to an organic picture, or if it's something that's been edited or misappropriated.

Nina Jankowicz:A lot of times I can identify fake accounts because I do a reverse image search and it'll bring me to like stock haircut photos. That's a great way to do it. And then also, when we're talking about breaking news and things like that, see if anybody else is reporting what is causing you this emotional configuration in a different way.

Nina Jankowicz:Is a mainstream outlet reporting the facts the same way? Is there an outlet on the other side of the political spectrum, that's reporting the same details? Just do a little bit of crosschecking or what Michael Cofield, who's at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public calls lateral reading. Looking across the internet to see like, is this true? Is it being reported the same way elsewhere? Just getting yourself a little bit more context because there are so many manipulative people and outlets online.

Nina Jankowicz:When you do that, you're going to be more informed anyway. It's a bit like writing a book report, when we were taught to do this back in elementary school, you weren't allowed to just use one source. You need to kind of consider all sides of the equation before you come to a conclusion. If you find that there has been, let's say, an incident of police brutality and everybody is reporting this the same way, you've been able to confirm the facts across multiple outlets, you know they're coming from a verified reporter on the ground, if you're interested, you can even go a little bit deeper and do some open source investigation and try to confirm where a live video was shot, things like this.

Nina Jankowicz:That's a little bit more skilled than we have time to go into today, but people do that. That's how you get information that is grounded. In fact, you remove the emotion from your initial reaction, and you are just thinking about what is true to inform your opinion. And then you can go forth and use that to fuel your activism, use that to fuel your interjection into the online discourse. But it's so important that we take those few extra steps and I've probably spent more time talking about it than it would take you. It's just a couple of quick Google searches and a couple of deep breaths before we click share. And that matters so much. We're kind of the front lines of the information warrant.

Annie Henderson:We've spoken a lot about your first book and I'm personally very excited to hear about your second book as well, which is called How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back. Specifically, I'm curious if you see a connection between the harassment women face online and some of these broader disinformation campaigns that we covered and that you've covered at length in your first book.

Nina Jankowicz:Yeah, absolutely. Actually, that's how I got into the whole gendered harassment space. I am a woman online, so I get this stuff myself, but it really started becoming an issue I cared even more about when I heard from interviewees during my first book, women in Georgia and Ukraine who had been the victims of targeted gendered disinformation campaigns coming from the Kremlin.

Nina Jankowicz:That's when I really started thinking about okay, we've heard a lot about how, how disinformation affects marginalized communities or different ethnic groups, but we really haven't heard about how it affects women. It was clear to me looking at like the Russian ads in 2016, that actually Russia was quite misogynist in its treatment of Hillary Clinton. The way that Russia had treated during the Obama administration let's say Jen Psaki who's now, of course, the white house press secretary, extremely misogynist. Russia doesn't have a great track record with feminism in general in its own domestic policy.

Nina Jankowicz:So, I started thinking about this more and I was lucky enough to do some research at the Wilson Center earlier this year with a great group of researchers that looked into not only the quantitative background of how women are treated online. We followed 13 candidates for office in the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada over a period of two months at the end of 2020 and found a staggering amount of gendered abuse and disinformation against them. I think something like 330, 6,000 pieces of content.

Nina Jankowicz:78% of which was directed at vice president, well at that point, candidate Kamala Harris. So really just truly, truly staggering amounts of hate. But we also saw through some structured interviews that we did with journalists and other women in the public eye, a very specific and deliberate use of gendered and sexualized tropes against women who were covering Russia, Iran, and China.

Nina Jankowicz:For me, this isn't just an issue of I'm a woman and people think it is part of my job just to endure this hatred online, which is bad enough, but it's also that the longer that we let this fester, it becomes a national security problem, right? We're in the age of deep fakes and most of the deep fakes that exist today, over 90% or 95% even are deep fake pornography. It's only a matter of time before convincing deep fake porn video is released of someone like AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) or Kamala Harris or someone else.

Nina Jankowicz:We really, really need to get a handle on this, and the platforms don't do anything about it. There's no protections for women in our legal code. Law enforcement don't know what to do when they're presented with claims of cyber stalking or cyber harassment. It has an effect on you.

Nina Jankowicz:As somebody who's gone through this stuff myself, it makes it almost impossible to do your work and in the book and you know, I've used this analogy in real life too, because people don't understand how much it affects you, I compare it to, let's say you were walking down the street and suddenly there was a swarm of people, mostly men picking apart every part of your appearance, reducing your degree and all your hard work to your gender, telling you to get back in the kitchen, telling you to make babies and stuff that I can't say on this podcast, that would be something that we wouldn't tolerate. We'd take out a restraining order. The police would help you.

Nina Jankowicz:Online, we don't have that protection. Instead, as the internet has really even more so during the pandemic become an extension of ourselves, particularly for people who have a large online presence, journalists, academics, et cetera. It's just debilitating to undergo this stuff.

Nina Jankowicz:Women are just expected to endure it. "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." That's something my trolls have said to me before. So, I'm trying to change that. I do think that this is very, very closely aligned to the disinformation campaigns that we see both coming from foreign actors and domestic actors.

Nina Jankowicz:Just this week as we're taping this podcast, we saw representative Paul Gosar sharing cheap fake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were face plastered down an anime character's body, which then he proceeds to kill. I would say that is gendered abuse and disinformation. This is something unfortunately that I think is only going to become more and more common as we have more and more women in public life. I do not want it to affect the participation of my future children in public life.

Nina Jankowicz:I don't want them to look at my Twitter replies or look at Kamala Harris' Twitter replies and see shocking things and say, "You know what? I'm not going to run for public office. I'm not going to put myself out there." We need women in the conversation. And that goes doubly so for women of color and women of marginalized backgrounds who receive even more abuse than their white peers do.

Reema Saleh:I was genuinely surprised when that Twitter video wasn't taken down. How should platforms be responding to gender disinformation and harassment? What should policymakers be doing?

Nina Jankowicz:There's so much. The platforms have gotten ever so slightly better or a little more attentive over the past couple of months since our first report came out and I will say they have been at least willing to listen to the critiques we have for them. But right now, the biggest problem is that the onus of detecting and reporting and dealing with the harassment is on the target of those being harassed. It's on women. It should be the platform's job to protect their users from harassment and abuse.

Nina Jankowicz:Twitter has just introduced safety mode, which I think is an improvement. It's essentially something that will auto block people from your replies, who are using nasty language for as long as you like if you're undergoing like a trolling campaign. But again, the onus is on the user.

Nina Jankowicz:What I would like to see is more proactive detection of this content. If we were able to find 336,000 pieces of gender abuse and disinformation over a two-month period, attacking 13 different women, imagine what the platforms can find if they just put together a list of classifiers that they are updating fairly frequently.

Nina Jankowicz:In addition to that, we need to see consequences for those who are using this type of abuse. Right now, they just get a slap on the risk. They might get their account suspended. They might be asked to delete the offending tweet. Very rarely are they kicked off the platform, particularly if they are a large follower account that is essentially sending dog whistles to their followers to go and harass someone which has happened to me and happens to a lot of people. Those instigating accounts never have any consequence. So, there's a lot for platforms to be doing more proactively to protect women.

Nina Jankowicz:There's a reason that on Reddit, on Twitter, women make up less than half of the online population. It's because we are dealing with so much more abuse. On the platform side, I would just say they really just need to enforce their terms of service. All of the thing that I've mentioned are things that go against terms of service, and we don't see them taken care of. That's number one.

Nina Jankowicz:And then policy makers, I think there is some attention to this problem, particularly among women politicians, Jackie Speier of California is very, very interested in these issues. And we've spoken with a number of other members of congress as well. The problem is anything that has to do with gender becomes a polarizing issue in this Congress in particular. The violence against women act still hasn't been renewed.

Nina Jankowicz:I think there are some provisions being discussed in BAWA to add support for women who have undergone online harassment and perhaps to equip law enforcement with training and tools that they need to deal with some of these claims. But unfortunately, I think anything that Congress is able to pass, that's going to help normal people, isn't going to be implemented for a couple of years.

Nina Jankowicz:So, in the meantime, we really need the platforms to step up again. The one other thing that I would love to see introduced in the House and Senate individually and then in other parliamentary bodies around the world is rules for people who are sharing gendered abuse. So, for the representative Gosars or others, if they're sharing this sort of abuse or violent abuse from their official accounts, they need to be censored. There needs to be a consequence for those who are engaging in this sort of behavior to their colleagues.

Nina Jankowicz:This is supposed to be a civil deliberative institution and it's not supposed to be somewhere where people have to deal with violent threats from people they go to work with. Make no mistake, the idea there, again, isn't just to silence Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the interim, it's to send a message to all women, especially women of color or progressive women that they're not welcome in those spaces.

Nina Jankowicz:That is just unacceptable. So, I hope to see something like that introduced at least in the house sometimes soon as a result of what we've seen this week, but we've seen other issues that have met no resistance from the house rules committee or others. Just a few ideas. There's more in our report, malign creativity, which you can find on the Wilson Center website.

Annie Henderson:I think you've already answered this for online harassment that women face. But what are some of your big takeaways for policymakers when you're talking to them about disinformation more generally? You obviously speak to policymakers about this topic. What are your big points that you really need them to understand and take back with them?

Nina Jankowicz:The one that I repeat over and over, and I still think, unfortunately, is not heard by some politicians is that disinformation is not a partisan problem. It's a democratic problem. It doesn't matter what political party is being helped in the interim by disinformation. It might help your party today, but it might come to attack you tomorrow. It really is going to affect all of us. It's going to affect faith in the democratic system as we've already seen. It takes years to recover from something like that. I have served on election observation missions in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, where there is this deep-seated distrust of the electoral system because of legitimate fraud that existed there for many years. And so, I often think about in the wake of January 6th in the #StopTheSteal movement, how many people go to the ballot box now and don't trust that their vote is being counted?

Nina Jankowicz:I really do worry about that. It's not just our democracy that suffers, but as I've been saying the whole time, our public safety and public health, these institutions are important to the functioning of our society, to the peace and prosperity of the United States. It's ultimately extremely a selfish to say, "It's okay." When disinformation happens, as long as it's not affecting me.

Nina Jankowicz:If any policy makers are listening out there, remember the ultimate victim of disinformation is our democracy and people's participation in it. And without that participation, you're not going to get elected and the system isn't going to function anymore.

Nina Jankowicz:And that's the biggest takeaway for me and something that I find myself again, repeating every time testifying on the Hill or briefing policymaker, otherwise.

Reema Saleh:Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Nina Jankowicz. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh.

Annie Henderson: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


Quantifying Global Peace | Steve Killelea

How we can build more peaceful, resilient societies? In this episode, we speak with Steve Killelea, a global philanthropist focused on peace and sustainable development and author of Peace in the Age of Chaos. He is the founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and the Global Peace Index, which measures and ranks the peacefulness of 163 different countries around the world.

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, Deqa and I speak with Steve Killelea, a global philanthropist focused on peace and sustainable development. He's the founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace and the Global Peace Index, which measures and ranks the peacefulness of 163 different countries around the world. We talk about his recent book, Peace in the Age of Chaos, and how we can build more peaceful, resilient societies.

Steve Killelea: Peace in the Age of Chaos, it covers a number of different themes. The first is the personal journey to peace. Does it really happen by accident? Secondarily, it covers an entrepreneurial story on how you go about developing a world class think tank. And then finally it talks about the state of global peace, and then also describes a concept called positive peace, which is the attitudes, institutions, and structures which create and sustain peaceful societies, combines that with systems thinking to then come up with a transformational concept for how we could go about better running our societies.

Steve Killelea: But really, if I look back on it, peace to me happened by accident. So, my background's in business, I've set up two international IT companies. First one ended up publicly listed on NASDAQ, second on the Australian stock exchange. From that I accumulated quite a bit of money.

Steve Killelea: And so I set up a family foundation to work with the poorest of the poor. And so it's done a bit over 220 different projects down different parts of the world and direct beneficiaries about 3.6 million people. And so, working with the poorest, the poor took me into a lot of war zones, near post-war zones. And it would've been northeast Kivu in the Congo, I was walking through there one day and I suddenly wondered what is the opposite of all these stressed out countries I'm spending time in? What are the most peaceful countries and what could I learn from them to bring to my projects?

Steve Killelea: And really it was a fantasy question. We all have these fantasy questions. But what was profound, so I got back to Sydney, searched the internet, and couldn't find any rankings, the countries of the world by their peacefulness. I thought, wow, that's important. So, that's how the Global Peace Index was born. But out of that comes a really very, very profound question and profound realization: Is that a simple business guy like myself can be walking through Africa and wonder, what are the most peaceful nations, and it hasn't been done, and how much do we know about peace? If you can't measure something, can you truly understand it? If you can't measure it, how do you know whether your actions are actually helping you or hindering you?

Deqa Aden: You touched a little bit about positive peace. My question for you is what is negative peace and why is it important for us to distinguish positive peace from negative peace?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, that's a very good question. But I think the question coming back from that is what is peace? And so peace means different things to different people. So, you can hear a politician speak and peace is when the war stops, but that doesn't mean that you've actually got a peaceful society. You've just got one where you haven't got two armies fighting. There's also the concept of inner peace. And so inner peace may be described as the absence of conflictive emotions, certainly the concepts in the East of inner peace, of what they would call happiness, which is very different than the Western concept of happiness.

Steve Killelea: So for me, peace and the definition used for peace is relative to what you're trying to achieve. So, you think, well, what aspect of peace am I trying to understand here? And then you look at a definition to match.

Steve Killelea: So now, if we look at the Global Peace Index, we use the definition called the absence of violence or fear of violence as the definition of peace. And that's what you could call negative peace. Now it's very, very good. It's a definition just about everyone can agree on. You don't get too much argument. And it's something which leads to being able to get metrics to be able to measure peace. So, if you look at the Global Peace Index, it's got three different domains. So, it's got internal safety and security, maybe things like homicide rates, violent crime, terrorist acts, number of police, number of people in jail, etc., ongoing conflict and militarization. So, you can measure them. Now that's very, very good because now you know the state of peace. You know the state of peace with all the countries you're measuring – in our case, it's 163.

Steve Killelea: And then you also understand the velocity of peace in those countries. Is it improving or is it getting worse? And along a whole range of dimensions. So, that's truly, truly insightful. But what it doesn't do is tell you what it takes to create a peaceful society. Now that is what positive peace is. So, that's positive peace. And so we describe that as the attitude, institutions, and structures which create and sustain peaceful societies.

Steve Killelea: Now what sets that apart from the work of other people working in these fields is we've derived this through mathematical modeling and statistics. So, we've got something like 50,000 different data sets, indexes, attitudinal surveys at the country level in Sydney. So, what we do is mathematical modeling, statistical analysis against those data sets to find out the factors which are most closely associated with the Global Peace Index. And so those factors then, we take them, we do further analysis to be able to clump the ones which are most statistically significant together, that then forms a framework, or it's eight pillars, of positive peace.

Steve Killelea: Now the beauty of that is, one, it's not my ideas on what creates peace or the researchers’ ideas on what creates peace. It's factually driven within a positive peace index and not set by us. They're dependent on the way, on the strength of the correlations with the Global Peace Index. Now, as we pull that all together, we can now create a positive peace index and that's really quite profound because that now gives us the ability to be able to look at how a country's momentum's changing on the factors underlying what creates peace.

Steve Killelea: But what's more profound is what we found is when we took this Positive Peace Index, the same factors, which create peace, also create a whole range of other things which we think are really important in society. Such as high per capita income. In fact, countries which are improving in positive peace on average have 2% per annum higher GDP growth rate than countries which are decreasing. Perform better on measures of ecological sustainability, perform better on measures of your wellbeing and happiness and on measures of inclusion.

Steve Killelea: So, from that, what we derived is that positive peace, in many ways, describes an optimal environment in which human potential can flourish. And that's quite important. We then take the positive peace and then combine it with a whole set of systems, thinking, and theory to better understand the way societies operate. And that is when we start to get looking at the transformational way, Western governments and societies, about how we go about doing societal development.

Reema Saleh: Can you talk a little bit more about the Global Peace Index and the methodology in scoring countries?

Steve Killelea: Sure. So, if we look at the Global Peace index, as mentioned earlier on consists of three different domains, first one's safety and security, the second is ongoing conflict, and the third is militarization. So, we bring these together to create these three dimensions to create a compass and index. Consists of 23 different measures. We have an expert panel that looks at the indicators and assesses them and makes recommendations on what indicators we should and shouldn't include. And the index itself has been slowly evolving over time. Having the three different domains, you can take all of it as composite index and see what's happening and where the changes are or alternatively, you take each of the domains separately and see the momentum and direction of them. So, one of the more fascinating things which comes out of it is if we look back over the last decade, more countries have actually improved in peace than deteriorated. Most people wouldn't believe that, would they?

Steve Killelea: In fact, we've had 86 countries improve and 75 deteriorate. However, peace globally actually deteriorated over that time. And that speaks simply because when countries fall in peace, they fall faster than they improve. Takes a lot longer to improve in peace. You need the outbreak of the conflict or something, and it really drops significantly. So, if we come back and we look at, let's say domains like safety and security, it consists of a number of different measures, which are able to balance each other out. So, some of the things would be, let's say, the number of police, the levels of incarceration, levels of violent crime and homicide. And all those come together. So, if you have a police state, let's say a spy in every 10,000, it'd be really quite peaceful in terms of violent crime. But on the other hand, it's not a very peaceful place to live. So we look at the level of policing, the level of incarceration, and the level of violent crime. We also got the availability of small arms within the society. That's also a negative. We also measure the number of violent demonstrations, let's say, and a number of other measures. State-sponsored terror on its citizens, that'd be another measure which we have in there as well. So that's the safety and security. So that's really focusing on the internal.

Steve Killelea: Now militarization, that consists of a number of different indicators. So it's like percentage of GDP spent on the military, number of troops per 100,000 people in the population, sophistication of the weapons – countries with nuclear weapons score the worst possible score on that. And then the size of the imports and exports of military equipment as well.

Steve Killelea: And now, so if you look at the definition which we use for the Global Peace Index, absence of violence or fear of violence. So some people would say, well, the military keeps the peace. In some ways, that's a very, very true statement, but why do you have a military? It's, one, because you fear your neighbors and that you need to protect yourself against them. So that's fear of violence. Alternatively, you really do have to keep yourself safe or that you want the military to exert geopolitical influence. And that comes back to the use of the military for a country's own advantage. So that's the reason the military's in there. And so we're neutral on the military in terms of what the size of the military should be. Obviously, we don't live in a peaceful world. We need military, but the size of the military really comes down to choice for each individual country. What's the level you need to feel safe without it being then used extensively overseas in conflicts, which didn't need to happen?

Steve Killelea: The final domain is ongoing conflict. And so ongoing conflict measures the number of people killed in conflicts. It measures the intensity of the conflicts, and also the number of the conflicts as well which is going on. One of the more interesting things which is coming out of the work we've done, over the last 15 years what we've seen has been a growing global inequality in the levels of peace. So the countries which are most peaceful are becoming more peaceful, while the countries which are less peaceful are becoming less peaceful. What we find is once you actually get into a conflict trap, very, very hard to get out of it. And similarly, once you get very, very high levels of peace, we haven't had any countries with very high levels of peace, but major falling peace while we've been doing the index.

Deqa Aden: What are some best strategies to collect data from fragile countries? And how can we ensure accuracy when there's still some sort of violence that's happening? And what has been your strategy to ensure that we collect data from everywhere?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, we cover 163 countries, so about 99.7% of the population in the world. Some countries, the smaller ones, you just can't get valid data. So there's two ways of doing it. One is you use whatever official statistics you've got. The second is through using expert assessment. So if you're looking at the indicators within the Global Peace Index, they're a combination of the two. And so also you go for the best data resources that you can get your hands on.

Steve Killelea: So if you can go down into some countries, let's say DRC, for example, getting an accurate rate on a homicide rate is very hard, but you'll have estimates there. And the reality is that you are out by 10%, 15%, because you've got the 23 indicators from different directions, it doesn't matter too much. So whether something's 120 on the Global Peace Index or 130, it's not really so important - you're still getting an idea of the relative peace. But the best way of doing it, you balance it out with the best statistics you can get then combined with some things which are expert assessment. So like political instability, that'd be the example of one indicator which we use which is expert assessment.

Reema Saleh: What are the difficulties that come with quantifying this kind of data?

Steve Killelea: One is the availability of data. So it's a lot of things we'd like to measure, but there aren't yet decent data sets to measure them. Domestic violence would probably be one good example. The other thing is there's political dimension in this. And I think that's one of the reasons why we were the first organization to really do it. So because we've done a lot of work, let's say, with the European Union, for example, and they'll measure all the countries around the world by a level of peacefulness, but they won't measure anything inside the EU. Just too politically difficult.

Steve Killelea: So at times, you've got to be very, very sensitive to the political issues around this. So the mechanism we've taken with inside the Institute is we talk to the data. We don't talk to the politics. And then we let people draw their conclusions from the data. And so we've got a quite rigorous standard for just the way we talk about things so that we don't talk about them from a moral, emotional, or political lens wherever we can. But at times you'll find things like, let's say, democracies are highly correlated with peace. And so democracies are correlated with a number of other things as well. So we try and let the data do the talking.

Deqa Aden: We were wondering if you can share with us some trends about the Global Peace Index for 2021.

Steve Killelea: So if we're looking over the last decade, there's a number of trends you can see there. The first, as I mentioned, more countries have improved in peace than have deteriorated. However, when we look at overall peace, it deteriorated by 2% over the period. And it's back to what I said earlier on is that it's a lot easier for countries to deteriorate in peace than it is to improve in peace. It's also a system theory concept of tractable planes, which I've already mentioned. So a tractable plane's an area where countries get pulled into, and once you are in it, very hard to get out of. And so that's high levels of peace and low levels of peace. Then those two are tractable planes. So whereas, we find the top and the bottom of the index doesn't move around a lot. Whereas, the middle you bounce around quite a bit.

Steve Killelea: One of the other things which is interesting, I think, is militarization. So militarizations have been improving for over a decade. And then in the last three years, we've seen that trend change. And so we've now seen percentage of GDP spent on the military increasing in more countries than deteriorating and seeing the number of soldiers per 100,000 populations starting to increase after years over decreasing as well. And so I think what we're seeing is change. And this change in what appeared to be an historic trend which had been going on probably since the '80s, the end of the Cold War, and I think that's because of increased tensions in the South China Sea. It's all the militarization of China, and also an unraveling of relationships between Russia and Europe and NATO as well.

Steve Killelea: So I think these are sort of the underlying facts, not good. Violent demonstrations are on the increase. If looking at violent demonstrations, they're up 161% in the last decade. That's just steadily increasing each year. And down in the United States, if you look carefully, you can see the same trend going on there as well. So that'd be a few of the things. Homicides globally have improved, so that's an encouraging sign from one direction as well. So there are a few of the highlights which we can see out of studying the Global Peace Index.

Deqa Aden: So Iceland has been ranked the most peaceful country for the last 10 years. We are wondering why is that the case?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, there's always the standard joke in Iceland. Well, it's so cold, no one goes outside, do they? But I think that's a bit of a throwaway line. So I spent quite a bit of time in Iceland over the years, beautiful country. Any of your listeners ever want to have a great holiday, go to Iceland. It's one of the most spectacularly stunning places I've ever been in. But if you look at Icelandic history, it's been peaceful for a long, long while. And part of it is the environment: it's fiercely hostile. It's one of the most hostile environments in which people live. And I think what that's done is means if you're out and you've got big distances between people, if you're out and you get caught in a blizzard, you just go to the nearest house and people will welcome you in. In fact, up to about probably 30 years ago, no one locked their houses up. And if you turned up at someone's house, you're quite okay socially to go in and pour yourself a cup of tea. Put a kettle on the stove and have a cup of tea. Can you imagine doing that in Chicago or Sydney, for that matter? You'd be arrested.

Steve Killelea: But if you go back even in history, there's only been one real war fought internally within the country and that goes back to about 1200 AD, so a long, long while ago. Similarly, what happened is the men would be on boats. They'd go away for long periods of time because they had to go to get goods, bring them back, and things like that. And so the communities themselves were very, very good at integrating together.

Steve Killelea: And so I think you've got all these things which go back. One is the environment. Two is the history because they weren't into killing each other. They were into reconciling things. There's a place in Iceland where you've got two tectonic plates meeting, because it's one of the most volcanic active places in the worlds. Literally, you've got the two plates meeting, and one plate's 20 meters higher than the other plate, just the most significant place like it anywhere in the world. But they used to meet there for a big huddle once a year for about two weeks, and everyone from Iceland would come around and that's where they'd set their laws. And then the laws would be set, but you never had police or military to enforce them because the country was too scattered. It was up to the people of the country to actually enforce the laws themselves. So you've got all these rich traditions in it as well, which also I think lead to that underlying sense of high levels of peacefulness.

Deqa Aden: Now that we've discussed the current key trends in the Global Peace Index, we would like your opinion on climate change. When I think of the Global Peace Index, the first thing that comes to mind is political violence, not necessarily climate change. We were wondering why is climate change mostly excluded from the peace talks, and will there be a shift in putting climate change at the heart of peace and security discussions?

Steve Killelea: I think it's a complex issue. We've got the absence of violence or fear of violence as the definition of peace in the Global Peace Index. So putting in climate change would mess the Index up, it wouldn't be an accurate index anymore. Climate change is a very serious threat going forward, and it's going to be an amplifier on conflict, I think everyone sort of agrees with that. However, what it's amplifying is a lot of ecological degradation, and the ecological degradation is there now, and ecological degradation is a driver of conflict.

Steve Killelea: So we just put out a report, an ecological threat report, about three weeks ago. So part of it was to align with COP26, part of it was to get people focused as there's a lot of ecological threats there which we need to address now, which are drivers of conflict. For example, if we look at the 15 countries with the worst ecological damage, 15 of them are currently in conflict and four of them are on our watch lists for further large falls in peace. Now, if we look at what we call hotspot countries - there's 30 of them - so they're countries with very high ecological damage or threat, and also countries with low societal resilience. And we use positive peace to measure societal resilience. Of the 30 countries which are hotspot countries there, 28 of them are in the bottom half of the Global Peace Index.

Steve Killelea: So again, you're driving home this nexus. There's 12 countries in the world, all of them are in Africa, which are going to more than double their population in the next 30 years. Niger is the worst, it's with a projected population increase of 161%. So these countries are already ecologically degraded and stressed, and so these increases in population are just going to increase it further. And then climate change over the top of it is then just going to act as an amplifier yet again, increasing the droughts, increasing the floods. So I think climate change is going to have a real impact on the planet in the next 30 to 100 years, we really need to be taking what measures we can to reduce it.

Steve Killelea: But climate change is just one of a whole range of stresses we've got. Biodiversity is another one, it's very hard for a lot of us to fully understand the ecology and our dependence on a healthy ecology, but it's there. A lack of water is another one, and there are other stresses as well. So if we're looking at let's say food insecurity, this is one which is intimately tied in with this ecological degradation which we study and conflict, so if you look at food insecurity, it's increased 44% since 2014. And if you went back for decades prior to that, it'd been improving every year, but since 2014 it's got worse every year. In fact, it's 44% worse than what it was in 2014.

Steve Killelea: So today 2.3 billion people are food insecure, that's about 30% of the population of planet. But if you went to Africa, what you'd find is that two thirds of the population are food insecure, and getting worse. And the whole population of Africa is meant to increase by 90%, it was projected to increase by 90% in the next 30 years. So these are urgent problems which are existing there today, and so we really need to start to look at and address it. And we've got to address it in systemic ways, so we need to be looking at the whole of the system.

Steve Killelea: And so the Sahel in Africa's a pretty good example. So if you look at the Sahel in Africa for example, you've got Islamic militants there which have got loyalty to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, so you've got refugee issues. You've got ecological degradation, lack of food, lack of a water, water is needed for the food, you've got weak governance as well. And so we need to start look at all these issues systemically, how can you pull them together and do things to improve the societal systems to tackle many of these things simultaneously? But the systems we use, and all the institutions I should say, we use are siloed.

Steve Killelea: So let's come back to the Sahel, you've got military operations there, we'll just look at this through the lens of the UN. So you've got military operations going on there, that could be UN Peacekeeping. You've got UNHCR for refugees, you've got FAO which looks at the food, you've got UNDP which looks at development. But even it comes down to siloes, like WaSH programs and standard developmental programs somewhere else. And I could keep going, but you're getting an idea. So if these are systemic problems, we need institutions which operate systemically to be able to try and tackle them and solve them.

Steve Killelea: And in the book Peace in the Age of Chaos, that's what a lot of is about, we've got to start rather than seeing these as siloed problems, a military problem, a refugee problem, a development problem, a population problem. So you've got the UN Population Fund working on family planning, another silo, it's how do we bring them together to look at a specific area and how do we now tackle that? Weak governance as well, so if you look at a lot of the states there, they’ve got very, very weak governance and very, very weak rule. So now if you're looking at building governance, well, that's back into the IMF and the World Bank, how do we bring it all together? That'd be the major thing that I'm talking about. And climate change fits as one of the issues under all of that, but a very, very big and very, very important issue.

Reema Saleh: You write a lot in your book about the importance of systems thinking and how the elements of peaceful societies come together to make resiliency. How does this approach work to measure a country's resilience to shocks or future conflict?

Steve Killelea: So what we've found is that positive peace is an excellent measure of a system. So what we've done is, the way it's been derived, it's eight different pillars. And so eight's not too many, most people can get their head around it, but it's enough to describe a such societal system. None of this is counterintuitive, things like well-functioning government, strong business environment, equitable distribution of resources, high levels of human capital, acceptance of the rights of others, good relationships with neighbors, low levels of corruption, and so they all come together systemically.

Steve Killelea: Now, what's important when you're looking at this now, and you're taking the positive peace, what we find is it's very, very good at being able to predict future falls in peace. So in that way, you'd say it is a measure of resilience. And so peace in many ways, it's a relative concept, it's only relative to another entity. So show a country as peaceful, that's dependent on the other countries you're looking at, isn't it. Or is it resilience, show a country as resilient, it's depending on what else you're looking at.

Steve Killelea: So what we find is when there's a big difference between the measures of positive peace and the measures of the Global Peace Index, it's a good predictor of large future falls in peace, so you can see that as a measure of resilience. So countries where the positive peace score is much, much lower, the actual peace of the country, they tend to fall. And now when we are using that as a model, we call that a positive peace deficit model. We can get 10 years out, we can get 70 to 90% accuracy in large falls of peace, depending on the number of countries we pick. The smaller the number of countries we pick, the more accurate the model is, which gives you an idea of the strength. So also looking at resiliency. Another example, let's look at civil resistance movements. Countries high in positive peace, they have less civil resistance movements, they last for a shorter amount of time, more moderate in their aims, more likely to achieve their aims, and are far, far, far less violent.

Steve Killelea: And so as we come back to positive peace and again systemically, we see that things which create a peaceful society such as positive peace, also create a lot of the other things which we think are important, which I mentioned earlier on, things like high per capita income, better measures of wellbeing, happiness, better measures on inclusion, better measure on ecology, better measures on development. So again, coming back and we're seeing that if you can get the societal system right, what happens is everything else follows. An example that'll come back, the ecological degradation. So no country, which has high positive peace has really poor ecological degradation. This comes back, a lot of it, to the social system. It all comes together. So if you've got a well-functioning society, you capture the amount of water which you need to sustain your culture. From that, you've got productive agriculture, you should've got good government policies to oversee agriculture, and you've got efficient markets for the distribution of the produce. Your countries like Singapore, where you can't grow enough, you've got export industries which get the income so that you can import food. And also, the country's high in positive peace in this age have all got very small population growth. So from that angle, they're quite sustainable. That's just an example. It's when you get the system right, it's self-perpetuating. It looks after itself.

Steve Killelea: And countries which are high in positive peace are quite adaptive. I mentioned seven of the eight pillars earlier on, the one I left out was free flow of information. So if you look at the way these things function, they come together. I'll just give a simple example of just how difficult is to find causality in all this. And there's certainly things which do push the system in a particular direction, but think of well functioning government, low levels of corruption, and free flow of information. Free flow of information could be epitomized by a free press, but it's more than that. So does government affect corruption or does corruption affect government? Similarly, does the free flow of information affect the way corruption's done? What is corruption? Stymieing the free flow of information. And similarly, is the government and the things it does affected by a free press or free flow of information, or does the government pass regulations to control and affect the press?

Steve Killelea: You can't pull any of it apart, can you? It's all circular. So as you start to move in the systems side of things, first thing one wants to think about is path dependency. That's the path which a culture's been on. We spoke about Iceland earlier on and we could see the path dependency of Iceland. It's a positive path dependency, which has left them with a high level of peace now. All cultures have these path dependencies. It's their history, it's their cultural norms. And so you really need to be able to understand them, because they're actually fueling the system in a particular direction. So you really need to understand them and understand what needs to change. That'd be one concept.

Steve Killelea: You've also got concept of homeostasis, or steady state. So systems try and maintain a steady state. Look what's been happening in the west with the COVID-19, the way we've been attempting to get the system and keep it in balance. This concept of a steady state, all societies are built like that. If you get outbreaks of crime, you apply more policing. Inflation breaks out, you increase interest rates, et cetera, et cetera. You find all these mechanisms, which are called encoded norms built within societies, to try and keep it in a steady state. This may be a good or may be a bad thing. If it's the steady state, which entrenches corruption, that's not so good, is it? Or it's a steady state, which entrenches the police state, that's not a good thing either. So one needs to look at this and understand it from that perspective. And so, one of the things is you've got mutual feedback loops.

Steve Killelea: What happens there, and think of two political parties as a good example. You have an input into the system, you get a response, and the response comes back and alters the input. Systems are just made up of those kind of things all the time, very different than the physical world. So think of two political parties. One makes a policy manifesto, another party now responds to that policy manifesto, and the first party now adjusts and comes back. So you got this interactive game going on, where one has an action, the other responds, the other has another action in response to it, and so you have those things going on all the time through the system. Could think of the same thing with corruption. You bring in the law to control corruption, and corruption then manifests and starts to take a new form and get active in areas where it wasn't necessarily active before, because the system is pushing it down a different direction. And this could come back to then your cultural norms, your path dependency, what is the public perception of what's acceptable corruption? Varies from society to society.

Deqa Aden: So finally, I would like to ask you, what is the biggest takeaways policy makers should take from the book Peace in the Age of Chaos?

Steve Killelea: Yeah, well, there's a number of takeaways, but I'll just hit a couple of points. I think the first we haven't really covered in this interview is peace comes with an economic dividend. Don't underestimate how strong it is, because I gave the example earlier on of the 2% higher GDP for countries which are high in positive peace compared to countries which had deteriorated. That, when you compound it over 60 years, is a profoundly big difference. But if you look at cost of violence of the global economy in 2020, it was about $15 trillion. That's about 11.6% from memory of GDP. That's a lot. None of us can imagine a world which is peaceful, but we can all imagine a world which is 10% more peaceful, and that would be equivalent of adding three new economies to the world the size of Ireland, Switzerland, and Denmark. So peace is an achievable, tangible idea and comes with strong economic dividends, which is a key interest for all politicians.

Steve Killelea: The second thing I'd say is that societies operated systems and we don't actually get it. We've got a lot of systems, we think, yeah, there's a health system, there's a policing system, an education system, but we don't understand the principles of systems thinking and the actual study of systems from a societal perspective is still in its very, very early stages. That's a lot of the stuff I talk about in the book, and a lot of the stuff we're now starting to really study at the Institute for Economics and Peace. The second thing I'd say is that we can't go about business as usual. The big issues we've got on the planet, they're global in nature, things like climate change, ever decreasing biodiversity, full use of the fresh water on the planet, but underpinning many of those is overpopulation.

Steve Killelea: Unless we have a world which is basically peaceful, we'll never get levels of trust, cooperation, and inclusiveness to solve these problems, therefore peace is a prerequisite for the survival of society as we know it in the 21st century. That's probably different than any other epoch in human history. In the 21st century, it's in everyone's self-interest, but we have to understand the system dynamics and we have to operate our political systems more systemically, because our issues today are global in nature, and they're all systemic.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Steve Killelea. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar 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.

Root of Conflict


Human Rights in Yemen | Afrah Nasser

What are the prospects for peace in Yemen and how do we hold international actors accountable? In this episode, we speak with Afrah Nasser, a researcher with Human Rights Watch investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen. A former activist and independent journalist in Sana’a, Nasser has been advocating for human rights and justice in Yemen for over a decade.

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. In this episode, I speak with Afrah Nasser, a researcher with Human Rights Watch investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen. She was an activist and independent journalist in Sana'a, and has been advocating for justice in Yemen for over a decade. So to start, can you walk us through the beginnings of the civil war in Yemen? How have things changed since the 2011 revolution?


Afrah Nasser: 2011 was a very significant point for Yemen's political life, in general. There were a lot of stereotypes about Yemen, that following the Arab Spring, there will not be an uprising or any democratic aspiration in Yemen, given that it's heavily tribal society and there is not room for democracy or a democratic life already. But in 2011, all the youth took the street and protestors were chanting, “irhal, irhal,” which means, "leave, leave." Meaning they were demanding the downfall of the president back then Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than 30 years and was preparing presidency for his son. And then 2011 was the start of all what we see today because there was an international war to topple him with some conditions. So Ali Abdullah Saleh gave up power after the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia, stepped in and gave him a power transfer deal, which meant that he was going to give away power and then an exchange of impunity.

Afrah Nasser: So there was guarantee that he was not going to face any transitional justice or at least 400 people from his circle. And that was in my opinion, the seed of the civil war that followed in 2014, because the transition without justice was a recipe for a disaster already. So in 2014, there was alliance between the former president Ali Abdbullah Saleh and the rebel group, the Houthis, to take revenge against some of the political actors inside Yemen that worked with the international community to topple him. And it was like a marriage of convenience because Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthis already had several episodes of war, but because they had mutual interest at that time. So, that alliance was planning to challenge the presidency of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. So in 2014, the Houthi armed group marched into the capital Sana’a and took control of the major institution and gradually took over of the state.

Afrah Nasser: And then this was marked with a lot of violence inside Yemen, especially the capital, which escalated with the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. So in March you had the Saudi Ambassador to the US back then Adel al-Jubeir, announcing from the US that Saudi Arabia was leading a coalition of nine to eleven, I'm not sure, Arab states that were going to form a military alliance and fight the Houthi armed group in Sana'a, as he described the Houthi were backed by Iran, and that was a big threat to Saudi Arabia. So since then, seeing the major conflict between the Saudi-led coalition with two key actors in that coalition are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fighting in Yemen, the Houthi armed group. And then at the same time, civilians were really facing so many abuses in violations by the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group.

Afrah Nasser: And then in 2017 in the Houthis killed Ali Abdullah Saleh, which gave them eventually the upper hand in controlling the capital Sana'a. So today you have the Houthi armed group controlling major parts of the north. While in the south, you have the Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the UAE, controlling some part of the south. And also there is a presence of the Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces in the east of Yemen and south. So today we can say that Yemen is divided by different part, by different actors, which is like a multi-layered conflict. So you have one civil conflict, and then on the other level, it's internationalized because the Saudi-led coalition is enabled by the arm deals that it's able to add from major Western states like the US, the UK, France, Canada, et cetera.

Reema Saleh: Could you talk about some of the human rights abuses that have been coming from both parties?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. So since throughout the course of the conflict, we've seen unlawful attacks by the Saudi led coalition, some of the abuses and violations include bombing schools, hospitals, funerals, weddings, and other civilian sites. The exact number of the casualties in my opinion, is underestimated. So according to the UN the latest statistics from the UN is that nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed. And that's not only by the unlawful attacks, but also including the humanitarian impact of the conflict. And then there is also lack of reliable statistics about the casualties of people killed by hostilities and unlawful attacks by the Houthi armed group. So, that makes it really unfair to describe the impact of the unlawful attacks. But from what we've seen is that the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi armed group forces are committing unlawful attacks or use of violence against civilians or civilian targets.

Afrah Nasser: And then one of the major abuse that I care a lot about and work on a lot, is the detention crisis across the country. So, we've seen since the beginning of the conflict, there is a widespread of arbitrary detention and forcible disappearance of countless number of civilians. And Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni forces and the Houthi armed group are all responsible of committing those detention cases. So without exaggeration, from my experience working on this, I feel like every household have been impacted by the detention crisis. I'm bombarded with messages of relatives of missing men who are asking Human Rights Watch to document their cases. It's just the level of detention is just shocking. And the longer the war goes on, the more new groups are impacted by the detention situation. So this year there are reports from the UN coming saying that there are children also that were detained by some of the parties of the conflict. Human Rights Watch, we've worked on the case of the Yemeni model, Intisar al-Hammadi.

Afrah Nasser: So we've seen also women are being also subjected to detention. So, Intisar al-Hammadi is still imprisoned and facing unfair trial in Sana'a by the court that's controlled by the Houthi authorities. And there are other women also that are detained in her case as well and their families are not able to speak up because of the really deadly consequences of them speaking. So detention is just one area that I feel like is impacting every household. The situation for children also is just one of the most horrific aspect of the conflict. Because maybe not many people know, but most of the Yemeni population are below the age of 15. So it's a really young population and you see the impact of the conflict directly on children. So, today we have more than half the 20 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection in Yemen, are children.

Afrah Nasser: And most of these children will have those consequences of the humanitarian crisis for all their lives, because it impacts their growth, it impacts their intellectual ability. And just every time there is images of skinny children who are becoming the face of the starvation or famine in Yemen, it just breaks my heart because this is going to have long term devastation to the country. And then also children are impacted by the hostilities and violence in particular. We've seen children being targets of shelling by the Houthi armed group while playing, for example. Those cases are really just like a shocking mirror of the violations of their basic rights. And parties to the conflict also continue to use the schools for the military efforts and purposes. So it's just children don't... there is no safe place for children. Neither when they are playing in the street or...even their schools are being targeted.

Afrah Nasser: And it just breaks my heart. The situation from children is one of the worst, I would say, in the conflict in Yemen. And land mines also are a silent killer that not many people really pay attention to. So what we have seen according to some estimates that the death of land mines is at least 9,000 people who were killed. And in particular, the Houthi armed group have used anti-personnel landmines in conducting indiscriminate attacks. So I can go on, the list is really long, but I think one of the things that really concerned maybe the audience is the humanitarian situation and the starvation and the warning from the UN about famine and the humanitarian crisis. And there are many factors that are playing in this regard. But what we know is that parties to the conflict have had tactics or abusive practice that really exaggerated an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Afrah Nasser: So even us in Human Rights Watch, we have documented severe restrictions by the Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government, and even affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed STC forses. They all have had restriction on the delivery of the desperately needed humanitarian aid. So the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it's not a natural disaster, or it didn't happen out of nowhere. It's man made and we know that parties to the conflict are responsible of that. Another underreported, I think, aspect of the conflict is the abuses that migrants face. So this year we saw that a migrant detention center was on fire in the north part of Yemen in Sana'a and it was under the control of the Houthi authorities. And from our investigation, we called the Houthi authorities to hold those responsible of the fire to account. And until today, for all those abuses, there were no justice.

Afrah Nasser: And that tells you about the urgent need of justice and redress for the victims in the course of Yemen conflict. So just last month, the UN specialized group investigating violations in Yemen for the fourth year, published a report saying that, "Until there is no political will from the international communities to address the lack of accountability, we will continue to see the situation in Yemen getting worse and worse and more abuses and more violations." Because parties to the conflict feel that they have free access and no consequences whatsoever in committing all these abuses. And unfortunately, that's being enabled by the silence of the international community and lack of political will to address the lack of accountability.

Reema Saleh: What responsibility does the international community bear for some of these atrocities, especially now that the US has resumed arm sales with the UAE?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah, there is a huge responsibility when we talk about international mechanisms, when it comes to accountability and international humanitarian law and international human rights, Yemen is a great example of the collective responsibility and collective failure, because there are many international actors that are involved in the conflict in Yemen. So the Saudi-led coalition began the military operation with UN Security Council Resolution in 2015. And it's been having the backing and support of most of the international community. And that means the US, the UK, France, others. And it just tells you how this is not just Saudi Arabia fighting in Yemen, but it also all these super powers as well. And then on the other hand, you have within the UN Security Council, we've seen Russia and Iran fully giving diplomatic support to the Houthi. And there are many news media reports about Iran supporting the Houthis militarily and helping them with training and et cetera.

Afrah Nasser: So the international actors in Yemen have huge responsibility to how the course of the conflict has been going. And when I say it's also like a collective failure, because I feel like when we talk about the international humanitarian law, there are mounting evidence, overwhelming evidence documented by respected international non-governmental, non-profit human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, and even Yemeni local rights groups, and even the UN. The UN has established two teams investigating humanitarian IHL abuses and violations in Yemen. And while we have all this overwhelming evidence and documentation and reports, they are all faced by deaf ears from the international community. And it seems there is a collective failure from the international community to pay attention to what is needed and to their legal obligation. And for example, ending their arms deals to parties to the conflict, or even rethinking how they are sending these weapons, what role they are playing in abuses in Yemen. So the international community has a huge responsibility, but also has a huge collective failure.

Reema Saleh: There was an interview that I think you did with Jadaliyya a few months ago, that I came across where you unpack the idea of why Western media often erroneously refers to Yemen as the forgotten war. Can you talk a bit about how Yemen was never remembered by the international community to be forgotten? Could you talk a little more about what this means and what we should take away from it?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I would like to answer to that by going back to how the international media and in particular media in the US were feeling about Yemen when Khashoggi was killed. During that time, when Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there were like this hype, and huge desire and willingness to investigate violations committed by Saudi Arabia at home and outside. And that included putting more scrutiny to what's going on in Yemen. And that was a reality check that Yemen did only matter because it was being seen through the Saudi lens. So Yemen was never a subject matter by itself. There has to be one reason, so we can pay attention to Yemen. There has to be another major event, and then we can look at Yemen. And also when there are other major events happening around the world, secretly, I always pray I hope nothing happened in Yemen during that time, because I know there will not be any media coverage. So for example, with all what was going on in Afghanistan, Yemen just slide to the end of the agenda, or even not even in the agenda of media coverage. I don't mean any disrespect to other tragedies in Afghanistan. And even before that it was in Syria or even to the heinous crime against Jamal Khashoggi, but it's just an interesting way of trying to compare how Yemen don't matter. And how it's really hard to get the media care about what's going on in Yemen. So today you have one challenge that I get, a lot of emails people asking me, "What more can we say about Yemen that hasn't been said before?"

Afrah Nasser: And I think it doesn't feel right, this question. Because look at your invitation, for example, you just invited me to, "Can you tell us about what's going on in Yemen?" So it's just so simple and easy, and it's heartbreaking how Yemen don't matter when it's facing the largest humanitarian crisis. It's just heartbreaking why Yemen don't matter when it's the poorest Arab nation where some of the world's richest countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE are infighting. So I think this should be like a very interesting angle to any journalist, any researcher, any scholar, and yet Yemen is just not even in the map. I'm not going to say it's forgotten, it just doesn't count. For me, it's just shocking, really. I mean, one way that we Yemenis think about this is that, because we are poor, because Yemen is poor, that is the main reason nobody cares about it. Even if someone shows solidarity to Yemen, we feel like, "Oh, thank you for being exception, and seeing a value and showing solidarity to us." But Yemen has a rich history just given an opportunity, it can be as rich as Saudi Arabia, as rich as the United Arab Emirates. So as we speak today, I can see all the bling bling in the UAE Expo 2020 event. And for me, it's disturbing seeing all this extravagance in the UAE while there is misery and pain in their neighboring country in Yemen, while the UAE is backing, some of the most abusive armed forces on the ground, it's just so disturbing. And I just wish there is a chance for Yemen to flourish outside this conflict.

Reema Saleh: The World Food Program has faced some major funding shortfalls this year. With Yemen being its biggest humanitarian operation, what does that mean for the future?

Afrah Nasser: I think the humanitarian crisis is the bigger than just the lack or decline in funding. As long as there is war profiteering and war economy that was created as a product of the conflict, we will continue to have this humanitarian crisis and no amount of humanitarian aid can fix the situation. So today, for example, you have major restrictions from parties to the conflict, the mobility of humanitarian operation personnel and goods within and outside Yemen is extremely difficult, and they are faced by several restrictions from authorities on the ground, and even the Saudi-led coalition as it controls the air base of Yemen. So without lifting those restrictions, no amount of humanitarian aid can fix the situation or make the humanitarian crisis go away. And then you have the war economy. And one, just one tiny aspect of it is the taxation system on the ground.

Afrah Nasser: So there are some tracks that go from east Yemen to south or north. They are being taxed by every point, by every authority that is controlling the different parts. So logistics are becoming more and more expensive. And sometimes they outweigh the humanitarian aid itself. So without dealing and addressing all these obstacles, I think we will continue to have humanitarian crisis. This is why we need accountability measures so we can address or mitigate the humanitarian crisis. It's just a dilemma. You have to rethink your humanitarian strategies in Yemen, given the violations and abuses and restrictions and obstruction of humanitarian aid.

Reema Saleh: So what will eventually need to be done to ensure accountability for these human rights violations when the war is ended?

Afrah Nasser: That will be a huge work for all human rights groups. If the war ends today, that means we have a lot of things to do. But meanwhile, we think that it's so important for Western states, states that are mentioned in the documentation of the UN groups and human rights groups. So we have today, the US, UK, France, Canada, they all have to suspend their arms deals that are going to the conflict in Yemen, going into the parties in the conflict, that are basically enabling the continuation of the conflict. Now, I remember how during Donald Trump, there was this narrative that we can't suspend our arms deal to Saudi Arabia because it's creating a lot of jobs and that will impact our own national economic make interests. So why I'm focusing about the arms deal is because I think this is the least thing that the international community can show that they have accountability, or they want to take the parties to the conflict accountable to what's going on or violations and abuses in Yemen.

Afrah Nasser: And if the state's only way of making money is out of the blood of innocent civilians in Yemen, I think they have a huge problem already. Arms deals are very specific demand that all human rights groups have been asking since the beginning of the conflict. And God bless his soul, when Jamal Khashoggi was killed, there were countries actually that started to suspend their arms deals. So you had Germany, for example, some countries in Scandinavia. So we've seen that this was doable before, so why we don't do it now? I think arms deals is one specific area that the international community can address the lack of accountability.

Reema Saleh: How do you remember Yemen before the civil war?

Afrah Nasser: I remember my college. I remember my school. I remember the nice sessions with families, the jokes. I remember generosity. It's just like everywhere you go. People are just so generous. Even relatives are generous to each other. Neighbors are generous to each other and the more I'm working on Yemen, the more I understand that generosity is fundamental part of Yemeni culture because of war, famine, and misery and pain. So Yemenis do understand what's like to be hungry, what does it feel to be hungry? So they're always generous with food. You might go to the most poor family and yet they will get out everything that they have and show hospitality and try to serve you the best what they have. So this I always remember. And I think the work cannot take that away also.

Reema Saleh: Can I ask what initially brought you to blogging and journalism and writing in general?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I started writing in my journals when I was teenager and then that escalated to writing in local newspapers during my first years of college. And then when I finished college and I joined Yemen Observer, a newspaper in Sana'a, I started to blog also and put some writing in my blog. I've always been passionate about writing, but I think me focusing on writing about Yemen comes from the fact that I had Ethiopian origin. So half of my family are Ethiopians and the other Yemenis. In Ethiopia, I was typical like of all mixed races. In Ethiopia, I was looked as like, "Oh, she's Yemeni." And then in Yemen, I was like, "Oh, she's Ethiopian." But all I know is Yemen. My native language is Arabic. And I grew up in Sana'a and I've always felt I was from Sana'a. So I wanted to demonstrate or prove to the society that I was more Yemeni than any other Yemeni. So, this is why I started writing about Yemen.

Afrah Nasser: Maybe it was in English in the beginning because I felt that was the safe space, because I can speak Amharic as well. And then Arabic was also my native language, but I was being told that, "Oh, you're not Yemeni." So that felt I wasn't Arab also. And then English was somewhere that I chose it wasn't imposed on me or something. Yeah, that's how it all started.

Reema Saleh: Half my family is from Ethiopia as well.

Afrah Nasser: Oh, interesting.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. The other half is from Eritrea.

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. I mean, what's going on in Ethiopia and Eritrea tells you how some of these countries, their history is just full of war and conflicts. And it just makes you really wonder when will this end. But the fact that you're saying Ethiopia and Eritrea, all these neighbors they continue to migrate between each other. My grandfathers during the civil war in Yemen in the 60s, he immigrated to Ethiopia. And then when the conflict happen in Ethiopia during the 70s and 80s, my family, my parents came back to Yemen. That's going through one circle, I think.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of moving back and forth. I have family that's moved between home and Dubai and Saudi, it's definitely... I feel like we're all tied together somehow.

Afrah Nasser: Exactly.

Reema Saleh: Can I ask you what your relationship with your homeland is like now that you're a journalist and the diaspora?

Afrah Nasser: Well, today I am a researcher. I'm not involved in journalism anymore, but I feel like I'm growing into like a global citizen. So, for example, something that I started to care a lot about is climate change or climate injustice, climate crisis, which is impacting everywhere. And COVID really also taught you how this world is a small place. So one virus went everywhere and impacted everywhere. And if one place is not safe, the other will not be safe. So that identity, I think, is becoming more and more clear to me, being global citizen. And I don't think of myself as someone in exile or even me working on Yemen, basically what I'm doing is connecting the dots between the other parts of the world and Yemen. So it doesn't mean I'm just Yemeni from Yemen and working on Yemen. No, I'm actually interested in what's going on everywhere. So the election in Germany, for example, and who will come next after Angela Merkel will definitely impact the arm sales industry, and how that will fuel the conflict in Yemen. And that just example. So I'm interested in everything that is global. And as a global citizen, I think we're far connected than we ever think.

Reema Saleh: So blogging can be a medium between journalism and activism in a way. So how do you think your independence allowed you to cover issues that went under reported?

Afrah Nasser: Yeah. No, it's helped me a lot. I remember one friend in Sweden in 2011 when I first came to Sweden and I mentioned that I had a blog and then we were discussing things about Yemen. And I told him like, "maybe you can read a World Bank report instead of my blog." And then he turned to me and he told me like, "your blog is more credible to me than most of these institutions’ reports." And today I understand why he was saying that. I had so much freedom outside big institutions’ policies and the dos and don’ts and that freedom... I was just writing things that I thought mattered the most to me as someone Yemeni and to my friends, to my relatives. So I wanted to show Yemen from our perspective.

Afrah Nasser: And I think that when you really believe in your value, that's like the most revolutionized thing you can do. Because I didn't believe much of the international media coverage on Yemen and how sometimes - I'm not saying all the time - but they describe Yemen with just one focus. Which is like, for example, terrorism, and I thought Yemen was bigger than that.

Afrah Nasser: So I wanted to talk about all of that. So for example, terrorism. For me, poverty was the biggest terrorism for civilians in Yemen. Not al-Qaeda, or Daesh, and things like that, or the corruption from Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. How that really fueled terrorism that the international media is talking about. So, things like that, for me, just being genuine and truthful were very, very important. And I think that why my writing resonated to a lot of people.

Reema Saleh: Definitely. I think there's something really human in a lot of the stories you were writing at the time.

Afrah Nasser: It's not about being human. It's just I felt like we are not any less than any other nation. Yemen is important like Saudi is important, like the UAE. So I was just writing like that.

Reema Saleh: Yeah. So this is my last question. What inspires you to keep working and what brings you hope in these times?

Afrah Nasser: You see there is this saying, I forgot the name of the philosopher, but he says, "Optimist by the will, and pessimist by the intellect." And it feels like you have to have some sort of hope so you can continue doing what you're doing. Otherwise, there will be no point in the work that you do. And I think tyrannies really want us to have despair and just give up. I think that is what gives me motive to continue is just, I don't want to give tyrannies what they want and I think we need to take what's rightfully ours.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Afrah Nasser. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar 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.



Root of Conflict


Social Cohesion After Conflict | Salma Mousa

Can intergroup contact build social cohesion after conflict? In this episode, we speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq and the challenges to achieving peace between groups.

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.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Wafa speak with Dr. Salma Mousa, a political scientist studying social cohesion after conflict, and what policies can build trust between groups. She talks about her latest study on building social cohesion between Christian and Muslim youth soccer players in post-ISIS Iraq.

Dr. Salma Mousa: As someone who grew up in the Middle East and who was also an immigrant in Canada for a while, the question of how someone's social identity conditions so much of what happens in their life, and how other people treat them, and how they see themselves, was always something that was very top of mind for me. I noticed different situations or environments where my nationality mattered or my religion mattered, and other environments where it didn't matter at all.

And this was all happening against the backdrop of the sporadic violence, especially when I lived in Saudi Arabia, which was targeted based on sect and based on nationality. And so, being in that kind of environment you start to think, okay, so my identity seems to matter sometimes a lot, and other times, it doesn't matter at all.

And so, how can we get identity to matter less? Because the Middle East is not necessarily a place where these social identities have always existed, number one. And number two, these identities have not been things that have structured conflict. It's not necessarily the case that we have to keep killing each other for these socially constructed things. And it wasn't the case for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, for many ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

So, how can we get those things to stop being fault lines, given that there's nothing inherent in our culture that suggests that it has to be that way?

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much. It's a very interesting point that you are bringing your personal perspective into that and your interests professionally. For our listeners who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us about your study that is titled Building Social Cohesion Between Christians and Muslims Through Soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq and what the main findings were?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Sure. So, the study that you referred to was a field experiment in Northern Iraq where I was able to set up a series of soccer leagues, and I was able to randomly assign amateur Christian soccer teams to either receive fellow Christian players or receive some Muslim players, and then they train and compete for a two-month period.

And what I found was being assigned to a mixed team made Christians more accepting and tolerant toward Muslims in terms of their behaviors, but not really toward the Muslims, more broadly. So, what I mean by that is, I found this distinction between how you treat people you know from an outgroup compared to how you treat strangers.

And so, I found that this contact within soccer leagues was really effective at building these local social ties and improving tolerant behaviors toward your teammates and other guys you met in the league, but it did not extend to Muslims more broadly outside of that environment.

So, for example, being assigned to a mixed soccer team did not make you more likely to visit Mosul, which is a big Muslim-dominated city about 40 minutes away from the study sites. So, this suggests that this theory of intergroup contact can be promising in building this very localized community level social cohesion, but it's not necessarily achieving its goal of building generalized social cohesion and prejudice reduction.

Wafa Eben Beri: That's a very interesting point, because, based on my experience in Israel and working with Jewish groups, I found the same finding. The findings showed that the group contact didn't affect the perception of the participant toward the individual from the other group, and less affects the perception toward the collective group represented by the participant.

For example, someone would say, "When I meet this Arab guy, he's very nice, but not all the Arabs are like that, and he's an exception." Could you tell us, how can we expand social cohesion to a more broad level, to take this interaction that has happened between the participant and the individuals to a more collective level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, now I know I need to read your work because this sounds very relevant to what I'm looking at right now. And you highlight a really important issue, which is that these kinds of contact interventions, they aim not to just improve how you feel toward the one or two people who you meet, or who you're friends with, but to actually generalize those positive feelings toward the entire outgroup.

And if that generalization doesn't happen, if you don't update your beliefs about the entire group based on a handful of interactions, then the contact theory is really a failure. It's really trivial. It's nice to build some friendships here and there, but it's just not nearly scalable enough that this is something that we should necessarily be turning to, especially in conflict zones.

So, this question of how can you encourage the generalization of effects, I think this is an open question. Social psychologists point to a few factors that might help. One is typicality. So, you need to view the contact partners as typical, or representative in some way, in order for you to infer something about the entire group.

And actually, I do have some work on this looking at a Muslim soccer star in England, Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool. And long story short, we do find that when you prime people to think about his Muslim identity and that he's a practicing Muslim, it makes Liverpool supporters, the fans of the club, more likely to say that Islam is compatible with British values.

So, this link, emphasizing this link between that one person and the whole group can help facilitate that process, but there's still really a lot that we don't know about it. I mean, people can still exceptionalize a handful of individuals who they like and choose not to see them as representative. So, the question is, is someone really objectively ever typical or representative, or is that actually a function of prejudice, whether you choose to see them as exceptional or not.

And there's this other tension between being representative, but also not confirming stereotypes. So, your group identity should be salient, but it shouldn't be salient in any negative way. You shouldn't be doing any stereotype-confirming behaviors because that won't work. So, there's some tensions, I think, here in the social psychological literature that need exploring.

Aishwarya Raje: So, I'd love to hear more about how you looked at soccer specifically as the framework for your work on social cohesion. I mean, I'm a huge fan of professional soccer, and I'm a terrible player, but I'm a huge fan, I mean, millions of people around the world are. I mean, what do you think it is about the sport, or perhaps team sports in general, that can potentially take a group of people beyond just recreation and competition, and actually build deeper connections on a more human level?

Dr. Salma Mousa: I think there's a few different routes through which sports can build social cohesion. I can think of a few just off the top of my head. One is that team sports naturally fulfill a lot of the conditions laid out by the contact hypothesis.

So, contact across group lines is supposed to reduce prejudice when the contact involves cooperating for a common goal, when it's endorsed by authorities who people respect, and when you are on equal footing, so there's not necessarily a hierarchy or an unequal power status. So all those conditions really lend themselves very nicely to team sports.

There's also, I think, an argument to be made about creating another identity as being fans of the same team or players on the same team. And so, it highlights this common third identity that's shared between people. And so, it highlights commonalities in that way, rather than differences. So, those are just two ways that I think sports – whether you're playing or whether you're watching – can actually... can build some social cohesion or erode some of the group boundaries.


Wafa Eben Beri: During my work I saw a lot of different types of group contact that can yield sometimes different results related to social cohesion. What I mean by that, such as the difference between groups that meet through soccer or food, This is something that sometimes we find something in common. And the group that meet, for example, I have examples in Ireland or in Israel, in bilingual schools or through activism or volunteering together. Can you tell us more about what you think, and if there are different results related to this group contact with different purposes?

Dr. Salma Mousa: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is something that's important, right? What kinds of settings and environments produce contact under those ideal conditions? Team sports is one that lends itself naturally to this, but there are a few others as well.

To some extent, classrooms. You don't have so much the element of having a common goal, but there tends to be some cooperation, having equal footing, having an authority figure that endorses the interactions. So, classroom settings can be positive, and we do find that in the literature.

What's even stronger, most of the time, tends to be roommate assignments. So there, you don't necessarily have cooperation as much, but it's that kind of environment where you have these mini-cooperative interactions and generally a positive experience. And that is also something that we found that is actually effective at reducing prejudice.

Military conscription is another one, military training. So, again, it's the roommate mechanism, but really that fighting with each other and relying on each other seems to be really important. And so, if you want to extrapolate the commonalities across these different settings where we have seen positive effects, and looking at studies that have found negative effects of contact – and there are a few of those – I’d say one of the most important conditions is that you are not competing, that you are cooperating and not competing.

The degree of cooperation, it's a little unclear how much cooperation you need, but definitely the presence of active competition is almost always negative. So, I'd say that if we're starting to move toward an understanding of what are the necessary conditions, I would say that's as close to a necessary condition as we found.

Wafa Eben Beri: I have a follow-up question. You said about the negative results, when we put competition or we don't have a common goal between the interactions of the groups. Can you tell us in which way the results will be negative, how the results are being presented when it's negative? Is it that people become more prejudiced? Can you talk more about that?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, we don't have a lot of very, I say, solid work about this, but I think there are some plausible explanations for why competitive contact is bad. I think the most common sense one to me is that it highlights otherness.

So, if you're put in a situation where you feel that you need to come compete with this group, either for jobs or for scarce resources or even in a sports game, you start to view that person and their group as being opposed to you, necessarily. You are against them. They are different. We have no preferences in common. Our goals are diametrically opposed to each other.

And that, I think, just stresses the sense of otherness and difference, rather than what you want, which is the opposite, where you want to feel like you have some things in common. At least you should have a common goal, even if you have nothing else in common.

I think the other plausible explanation is that there are some interactions that come along with cooperating, like you have to discuss, you have to compromise, you have to make decisions together. And that process, that negotiation process, and just the micro-foundations of actually working together can reveal things about people's personality, can humanize them more. It opens up more of what we call “friendship potential,” which is something that has been found to be very key to contact.

This kind of one-sided exposure where you just see someone in the subway or something – that can actually cause a backlash effect – but you need some space for friendship potential, some conversation in a not so emotionally charged environment. And so, I say those two things where that competition can emphasize otherness and, at the same time, it has very low friendship potential.

Aishwarya Raje: I'd be curious to hear your observations about how you've seen social cohesion play out based on gender. Of course, the study that you did focused on creating soccer teams for young men, but in a lot of context, I think we see women being the social backbone for their families and communities. So, I'm curious as to how you see those dynamics play out in a post-conflict context.

Dr. Salma Mousa: I don't have that much to say about this only because we have such little research that I'm aware of that looks specifically at social cohesion-building strategies that target women specifically. But what I can speak about is my own experience working in Northern Iraq.

I initially wanted to actually have an intervention targeted at women and bringing women from Muslim and Christian groups together, and it became clear very quickly that the social norms in Northern Iraq were not really conducive to this. This is because there's this unofficial system where women are not really permitted to be out in public, and especially in areas with unfamiliar people if they don't have their brother or their husband with them.

So, you would need the permission of the husbands, or the brothers, or the dads in order to be in these new spaces where they're going to be mixing across group lines with people that are unknown or strangers from the out-group. And so, because of the difficulty of actually arranging that contact, I then decided to focus more on men.

And so, this, I think, is an important question of how should we target these kinds of interventions, and I think there is a case to be made that you want to target potentially norm changers or norm leaders when it comes to prejudice. And we should be doing more work to understand how social cohesion operates among women. But, at the same time, there is one benefit of targeting whoever the norm leaders are in society, often, it's men, in that you might actually accelerate some of the change potentially.

Wafa Eben Beri: Can you tell us how group context affects the general political situation or the leadership in the country and vice-versa?

Dr. Salma Mousa: This is the million-dollar question. We have a lot of tools at the grassroots level for building social cohesion. So, things like intergroup contact, empathy-building interventions or education, perspective-taking exercises, and they seem to work, under some conditions, at the grassroots level. But the question is, how are these things affecting the structural barriers to social cohesion?

There are reasons why groups are in conflict, or one group is explicitly being oppressed. And these kinds of grassroots interventions, they're great at building this community level social cohesion – and that's a good thing – but are they really going to address the structural roots of conflict that cause this situation in the first place? And I'm much more skeptical about that.

So, can things like contact overcome barriers to integration like residential segregation, like ethnic entrepreneurs or political entrepreneurs who start stoking tensions between groups? These kinds of more environment-level barriers to cohesion, I think, are much harder to overcome without policy tools.

I think the ideal recipe would be a mixture of both. I think you need stuff happening at the grassroots level and policies at the structural level to really build lasting and sustainable peace. One of the reasons, actually, why this is important, is that if you just do the policy-level intervention, and you don't have grassroots support at least, or acceptance of the intervention, it might not actually have a positive effect.

I'm thinking, for example, some east Asian countries where they actually have very progressive immigration policies, but on the ground, there was not acceptance by the host population. And they're like, “Oh, why are you giving preferential treatments to immigrants?” So, actually, it can go the other way. So, ideally, you need, I think, a mix of those two things, but how you aggregate up from the grassroots level to the policy level, I think, is still unclear.

Aishwarya Raje: And that's a really great segway into my next question, because I know another element of your research interest is migration policy and refugee resettlement and integration.

And I'm curious, would you say that this model of building sports teams between perhaps host populations and refugee populations could facilitate greater refugee integration into the host countries? And how translatable do you think this model is to contexts that are not necessarily post-conflict, but in contexts that are generally just lacking a lot of social cohesion?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, there are some reasons why the theory of change around social cohesion might be different in post-conflict societies and in recently post-violent societies.

I think the distrust towards strangers is higher. The averseness to risk is also higher. The lingering effects of personal trauma, psychological trauma, and community-level trauma is also very high. So, I think for all these reasons – and just baseline prejudice is probably high too. So, for all these reasons, you have a really hard case when you're going into recently post-conflict societies and trying to conduct these kinds of grassroots-level peace-building tools.

At the same time, I think there is a lot of overlap in what we do in peacetime and what can be done in post-conflict societies. So, for example, this idea of intergroup contact, positive contact actually reducing prejudice, it depends to the extent to which you see some of these cleavages in the West as being post-conflict or not, or actively antagonistic.


For me, it's not obvious. For example, if we're looking at law enforcement and minority groups in the US, that's an actively antagonistic situation in a lot of cases. So, I think a lot of these distinctions between post -conflict and peacetime or West and Global South are not necessarily that relevant when you start looking on a case-by-case basis where you do have this active antagonism and hostility, and oftentimes violence as well.

What I would just say is that any time you have that situation where it's active conflict, you are setting things up to be harder, where you have to take a lot more precautions, not least of which from an ethical perspective, before getting into these kinds of grassroots interventions and getting people together, who are not necessarily ready to be brought together yet. So, there's just this extra layer of precautions that need to be taken.

Wafa Eben Beri: How can your research findings can shape the policies in a country in post-conflict, and especially in the context of peacebuilding?

Dr. Salma Mousa: So, I've done a few studies now looking specifically at this idea of contact. Generally, it looks like the effects are positive, but they're much more limited in post-conflict or active conflict settings.

So, what I would suggest to policy makers is any environment or space that you have control over where people are mixing or have the potential to mix across social lines, try to optimize those interactions so that they create the kind of ideal conditions for contact that we know to be generally positive. So, try to avoid competition, try to make the interactions recurring, not a one-time thing, try to get the endorsement of communal leaders who are respected. So, those spaces that you do have control over, optimize them for positive contact.

At the same time, I don't think you can rely only on grassroots tools alone for sustainable peace. So, we need to be addressing the structural roots of either oppression or intergroup conflict, depending on the setting. And so, we need to address things like residential segregation. That's causing people not to interact in the first place, for example. We need to address the kind of national rhetoric or the rhetoric of politicians that demonize certain groups.

So, you can't really just rely on the grassroots level. There has to be support at the policy level as well.

Wafa Eben Beri: Thank you so much.

Dr. Salma Mousa: That was really fun.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Salma Mousa. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar 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.

Root of Conflict


Refugee Mental Health | Aimee Hilado

Refugee populations face unique challenges to mental health and overcoming trauma in resettlement. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health and Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University. Dr. Hilado is the founder and director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in Illinois.

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.

In this episode, Aishwarya and Marina speak with Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker and researcher specializing in immigrant and refugee mental health.

Aishwarya Raje: My name is Aishwarya Raje, and I'm a graduate student at the Harris School of Policy where I'm also a fellow with the Pearson Institute. And on this episode of Root of Conflict, I'm joined by my classmate Marina Milaszewska to sit down with Dr. Aimee Hilado. Dr. Hilado is an expert on refugee and immigrant mental health. She's also an Associate Professor of Social Work at Northeastern Illinois University, and she's the founding clinical director of the RefugeeOne Wellness Program, which is a mental health program established in 2011 for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Illinois. Dr. Hilado, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you for having me.

Aishwarya Raje: So, just to dive right in, what led you to focus your career on mental health and wellness for conflict-affected populations and those who have experienced trauma, and why are these issues that should be prioritized when it comes to working with these populations?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I'm the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. And so, thinking about how to navigate adjusting to life in a new country was really part of my upbringing, watching my parents navigating life in the US. Now, every immigrant story is very different, but there was something about that draw. That draw of understanding, “How do people adjust to life in a new country.” And as time had progressed, I realized that the nature of folks that are coming to the United States is because they have no choice, because they are forced to leave their home countries, that their experiences were unique. And that services in the field didn't adequately address some of the mental health issues that come when you are forcibly displaced.

And that really was what opened my eyes to this work. I'm a clinical social worker by training. I'm an academic researcher, as you said, an immigrant and refugee mental health and much of my career has really focused on how do we think about supporting the health and mental wellbeing of forcibly displaced immigrants and refugees who are in the United States, while elevating their stories to inform policies that are made that do directly impact those that we serve.

Aishwarya Raje: So, later today, you'll be presenting at an event here at Harris, which is organized by the Pearson Institute and by Rotary International, which is focused on evidence-based approaches to working with conflict-affected populations, which makes a lot of sense because we're here at Harris where our slogan is “Social impact down to a science”. So, can you speak to some of the evidence-based approaches that you use when working with these populations, and how do those approaches potentially change depending on the cultural context of the populations that you're working with?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: So, as part of my work, I started a mental health program for immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers called the RefugeeOne Wellness Program. This is a program that's nested in a larger refugee resettlement program, RefugeeOne, and we've been in operation since 2011. We've been resettling refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors from all over the world. And really for me, in thinking about how to effectively operate a program, we had to have a deep understanding of who we were serving.

And so, we integrated a lot of ongoing data collection methods to really get to the heart of what's the need: Who are we serving? What's their story, and what treatments are most effective? And so, we have been tracking what are the symptoms based on region of the world, length of time displaced, gender, age, level of education, because all of that directly impacts the treatment modalities that we use. And over time, in the eight years we've been doing this, some of it is just by what we do, what we learn while we're in the field, but also very intentional studies, descriptive studies, randomized controlled trials, to really understand and document services, needs, and impact.

And that's been part of the work of the Wellness Program. To illustrate, I think about some of the things that we just learned by surprise. When we were resettling refugees from Bhutan, from Southeast Asia, from Africa, we would do universal screening. I wanted that to be part of our programming because I wanted to remove the stigma of mental health. So, rather than say, “Okay, someone looks like they've got needs,” let's ask them, “Have you been sad? Have you had difficulty sleeping?” We said any adult that arrives is going to be asked questions about their health and wellbeing. We would ask you questions about your mood, about your appetite, about your sleep and your relationships with others.

And even with that data, we were able to see trends based on country of origin. How long were they displaced? Where were they displaced? And we used that to inform our treatment modalities. As we started to provide services, we realized that different communities responded to therapy very differently. I think therapy is very much a Western approach to addressing mental health problems and we'd have clients that would come to the first session and they would be supremely polite. And then they wouldn't come back to the next session. And we realized that the one-on-one, face-to-face was just too intense for them.

I would say generally, this was the case with our refugees and asylum seekers coming from Southeast Asia and from Africa, where culturally they're used to being in a collective, they're used to telling their story, their needs within a community-based kind of setting, within groups of people, not one-on-one with someone who's definitely not from their own community. But when it came to other communities, specifically those coming from the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq, what we noticed is that privacy was very important to them. That they weren't ready to share their needs, especially with a stranger who's not from the community. They didn't want to share that with others within their community. And so, we had to tailor their services.

So, what I'm describing is lessons learned that we've collected and tracked to really inform our modalities. Tested the impact of different treatment approaches, whether it's narrative approaches, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness practice, we've seen the level of effectiveness. We track our clients based on pretest and post-test to see is their symptom reduction around the areas that they struggle with most, with the hope of always moving them forward on that pathway to healing.

Marina Milaszewska: Hoda Katebi of Because We've Read and JooJoo Azad fashion blog utilizes economic empowerment to improve the refugee experience in Chicago. Her sewing factory in the Chicago area is called Blue Tin Production Co-op and employs immigrant and refugee women who may otherwise be barred from employment due to language or legal barriers. What do you think is the role of economics and personal finance in the mental health of refugees?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I think it's incredibly relevant that oftentimes, when we think about how people arrive into the United States, we think about their migration story and their story doesn't begin just when they arrive. We think about their experiences abroad, the time in which they are traveling to their next destination, whether that's a week, whether that is decades. And then we think about their experiences upon entering the United States.

For those that we're serving, and I think about the RefugeeWellness program, and I think of who we're serving right now, many of them have been displaced on average 17 to 20 years. And so, when you think about that time, just waiting for a resolution to come to the United States, when they come here, the first priority for them is not to talk about mental health. It's about getting the job. It's about learning the language and rebuilding their lives because no matter where our refugees are coming from around the world, the United States is still a beacon of hope.

They hear about the American Dream, and that is a priority for them. We also know that the policies, the funding that's allocated to US refugees, the State Department, is really not enough. That there is a housing allocation that really is just about three months of housing funds, where there is an expectation that new arrivals are going to be able to become self-sufficient in a very short period of time. And so, there is that driving force to stabilize themselves with jobs, stabilize the economics, and so, it is so critical.

We are lucky that we are in a time where there are more employment opportunities. We have, in the resettlement program, specific services, where we have employment staff that work with local companies, hotels, factories, the airport services, to make sure that they can serve as liaison for those that maybe had been farmers in their own home countries. Because really, the stress of not being able to put food on the table, the stress of not being able to pay the rent is overwhelming and it actually takes priority before they start talking about previous past trauma symptoms. It's in the here and now, and that's relevant survival. I think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We're not going to get them to talk about past trauma if they're worried about their most basic needs being met. So, very critical.

Aishwarya Raje: Just going back a little bit to what you were saying about the different cultural context that you work with: in addition to managing personal finance and mental health, given the gender breakdown of the populations that you work with, what do you see as some of the unique challenges that women face? Whether they're trying to find employment or accessing mental health services or being a young mother, what are some of the challenges and maybe automatic obstacles that some of the women that you've worked with face?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Majority of our arrivals are women and children. When we think about those that are forcibly displaced, they tend to be the most vulnerable. And so, in terms of immediate challenges, we've been resettling over the last eight years very large families where dual income is critically important. Those coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, we've got a lot of single mothers. And what's hard in the current workplace is that we don't have standard shifts, second shift, third shift that operate from afternoon to late evening. We have to balance transportation that's available. Standard ordinary typical daycare programs that run from 7 to 6 oftentimes don't fit with the schedule of those that are seeking employment now. And the costs are also quite high for high quality childcare.

So, that's a barrier that's there, but we address that barrier by working with the community. Oftentimes we pair families together so that one parent, one family can watch children while another person takes a shift so that we can work it around some of those barriers so that it doesn't keep people from being able to get a job and to be able to provide for their families.

One of the trends that we've seen is that actually women are finding an easier time getting a job because especially during the summer months, even in the winter months, there's a lot of work around hospitality, and oftentimes they're looking for female employees. Women are not always seen as the viable candidate for factory jobs. It's a lot of hard labor. The challenge with that is potentially changing family dynamics. What happens when in cultures where the women never worked before, now they are the breadwinner? What's the power dynamic that we need to address in the family system as a result of that?

So, I think the challenges look different. They cut across ethnic groups, but in the spirit of looking for gainful employment and becoming self-sufficient, these are challenges, real challenges that directly impact how families function, how individuals function, and also a cumulative impact and the influence on mental wellbeing.

Marina Milaszewska: That's so fascinating how those roles are possibly getting flipped right now. So, for any students who are interested in doing some of the work that you are doing or similar with refugees and immigrants placing a focus on mental health and wellness, what do you think are some important experiences to grasp outside the classroom?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: I would say getting to know the communities, because I've shared a number of the arrivals that are coming to the United States and they're incredibly diverse. And with each community, there are just different belief systems, different cultural traditions, different experiences. And so, to really be able to do this work well, we have to get to the heart of the uniqueness of each family.

I think generalizations are always helpful, but really starting where clients are and recognizing the uniqueness of their immigration story and their experiences is really at the heart of being able to do this work well. I think culture humility is a huge part of what we do. Recognizing that we don't know all the answers, and we've got to be ready to apologize and ask to learn and become partners in this work and recognizing that the people that we serve, they're incredibly resilient. I think when we oftentimes talk about conflict afflicted people, vulnerable populations, forcibly displaced populations, we put them into a box of having needs that they're at greater risk, that we need to pity them in some way.

And what I will say, the stories that I get to hear in therapy, the privilege of being able to serve these populations, they're so incredibly resilient. That they speak 5 to 10 languages in some cases where many of us probably speak only one to two, if we're lucky. That they have overcome insurmountable challenges and yet they're strong, and they're positive, and they're hopeful. And I think we just can't lose sight of the fact that they bring inherent strengths to our communities. And so, what we do in terms of our work with them is really just support them on that pathway to really thriving in a new country.

Marina Milaszewska: As you just mentioned, refugees face trauma due to loss of familiarity in space, place, routines, and family. When you are working with refugees and immigrants as a mental health practitioner, how do you take care of your own mental health?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Really good discipline. I think that secondary trauma is not something we talk about enough for immigrant and refugee mental health providers. That, to do our work well, we have to be able to be vulnerable and to take in the stories, but there's always a cost to that. And so, for me, it's really putting self-care as a high priority. To not wait to when I start to feel burnt out to the point that I'm not finding joy in the work. To be disciplined in making connection, to reflect on all the gains, to be able to seek services, my own therapy services, reflective supervision, to process what I'm seeing in the field, because really it is about sustaining yourself in the hard work, that's so incredibly important.

For students in the social work program in which I teach, that's also one of the lessons that we emphasize. Self-care, and even more so than that, a focus on mindfulness, that mindfulness is gaining quite a bit of attention, not only as an effective treatment modality for trauma-experienced populations, but for the professionals that are serving them. Learning how to quiet your mind so that you're less reactive and more responsive. I think that's something that's a skill that all of us need have, and certainly part of my ongoing practice so that I can be in the field for as long as I have been.

Aishwarya Raje: And we couldn't let you go without asking a public policy question. So, given the relatively resistant rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration towards refugees, immigrants, we're seeing things like Muslim ban and families being separated at the border. What do you see, especially gearing up for the 2020 presidential election, as the biggest policy challenges facing the issues that you work on?

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Unfortunately, there are consequences to the anti-immigrant heated rhetoric out there, that there are populations that absolutely feel vulnerable as a result of the policies. And so, one of the charges we've put forward to clinicians and all of those that are advocates for immigrants and refugees is to tell the story. Because I think that oftentimes, we don't have an opportunity to control the narrative, that the narrative that's being spewed is one with a lot of hateful rhetoric.

And so, one of the things that we focused on at RefugeeOne is to show the positive side of what immigrants and refugees bring to the community. How they contribute to the economy, how they contribute to relationships, how they contribute to our schools. And the hope is that as we continue to spread this information that, that creeps up into the policy discussion, that they're not seen as a liability, they're not seen as a threat, but they're seen as contributing members of society that pay taxes. They want to rebuild their lives with dignity and safety, and that hopefully the policies reflect the wonderful contributions that they're making to our communities every single day.

Aishwarya Raje: Well, thank you so much Dr. Hilado for joining us and for all the incredible work you're doing.

Dr. Aimee Hilado: Thank you.

Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar 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

Root of Conflict


Evaluating Peacebuilding Interventions | Ada Sonnenfeld

How do researchers assess the impact of peacebuilding interventions? And what can we learn from examining existing literature as a whole? In this episode, we speak with Ada Sonnenfeld, a former Evaluation Specialist with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). She talks about her work managing systematic reviews and evidence gap map projects, which can help policymakers make more informed decisions about how to use evidence – to make sense of what we know and learn from what has been done before. We discuss her recent review, where she and her colleagues synthesize evidence on programs that promote intergroup social cohesion in fragile contexts.

Reema Saleh: Hi, this is Reema 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 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 researchers assess the impact of peace building interventions? And what can we learn from examining the existing literature as a whole? My name is Reema and, in this episode, Mwangi and I speak with Ada Sonnenfeld, a former evaluation specialist with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.

Ada Sonnenfeld: So, I have a technical background in impact evaluations and other types of program evaluations for international development, with a focus on evaluations and evidence in fragile contexts, particularly peace building and governance.

Reema Saleh: She talks about her work, managing systematic reviews and evidence gap map projects, which can help policymakers make more informed decisions about how to use evidence to make sense of what we know and learn from what has been done before. We discuss her recent review where she and her colleagues synthesize evidence on programs that promote intergroup social cohesion in fragile context. So, first off, what is an impact evaluation?


Ada Sonnenfeld: So, an impact evaluation is an evaluation of a project, program, policy, that tries to establish not only what changed, but what part of that change can be attributed to the policy, program or project. And so, this might be done through statistical means where you can say, using either randomization or quasi-experimental designs, use econometrics, to identify what of that change you can say with some reasonable level of certainty was due to what you did or what you're evaluating, rather than all of the other factors at play.


Mwangi Thuita: Why would someone want to do an impact evaluation? Why are they important?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Impact evaluations help us understand what impact we are having. So, you would want to do this if, for example, you're a government, and you're trying to understand whether your policy to reduce inequality is having an effect on inequality. Or whether your policy to keep more children in school is actually keeping more children in school. Especially for government policies, these tend to be very expensive. And so, you want to make sure that the money that you're spending is having the expected results. Impact evaluations are expensive, so there are many types of programs that may not be conducive for impact evaluation, where it may not be the most relevant type of evaluation. But in general, you would want to do this to be as sure as you can be, that your impact is what you think it is.


Mwangi Thuita: Some people describe the increased popularity of impact evaluations as part of the measurement revolution and development. Aid and development organizations, they now expect impact evaluations for a lot of projects they fund. Does this expectation of evaluation affect the program design? Does it improve things?


Ada Sonnenfeld: There's a lot of things within that question. So, there are definitely more impact evaluations that are happening. 3ie has a repository of impact evaluations that at this point has over 4,000 international development programs and that is rapidly growing. When we look at the number of impact evaluations published per year, particularly around 2009, you see a big uptick in evaluations from lower- and middle-income countries that are published. So, that's great, because that means that we're growing the rigorous evidence base. Whether that means that programs are being designed differently, well, you can either say, “Are programs being designed in order to be conducive to evaluation?” And you also have another question on whether or not they are using the findings from those evaluations in order to improve design. I don't think we can answer either of those questions with any degree of certainty. We work really hard to try and get impact evaluations read and used by relevant stakeholders from implementers, policymakers, other academics working on the topic. But it's hard to track that.


Mwangi Thuita: What definition of social cohesion do you use for the systematic review? I know you said it varies, but what do you use for your review?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Social cohesion has been defined by many people in many different ways. And we adapted a definition from some work that was done by Chan et al. in 2006. And then we added to that some insights from Paletta and Cullen from 2000 and Kim et al. from 2020, which was some recent work that Mercy Corps was doing with the World Bank on social cohesion. So, fundamentally social cohesion is about the state of relationships between people, institutions, government, within a society. And you can think about social cohesion as a universe in many ways. You have the vertical relationships between the state and the society, between government and its citizens. And then you have horizontal relationships about people in institutions within civil society. For the purposes of our review, we focused just on the horizontal element of social cohesion while recognizing that for building sustainable peace, vertical social cohesion is also extremely important.


Within these sorts of horizontal and vertical spheres, you also have different types of ties between individuals and groups, and those might be bridging about intergroup, or across group ties and also bonding, within groups. Again, for this review, we're focused on bridging intergroup social cohesion. So, trying to understand how you can affect the relationships between social groups.


Finally, there are five different dimensions of social cohesion that we identified from those three main sources within the literature. And that is trust, a sense of belonging, a willingness to help, and a willingness to participate and an acceptance of diversity. And that last one, acceptance of diversity, is the one that is probably the most controversial within social cohesion discourse. There are lots of authors who have argued that it is a potential effect of a socially cohesive society rather than a necessary component of it. So, we decided to take a bit of a theoretical stand and say that, especially when you're thinking about fragile contexts, an acceptance of diversity actually does have to be a component of your conceptualization of social cohesion, because otherwise you could think of an authoritarian state that only allowed for a certain type of citizen to live their life freely, as a socially cohesive place.


And I think if people from different groups don't all feel a sense of belonging, then you don't have social cohesion. And it doesn't matter, even in the most homogenous state in the world, there is still diversity there. And whether that's people with disabilities or LGBTQ people or whomever, there are lots of different ways in which people are diverse, and nobody has only one identity. And so, you have to be able to have some level of acceptance for different identities within a community in order for something to be cohesive.


Mwangi Thuita:  What about fragility?


Ada Sonnenfeld: The definition of fragility that we used for the review was a very nuanced one. So, because within a systematic review, we have an explicit ex-ante. So, before we start the review, we say, “This is what we're going to include in this study.” And anything that meets these criteria we'll include. So, we wanted to focus on fragile contexts, and in order to operationalize a definition of fragility that would allow us to screen all of the potential records against consistent criteria, we focused on saying that either it would be in context in which the fragile states index had given the country a score of 90 or above, or it would be in all in lower- and middle-income countries, we're focused only there.


Or it would be a situation in which tensions between two groups were identified as being the driving rationale for the intervention. So, this allowed us to look also, for example, for studies that might have targeted the relationships between two different gangs in Central America, or we included studies from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are no longer classified as a fragile state, but the tensions between the two groups are still very present in society there. And there's still a lot of work trying to address the aftermath of the nineties. So, we had a definition of fragility that tried to recognize that fragility is not constant, either over time or within a country. And by saying that the focus of the study had to be tensions between groups that either were recently or were seen as at a risk of becoming violent, was the way that we tried to find relevant contexts.


Reema Saleh: What's unique about doing an impact evaluation in a conflict or a post-conflict setting?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Any kind of work that is happening in a conflict or post-conflict setting is going to be a little bit tricky because you have to be cognizant of the fact that your actions are going to interact with the context in a way that might have an impact on the conflict or the tensions or the potential. So, whereas all interventions should have some basic level of making sure that they do no harm, that bar becomes increasingly difficult to reach in a conflict-affected area, because the potential for doing harm becomes increased, because even something that you might think looks like a good intervention at first glance, such as giving vouchers to refugees in an area might have unintended consequences that create harm for those people. If, for example, you don't provide any support to vulnerable members of the host community.


Mwangi Thuita: You and your team at 3ie did a systematic review of impact evaluation literature, which covered 37 papers, I believe, and 31 unique interventions or intervention arms. So, could you tell us briefly about the systematic review, what motivated it and what were some of your main findings?


Ada Sonnenfeld: So, that systematic review grew out of an evidence gap map that we did of interventions that aim to build people and societies in fragile context. And so, the evidence gap map had identified a cluster of programs measuring the effects on social cohesion, but it took a wide range of different approaches in order to have that kind of impact. So, the social cohesion review identified five different groups of interventions ranging from radio dramas and media for peace to classroom, school-based peace education to intergroup contact through sports, to very complex, comprehensive, large scale programs that combined a number of different approaches. Overall, the review identified a pattern of small effects on social cohesion. But that's not really very surprising, because as we've said, interventions in fragile context tend to interact with the conditions for peace, but there's a lot of other factors that go into determining the relationship between two different social groups.


And so, we don't think it's that surprising that a social cohesion intervention alone doesn't have a very large effect on the relationships between groups and fragile contexts. However, we think it's really exciting that we're able to identify a pattern of small, positive effects that you could identify and see that well actually, these programs do have a place in the peacebuilding toolkit. They just are not going to solve all of the problems, which I think makes sense. That's a very headline finding. Within the review, like I said, we identified five different groups of interventions and we looked at the impact within each of those intervention groups. And we found, for example, that radio dramas tend to have on average, a positive impact on trust, and another group of interventions related to comprehensive multi-component programs that included elements of peace education, where they would hold workshops with community members.


And then from that workshop, they would then set up opportunities for people from the different groups to interact with each other, such as through negotiation committees or early warning systems. And then they would add to that an element of economic support. So, a way for people to work together by identifying a program, a small intervention that they could do in their community that would benefit both groups. And those kinds of comprehensive programs, we found an average and positive impact on trust and a willingness to participate. Amongst the school-based peace education interventions, the ones working with children, we identified positive impacts of the programs when they measured effects on the children who participated. There was one study that measured the effects on parents who did not participate, and we didn't find any effects there. And what we think that means is likely that such a school-based peace education program, working with children, might have a lot of capacity to influence how the children and the youth or the teenagers see each other, but that might not be sufficient for changing the way that the adults see each other, and you likely need to engage them directly.


Reema Saleh: So, one of your findings is that standalone interventions may not be enough to build resilient, social cohesion in fragile contexts without complementary interventions. So, what kind of complementary interventions do you have in mind? Is it realistic to expect major changes to group relationships without them?


Ada Sonnenfeld: I think it's not realistic to expect major changes to group relationships only through social cohesion interventions. I think they have a clear role to play, but fundamentally, the drivers of conflict in any situation are rarely identified as purely being about deep-seated intergroup prejudices. Prejudices are held by everybody, everywhere, but they don't tend to turn into violence except when there are other triggers at play. And so, I think having interventions that address those systemic drivers of conflict is very important. What those might look like will vary a lot on the particular context you're looking at.


So, there might be one context where there are major economic inequalities in that striving groups. Or there are even just perceived inequalities between how different groups are treated by the government and that might be driving tensions. In other situations, it may be tensions over the way that land is used. One type of community may want to use it in one way, another might want to use it in a different way.


So, there's often something else that's driving conflict. And that's why it's important to be very cognizant of the local context in which you're working and understand how your intervention may interact with those situations, but also to be realistic then about what you may or may not be able to change. When it says, “We need these complementary interventions addressing structural drivers of conflict,” that is not something that it's likely that any one actor can influence. And that's where you need the peace building community more as a whole, in a given context to say, “These are the different drivers that we can identify.” Is there a way that we can say, “Okay, this funder might focus on this element?” This funder might focus on that one and try and build a program and just coordinate in terms of how you're doing the various approaches, and more coordination might help.


Mwangi Thuita: Your findings also suggest that social cohesion programs that identify bottlenecks to intergroup social cohesion and carry out conflict assessments tend to have a larger and more positive effect. So, this kind of seems obvious, but it's also important to understand whether or not a particular context actually needs an intervention and the lack of relevance or appropriateness to the context can be at least part of the reason for seeing no impact. Did you find that most impact evaluations do comprehensive assessments like these and if not, why?


Ada Sonnenfeld: We're always working within systematic reviews from a place of imperfect information. So, what we do in order to identify the papers is we do a really extensive search of academic databases, websites from different actors, such as the World Bank and relevant implementers and donors. And we try to find all of the impact evaluations that we can that meet our criteria. And then we do an additional search for every study that we find that meets our criteria to identify other documents written about that program, to help us get as much information as we can about what they did. But we often can't find that information. And so, while within our study, we found only one or two impact evaluations that were clearly based off of conflict analyses and based on context assessments, that doesn't mean that none of the others did that. It just meant that we weren't able to find those studies and they didn't mention having done them.


So, just with that caveat in mind, I did think nonetheless, that it was surprising that very few of them mentioned having been based on conflict analyses, but I don't know if that's just because it wasn't reported or if it actually didn't happen. To your point as well, in terms of why they may not do that or why they may, I think it is surprising, but I also think it's not uncommon. It's not unique to social cohesion interventions or peace-building interventions. Other work that I've done for other types of interventions in fragile and in non-fragile context has also identified a similar finding around how often the bottleneck seems to have been misidentified. And that might relate to the fact that the intervention was wrong, in the sense that they were trying to implement something that wasn't needed in that context. But another potential source of that is that what they were measuring might not have been quite right.


That's where things get really complicated, because what social cohesion means is very context dependent. And so, you can take the example of Nigeria, where we had four different studies that took place in Nigeria, and two of them measured farmer and pastoralist communities, one targeted Christians and Muslims, and the third targeted people from different ethnic groups in the country. And so, those are three different types of social cleavages that different interventions were targeting just within a single country. So, what the social cleavages that you're targeting and how your intervention changes perceptions across that cleavage, is going to be very context dependent, and then how you measure it will also change. So, what it means, for example, to measure acceptance of diversity, a lot of people looked at whether or not people had friends from the other group, but they measured that in different ways. And they didn't always measure that in ways that were necessarily relevant.


And that's really tricky because maybe one way to deal with that is to say, “Oh, well, let's all measure the same thing.” but then, what if what you're measuring doesn't make sense for that particular context? So, you end up in this situation where there's an issue with bottleneck identification, but it's hard for us to say whether that's because they didn't do good baseline assessments of what the conflict dynamics were and what the needs were or whether it's because they weren't measuring things quite correctly. All I can tell you is that we couldn't find evidence of conflict assessments having been done. And we think they probably would be useful.


Mwangi Thuita: Given that social cohesion is often very contextual, so if you need a theory of social breakdown in each case that you're looking at, which involves contextual information – does that have implications for how generalizable the findings of impact evaluations are across the board?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Absolutely. I think one of the conversations that we've been having with Ray and with a lot of other actors who are looking at social cohesion as a way of working towards sustainable peace in fragile contexts, is that there's a need for a framework that is general enough that everybody can say, “Yeah, this is what we mean when we're talking about it,” but that the indicators can be hyper contextualized. And so, that you know where on your framework your indicator feeds in, but the indicator itself is based off of the local context. And that might help us move to a place where we can say, “Okay, this change in this context represented a big leap in the relationships between the two groups.”


Whereas in this context, all they measured was something that actually was quite a small step and that can help having a sense of where something maps onto a common framework would help us interpret the findings across contexts and help us better figure out how to use the findings from one impact evaluation in another context. Because that might say, “Okay, this evaluation, this intervention in this context actually had a really big impact on trust.” And maybe that helps us see why and how we can take that to another place.


The realist in me likes to always say that interventions themselves can't be replicated, but mechanisms can be transferred. And what we mean by that is the design will always have to be contextualized of your intervention. But the reactions that your design is trying to trigger in the people it targets, you can try and learn from that. So, if you can get people to work together collaboratively, that's a mechanism that you might be able to replicate, even if the way that you get them to work together, and the context, the setup might be very contextualized.


Reema Saleh: Do you think that evaluations are useful for testing assumptions about how development interventions affect change?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Yes. [Laughter] I do think they are useful for testing assumptions. I think they're very useful. Specifically impact evaluations can give us a lot of information about that, but it depends on how the impact evaluation is designed. I think increasingly we see impact evaluations being theory-based and using a theory of change. And that's incredibly important because that means that they have thought about. “All right, in order to get to social cohesion, these are the steps that need to happen.” And then you can see if, for example, you find a positive impact on an early-stage outcome, but not on a later stage, you can see where your theory of change might break down and then you can test your assumptions to try and see why that might be. Some really clever impact evaluations have done specific tests of different mechanisms to try and see what was driving change. And those are really interesting.


But you still have a lot of programs that just measure those sorts of high-level impact outcomes. And then you don't really know what goes on in the middle. And that's what we often call the black box of a randomized controlled trial, for example, is a classic one where you don't really know why you're seeing the results you're seeing. And so, what we would say is that that's why mixed methods are so important. You have your statistical methods to answer one part of your question, but that alone is likely not going to be enough without some kind of process evaluation, qualitative information, trying to see why you're seeing those results to help you interpret them correctly.


Mwangi Thuita: Would you say that these impact evaluations do a good job of measuring intermediate effects?


Ada Sonnenfeld: I would say that very few of the studies in our systematic review measured intermediate outcomes and effects on intermediate outcomes. So, whether they are capable of doing a good job, yes, they are very much so, but it's not often that they do. And that's I think really where I would like to see the field moving towards is “Okay, we're getting to the point where we recognize that having a theory of change is really important for any type of evaluation, impact evaluations and other types, because it can really help structure what kinds of questions you ask.” But what I often see is that evaluations, even where they have a theory of change at the beginning, will not revisit that theory of change after they have their findings to say what do these findings actually mean for my theory of change? Do they validate it? Do they challenge it?


Do they suggest actually it should be refined in this way? And maybe this is what the theory of change should look like. So, I often feel like that last step of closing the loop. And “All right, here's our initial theory of change.” This is what we thought was going to be happening. We measured outcomes against X, Y, and Z steps. So, intermediate steps and final impact outcomes. This is what we found and they'll often leave it at that. But that can sometimes be difficult if they then don't tie that back, because it can be really hard to interpret why you might see positive effects on some indicators and null effects or mixed effects on others. And so, you really need the researchers who are working with the program team. They're the best place to then say, “Okay, what does this mean for the theory of change?” And that will also help us when it comes to understanding how the findings from that study might inform future studies as well.


Mwangi Thuita: And one thing that I think was intentional in your review is you don't include interventions that aim to build sustainable peace by providing economic support for things like job training. So, like cash transfers also. Could these be some of the complementary interventions that you were talking about earlier?


Ada Sonnenfeld: Yes and no. I mean, the reason that we didn't include those was not because we don't think they are a relevant approach to building social cohesion, but rather it's because the evidence gap map that I mentioned earlier actually identified a large number of ongoing studies of cash transfers that are trying to measure outcomes on social cohesion. And so, that would have meant that, for us to have synthesized that literature now would be a bit premature because there are so many ongoing studies, those findings would change within the next two or three years. And so, that was the rationale behind excluding those from our study. I think it will be really interesting to synthesize that literature in about two or three years, not right now. I mean you could right now, but it's likely to change.


Whether or not those address underlying drivers of contentions between the communities, I think is a slightly different question that that synthesis will probably have to answer. Cash transfers can be really important in humanitarian aid context and in addressing short-term needs. Whether they are the structural changes that you need in order to shift the situation for those communities in the long run is a question that's still open.


Reema Saleh: I was curious why there were a lot of countries that never had impact evaluations.


Ada Sonnenfeld: Why that might be?


Reema Saleh: Yeah. I was curious kind of why it's kind of uneven.


Ada Sonnenfeld: It's very uneven. I mean, the evidence gap map is maybe a better source of that than the systematic review, but you can see there that some of the analysis we did, there's not an obvious correlation between, for example, how fragile a country is or how much ODA it receives, how much official development assistance it receives, and how many impact evaluations there are. You have quite a large number comparatively of impact evaluations from Afghanistan and DRC than plenty of other places like Syria that receive a huge amount of ODA. And Yemen. So, I don't know why there haven't been evaluations in those places. That's not a question that our research was able to ask. You would have to do a lot of stakeholder research and asking all of the different donors and all of the different universities why they don't research those areas.


But what we try to do is just say, hey, there's some really important geographic gaps where we don't have rigorous evidence. And maybe hopefully people will read the evidence gap map and see that and say, actually it would be really beneficial, not just to our own programming, but to the global evidence-base to build evidence from those less well-studied contexts.


Mwangi Thuita: Yeah. Well, thanks. Thanks Ada so much. Thanks for all your time.


Ada Sonnenfeld: You're very welcome.


Reema Saleh: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Ada Sonnenfeld. This episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Kumar and Reema Saleh. Check our show notes to access the full report discussed in this episode. 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


How Corruption Fuels Violence and Disorder | Gretchen Peters

The relationship between illegal financial flows and state-level violence is present in conflicts around the world, and is especially pronounced in Afghanistan. In particular, the country’s thriving drug market based on the opium trade has proven to be a major economic factor that has been fueling the ongoing conflict. In this episode of Root of Conflict, Pearson Fellows Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita speak with Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime (CINTOC) about why the political economy of the war in Afghanistan is so poorly understood, and the connections between criminal networks, weakened institutions, and breakdown into disorder.

Eduardo Ortiz: Hi, my name is Eduardo Ortiz, and you are listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Aishwarya Raje: The relationship between illegal financial flows and state level of violence is present in conflicts around the world and is especially pronounced in Afghanistan. In particular, the country's thriving drug market based on the opium trade has proven to be a major economic factor that has been fueling the ongoing conflict. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. Drawing on her role at CINTOC as well as her decades-long career as a writer and journalist, Gretchen talks through why the political economy of the war in Afghanistan is so poorly understood, as well as the connections between criminal networks, weakened institutions and breakdown into disorder.


Mwangi Thuita: Gretchen, thank you so much for joining us today.


Gretchen Peters: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Mwangi Thuita: So, to start, can you tell us about the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, and what your role as Executive Director of the organization looks like?


Gretchen Peters: Sure. I had worked for several years as had my colleague and co-founder Kathleen

Miles. We had both worked as consultants to the Defense Department and to U.S. law enforcement.

And what we realized was that a lot of efforts to fight organized crime and violence around the world were perhaps well-intentioned, but were having the opposite effect than wasn't what was intended, and we felt that it was important to establish a center that would be focused on fighting the systems that support crime and corruption. The corruption had to be taken into account in any program to counter organized crime. My 20 years or so working as a journalist before I became a consultant to the U.S. government, I worked as a journalist for many different parts of the world.


And what I found was that what was often the dominant narrative of why people were fighting

each other in conflicts that never ended, whether it was Sunni's fighting with Shia, or Muslims fighting Christians, or some other thing that was going on, was really just a smokescreen for powerful forces that were often funded by elicit activity, that had in many cases, corrupted powerful institutions of the state or had in some places that I've worked, replaced the state or certain aspects of it, either as insurgents or warlords or just major power brokers that sort of operated from the shadows. These shadow economies prevented the violence and the conflict from going away because the shadow economies depended on the lawlessness for their business to go well. A good example of that would be the opium trade in Afghanistan.


I'm convinced that one of the reasons that peace process after peace process collapses is because there are so many constituencies that benefit from the horrific continuation of violence there – they don't want the war to end. There's almost always a spoiler that takes out the peace process, just when it's starting to reach progress. More recently, Kathleen and I have done a lot of work in Africa

and what we're seeing there, it's distinct from Afghanistan, but we're seeing these often foreign

criminalized forces coming in and really hollowing out institutions of states, in multiple countries.

It's been sort of most famously documented in South Africa with a state capture by a number of groups. But the most famous was an Indian family that became very close to the former ruler. But we're seeing similar things, and in some cases, it involves East Asian and generally Chinese groups. In some cases, there's been Russian groups. We've tracked the involvement of Iranian and Lebanese criminal groups in other parts of central Africa, and they almost seem to operate from the same playbook. It's fascinating to study but the impact it has on societies is devastating. It implicates education systems, the economy, healthcare, all sorts of stuff get negatively impacted by it.


Mwangi Thuita: And on the topic of Afghanistan, in your book, Seeds of Terror, you illustrated a really vivid picture of a thriving drug market built by the Taliban, where they make millions of dollars every year from the opium trade. Can you talk us through the political economy of this conflict and why you think it's so poorly understood or poorly represented, when we talk about the war in Afghanistan?


Gretchen Peters: One issue that I think is most poorly understood, and this is not unique to

Afghanistan, we've seen the same thing in places like Mexico and Columbia and other parts of the world, is that human beings have the intuitive response of fighting crime and fighting problems where they see them, where they're most visible. And the most visible aspect of the drug trade – well, there's two aspects that are visible. One is the farm areas where the crops are grown, and another area is if at the other end of the drug supply chain, if there are people dying and there's street markets and corners, where drug dealers sell drugs, those are the visible things that law enforcement tends to go after. But often, the real power brokers that control the supply chain, they're certainly not the farmers in any drug, and they're certainly not the guys selling dime bags on street corners. They're the traffickers who are in the middle, and in particular, they're the folks that finance this trade and those people almost virtually never go to jail. Occasionally, you might see law enforcement arrest a drug kingpin, and certainly, there've been a number of drug kingpins in Afghanistan, like Haji Juma Khan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, Haji Bas Mohammad that were arrested and have been in those three cases brought to the United States to face jail time. But the money around the Afghan drug trade has virtually never been investigated.


I've done consultations with U.S. intelligence. I've met with the Brits about this. It's quite clear that the money related to the opium trade, which is billions and billions of dollars annually, is not under a mattress in Kandahar. Some of it is in Pakistan and Iran, some of it is in the UAE and banks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But quite a lot of it is in Europe, it's in the United States. I, at one point, when I was working for the DOJ and the Defense Department, I mapped out a money laundering operation that the Taliban were running that extended as far from Afghanistan as Northern California. And nobody had ever looked into the financing of the Taliban beyond Afghanistan. And that's a ridiculously myopic view of how that insurgency is financing itself.


If we’re looking beyond what's going on in Afghanistan, we're not understanding the full scale of how the Taliban as an organization - and the Taliban has many different factions so I’m simplifying a bit – but no one's getting a full picture of how the insurgency finances itself without looking at the full supply chain that is funding the insurgency through drugs and other criminal activities. Some factions and within those factions, some commanders within the Taliban are making the enormous amount of money from supporting and facilitating the drug trade, or in some cases running drugs themselves. And other parts of Afghanistan where there's not as much or no narcotics grown, we see insurgent commanders funding themselves through kidnapping regimes, through controlling illegal mining operations, through all sorts of extortion rackets. And again, this is common to insurgencies around the world. This is not something that is unique to Afghanistan, and it's also important to acknowledge in Afghanistan that there are a lot of warlords and local commanders that are on the government’s side that are engaging in the same criminal activities. And so, the people stuck in the middle are the Afghans, ordinary Afghans that are just really between Iraq and a hard place. And it's a tragedy.


Mwangi Thuita: Can you walk us through the process of tracking and mapping these networks and maybe

some of the political hurdles that come into play when you're trying to disrupt the flow of money and undermine these criminal operations?


Gretchen Peters: Yes, that's quite a big question. So, in terms of how we map these organizations, we first start out usually by reading as much as we can that's available in the public record or depending we're working with the government, they might have government reports that aren't available to the public that we're able to read or to look over. So, we first try to learn as much as we can. We then try to figure out from those documents and public records, who seems to know about what's going on and who we can speak to. And then we will go out and conduct typically dozens of interviews, usually structured interviews to try and figure out. We have about a 12-page set of interview questions that go through the different phases of a criminal supply chain, or really any supply chain, to understand how goods move in one direction, how money moves, and how financing of transactions occurs.


We will then, to what extent possible…[…] it depends on the commodity, for example, we've done a lot of work trying to understand the illegal ivory trade between Africa and Asia. And so, we've looked at drug seizures and mapped out down to who owns the trucks that delivered shipments that later turned out to have ivory in them, tracing back the license plates, and then, the ownership of who owns the home where the truck was registered, to see if we can start to piece it together. And some of it will be deadends, but sometimes, eventually, I should say, we're almost always able to put together a picture of who we believe the criminal network is. And then that also provides   us with more leads of people we can speak to.


So, this can often in and of itself be a six-to-nine-month process. To map something like that out can take an enormous amount of time. And when I was writing Seeds of Terror, and I was trying to map out the Taliban, or my understanding of the Taliban, that was about a five-year process. And over the course of that process, it became less and less possible to function and to operate in some of the areas where I needed to be. And so, I fortunately had worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for a long time. So, I was able to do things that many foreigners wouldn't be able to because I had local friends and they would take me in. So there reached a point when the guys I was working with said, well, we can't drive you down there unless you sit in the backseat and wear a burka.


And then they started saying, well, you can't come down. We're not going to be able to take you in there. We can't take you in there, but we can bring people out or we can't take you in there at all, or it's just not going to happen. And in those cases, I would then send one of my local research assistants to conduct an interview. but we did have to be very careful, and it created significant barriers to the project. But one thing that I have found really in most places that we've worked, I mean, as long as we have trusted local researchers and partners that we're working with…people are so frustrated by this, in any place we've been, nobody likes to live in a place that is infested by crime and corruption.


People often ask me if we're scared to do this work. And the answer is of course. Sometimes it's scary and we're very nervous about going into a place or meeting with a certain person. But I'm more scared about not doing anything about this and not trying to figure it out and not trying to figure out solutions. I'm more afraid of what's going to happen to our planet and our communities if we don't. And so, we have been very, very lucky, but I think part of it is that we are in there earnestly, trying to figure out how the system works, and people seem very grateful to talk to us. And we haven't ever exposed anybody that didn't want to come out, so I suppose that helps us too. But over time, we then are able to build a map to say, these are the roles and functions in the supply chain that move commodities.


And then we created a separate map, usually going the other way. When I say map, I mean like a

diagram. It’s often laid out in a combination of like Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, just because those are programs that lots of people have. We've used network analysis programs as well, but I mean, I can do it with post-its and string on a wall…it’s just to sort of show the progression and to explain how stuff moves from one place to another, and how money oils that system. What we found in a number of places…I did a project a few years ago in Gabon, in Central Africa, which was really interesting looking at the ivory trade. And I was working with the Gabonese government and their national parks and the anti-poaching unit within their national park system.


And we spent months mapping out the poaching gangs, I guess you'd call them the criminal groups that were poaching elephants. And then on top of that, we mapped out the networks that were

exporting ivory, and they were also in many cases, exporting rosewood and other endangered

timber. And what we realized, the Gabonese commander and I, what we realized was that he and his guys were going out into kind of remote jungle areas that were dangerous, if nothing else,

because there's yellow fever and Ebola and etc. but also armed poachers. And within days, they would be arrested. And so, then we set off in a project to map the corrupt networks that existed on top of the criminal supply chain.


Because what was happening, was that every time they'd go out and launch an operation to arrest

Somebody, within three or four days, they'd be released on some technicality. And so, we were later able to map out all the judges and more senior officials that were on the take and the country. It was a really fascinating project. And I spoke to him, I think it was about six months ago and asked him how it was going. And he said, “It’s still very difficult,” and I said, “Well, what’s your biggest problem? Is it crime or corruption?” And he said, “Without a doubt, it’s the corruption.”


So that's become in many ways for me, more of a focus than the criminals themselves. If you have a government that's clean, that's functioning effectively, criminals don't really have much room to operate. Corruption really is the grease that keeps the machine going.


Aishwarya Raje: So you talked about the importance of having local friends and working with

local researchers. And I think often times in academic circles, when they talk about conflict resolution, it's told from a very kind of high-level analytical perspective, and often misses out on the perspective of local voices and local communities. So, can you share some experiences that you've had with local communities that you've worked in, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else you've conducted field work that perhaps challenged what you thought you knew about the conflict, or made you think about the conflict differently?


Gretchen Peters: Yeah, totally. I mean, first of all, I'm alive and in one piece today because of my local colleagues in multiple different countries. The number of times I have been physically rescued or pulled out of a situation when it started to turn, I could maybe count on two hands the number of times that's happened. But I certainly would not be alive today if it weren't for my local friends and colleagues who in many cases were taking far greater risks than I was to, to go out in these communities and ask these questions. I think one of the things that was hardest for me to understand at first was the extent to which you can have battlefield enemies in a place like Afghanistan. But we also saw this in the Balkans that were literally killing each other by day and yet at night would be collaborating to traffic drugs.


And so, that was something that took me a long time to get my head around, and yet I've learned that it's incredibly common in conflict that enemies will still get along when they need to. When there's opportunity for money to be made, they will find a way to reach a solution. And I think it's an important lesson for us in terms of peacebuilding approaches, that you have to understand the political economy of conflict, and if you can help opposing sides reach a solution that is economically acceptable to them, where both sides are going to make money or both sides are going to see themselves getting some kind of financial slice of the pie at the end, where their communities and their backers will be supported financially and will be able to survive. It can provide you a pathway towards some sort of conflict resolution.


Mwangi Thuita: That’s a great segway into my next question, which is about how to deal with the conflict elite. So, in Afghanistan and with respect to the Afghanistan war right now, there are peace talks going on in Doha that are attempting to resolve this dispute and pave the way for a U S withdrawal. Now, I mean, the chances of that actually happening, many people would say are low. But from your perspective, in terms of incorporating what we know about the political economy of conflict, why is it important to think about a peace dividend for the conflict elite, when sometimes it seems like there's more pressing, more important issues?


Gretchen Peters: Well, it's a really good question. And I’m also impressed when anybody else uses terms like conflict elite because it's something that I obsess over, and that I think that a lot of people think about or even identify, but it's certainly a case in Afghanistan, that that was a country that many of the power brokers, many of the conflict elite are precisely that. They became powerful as a result of the conflict and their families or their tribes were not powerful before. And so, they will potentially see themselves as losing influence, losing income at the end of the conflict. So, I think one of the most important things to do, whether you're trying to investigate, say, our messed up

healthcare system in this country, or why a conflict is continuing in a place like Mozambique or

Afghanistan, nothing seems to solve it.


For me, the first order of business is to figure out who's benefiting from it continuing to happen, Who’s making money off of the conflict and the perpetuation of the conflict. And if you can get those people who are benefiting from it to agree for it to end, then I think you're on the road to recovery. Even if you can just figure out who they are that’s benefiting from it, you're halfway to a solution, but in Afghanistan, I think we're seeing now with the explosion of violence that's happening, and in particular in Helmand province, which is the number one province for producing poppy in Afghanistan, that there's forces at work that don't want this peace deal to go through. They're not complying with the ceasefire.


So, I don't have a lot of optimism about where this is going. There’s going to have to be some kind of settlement with the Taliban, but I don't think a settlement that involves bringing the Taliban into the government is a good idea. So, I think that the international community should be negotiating with Afghanistan's moderates, of which there are many, instead of their violent drug trafficking extremists of which there are few. So, I think it's unfortunate the decisions that have been made around the Doha Accord.


Mwangi Thuita: In closing, I want to ask a broader question about how you see the causal relationship between the kinds of illegal financial flows that we're talking about and violence and disorder. That is, after all, the theme of this podcast. So, do you think it's more the case that the criminal networks are simply exploiting weakened institutions that have brought about civil conflict and violence, or do their activities actually precipitate a breakdown into violence and disorder?


Gretchen Peters: I think the issue you're talking about goes in both directions. I think that the illicit financial flows can both be part of the asymmetric warfare campaign for insurgent and violent groups.They can help to finance attacks. They can help to finance corruption. They can have a very corrosive impact. Plus, the strength of insurgent or criminal gangs perpetuates or pushes the belief among the community that the government is weak and ineffectual. I think that the illicit flows can have a very damaging impact on a variety of levels. The other issue is that, and there's a group here in D.C. called Global Financial Integrity that does a lot of really good work tracking this issue, but it lists that financial outflows from a lot of countries in the developing world, in particular, they've done some really great work in Africa, are often 7 to 10 times higher than aid and development inflows and foreign direct investment. And so, at the same time that there are efforts to try and stabilize unstable countries, the outflow of cash is really just sucking the place dry, sucking its bone marrow out.


Aishwarya Raje: Well Gretchen, you’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you so much for speaking with us.


Gretchen Peters: Thank you. Aishwarya. Thank you Mwangi.


Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Gretchen Peters. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of the series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Is There Hope for the Afghan Peace Process? | Laurel Miller

The war in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in 2001 is almost two decades old. In recent years there’s been a growing appetite for a non-military resolution to the conflict. In this episode, Pearson Fellows Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita speak with Laurel Miller, Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group and a former U.S. State Department official working on Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government in Doha and how the U.S.’s goals in Afghanistan have evolved over the course of the war. 

Nadia: This is Nadia and you're listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Aishwarya Raje: The war in Afghanistan has ravaged on for decades and peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban officials during that period have often broken down, time and time again, with a number of foreign actors involved in the conflict and in the negotiations, the most prominent being the United States, reaching a comprehensive peace agreement has proven to be exceedingly complex. But now, with a new set of negotiations taking place in Doha, we may be seeing a window of opportunity to make progress towards peace. My name is Aishwarya Raje, and in this episode of Root of Conflict, Mwangi Thuita and I speak with Laurel Miller, the Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group. Laurel discusses the intricacies of the war in Afghanistan and how they've evolved over the years, and the best-case scenario for what a peace agreement can look like. Laurel, thank you so much for joining us today.


Laurel Miller: My pleasure to be with you.


Aishwarya Raje: Your topic during the Pearson Global Forum was, of course, a case study on Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly a very complex conflict. We could probably do an entire podcast series just to talk about it, but can you give us, or lay out for us who the main players have been in this conflict? And from a U.S. perspective, how have our goals in Afghanistan changed over the last 20 years?


Laurel Miller: Sure. And, and I should say I came to this position at International Crisis Group already having focused quite a bit in recent years on policy issues related to Afghanistan. It's one of our priority areas within my current job, which I've been doing not even for two years now, but, had done some analytical work of my own when I was at the RAND Corporation related to Afghanistan.


And I also served in the U.S. State Department from 2013 through the middle of 2017 as the deputy, and then the Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and was working on issues related to War and Peace in Afghanistan at that time. So that’s what I drew on in my presentation at the Pearson Forum, and in other work that I do. So, the conflict there, it's multi-sided and complex, and it has both internal and external dimensions. Often, from an American political and popular perspective, we think of the war in Afghanistan as the war that has been there since after 9/11, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and toppling of the Taliban regime there. And that is one dimension of the war, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan at the end of 2001, because the Taliban regime had harbored Osama bin Laden and had refused to hand him over.


The U.S. took the position at that time that it needed to not only endeavor to capture or kill bin Laden and his associates, but also make an example of the Taliban regime in order to say that, state sponsorship, state harboring of terrorists will not be tolerated. So, one dimension of the conflict in Afghanistan is that the United States invaded and gradually built up the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan over several years. After having wiped away the Taliban regime, it was one of the key actors in installing a new government there, putting in place a new constitution, elections, et cetera. But then the Taliban regrouped, from safe havens in Pakistan. Across the border from Afghanistan, the Taliban regrouped as an insurgency and the United States then became embroiled in a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban.


So that's one dimension. Rolling a little bit back further in time, Afghanistan was not a fully peaceful place before 9/11. There had been a civil war in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew from the country and the U.S., which had been heavily engaged in supporting the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, including bin Laden, decided to exit the region and the country descended into a civil war in the early 1990s, which then created the opening for the Taliban to sweep to power and hold power in the later part of the 1990s. The Taliban had by and large consolidated control of the country, but not complete control of the country, and there were dimensions of warfare that were still going on related to that fight even before the U.S. invaded after 9/11.


And so, there's a war still going on in Afghanistan that has a lot to do with what was happening in the 1990s, even before the U.S. invaded. That's another dimension and layers to the conflict in Afghanistan. And then, Afghanistan also is surrounded by some meddlesome neighbors, it's in a very difficult neighborhood. The key players in this regard are both Pakistan and Iran, but others too have over many decades sponsored, favored, proxies and clients in the country, and have, have helped to perpetuate warfare there through these relationships. And as I mentioned, Pakistan, in particular, is consequential in that it gave safe haven to the retreating Taliban figures who then regrouped as an insurgency. And so, there's another dimension to the conflict and the set of actors in Afghanistan that has to do with the external players within the neighborhood, not to mention the United States and NATO as external players further afield, and Russia and China too have interests and involvement in Afghanistan. So, it's a particularly complex conflict because of these both internal and external dimensions that overlap, but also represent distinct sets of interests on the part of all of these players.


Mwangi Thuita: So, what has changed in the last few years, so that there's now more of an emphasis on a negotiated settlement as opposed to achieving a military victory, as a precursor to U.S. withdrawal, even though there's still, like you mentioned, during your panel, a low likelihood that, a peace agreement will be agreed upon and implemented properly.


Laurel Miller: So, I think you have to look a little bit back in time to see how the U.S. came to this point of being focused on negotiating a settlement and negotiating directly with the Taliban. Initially in Afghanistan, the U.S. saw itself as being initially after the invasion as outright victorious, militarily. It didn't capture bin Laden. He famously escaped and later was caught and killed in Pakistan. But the U.S. did very quickly topple the Taliban regime over time and was able to pretty much decimate the Al Qaeda presence in the region and saw itself in those first few years after the invasion as having really utterly defeated the Taliban. From the time when the Taliban began to reconstitute as an insurgency, gradually, certainly by 2005, 2006, it was clear that there was an insurgency.


I think it's fair to say from that point on the war from a U.S. perspective has never gone well. The U.S. from that point began to increase the number of forces steadily. Even before Obama came into office, there were already a series of surges. And then there was what was literally called a surge in the beginning of the Obama administration, to at the peak, there were 100,000 American forces deployed in Afghanistan. In 2002 it was like tiny numbers, a few thousand at most, and then to a 100,000 American forces in Afghanistan at the peak, plus NATO forces for a total of between 140 and 150,000, plus in any military deployment like this, you then have to multiply several times more contractors, including doing military-like tasks in addition to this number of troops on the ground.


The reason why the numbers kept going up is because the war wasn't going well, and the U.S. saw the U.S. military advocated for the application of more resources to try to turn it around, to change the trajectory. From the peak period, already by 2013, 2014, the number of U.S. forces was diminishing because the idea was that the surge of forces in the Obama administration was supposed to be temporary, and so there was a plan to surge up and then come down. And at the same time, there was an emphasis placed on building up the capabilities of Afghan security forces to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban, but still with the U.S. engaging in counter-terrorism efforts. But even with this sort of peak, and then initial decline of U.S. forces there, it was never really turning around.


The Taliban was steadily gaining ground and even with the enormous devotion of American resources to building up the Afghan security forces, they still hadn't and still haven't today proven capable of entirely on their own handling the counterinsurgency without American backing. From around 2015, when the number of U.S. forces really began to dip, it became even harder for the Afghan security forces, and there were even more gains by the Taliban. And even today, with the numbers of U.S. forces almost down – by next week, it's supposed to be down to 4,500 – obviously the Afghan forces are carrying much more of the burden of the fighting, much, much more, but still, in really the most exigent circumstances, they need American military support, particularly air support, meaning they need the bombing of Taliban positions in order to not be overrun by the Taliban.


And the Taliban has continued to improve its position. So that's the trajectory of the war fighting. And I mentioned that in answer to your question about the peacemaking, because it's the explanation. If the U.S. had been militarily successful in partnership with the Afghan government, and eliminating the Taliban insurgency, then I don't think anyone would be talking about a political settlement, or they'd be talking about one that's really just negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. But that's not the case. There are many people who think if the U.S. started being serious about a negotiation much earlier, it could have negotiated on much more favorable terms, but as the Taliban has gained strength, we are nowhere there in negotiating the terms of the Taliban surrender. It was more than a decade ago now that some American policymakers recognized that the war was not winnable and that there had to be an effort to begin trying to negotiate a political settlement of the conflict.


But for many years, that effort was in fits and starts. It was, “We're going to keep going with the war effort, and this is something we'll do on the side.” And it doesn't usually work out very well if you don't put something that hard at the center of your efforts. And so, it was very ebb and flow of attention to this, changing more affirmatively, more concertedly in the direction of trying to negotiate a political settlement only around the end of 2018. Even in the Trump administration, for the first year, there was a mini-surge, again, trying to turn around the war and negotiate from a position of strain. It didn't happen that way. There wasn't a positive change from an American perspective in the war, and so, efforts were redoubled in early 2018, not coincidentally, because you have a president who campaigned on and seems to still want the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as a policy priority.


Aishwarya Raje: So, given that context, how consequential is the upcoming US presidential election going to be on the peace process? What are some differences we could expect from four more years of Donald Trump versus a new Biden administration?


Laurel Miller: Yeah, the short answer is very consequential, potentially, even though I'm not expecting a major change of direction if Biden wins. If Trump wins the second term, then based on the recent trajectory of the policy efforts, as well as the recent public statements by Trump himself and the tweets and his national security advisors’ comments, which suggest a plan to reduce U.S. forces even more by another half, down to just 2000, around there by January. I think that's a pretty safe bet that that would continue and that the ability of U.S. diplomats to try to negotiate a decent political settlement will be much reduced if Trump wins, because the policy will be a policy about troop deployments, not a policy about Afghanistan. I think Trump has pretty clearly shown that, because he said he really doesn't care about Afghanistan.


He doesn't see the risk or threat there, or issues of U.S. credibility, or what do allies think about, it's really just about troops, no troops. And so, I think that you would see a push to just make as fast and dirty a deal as you can, so that you least have a fig leaf for a complete withdrawal. If Trump loses, we have a question as to what happens in the period of time while he's still president after that loss. And there, I think we're all expecting if Trump loses, to have all of oxygen sucked out of the air by litigation of what the result of the election was. He's already relitigated it. So, people post litigate it too.


And so the question in my mind, then is, did he just lose interest in what he said about Afghanistan, and it's all really just about litigating the result of the election, literally and figuratively litigating, and is Afghanistan just off the radar and forgotten about, and nothing happens between that and the inauguration? Or, does he decide he's just going to burn it all down? And now, his legacy is “I said I was going to do it, and now I'm just going to do it.” That's possible to be too. I think the bureaucracy would have ways of slowing down anything serious that happens between the election and the inauguration, but not necessarily to a great degree. So, there's a lot of uncertainty about that period. If Trump loses and, we get through the November to January period without too much happening with the status quo being essentially preserved, then I think there's an opportunity for the Biden administration to do a bit of resetting, first of all, to kind of re-energize the peacemaking effort, which is right now, pretty much stalled because of the U.S. election – other factors too - but neither side of this negotiation is foolish enough to think they can count on what will happen after an American election.


So, they are being very careful. We're not going to take any risk by entering into any agreements that they're not sure about. So, things are stalled right now because of the election, and if they stay stalled, there'll be an opportunity for Biden administration to re-energize its peacemaking efforts, to maybe repair some of the gaps, to probably take a little more time and be a little more orderly about it. I think they will still be focused on peace process, but the issues themselves are not going to get any easier, and the prospects of ultimate success in a peace negotiation are not going to be orders of magnitude higher, even with a more orderly American foreign policy.


Mwangi Thuita: So, there've been some efforts to imagine alternative histories of the war in Afghanistan, how U.S. strategy could have been implemented a bit better. Last year, Harris professor, Ethan Bueno de Mesquito wrote in the Boston Review that we were always going to lose the war in Afghanistan because, and I want to quote him, here, “Counterinsurgencies are wars of attrition. Wars of attrition are won through resolve and the side facing an existential threat will always have the greater resolve.” He suggested that what could have been a successful, narrowly defined counter-terrorism operation became an unwinnable counter-insurgency moving forward. Do you think the U.S. has learned the right lessons about counterinsurgencies?


Laurel Miller: I largely agree with what you just described from that position, but with some caveats, because I'd want to know what that alternative looked like to getting embroiled in the counterinsurgency. To say we just go in, we talk with the government, and then we say, see you later, that doesn't work particularly well either in terms of stable outcomes. So, there there's a lot to unpack about what that alternative history really looks like. In terms of whether the U.S. has learned the lessons, I'm not sure at all. I don't think the lessons have even been drawn fully yet about Afghanistan, much less learned. And what I think we've seen happen in recent years within the U.S. military establishment is simply sticking your fingers in your ears about counterinsurgency. It's like, “Oh, we just don't talk about counterinsurgency, we don't do counter-insurgency anymore. We're not going to do it again. So why should we bother to think too much about what went right and what went wrong?” I’m exaggerating slightly. The military does have its procedures for doing lessons learned, but it's only a partial exaggeration. There's just been such a rapid swinging away from the notion that we're ever again be in a counterinsurgency, just like happened after Vietnam when it was “Well, we're not going to do that again.” And then lo and behold, we did do that again. That inhibits really learning the lessons. What I do agree with is the idea that the United States could be a successful counter insurgent in Afghanistan, without the Afghans themselves being successful counterinsurgents. That to me is highly problematic.


And if you look at the literature about counterinsurgency doctrine and the supposed success stories of counterinsurgency, that the doctrine is drawn from, the successful examples are not of external powers being the primary counterinsurgents. They are of the internal power being the successful counterinsurgent. And so, to me, that was the fundamental flaw of the U.S. strategic approach to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, was the idea that without the Afghans, that we could be the primary determinant of success in the counterinsurgency. Now, I don't mean to suggest that no one paid attention to the Afghan forces – there was also an effort to build up their capability – but I think there was a lack of realistic appraisal of how quickly and successfully you are going to be able to build up the indigenous Afghan capability to fight the counterinsurgency.


Aishwarya Raje: So finally, in the context of the peace process, you've talked about how any peace deal being brokered in the immediate future is highly unlikely, but what would a successful peace deal look like for Afghanistan? Part of the answer might be depending who you ask just based on the number of actors that are involved in it. But, let's say for example, if we look at Afghanistan and the U.S., how do we align our best-case scenarios?


Laurel Miller: Yeah. So, first to be clear, I'm a proponent of the peace process in Afghanistan. And I think the chances of success are not zero, and the payoff is high enough that the efforts should be made. Even if you can't say that the likelihood of success is high, from an American perspective, I think the bottom line needs to be what the Afghans themselves can agree to. So, I don't think the U.S. should be that particular about what some of the details of a political settlement look like, even in terms of issues like hot-button issues, like women's rights in Afghanistan. Now, I feel comfortable saying that because there's enough diversity of voices and participants that I don't think that anything that the current Afghan government would agree to would be too compromising on issues like that. But I don't think that the U.S. should have red lines about what the exact nature of the state and governance looks like.


Let’s imagine for instance, that the state structure that emerged looked like Iran. Should we really have a negative view on that? It would be better than Saudi Arabia, if it did, just to be realistic, it would be better than any of the monarchies in the Gulf that we're perfectly friendly with. It would potentially even be not worse than Turkey. So, to my mind, the highest value is in ending the violence and enabling Afghans to live their lives in relative peace. And, from an American perspective, I think that in terms of the details, of what the structure of the state and governance looks like, there's a lot that should be sacrificed for that highest value.


Aishwarya Raje: Well, Laurel, you've been very generous with your time today. Thank you so much for speaking with us.


Laurel Miller: Well, it was my pleasure to join you. Thanks for that.


Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Laurel Miller. 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 Pearson and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


How Will Climate Change Impact Conflict Trends? | Amir Jina

Climate change will affect rich and poor countries — but poorer countries are predicted to pay the greatest human and economic cost. In this episode students interview Amir Jina, Assistant Professor at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, to discuss how shocks to the water system could impact conflict patterns — and whether it’s even possible to identify a causal relationship between conflict and climate change.

Taylor Griffin: Hi, my name is Taylor Griffin and you're listening to the University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Mwangi Thuita: Climate change will affect rich and poor countries, but poorer countries are predicted to pay the greatest human and economic cost. In this episode, we interview Amir Jina, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy researching how economic and social development is shaped by the environment. He uses economics, climate science and remote sensing to understand the impact of climate in both rich and poor countries. In our conversation with Professor Jina, we discuss how shocks to the water system could impact conflict patterns, and whether it's even possible to identify a causal relationship between conflict and climate change. We also discuss his work at the Climate Impact Lab using state-of-the-art empirical methods to study the effects of climate change.


Aishwarya Raje: Professor Jina, thank you so much for joining us today. So, to start out, can you just set the scene for us? Broadly speaking, why do we talk about environmental issues as a potential root cause of conflict, and looking at water, specifically, which was the topic of your Pearson Global Forum panel, what does water conflict mean and what kind of conflict are we talking about?


Amir Jina: So, I think fundamentally why we make this connection is that lots of conflicts, maybe all conflicts, arise as disagreements over resources and access to resources of various kinds. And while they don't have to be environmental resources, that's one of the main ways in which different societies will derive some kind of value or wellbeing. So, we have a situation where water, in particular, is fundamental to so much of what we do as a species, in terms of making our food, for example, that as that resource would start to get scarce, a conflict might inevitably arise or cooperation might arise for that matter, but there's potential in that, in the presence of that scarcity, for some kind of conflict to arise. I think that's why we make that link. One of the points that we had tried to make during the Pearson Forum was that there's a naive idea that this could be people standing around the lake because it's getting smaller and smaller and they're literally firing guns at each other over this dwindling resource, but it's never truly that simple. And one of the things which makes it both a fascinating intellectual problem, but then also a really difficult policy issue, is that the connections are sometimes really obscure. And some of those links are really hard to understand.


Mwangi Thuita: Yeah, I really enjoyed that part of the panel. We know that it's notoriously difficult to disentangle the effects of extreme weather, things like higher temperatures, longer droughts, more intense storms from the other political and economic factors that are making conflict more likely. I think one of the examples given was Syria, which took place against the backdrop of a drought across a large part of the Middle East which caused migration from rural to urban areas. You have an increasing number of unemployment in the context of rising political instability. Do you find terms used to describe the impact of extreme weather caused by climate change, such as catalyst, trigger, threat multiplier, do you find those helpful in understanding how and communicating how climate change affects conflict?


Amir Jina: People who are concerned with security, national security have really attached themselves to this phrase of a threat multiplier. And I think then it becomes from my point of view, a useful communication tool, partly because there is always going to be a debate about how fundamental issues of climate or the environment are in causing conflict. But I think it's a little bit more easy for people to understand that even if it's not the ultimate and direct cause, it almost certainly has the ability to be approximate cause of some kind of issues that we'd see. And so, the threat multiplier language is very useful from that point of view. It's not something that I would talk about. It's not a phrase that I would use so much within talking to colleagues about this, where we would probably try to drill down a bit more and understand specific mechanisms, or refer to something as being – and this is going to be very kind of wonky academic speech – but we'd refer to something as a reduced-form relationship, if we don't understand the mechanism,  and we're pretty comfortable talking about those reduced form types of relationships. And then we would drill down into the mechanisms, but in an abstract sense, particularly outside of talking to those people who work on this issue in a research context, it's pretty useful to be able to say, is this something where threats might exist and you know where those threats would be, where you know what a whole other set of risks are?


And what we're talking about is something that might amplify risks. The other useful part of it is that it doesn't immediately dismiss. And in particular, I think it kind of respects the knowledge of people who actually deal with and are concerned with conflict on the ground, because it's saying, you know what these threats are. And this is one extra thing: it's not the academics coming in and saying, I'm going to tell you what's going to cause this conflict, when there's a whole set of political and social context that people working on conflict and in a day-to-day basis will know much better than most academics can ever try to know. So, I think it's super useful from that point of view and I think it shows a little bit of respect and deference to the people who actually are doing more to deal with the consequences of conflict in a real policy sense.


Aishwarya Raje: So, one question around understanding how water and conflict are related. It feels like it often comes back to the lack of comprehensive data around the issue. And I know that's something that came up during your panel during the Forum. And I'm wondering: Is there a push to produce more data as a means to eventually build more effective policies, and whose responsibility would it be to collect and produce this data? Is it local governments? Is it researchers such as yourself? Is it private sector partners? Is it a combination? How should we approach this problem?


Amir Jina: Yeah. So, I think where data becomes useful is in this sense, I guess, taking a step back: What is the actual link that we would see? So, I said, it's very stressed resources, so water supply decreases for some reason. There's a first step, which is just making that connection. So, between weather and conflict, there's an extra step there, which is saying, “How much worse was this in the present day because of climate change?” And that's a really hard thing to do. Something that's a little bit easier is to say, “Let’s take projections of climate change and see if this relationship stays the same, or how much worse, usually worse, but could also be better, but how much worse or better is that going to be in the future?” And so, making those steps and connections along the way to even establish those relationships, we do need data to start. We need data on the conflicts. We need data on people's wellbeing on their health, on socioeconomic status. We need data on what the drivers here would be, which is water access, weather, et cetera.


The really difficult issue with large-scale interpersonal conflict, is that they now are often happening in places without a lot of data on or a lot of environmental monitoring. So, one of the reasons why this research has exploded in the last few years is because there has been a big push towards measurement, broadly speaking, of the environment, of climate, of weather, and bypassing issues that are particularly tricky, like in across all of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, very few permanent weather stations. There’s a handful of airports, but there's nothing like the density of weather measurements that you would get in the United States. Rivers all across the United States have gauges, which tell us what the levels are, what the volume of water flow is, and you just don't get that in a lot of other parts of the world.


So, there's been innovations there on using satellites, on using models of physics of the climate of trying to work out what the weather is in each location. We've been filling a data gap slowly. It's being incidentally attached to understanding conflict, because the reason that those models are being made is because of people doing climate research or environmental research, and they develop some global data sets. And then the people who had this problem of saying, “Well, I wanted to understand the environment-conflict link in this location, where I had no measurements before,” suddenly they have some access to data. So, we're kind of riding on the coattails of a lot of other well-funded science to do this. And so, often those exact measurements aren't exactly what we would need to understand the issue. So, coming back to your point then, we're kind of getting lucky at the moment in terms of there being access to data on the environment side.


And then a few groups are also measuring conflict in a better and more consistent way. Now we can go online and scrape news reports for different conflicts and try and build up our databases in a more consistent way. But for this resource to a conflict link, I think that the level of data that's required to understand the mechanisms part, but also to think about using this information we know about this relationship for early warnings, that's not really there yet. And so, what do we need, coming back to your question? What do we actually need, and whose responsibility is it? In an abstract sense, hopefully it would be the responsibility of anybody who's negatively impacted by that conflict because there's some incentive there, that you should say, “Yes, we should learn about this.” Monitoring efforts are pretty expensive to set up, particularly in the old-style way that you would have in somewhere like the United States or parts of Europe.


And so, we're relying on more innovation to try and make cheaper sensors, cheaper river measurements, cheaper pollution measurements, so that we actually can fill in the map in terms of what's measured and what's not. And so ideally, this would be something that governments would be able to support, but then we enter the issue that comes up when you're thinking about conflict or economic development, which is “What's your priority in that location?” If you are a place which is prone to conflict in the first place. where it's hard to do data monitoring, where your population might be poor, is putting in a set of weather stations or river level gauges actually your highest priority? And the answer is probably no, there's more pressing things. And so, even if it is the government's responsibility, it might be very low on their list of priorities. And so, that's where private agencies, researchers, the international community, does need to step in. If we believe that this is a major issue, then somebody needs to step in and do it because the resources just don't necessarily exist to do it at the national level in a lot of places where we'd really want to monitor this.


Thanks for that. So, you're part of the Climate Impact Lab, which brings together social scientists and

climate scientists to try and figure out how much climate change is costing society and who's paying what. What are you able to achieve working collaboratively between social scientists and climate scientists together that you might not be able to do alone?


Amir Jina: So, yeah, my background was actually that I started off as a physicist, then a climate scientist, and then fell into economics almost accidentally. Someone told me about a paper by Esther Duflo, who was the second woman to win an Economics Nobel prize. And this was 10, 12 years ago. And prior to that, I had a very narrow and biased view of what economics was. I thought it was investment banking. So, seeing this paper about the welfare effects of a government pension refund in South Africa on granddaughters of women who got this transfer, that to me was kind of mind blowing. So I moved from climate science more into economics. And I've tried to keep those two things together, as much as I can.


The drawback of that or that the difficulty with that is it's pretty hard to try and be an expert in one thing, let alone an expert in multiple things. And so, early on, I had to give up the idea that I'm going to be an expert in these two things, but that there's very few people sitting at this intersection. And what that allowed me to do was have a language to be able to communicate with both of those fields and to try and bring together a larger group. The benefit of that is that we're in a situation where, for questions like this environment and conflict question, where insights from more than one discipline are actually important, for the issue of conflict and for a lot of issues dealing with fundamental questions of human wellbeing and how we interact with each other, the question becomes more important than the discipline that you are situated in when you ask that.


We should be focused on solving or understanding a certain problem. And that means trying to get ourselves out of the silo that we're in intellectually and seeing what are the tools that are needed to solve this problem. And so, I think the benefit that comes from working with the Climate Impact Lab, the reason why it's somewhat organically evolved into the thing that it is, with as you said, computer scientists and economists and climate scientists and others, is that it allows us to stay focused on a problem and bring together the resources we need. And sometimes it's true. We do need, if we want to understand, for example, uncertainty and what the future is going to be like, we need real climate science there to tell us, but we also need the economists to say, well, here's what we understand about the link to the economy. Here's what we understand about this aspect of the economic system. And currently, the climate science is not seeing this part and the economics is not seeing what the climate science can do.


So, we actually need to find some bridge in between these, and it's allowed us, in doing that to solve questions in a way which we think is more focused on the actual policy actions you could take. So, to do this in a way which is really hyper-local, we can get this all over information all over the world, right down to the equivalent of the county level in different countries. We can do a full quantification of uncertainty, which I think is useful for investments, or if you're thinking generally of your climate risks, broadly, it helps to know what your average change might be in the future, but it also helps to know what your 1 in 20 or 1 to 10, your risk of change might be, so, what the full distribution is. I think that's what this collaboration has allowed us to do.


Aishwarya Raje: So, as a follow-up to that, I feel like often times in the world of academia, which of course you have much more experience we do, it's easy to get caught up in looking at really highly consequential and urgent issues like climate change, public health, poverty, as intellectual exercises, or as things that are intellectually interesting rather than as issues that affect people's wellbeing and livelihood. So, given your role in the Climate Impact Lab, or just in general, how do we make sure that we're not just researching for researching and actually taking into account the human factor with these issues?


Amir Jina: This is absolutely something that I wrestle with if not on a daily basis, than an almost daily basis. And I think I spent a lot of time early on in my research career doing long stints of field work. Sometimes particularly in development economics, that can be…the interactions there with the place that you're studying can actually be quite short, but I would try and go for as long as possible and spend a few months in a place and try to learn as much as possible about the people who were being affected by the thing I was trying to research. And partly, that did two things. One was to make sure that I understood well. And I think a lot of the really good development economists that I look up to, do have, even if they don't write about it in their papers, sometimes they have this really in-depth knowledge of the places that they're working in.


And they have people who they work with there, who are living there full-time from those locations that are able to provide context when needed. The other thing that it helps to do is when I sit down and see some data points or some data set on a different outcome, it helps me try and connect that. It's something that I have to consciously do, but helps me try and connect it back to some of the stories that I remember from sitting in a focus group in a small village in Bangladesh or somewhere, and try to remember there's enormous consequences to getting these answers right in this information. So, that's the one aspect of this. I think the other part is recognizing that there's kind of an ecosystem right in this. So, I'm a researcher because I derive some kind of enjoyment from finding out new things.


And I think that's true of most academics. There's some reward to just thinking deeply and understanding something. And that might be what motivates us to some extent. I think most of the people, particularly at a policy school, are also motivated by solving a real problem. One of the things which we've tried to do with Climate Impact Lab, and I think some of us tried to do generally is to make sure that we recognize there's a broader ecosystem around that knowledge system. There are people who will be able to use it. There are people who might rely on that information. There are people whose lives will be improved by finding out answers to different questions, and to make sure that we don't just sit in our offices on our computers, writing the papers, but actually get nudged towards what the important question is.


Mwangi Thuita: Speaking of visiting developing countries, I saw that you you've been to Kenya. I saw some photos on

your website.

Amir Jina: Yes, I have. My father was from Tanzania actually.

Mwangi Thuita: Okay, I’m from Kenya!


Amir Jina: The thing which I didn't realize for years was my father grew up in Tanzania and they had actually moved to Kenya originally from India in the 1800s. But my name, my last name, means name in Swahili. And so, when I landed in Kenya for the first time, on my immigration form, I wrote down and said, Jina, and then I wrote Jina after it. And the immigration officials found this so funny, and one guy cracked up and he called over the guy next to him and said, “This guy doesn’t know what he's doing.” I was like, no, that's really my name. They looked at my passport, everything. But yeah, so I have a connection to there. The work in Kenya was actually part of working with the United Nations, with UNICEF and the United Nations environment program. There was a small network of people at African universities trying to think about climate adaptation, particularly this youth initiative that was starting.


So, part of it was, “I'm trying to support this,” and then, a few people went there and, and kind of helped with the knowledge sharing that was related to that. So, I think it’s another one of those things, actually that even though I don't have research from there at that time, the connections that I made and some of the things I got to experience in different community conservation projects, for example, have actually stuck with me a lot. And those are some of the things which provide the motivation or at least some context for why I continue to try and sit behind my computer and sometimes boring work of doing the papers.


Mwangi Thuita: So, you earlier said that although we know that there's an effect of shocks to a water supply and conflict behavior, that we don't know much about the mechanisms. Specifically, I think during the panel, you said that shocks to water systems are increasing the risk of conflict by about 5% to 10%. First of all, can you just explain it in simple terms? What do those numbers mean? What does that mean?


Amir Jina: That was coming from a paper of a coauthor of mine who had done this broad meta-analysis of about 6 different research projects at all different scales, and looking at what the climate conflict link was. Standardizing those making sure they controlled for all the unobservable differences that might lead to problems in that interpretation, so that you could interpret those causally, and then looked at the average effect of those. And what they found was this one standard deviation change in precipitation. So not really in the lake access or something like that, but just a precipitation shock led to this, this 5% difference. So, that was a very specific thing. It's hard. So, I'm fairly confident that we can interpret those things causally because of the way we set up the observational data.


But we set up the experiment with our panel data and our fixed effects and all the things that become important for turning this interpretation into a causal one, rather than just correlational. I think what we would need to understand exactly what those mechanisms are, is in some cases, just a lot more data, a lot more research, but also in particular, a lot more understanding of the effect of certain policies, either directly related to conflict or not. So, there's this fascinating paper about the monsoon in India and looking at crime rates due to changes in the amount of rainfall that happened during the monsoon in India, and it found that there was a relationship between less rain and more crime, and then it looked at the rollout of this Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which was an act in the mid-2000s, which gave guaranteed labor for people or days of work for people who were unemployed.


So, for example, if there was an agricultural shock, their crop failed, they could go and get access to work for pay. And so, it was this work guarantee act. The way that that was rolled out across the country wasn't exactly random, but it was turned on in some states at certain times differently. And this research paper, by a guy named Thiemo Fetzer, found that the relationship between rainfall and conflict almost completely disappeared. And that tells us a lot about what might be happening behind this mechanism. This is something saying, well, if we know that this is related to employment. What's the main source of employment that's being targeted by this policy? It's agricultural employment, to make sure that people don't end up unemployed or losing money that comes from either being a landless labor who's employed on a farm or having your own crops fail if you own your land.


That allows us to say, well, we've identified a little bit more what the source of that link could be. It's down to the food supply, but more than just the food supply, it's down to people's ability to make money. The amount that people were getting for this for this extra day of work wasn't actually that much money. So, it shows potentially how desperate people had gotten that they would engage in this really risky crime conflict behavior in order to make up for that loss. And it tells us quite a lot about the actual household budgeting decision that goes into what might make somebody engage in a pretty desperate activity. And so, I think it's situations like that where we can understand the role that certain policies play, where we know the policy targets a certain specific mechanism where we start to learn a lot more, but that's a slow process of building up information. The ideal would be that we could then see this, learn something from it and say, “Okay, maybe the environmental conflict nexus,  instead of focusing on ending the conflict once it happens, why don't we think of something like a social safety net as being that conflict reduction policy?”


Mwangi Thuita: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for your time and also for the important work you're doing. It's very interesting and of course important.


Amir Jina: Thank you both so much.


Root of Conflict Introducer: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict featuring Amir Jina, this episode was produced and edited by Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita. Thank you to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support for this series. For more information on the Pearson Institute's events and research, visit and follow them on Twitter.



Root of Conflict


COVID-19 and Peacebuilding in Nigeria | Rebecca Wolfe and Maurice Amollo

In this episode, students speak with Pearson Associate Rebecca Wolfe and Maurice Amollo of Mercy Corps, who have worked together on the USAID-funded “Community Initiatives to Promote Peace,” a multifaceted program aimed to bring together pastoralists and farmers by engaging community and faith-based leaders to promote peace in Nigeria. They discuss the roots of conflict in Nigeria, how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption in their programs, and the importance of building trust between people and institutions.

Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Daniella Choi: Hello, my name is Daniella Choi.


Daniel Vallejo: And I'm Daniel Vallejo and we are so excited to have Dr. Rebecca Wolfe and Maurice Amollo with us. Rebecca is a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy and she's a renowned expert on political violence, conflict and violent extremists. Maurice is the Chief of Party for Mercy Corps Nigeria’s country office. The two of them have worked together for a long-time developing programs and conducting evaluations on conflict mitigation.


Daniella Choi: On this episode, we highlight Mercy Corps program in Nigeria called the “Community Initiatives to Promote Peace. It's a multi-faceted program aimed at building bridges between pastoralists and farmers by engaging community and faith-based leaders, coordinating social assistance, and strengthening conflict mitigation networks to promote peaceful coexistence. We talk about the intergroup tension between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations as a root of conflict and how this identity-based conflict is widespread around the world. We also discussed the disruptive effects of COVID-19 and social distancing measures on implementing this program, which is based on building trust and social cohesion.


Daniel Vallejo: Dr. Wolfe and Maurice, thank you for joining us today. We understand you're focusing on mainly two groups, addressing the conflict between two groups, so if you could talk a little bit more about these two groups, the difference between them, or why this conflict arose.


Maurice Amollo: The Community Initiatives to Promote Peace program is trying to empower communities to prevent and respond to violence and violent extremism by strengthening key skills and relationships. We are trying to also foster an environment for peace through policy, advocacy, media outreach, and of course, linkages to development programs. The focus there is mostly to ensure that the various development programs and policies that are being implemented to improve people's lives in the middle belt are conflict sensitive. They’re being implemented based on do no harm principles. But now for our study, the focus is on two groups, the farmers and the herders, and that conflict has had a long history and it's complicated because of a myriad of issues and challenges that have come with it.


One of the things that is happening currently, particularly in what we call the Chad Basin is because of the effects of climate change. We are having an accelerated state of desertification. And with that, we have communities that are moving from as far as Chad southwards, and mostly herders from the Fulani community. And as they move, they are getting into conflicts with farmers because of the competition for the limited natural resources, most of the cases, the hoarders are accused of leaving the animals unattended and destroying farms. And so, because of that, it has brought really serious, violent conflicts between those two groups, but it is also complicated by the religious dynamics, because the Fulani are predominantly Muslim, and the majority of farmers in this middle belt are Christians, and religion is the strongest form of identity in Nigeria. This violence has become political, politicians use it to access resources, but also power, it has become religious. The underlying root causes are not in most cases appropriately addressed. There are also serious individuals who can appropriately respond to some of these disagreements on the marge and use nonviolent ways to deal with those particular conflicts. Our other partners are trying to build the capacity of these particular communities, but also foster an environment where these individuals can be able to resolve their conflicts in a non-violent manner.


Daniel Vallejo: An important root of this conflict is conflict with the natural resources and their scarcity. Is this scarcity due to human intervention, or is it more related to a natural cycle in order to understand what are the possible solutions on the scope?


Maurice Amollo: I would think it's both. One is that there are challenges with demographics. You know, the Nigerian population is very young, and it is expanding so fast to the country right now. The population of the countries in Europe are between 200 to 250 million people, and of that, I think over 70% is below 35 years. There are no jobs, there are no jobs. There are challenges with the governance system. Security is a big challenge. The government is unable to provide adequate security to these people, and there is not enough space where communities can co-create with the government officials to come up with solutions that are challenging them. And because of that, everybody is to himself or herself. But also, I think that the limitation is, these communities are heavily dependent on natural resources, particularly the herders, and if it is farmers, mostly depending on rain-fed agriculture, there is not enough space for everyone, and there is not enough capacity to rally the communities around common areas where they can be able to deal with some of these problems because of, again, as I said, weaknesses within the governance system.


Daniella Choi: In terms of what we're seeing in the scarcity mindset, it can go for the natural resources, and obviously the effects of climate change is making livelihood for subsistence farmers extremely difficult. And alongside of that, the scarcity mindset that it exists within the ingroup and outgroup population. So, sort of the social trust element and the social network element. And we're curious, particularly because the intervention you're designing, or you have designed and are evaluating, is a peace-building intervention that is really founded on building that social understanding and trust. So, how that selection process happened and deciding which dimension of this root causes to focus on.


Rebecca Wolfe: These peace-building interventions Mercy Corps has been working on actually started probably in about, I think, 2009, with a program funded by the UK government. And we've been able to do these follow on interventions, building off of that and the intersectionality of the farmers and herders and religion, and the religious dynamic that plays a role, but it worked with communities. They say particularly in the more rural areas, it’s largely about the resources. What’s been an added identity issue that's come up in recent years, is this question of local versus foreign, outside pastoralists, or Fulani, as Maurice is saying, because of climate change, people are migrating from further North down South. And so, they aren't familiar with the agreements that had been fostered with local Fulani. With Mercy Corps, they did a qualitative study of this kind of foreign pastoralist, and at one point, a discussion with USH, should we talk about it in terms of farmer-pastoralists conflict, or in a sense, local versus – I forget the term they were thinking of using, because local farmers and pastoralists weren't having that many issues with each other.


It was about this additional identity that came apart of it. And so, what we were seeing back then, in 2000, this was clearly the most important kind of issue and that was affecting this area of Nigeria more. So, we were doing assessments in the south of Nigeria as well, but this is where we also felt we could have the most impact because it was a locally based conflict, not driven by more political factors at a national level. What's been interesting is a lot of the funding for peacebuilding around 2012 and 2014 started to move to Northeastern Nigeria because of Boko Haram, and so, a different identity-based conflict. And all the good work that had happened in the middle belt, all the funding went towards the Northeast and now violence because of these resource factors has escalated again.


And so, the money's now moving back, and it shows the fact of having a short-term mindset on these issues, because they're identity-based and longstanding, has potentially perverse effects.


Daniella Choi: I lived in Gambia, and last summer, I worked in Ghana, and because my host family were Fulani people from Guinea, I always try to talk to folks if I see them. And it's really interesting because the conflict in Gambia was Fulani pastoralists from Niger. And the people always said, “Oh, they're from Niger, they're very different from us.” Whereas in Ghana too, I was in the Northern side and there were Fulani folks from Burkina Faso that came over with political hardships, like years ago or something like that. And people still have a very strong identity of, “Oh, they're the Fulanis from Burkina Faso, which was really fascinating how long that lasts.”


Daniel Vallejo: I was wondering, I was thinking, when you start working with nomadic communities, you have to change a lot, this scope of how you measure the impact or how you continue measuring the impact, because they will change, they will move. I mean, in your report, you make a lot of analysis like in this municipality this happened, or in this one, this happened, how do you do this? They will not be there tomorrow.

Rebecca Wolfe: I will say, I often joke how I didn't learn my lesson last time around, of doing a RC with a mobile population. I had done a research workshop with people when I was designing the first study and no one gave me feedback that this was a really bad idea. And it really, in some ways is a bad idea. And yet I'm doing it again. I mean, one thing that has worked really well, and has helped us is our local partner. They parry, in both the previous study and this study that we're currently running, they really understand where the pastoralist communities are moving. And again, local pastoralists, there's regular movements that they make yearly. And so, we could know where to follow up with them. It did make other aspects of the peacebuilding program difficult. So, how do you have a project that benefits the pastoralists to the same extent as the farmers? Cause you're putting it in a physical…


Daniel Vallejo: So, when you’re – talking specifically about pastorals – you’ve put in this community, in this geographic location, the numbers you find, that group is going to become part of another municipality?


Rebecca Wolfe: Because of the way the movements are, they still are kind of grouped within a community. So, even if they move far away, we were able to kind of separate it out. So, it's not the way we demarcate community, so that there wouldn't be that contamination that it sounds like you're getting at that. So, they moved from a treatment community, for example, to a control community in their migration. Is that what, in essence, what you're asking?


Daniel Vallejo: Exactly, yeah, perfect.


Rebecca Wolfe: So, we were able to make sure, again, working with the local partner, they would help us be able to map who the communities are, where the pastoralists went to, so that we didn't have kind of those strict boundaries between those. I will say there were times in the previous study where, to be able to address some of the conflict dynamics. We had controlled communities come into the study because we wouldn't be able to resolve the conflict dynamics without them. And that was more of a priority than the study. What we also realized, that by including control communities from time to time, it would minimize any results we had. It wouldn't have exacerbated the results. And so, we still could feel confident.


Daniel Vallejo: Part of what we have done, I think as Rebecca mentioned, is to try and understand the movement patterns of the pastoral. It’s so hard. We also take a very close look at the seasons. You know, the rainy seasons and the dry seasons are to determine how those movements will be influenced. We also have mapped out the corridors, even though those keep changing, we've mapped out the corridors to try and predict where they'll come from and how they move, what community they will come to. And in most cases over the years, that pattern has been fairly similar. It hasn't changed much, and that is why you have conflicts recurring in certain areas over and over again. That said, it's of course a challenge that we continuously have to take into consideration. We are trying to see if we can work with RN because they are doing this human tracking, where they can predict when the pastoralists or the herders will likely move from one area to another.


Daniella Choi: It seems that building trust and getting buy-in from both sides of the peacebuilding that you're working on is really important. And particularly with creating the intervention design or even understanding who are the leaders and what are the government resources that they would like to be linked to, and mitigation techniques, it seems like there's a lot that requires centering the communities’ voice and centering their experience, as well as co-creating the intervention. I was wondering if you could provide one example to how a better understanding of the needs of their community has allowed for this space to co-create their intervention.


Maurice Amollo: One of the things we've done, of course, it’s really critical to understand really the inner dynamics and operations of the community you're working with, to know who is, who, who are the influencers, who are the gate keepers, who do I want to keep close? Who do I want to keep even closer? Particularly the spoilers. We try to keep them as close as possible. And I think we do all that so continuously, we have a very important component in our programming, and that is conflict and stakeholder analysis or mapping where, before we start programming, we try to map as exhaustively as possible, who are the key actors in each community, who has the ability to move people away from, but also to violence. And once we know who these individuals are, then we develop strategies on how to reach out to them.


So, they are part and parcel of the problem. Conflict analysis enables us to understand the dynamics of the conflict factors and how they are changing at any one given time, as you know, conflicts can evolve very fast. It can start into something about your animals ate my corn, and then it moves very, very fast for a very different thing. If you ask why people are fighting, it would have changed, it would have acquired a very different image. So, continuously we do conflict analysis, but we are also conducting interviews, what we call daily context analysis, where we send questions to communities and they are able to respond. And we are able to see real-time in our dashboard, what, how people perceive the state of peace or conflicts in their particular community. And to be able to then come up with an appropriate response to what that is. It all revolves around trust building with all the key strategic quarters. And that includes government, it includes security officers, politicians, youth, women, who are a very, very important component of this program, and bringing all of them together, or what I think Rebecca normally says, creating a dense network of individuals who can be able to create where there is attention, but also respond with a necessary capacity to respond to that particular incident.


Root of Conflict Introducers: We will be right back. Hey, Root of Conflict listeners. This is David Ruban from UC3P, the main page. Obviously, if you're listening to this, you like Root of Conflict. We think there might be a good chance you'll like the main page too. Every Friday, podcasters from across UC3P do interviews and mini-series on a wide range of topics related to policy, politics, and current affairs. Check out UC3P, the main page, wherever you find podcasts. And now back to Root of Conflict.


Daniel Vallejo: We're going to move a little bit to another topic. Like we understand that COVID has become this global thing, this global pandemic, but when you start thinking about rural communities that are not so related to this global interexchange, we were wondering if COVID is really that important in these situations. Like for example, I'm from Colombia and comparing to the Colombian situation, in many rural regions, you have issues with malaria, with dengue, COVID is just like another one, it’s not the one. So, if you could talk a little bit more about this, how are they leaving this there.


Maurice Amollo: Just like you said in Colombia, it's almost the same here, that people think that yes, the government is telling us there is COVID-19 there, but the systems that the government has put in place to respond to the pandemic are in many ways in direct conflict with people's normal, daily ways of life. And it's even worse in these communities where we, if you are in urban or peri-urban areas, they depend on wage and employment. And so, to tell them to restrict movements, social distancing, to tell people that you have to continuously wash your hands in communities that are suffering serious water scarcity, it just makes sense. And then bring that together with the whole trust issue. These are communities in conflict, in standing conflicts here, there are serious challenges with the trust, because of flows and governance, communities don't trust what the government says. And of course, then we also have the other component, the elephant in the room in Nigeria, and that's Boko Haram with its propaganda. Whether this is something that is affecting the West, the enemy, or that has been brought by the enemy and we should resist, or this is just another strategy to put us down.


So, it has come with a lot of misinformation. Unfortunately, the government's approach has not really responded to some of these challenges because I see daily briefings of the state of COVID-19 and they're just called statistics. You know, now this number of people are infected in the last 24 hours. There are now so many 10,000 people infected. This number is dead. This number are discharged today. But they do not really explain to a random guy in the street language, what all this means. So, in a way, people have just ignored these guidelines and they are going on with their life. However, in response, the government has instructed security operators to take various stern action. Again, it's people who are not following those guidelines.


The military has been deployed. And with that, we have had an escalation of conflict particularly between youth and the police, because a lot of security have now been deployed to either enforce the curfew or enforce travel restrictions. individuals have taken advantage of standing conflicts, especially between the farmers and herders to commit things that we'll say are purely criminal, either cattle-wrestling, stealing from farmers or from herders. And this has seen a spike in violence between farmers and herders, since the COVID-19 started, with not much response from the government. Again, interestingly, even government officials are uncomfortable to move around because of COVID-19. And so, the response is not as robust as you'd think it. And then the other thing is that even those people that we had trained in conflict with the issue are unable actually to move in and deal with this, some of these conflicts.


And so, we are worried that COVID-19 is likely to wipe out some of the gains that we had achieved. We have tried to really adjust to the situation. We've moved a number of our programs to radio. We have expanded our social media outreach, particularly targeting young people. And we are remaining in contact with the key strategic community leaders, through telephone conversations to ensure that where we can intervene, we are intervening. The restriction in movement particularly, and social distancing has created a very new dynamic that I think as a peacebuilding community, we are not very prepared for. Our work is first and foremost to build relationships and you don't build relationships through telephone conversations. You build or rebuild relationships through bringing people together, sitting and confronting some of the challenges and the trust issues that they are going through. So yeah, we are using alternative means and we are right now in unchartered waters. but I'm sure something good will come out of this.


Daniella Choi: Maurice, as you were talking about how coronavirus has affected Nigeria and your particular work, it really mirrors the U.S.’s experiences, as it does for a lot of other places in terms of misinformation and sort of delayed or inaction on the part of the government, and just the daily lives as we know it being affected. And I wonder particularly in the context of the issue that you're working in, the spike in violence with the pastoralists and farmers community, and growing distrust, that the social distancing is obviously not aiding. In an ideal world, what would be an intervention you would like to see from the government?


Maurice Amollo: So, we have started organizing online meetings, virtual meetings with some strategic government officers, but also members from the civil society to begin to discuss some of these policies that the government have put in place. And we just remind them about the unintended outcome of some of those. For example, things around banning travel and what they define as essential services. And they have not seen, particularly among conflicted communities, that individuals who have the capacity to mediate this conflict should be considered as essential servants. So we are trying to really advocate for these individuals to be allowed, of course, taking care of all other things that you need to take care of during a pandemic, and they're allowed to make sure that they mediate this conflict to avoid escalation, so that they're not arrested, because we are stopping the spread of COVID-19, but people are losing lives and property. So, it doesn't make a lot of sense. So, how can we still implement these policies, but also ensure that conflicts are not worsening where they are? How do we balance between the two?


Daniel Vallejo: Given that the governments have been spending a lot of resources to overcome this COVID crisis, do you think this will affect in some sense, the available funds for international aid?


Rebecca Wolfe: Yes. And I think maybe Maurice can also add to that in terms of, has he been asked, or knows of how the Nigeria program has been asked to move interventions into a different area. Earlier in the conversation, I mentioned that just moving from the middle belt to Northeast Nigeria because of the change in crisis. And I saw that happen in Iraq as well after ISIS. So, we had been doing all this governance and civil society work in other areas and ISIS hid, and all the money and the work moved to humanitarian, not the development work and peace-building work that had been happening. And so, I think there is going to be a lot of shifting of funding into this area. And one of the things I've seen from other research I did in Afghanistan is in a sense what a potential backlash affects when aid goes away, especially when it's done, not in a considered and deliberate way, when it's just this kind of immediate thing. And so, there is, particularly in conflict zones, that significantly risk that not just all the gains will be lost, but actually could create more grievances.


Maurice: Currently. I think what is happening in Nigeria, we've seen some donors, some of the programs to begin to repurpose some of the funding. So far, I think the sector that has been affected is the USAID, humanitarian response programs. At least for me, I've had several calls with our donor USAID, but also with DFID and our message has been very, very clear and simple. I think just based on what Rebecca has said, we have told them that look, you have already invested heavily in dealing with some of these conflicts. If you look at the UN SDGs, particularly for a country like Nigeria, they're still in the red. They have not achieved that. There has been some progress, but they’re not quite there. In fact, they are still […].


If you look at the amount of investments that have already been put to deal with this conflict, I think for the UK government alone, if you look at the just the ODA, they invested around over 200, close to 300 million in 2018. If, right now, we decide that COVID is the fraction of the thin, unless we propose funding and put a break on conflicts, I think the effect will be really, really bad, because number one, these conflicts have not stopped. As I said earlier, they are continuing, even as COVID-19, is ongoing and we will most likely lose everything we've worked for in in the past few years. So, I would say COVID-19 as a threat multiplier, and let's double down in our efforts and say, “Yes, we will deal with this COVID-19, but we will also ensure that other efforts at managing conflicts are maintained.” Because diseases really do well in areas where there is silence, where people are not talking, and conflicts breed silence, because of trust issues. If you want people to tackle COVID-19 effectively, you will want effective communication. You want people to cooperate. You want people to come together. Conflict does not allow for the building of social capital, for those people to come together and do these things. So, if you take your foot off the gas now, it will be worse.


Daniella Choi: We are in the U.S., we are in the middle of another crisis with race relations and systemic racism, and just ongoing protests with everything that's been going on with police violence. And I could not help but think about the parallel of the conversation we're having here, with the dynamic that we're seeing in the U.S., and I wonder if you have been reflecting on that dynamic based on what you know of the mitigation work you've done in other places, and how you’re repping around this issue.


Rebecca Wolfe: As I reflected in class, on Monday, we started the humanitarian course with the uptick of COVID in that there was an essence, a humanitarian response in this country. And we closed class on Monday after a night of pretty bad looting that distracted from the important protests that were happening.


And I had walked around my neighborhood that morning and just saw all the damage that had been done. And it was an interesting kind of book casing of the course. And there has been talk of UN resolutions against the U.S. What would humanitarian intervention mean here, or if that UN resolution got passed, I mean, it won’t, at least at the Security Council. So, definitely at that high level I had been thinking about it. What I've been thinking actually at the intersection of COVID and this issue is just a complete lack of trust with communities and government and how what's happening now is even going to make that worse. And so, we likely will have another spike of COVID, and how much harder it will be to have those social distancing measures taken up. And so, seeing in my neighborhood how people are not all obeying the rules already, and we're one day out of lockdown. And so, that to me, is just the lack of trust in institutions here now. And so, much of the peace building work I've done with Maurice over the years has been about trying to connect communities to institutions.


Danielle Choi: Absolutely. We need interventions in the U.S. very badly as well. So, thank you for that.


Maurice Amollo: Yeah. And I mean, just to add, we've had similar challenges in my country back in Kenya. I've seen similar challenges in other countries as well and in Nigeria currently. And I think apart from building those strong institutional networks and connections and relationships that Rebecca has talked about, one thing that we continuously challenge people to think about, but which for some strange reason everybody's afraid of - and I mean we can also see it in the US now, is getting familiar with what our emotions teach us when we go through some of these challenges. When we hurt one another. Because when we don't feel acknowledged, or when grief goes underground and gets twisted, when we don't have avenues for response, whether it's embodied or not, but some kind of avenue for response, or when we think that it's for other people, over there, then things get strange and harmful.


And I think that particularly as humanity, we are not even very practiced at perceiving it as harm. It reminds me of those people who are commenting with such compassion for the dog in the video of Andy Cooper, if you've seen that. It's some kind of twisted shame and empathy. We continuously lose our capacity to respond to such things. It happens continuously and our response is not authentic. Yeah. And it's not authentic and it's not from a place of connectedness, and we continue hurting one another. I see it right now among the Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. I see it among ethnic communities in Kenya, whether it is Luos and Kikuyus, and now I see it in this situation in the U.S. It’s some kind of twisted sham that cuts off connection. So, you don't have to perceive it as such, but it's actually a […]. So, we need to really be able to be familiar with our emotions and confront them across lines. You should not be ashamed of talking about some of these things.


Daniel Vallejo: Briefly tell us, what are the next steps? How is this probably going to follow? Do you have already defined what's going to happen?


Maurice Amollo: Oh, so we already have the money. We have the funds –


Daniel Vallejo: Haha, great.


Maurice Amollo: We have the funds to conduct the study, and we have already started with the study. I think we've already trained a group of community mediators and deployed them. On some of them, I think in one state, while we managed to collect initial data, they've already, I think, resolved 125 disputes. We already have communities’ control and test the communities in place. So, the study is ongoing. I think going forward right now is to see to conduct a midterm test, to see where we are with things. We are actually interviewing community leaders in control areas so that we get to know also what their capacity levels is and how they see things, which will enable effective comparison. Then we'll do a midterm evaluation, and at the end of the year, we will now start adding more activities to what we are doing right now and to keep testing and see eventually what we get.


Rebecca Wolfe: We're in about the first year of a five-year program, now. And often you get results of studies like this after the program is over. And because we're doing it at the early part of the program, we'll be able to feed in the results of the study to be able to adapt it and learn from that. And then, as Maurice said, we're adding different components to be able to also look at the differential effects of these various components. One of the challenges of many development and peacebuilding programs today is that it has multiple components. And so, you don't know what's having the most impact on your results. And so, after the first year of implementation, we'll add in those dialogues, so kind of the more contact part of the program, and see what the added effect is, of the relationship building component in addition to mediation. And so, those results would come say two years out, but it’s nice to be able to do it as a more iterative process, versus just, you run a five-year study, and then about a year after the study, the program is over and then you find out what it did. And no one who was involved in the program is around anymore. So, it's very much more of a learning approach we've been able to take here.


Daniel Vallejo: Thank you very much.


Daniella Choi: This was a lovely chat. Thank you so much.


Root of Conflict Introducers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Maurice Amollo and Rebecca Wolfe. Thanks to our interviewers, Daniella Choi and Danielle Vallejo and to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. To learn more about the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit the Pearson and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


COVID-19 in Conflict Afflicted States | Frances Z. Brown

Frances Z. Brown is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She recently co-authored a report titled “Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape”, which examines how the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out in 12 different conflict-affected states, and how efforts to contain the virus increase the likelihood of aggravating those conflicts.

Root of Conflict Introducers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Yi Ning Wong: Hi everyone. My name is Yi Ning Wong and Sonnet and I are going to be your host for today's episode. Today we have Frances Brown here with us. Frances Brown is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. We're going to chat a little bit about how the pandemic has changed the political landscape of conflict regions locally and internationally. She recently co-authored Coronavirus and Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape, for instance.

Sonnet Frisbie: Thank you so much for joining us today. The report that you co-authored was really interesting. I really enjoyed reading it. Coronavirus and Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape. Could you maybe give us a quick rundown of the methodology you used in the reports, since we’re a wonky data and conflict podcast, and some of the key findings?


Frances Brown: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks Sonnet. And it's great to be here with you and Yi Ning. Last month, my co-editor Jarrett Blank, who’s a colleague at Carnegie Endowment, and I released this report and it's actually a compilation of twelve different essays looking twelve different conflicts in fragile states around the world. We asked us a variety of Carnegie experts to analyze their areas of expertise, their country of expertise, and look at how the coronavirus may affect these conflicts going forward. Then Jared and I, the co-editors put together a synthesis high-level report, which I believe you've read pointing out some high-level trends that we see that are shared among these various conflicts. It's worth noting that obviously, this is a really preliminary story. This report was drafted just as the coronavirus was really taking hold in many of these conflict areas and fragile states. So, some of it is speculative or some of it is trying to predict trends that we were just seeing the stirrings of at the start, but we still think it's important and informative because I think it can help us all collectively get our heads around how this virus might affect conflict dynamics in the coming months, and unfortunately, years. It's also worth saying, of course, there's a ton of local variation between these conflict areas and also among other conflict areas that we didn't cover in this report beyond these twelve.


Sonnet Frisbie: I'm going to put you on the spot. Can you list the twelve? And if not, that's totally okay, since you had a coauthor, but maybe the top four or five that you think about and worry about day to day.


Frances Brown: Absolutely. Yes. I think I can list the twelve, although not necessarily in alphabetical order. So, we profiled Afghanistan, the breakaway region of Eastern Ukraine, Iran, Libya, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. And Kashmir, and related India and Pakistan conflicts.


Yi Ning Wong: I would imagine the pandemic to really complicate the layer of local variation too, but broadly speaking, how have we seen ways in which violence or economic or health harm have increased in these countries?


Frances Brown: Yeah, it's important to know that, unfortunately, for many of these countries that we look at, the pandemic is coming on top of what were already a couple of crises underway. So, in many places we see the pandemic basically being on a collision course with preexisting violence or conflict crises and pre-existing economic strain. And now, unfortunately, the pandemic is exacerbating those trends in really harmful ways. So, a couple examples of this: we're definitely seeing these mutually reinforcing trends of conflict, health, and economics crisis in places that have a large number of conflict-displaced people or refugees. So, countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia. These are areas that already obviously had a huge displaced population, already had limitations on how they could work. Now, in many cases, they've been displaced yet again because of the virus, they fear the conflict, they fear violence in their areas, they fear working and they're unable to work from the virus. So, we're really seeing harms compound for some of the most vulnerable populations.


In a separate vein, we’re seeing this trend of compounding economic conflict and virus crises in countries that are heavily reliant on oil revenues. And those of you who've been watching the oil markets are probably aware of how this is affecting a lot of these countries. So, countries like Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, heavily dependent on the hydrocarbon sector, and now they've got a fiscal crunch on top of the ongoing conflicts or political instability in their countries. And unfortunately, here again, it's the most vulnerable parts of the population who really suffer. Another element of this is, less than conflict zones per se, but just across fragile states where informal urban economy employment is a big part of the economy.


A lot of these jobs obviously can't be done remotely. So, we're seeing really huge and scary projections of how many people might lose their work and their income because of the virus. In Africa – there’s just a couple citations on this that are actually beyond the compilation, but that I've encountered more recently – in Africa, an estimated 22 million people work in informal urban employment alone. And obviously, this can't be done remotely, so many millions of these could be pushed into poverty as a result. And then the final element of this to add is that because of the migration restrictions that are occurring now as a part of the coronavirus, many countries now are seeing a decline in imports that are really important for food security. So, one example of this is Afghanistan. It relies heavily on wheat from Kazakhstan. So, as border trade has been halted, as a result, and then it's now been put on a quota, that's had really damaging implications for food security. So, in short, it's a pretty bleak picture when you put together the virus, conflict areas, and economic harms.


Sonnet Frisbie: Right? And a lot of these regions have governments that don't have extremely high capacity, although I have heard some conversations about redefining how we talk about state capacity in light of government responses. But one part of my question is how do you see that compounding the response? And then the other part is, coronavirus has really brought into sharp relief, the importance of information and how information really is power in a crisis. And there have been a lot of debates, looking at data coming out of Africa, for example, is it true that they don't have a lot of cases? Is it just that they're unable to test and collect that data or is there a certain amount of even willful misreporting in some places?


Frances Brown: Yeah, it's such a good point Sonnet. So, on governance capacity to respond. Yeah. This is a huge, huge challenge. A lot of these conflict zones that we were talking about already had really limited either government capacity or legitimacy, and that was already a challenge for their service delivery. Now we've got the coronavirus on top of it. So, what we're seeing is, the pandemic is providing a test of effectiveness for a lot of these governments, a lot of these formal state authorities and also for non-state authorities. So, a couple of examples of that, our collection looks at Kashmir. As you may know, late last year, the Indian government revoked Kashmir's special status. And a key rationale for that was that this would be a way to better deliver effective governance, effective service delivery.


So now the pandemic is here. A lot of residents are viewing this as a test to see if Delhi can actually deliver or not. So, we'll see, the jury is out. It seems like Kashmiris in general are at least accepting lockdown guidance as it occurred. Another example of this that our collection hits upon it is the breakaway in Eastern Ukraine, and our analysts there, Tom DeWaal speculated that if either Russia or Ukraine – who are the so-called parent states who are disputing claims on this area – if  either of them does provide an effective service delivery response, that'll win them support. So, governance is a way to win popular support. And so, I think the jury's still out on a lot of these areas. You're absolutely right that a lot of these areas have disadvantages when it comes to service delivery, because they are conflict areas where there were already fragmented governance arrangements.


Already there wasn't a clear monopoly of state authority. So, a couple of examples of this: in Libya, we talk about how there's essentially two competing administrations. There's the UN recognized administration and government, but there's also an insurgent state of Khalifa Heftar who's been trying to exert his authority. So, when you've got that kind of bifurcation, it obviously makes responding to the pandemic that much harder because you've got internal borders, you can't do service delivery across, all kinds of issues of information sharing. So that's a real challenge.


We're seeing a similar dynamic in Afghanistan. There's the government of Afghanistan under Asher Afghani. And it's been going through its own political crisis with Abdullah Abdullah after a disputed election. But then you've also got the Taliban who controls large amounts of the population and of the territory. So here again, when you think about getting response out monitoring coronavirus cases, it's a real challenge when you've got this fragmented governance. We won't really know the full scope of this challenge for probably months and years to come.


One thing that's worth noting is that a lot of governments are recognizing that this pandemic is basically an opportunity to either demonstrate that they're effective or they will be viewed as ineffective. So, as a result, unfortunately, we're seeing some government authorities use concealments or disinformation as a tactic to deal with the coronavirus. So, unfortunately this has huge implications for human suffering. When you think about it, you can hide a pandemic for a little time, but you can't negate its effects forever. And so, as a result of this, these authorities were insisting there was no virus, and so obviously it was much lost time in terms of actually putting together a response. So, it's a really pernicious dynamic. So


Yi Ning Wong: You talked about the real time consequences of how governments handle specific information during the coronavirus. How do these strategies change? How non-state actors respond to conflict?


Frances Brown: Yeah, this is another really interesting trends that our report brought out. What we're seeing across the world is that a lot of non-state actors, so terrorist groups, armed groups, militias, gangs, a lot of them are really seizing on the opportunities provided by the pandemic to instrumentalize them for their own objectives. So, for many non-state actors, they've already had a pre-existing agenda and it might be exerting control on a population, it might be expanding the territory they control, it might be for propaganda purposes. And now, the pandemic has provided them a new way to pursue those objectives. So, a few examples of that. One is the group ISIS, the global group ISIS. In mid-March, it published a newsletter that essentially was a call to arms for its fighters worldwide, to carry out attacks while governments across the world are under stress from dealing with the pandemic, while military counter-terrorism efforts are often either on a back foot or redeployed to barracks or otherwise stretched thin.


So, as a result of that, we've seen an uptake in ISIS-affiliated attacks in places ranging from Niger to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to Mozambique. We're particularly seeing this trend in Iraq, where ISIS in Iraq is taking advantage of the fact that some of the international counter-terrorism coalition has withdrawn, others have gone back to their bases. The Iraqi government is busy dealing with coronavirus. So, ISIS has seemingly expanded its operations, which is obviously really concerning. Other examples of this, we're seeing this in Colombia where there've been really troubling reports of armed groups and death squads taking advantage of the fact that the Colombian government is stretched thin, and they're murdering land rights activists with whom they've had a beef for a long time. Another kind of related trend to this is that we're seeing a lot of armed groups instrumentalize the crisis for propaganda purposes.


So, in Yemen, the Houthi movement has stated in their media that quote, “It is better to die a martyr and heroic battles than dying at home from the coronavirus.” So, they're using this as a recruitment push. Meanwhile, in Somalia, Al-Shabaab has blamed the virus on crusader forces and kept up their previous pace of attacks. So, for a lot of groups, it’s really an opportunity to expand recruitment, expand their propaganda. The second big point to make about what non-state actors are doing as a result of the pandemic has to do with service delivery and trying to get more legitimacy and more popular support. So, you remember before, I mentioned that a lot of governments are viewing the pandemic as kind of an opportunity to show their effectiveness. Non-state actors view that as well, and a lot of them are trying to bolster their own popular support in the light of the pandemic.


So, one example of this is in Afghanistan. The Taliban has launched its own public awareness campaign on sanitation. It has had its own very public PR campaign showing Taliban members managing the crisis, going door to door with temperature checks and distributing hand sanitizer. There are real questions about how genuine an effort this is and how much is just window dressing. But nonetheless, they're really trying to use this opportunity to make the point that the Afghan government isn't effective at governing and they, the Taliban are. Sort of parallel efforts in the Western hemisphere, in Brazil, there've been reports of drug trafficking gangs in Rio imposing a curfew to contain the virus. There are reports that in Mexico, many gangs, including the Sinaloa cartel, which is a major cartel, are handing out food and toilet paper packages to poor residents. And they're calling these packages, Chapo packages. So, in all these cases, this is a double-edged sword, because obviously, response and assistance are badly needed. Imposing social distancing is often an appropriate response, but these groups are obviously not totally or exclusively altruistic as well. They're really trying to demonstrate their own effectiveness, build support, especially in places where the state authorities may not have the most effective or capable response.


Sonnet Frisbie: And that’s Chapo packages like Chapo Guzman, the Sinaloa leaders. So non-state actors, but also state actors are trying to demonstrate their effectiveness. And one thing in your report that I thought was interesting is they're not only trying to demonstrate it to their own constituents, their own people, but on the global stage, in multilateral settings, et cetera. So, maybe you could talk a little bit about the U.S. strategy and goals and the instrumentalization of the coronavirus. For example, China has been touting their efforts and how they were able to control the virus and the outbreak at home, and then setting themselves up as this example of how to respond internationally. And I think that's really interesting as far as a model to follow.


Frances Brown: So, you're right. Many nation States are instrumentalizing either the pandemic or the response to the pandemic to start their own objectives. So, China and the United States have obviously been locked in a war of words and a war of narratives over, first, who's responsible for the virus, and then who's helpful in dealing with it. China has had some particularly high-level coverage assistance outreach to many African nations, bringing in assistance to those countries and elsewhere, trying to make the point that they're helping on a global scale. The United States for its part has insisted that the virus be called the Wu Han virus, trying to ascribe blame. I think the bottom line from my perspective is that, unfortunately, framing this as a competition between the United States and China misses the point entirely. The virus presents a competition on a global scale, but the competition is between the virus on one hand and humankind on the other.


So, every moment and every policy decision that’s spent trying to win this war of images is a moment that spent not trying to deal with the virus. We've obviously learned over the past few months that the virus doesn't respect borders. It doesn't respect immigration restrictions. It doesn't restrict respect, trade restrictions. So really the only effective response has to be a global and multilateral one, but unfortunately, we're seeing trends really in the opposite direction, especially from those two major players. But we're seeing a lot of hunkering down in general as looking inward and even among other countries as well as they try to deal with the pandemic at home. So, I think this is a trend that we will continue to see, many countries jockeying either to provide assistance and win prestige as a result, or to get other policy breakthroughs because of the way that the pandemic has really shuffled the deck on the global stage.


Sonnet Frisbie: And do you think that there should be policy changes as a result of the pandemic as far as U.S. foreign policy? So, you mentioned sanctions against places like Iran and Venezuela. Obviously, there are governments, as you said, who are looking at this as an opportunity rather than purely in the interests of their own populaces but, are some changes maybe merited?


Frances Brown: Yeah, I think on a case to case basis, that's entirely possible. I think the magnitude of humanitarian crisis that the pandemic is bringing up – combined with the fact that again, its ramifications are global, so they can't really be contained – I think it's worth rethinking, again on a case-by-case basis, and so, I don't want to prescribe for any blanket policy on, “Should the United States rethink particular sanctions regimes?” because I think there's a lot of considerations on them. And I think sometimes humanitarian exceptions are totally appropriate because often times, sanctions are meant to be punishing leadership or political decision-makers. If it turns out that they're causing suffering among the population, I think that's worth a serious rethink. So that's my general feeling. Overall, I think the biggest policy rethink that I would like to see the United States make is a move towards a more global, multilateral, cooperative response in many domains. And I think we're seeing the consequences of that in the pandemic. I think the framing of competition and great power competition is having really tangible, detrimental effects to our own U.S. interests in dealing with this pandemic as well as the rest of humankind.


Root of Conflict Introducers: We'll be right back. Hey, thanks for listening to UC3P, The Main Page. We know you're enjoying this episode and we really want to get you back to it as soon as possible. The problem is, if you're listening to this, there's a really good chance you haven't subscribed to the show yet. Don't worry. That's super easy to fix. Just go on your phone, pick your favorite podcast app and type in UC3P, or The Main Page. It's easy to subscribe and we know you don't want to miss any more episodes. Again, typing UC3P or The Main Page and subscribe. Now go tell a friend.


Sonnet Frisbie: You know, beyond great power and competition and all of these issues there are real people and real lives behind all of these issues as you’ve mentioned. Humanitarian workers are not able to get access to a lot of the places where they worked before. I think we'd be really interested to hear -  you have been a practitioner, work a lot with practitioners on the ground – what are you seeing during this pandemic for the people who are actually onsite?


Frances Brown: Yeah, it's such an important point. We can get in these lofty conversations about the big trends, but the harsh reality is that people on the ground are being affected in really concrete ways. And unfortunately, the international community's efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, resolve conflicts on the ground is being undermined in really concrete ways as well. So, a couple of examples of this: as you may know, Afghanistan was on the brink of a dialogue among many parts of the Afghan polity on what's the future for Afghanistan.


There was a preliminary U.S. Taliban deal, but then the next step really had to be a broader inter-Afghan dialogue. Unfortunately, now with the pandemic, it’s stalled those talks. It's really hard to build trust remotely. It's really hard to conduct peace talks remotely. And the upshot that is that the incredible level of violence in Afghanistan, the incredible level of civilian casualties just continues on, continues on. So, without peace talks, this horrible, violent stalemate continues. Other examples of this kind of thing, of this impact on the people on the ground. We can look at Somalia. So, Somalia was on the brink of its own dialogue process between the federal government and regional states. It’s a very fragile governments there and it needed a lot of in-person international support to these efforts. And now the international community had to downsize in a really dramatic way.  So, there's just going to be much less in-person support as a result.


We're also seeing this kind of consequence in peacekeeping efforts across, particularly across Africa. So, in a lot of African union countries, there's lockdowns and distancing measures. So, it has made it a lot harder for new peacekeeping staffers to be deployed. It obviously undermines peace-building work as well. And then the final, huge way that this is affecting people on the ground, systems on the ground is just the modalities of aid distribution. Gone are the days where you can put five people in a Jeep and go somewhere. It's really undermined the mechanics of aid distribution. We're also seeing a really troubling trend in some places about perceptions of the inequities and distribution of aid and how this might incite more violence. So, as the coronavirus is bringing its own shift in aid in some ways, a lot of citizens, and we're seeing this in Afghanistan, in particular, citizens feel like it's not being distributed in a fair, equal manner, and that's led to more violence.


So, you see this compounding series of challenges as the virus takes hold that unfortunately are making international assistance efforts, which were already really hard. And then the final point to make on this is obviously a lot of these challenges in terms of doing the international community's work are pretty parallel to what we in the United States are facing in our own jobs. We’ve moved to remote work, et cetera, but the problem is in a lot of these countries, you can't really do that. You can do some aid delivery remotely from the air, but not much. And you can't do a lot of remote technology in a lot of these areas that have much lesser communications technology capability. So, it's really hard to think about how some of these realms could be shifted online or to a remote setting.

Yi Ning Wing: So, kind of looking forward. I know you mentioned that a lot of the report is still preliminary. What are the recommendations that we can take away?


Sonnet Frisbie: I think as we’ve covered, unfortunately, it paints a pretty bleak picture. I think I and my co-editor Jarrett really agreed that in most ways the coronavirus is making a bad situation worse in many conflict areas. But we also wanted to stress that that doesn't need to be the full picture, and going forward, we hope it's not the full picture. So, we do know historically that natural disasters when they occur, can potentially provide a window of opportunity or some positive disruption. It can shuffle the decks in ways that might be positive. So, one example we hear about a lot is the 2004 tsunami that helped a pathway emerge towards peace in Aceh. That's one example. Unfortunately, the same 2004 tsunami did not lead to peace in Sri Lanka, which was also affected by it. So, you can see these things can go either way. But the point being, there are ways in which positive disruption could emerge from this, and what I'm going to be looking at, going forward in my own research, and many other colleagues are as well, is “What might be some of those positive ways, and how can we mobilize around them?” At this early stage and from the 30,000 feet view that I've discussed with you both today, it's really hard to predict what those opportunities might be and what chances might emerge in specific conflicts or specific fragile states. They will likely be very localized and specific to that area. You may have seen that the UN Secretary General issued a call for a global ceasefire a few weeks ago. Subsequent to that, we did see a number of arms groups or armed actors or claim that they were temporarily stopping fighting to facilitate humanitarian response. So, we saw this in places ranging from Cameroon to Central African Republic, to Colombia, to Libya, to Myanmar to the Philippines, to South Sudan, to Ukraine, to Yemen.


Many of these declarations of ceasefire have since been overturned or did not stick. This isn’t to actually say that this is a rosy picture, but it just gives you an opportunity to sense that there may be opportunities. So, what I would like to see going forward, and what I'm going to be looking at is “How can we on the international community be prepared to respond to these positive opportunities when they do come? How can we be ready to capitalize on them? Or at least how can we be ready to stave off the worst outcomes that can occur in these conflict areas?” Do we need to think of a different way to monitor developments on the ground, especially as many of us have gone more remote in our own presence on the ground in these areas, especially as many journalists in conflict-affected places are either under siege, still in war or have to be reporting remotely?


So, how do we even get our information? A related question is, do we need to change our assistance modalities somehow to respond to this universe? Do we need more expeditionary negotiation support? Are there other ways we can look at technology to help address these challenges? So these are all the questions that I'm going to be looking at in the coming months, as I, in my own research, try to pivot from laying out all the problems that I've discussed with you two today, to some of the potential, if not, solutions, at least recommended way forward.


Sonnet Frisbie: And it sounds like that would be making the best of a bad situation. If you could look at this shock and see ways in which peace could break out in the midst of a really bad situation.

Frances Brown: That’s the best we can hope for in this pretty bleak picture.


Sonnet Frisbie: Right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. We really enjoyed the conversation.


Root of Conflict Introducers: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Frances Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks to our interviewers, Sonnet Frisbie, and Yi Ning Wong and to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. To learn more about the Pearson Institute's research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.

Root of Conflict


Autonomy and Kashmir | Salwa Shameem

The Citizenship Amendment Act and Article 370 was passed late in 2019 in the Kashmir, which further restricted autonomy in the region and increased unrest in the state. In this episode, students speak to Harris alum Salwa Shameem, who is a film maker and strategy consultant, and Rohool, a local activist in Kashmir, about the conflict and its broader implications.

Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


News Anchor 1: …the new law, which allows migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to seek Indian citizenship, though, long as they are not Muslim.


News Anchor 2: Protestors defied a ban on large gatherings.


Protestors: [inaudible] The Citizenship Amendment Act, completely unconstitutional, anti-people, arbitrary, and against the basic feature of the Indian constitution.


Aishwarya Raje: In December of 2019, the government of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act or the CAA, which would grant Indian citizenship to migrants of certain religions who fled for religious persecution from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslims, most notably, were excluded from this amendment. This was the first time religion had been used as a criteria for Indian citizenship, and it led to widespread protests across India, particularly on behalf of those who feared they would become stateless in their own country. On this episode of Root of Conflict, we discussed the ramifications of the CAA and its subsequent protests, as well as how prime minister Narendra Modi's decision to revoke Kashmir’s statehood puts the future of India's democracy. In limbo. Yi Ning Wong is joined by guest interviewer, Pranjal Chandra who speak to Salwa Shamim, a policy analyst focused on international development about the CAA. Later in the episode, you'll hear from Rohool Banka, a Kashmir University student in New Delhi who joined the protests and shares his on the ground perspective.


Yi Ning Wong: Thank you for coming here today and joining us before we start our conversation about what's going on in Kashmir. Could you just give us a little bit of context about what's going on in India?


Salwa Shameem: Well, I guess we should start with the most recent events that have emerged in the last month or so, which is that at the end of February, in response to the Citizenship Amendment Act, there have been protests across India, by both Hindus and Muslims and other minority groups. Originally, the CAA is meant to, for undocumented migrants or individuals from neighboring countries around India, give them a pathway to citizenship. But this law explicitly states that Muslims are not a part of that law, meaning that they don't have a pathway to that citizenship. So, for the first time since Indian independence, you've got a law that is explicitly using a religious test to prevent a pathway to citizenship. And so, the reason this is problematic is because you've got the national register of citizens, which is a record of all the citizens in India, or at least trying to create a record of citizenship in India. And what it's asking individuals to do across all of India is to provide proof, by papers or documentation, that you are in fact a citizen.


And the reason that that is problematic is because you're talking about people across the socioeconomic strata, trying to scramble for papers to prove that they've lived here for generations and generations. And if you're thinking about like the poorest or the most vulnerable segments of Indian society, that means poor individuals who have to come up with these papers that they don't have, and then somehow prove that they've been here for however many generations. With the CAA and then the NRC, the National Register of Citizens, you've created this situation in which if you can't prove that you're not a U.S. citizen, or you don't have the papers to prove that, then you can go through the CAA and have a pathway to citizenship. But if you're Muslim, then you are kind of being affected in two ways. You neither have the papers nor do you have a pathway to actually get that citizenship.


Again, I want to keep reiterating that this is not a Muslim issue. Indians across India have been alarmed by this because of how blatant the language was. And so, you've had these protests happen in Delhi, and largely peaceful demonstrations and dissent, and then what you get is, Kapil Mishra, who has this rhetoric of “If the protesters don't clear out, then they're going to be cleared out,” that sort of language. And so, what you get then is mob violence of right-wing Hindu nationalists, who went out into the streets and took those protesters out. And not just those protesters, but that community. So, it was effectively a pogrom, right? When we talk about what actually was going on, we're talking about lynchings, beatings, burning down businesses and homes and rape and sexual violence.


And 53 people have died so far as a result of it. Many of them, most of them Muslim, a lot of them lynched and died as a result of that mob violence. And I think what makes it a pogrom and not a riot is because there's this language around like, “Oh, it's a riot. It's just communal violence between Hindus and Muslims,” again, this language of, “Oh, it's a religious issue.” And again, that's one that's simply not true because you actually had Hindus on the front lines, helping Muslims while they were going through this. Right? But then at the same time, that behavior, that mob violence, that was created, not in a vacuum, but around conditions of anti-Muslim rhetoric that have been going on for a while, such as the statements by Kapil Mishra. The reason this matters is because it's not specific to Delhi, it's not specific to this particular time.


It's part of a larger rhetoric that is unfolding or has been unfolding in India. And, unfortunately Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he has a history of this, meaning in 2002 during the Gujarat pogrom and the riots, as they say, you had up to a thousand Muslims die as a result of very similar violence. And the best view of him in that case is that he stood by and did nothing while it was happening, knowing that the police were sort of allowing it to go down. This is sort of like a resurgence of that violence, and my fear, and I think the fear of a lot of people is that we're going to see more of this, just across many, many parts of India.


Pranjal Chandra: Yeah, I think you spoke about how RSS and BJP are interconnected, and RSS’s ideology in terms of what BJP. Can you describe a little more about how you see the connection between RSS and BJP, and obviously before independence, from 1980 when BJP was formed, and then right now, how you have seen BJP and RSS?


Salwa Shameem: Yeah. Well, it's interesting because the RSS was around before the independence of India and they were quite active even before then. And so, while you had visions of Pakistan and visions of a secular India, you had this other sort of fringe group advocating for like a purely Hindu state. And they were actually banned multiple times. Even within India, they were considered this really, really fringe group. To credit the RSS, they were very intelligent with their strategy, which was, they went to people from all parts of India and said, “This is the vision of India that we want.” Here is how you create that that vision of a Hindu state, right. And Narendra Modi was actually a member of the RSS as a young boy. Like he really climbed the ranks of the RSS.


He was rewarded for that. And then he slowly, politically distanced himself to the effect that he could actually go and run for office, and then rise to power in that way. But it's kind of like mother and child, if you really think about it, it's like a parent organization and the child goes off and has grown up with those values, those principles, and then goes off and does their own thing. It would be foolish to think that just because he no longer officially identifies as a part of the RSS, that he's not connected or influenced, or even directly involved in how that ideology plays out. And again, this is not dissimilar from what we're seeing in America in some ways, which is, sometimes it works well politically to align with even the fringe element, because the fringe element is politically expedient and savvy. And so, I think whether or not all these BJP politicians believe in what the RSS is saying, that vision doesn't matter actually, because for them it's politically convenient either way.


Yi Ning Wong: Is what they're doing motivated by wanting to keep that power and taking advantage of having a Hindu majority, or is it purely ideological?


Salwa Shameem: I think it's something related to both, because aligning yourself with the BJP or the RSS, whatever it is, there's so much groundswell support for it that sometimes it doesn't pay to not be a part of that movement. Right? Especially if it's at risk to your own wellbeing. And you have, like I said, Hindus across India who don't agree with this, but they are also in danger because they're siding with a different vision of India. So, I think the most interesting part about this is like, “What will India be?” And if this is supposedly the world's largest democracy by virtue of the fact that there are just so many – the population is so large – I mean, what kind of democracy is this? Is it a liberal democracy? It is an illiberal democracy, or is it just a charade? Like, that's like the real question we've got to be asking. And I think the other thing that's interesting about the RSS is the support that you see on the ground. It's very much grassroots. And I think that is why it's been so successful, is because it's not necessarily someone promising lofty ideals on a political stage, it's that these people are in the trenches with the community saying, “We're going to train you, we'll provide you resources. Here’s your mission, here's your purpose now.” And if you're talking to people who are economically, politically, socially impoverished, that's a great vision to offer someone.


Pranjal Chandra: How do you see BJP dependence on RSS with respect to that? Particularly because India is such a huge country, and when you have that grassroots mobilization and organization, you can obviously leverage it towards different models. And thus, do you see BGB can ever branch out of RSS completely or do you see them completely dependent on them?


Salwa Shameem: You’re basically asking how much will do you truly have when something is such a groundswell movement, and so politically sort of entrenched. And this goes back to your earlier question of “Is it actually an ideological belief or is it a politically convenient, expedient thing to do because of this groundswell?” I'm not sure what the answer to that is, but I think if about the BJP, and for that matter, even the Congress party, right? It's really easy to bypass true policy change and the real work that needs to be done in India, that requires a lot of hard work and accountability, right? Like true accountability to the Indian people. Supporting an organization like this allows you to kind of bypass that accountability and that responsibility, whether you're in the BJP or Congress. Right? And we're going to talk about the Congress Party. Like, yes, they've distanced themselves from the RSS and of course the BJP, their opposition. But if you look at even the Congress Party's policies in the last X number of years, they haven't always been particularly friendly towards minorities either. Right? So, it goes back to this question of like, what is your vision for India and how accountable do you actually want to be to the Indian public for true change in society.


Yi Ning Wong: Looking at the current regime, through the lens of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, we know that there's been an internet shutdown, Article 370 has been passed. Can you walk us through a little bit about what's happening?


Salwa Shameem: Yeah, I think it'll be good to rewind to August,2019, where there was a new law passed unilaterally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, his majoritarian party, the BJP, to abrogate or revoke the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370. And what that article basically means is, or at least what it symbolized, was this notion of Kashmir being a part of India in the sense that the Indian government had control over its foreign affairs, its communication affairs, and its defense. But Article 370 did grant a bit of semi-autonomous status for Kashmiris to manage their own internal affairs. And the revocation of that article is basically saying, “You no longer have any control. You are now a part of the Indian Union, wholesale.” And if we just rewind a little bit further, the reason that matters is because for 70 years, and this actually predates even partition, the desire for Kashmiri independence doesn't happen in 1947.


It actually precedes that. And so, when the partition happens, Kashmiris are offered or promised a referendum to decide the future. Do they want to join Muslim majority Pakistan? Do they want to be a part of India, or do they want to be an independent state? It's all kind of left in the air so that they can figure it out. That referendum never ends up happening. And then what transpires from that not happening is 70 years of militarization of Kashmir. And this is the most militarized region in the world, or one of the most. It's more militarized than the North and South Korea border. It's more militarized than South Sudan and Sudan, than Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the U.S. Mexico border. So, if you think of what’s happening at all of those borders, this is more militarized than those.


And so, you have around 600,000 to 700,000 Indian soldiers effectively occupying Kashmir. And we're not talking about a benign military presence. We're talking about a military presence that engages in a series of human rights abuses across a spectrum, ranging from curfews and strict control of movement, to night raids and missing children, kidnapping of young boys and children at night, all the way to obviously violence, sexual violence, rape. And then you've got squashing protests and using pellet guns to blind protestors, all of which is a means to control a population and their political and social and economic will. And so, what happened in August 2019 is, on one hand Article 370 was already quite symbolic. If you talk to most Kashmiris, they'll say it meant nothing anyways, in the sense that they effectively were already treated like they had no political, social or economic will, but the unilateral revocation of that article is a very bold move symbolically because we know Kashmir is a hotbed, it's very sensitive.


You've got two nuclear armed countries, both Pakistan and India, both in conflict over this piece of land. So, it's a bold move to unilaterally make that choice. But even more concerning than Article 370 being revoked is Section 35(a) which is a part of Article 370, which basically protected Kashmiris and their property ownership. Right? So with changing 35(a) what you get is a real economic hit of what happens to our property and our land when Indians from mainland India flood Kashmir and buy our property, or we can't sell, or we can't do business. So, that is like the real time implication of this. While the rest of the world has already found out that the article has been revoked, Kashmiris inside Kashmir don't find out that Article 370 has been revoked and there's a total communication blackout. Internet is shut down, mobile landlines, all disconnected, and that's effectively keeping a population in total silence. So that again, what is the function of that? Why would a democracy do that to 7 million people overnight? And it's again to prevent mobilization, organization, protests, any sort of free will to exercise a dissent against this policy.


Yi Ning Wong:  What does revoking the article signal to BJP supporters?


Salwa Shameem: Yeah, I mean that the revocation of that article was a promise that the BJP party made as part of their election. They simply delivered on that promise. And I think what that tells BJP supporters and the BJP is “We'll get what we want,” and what it tells everyone else is, “If you challenge us, look at what we did here.” And it goes back to the point I just made. If you can do it in Kashmir, which has been this contested issue for 70+ years, then it's no big deal to pass the CAA or policies related to the NRC or building detention centers in Assam to house those undocumented Indians who've been living there for generations. That’s what it signals, is success and a groundswell of support for this.


Pranjal Chandra: So, that's what I'm hearing is that Article 370 sends a signal to all the supporters in terms of what BJP is capable of in its delivering on his promises.  When Article 370 was revoked, the other narrative was that, “Okay, finally, we have a solution for Kashmir,” because a lot of Indians felt like Kashmir was a part of India, and now, finally, Kashmir is a part of India officially. Is it a solution? Is it not a solution?


Salwa Shameem: The reality is, there's no solution if Kashmiris are not part of that. And that's simply what we see is that no Kashmiris were consulted when that unilateral decision to revoke Article 370 happened. And all Kashmiris have been demanding for the last 70-something years is to be a part of that process. And so, if you want a meaningful solution, well, certainly disengaging, well, not only disengaging, but brutally stamping out any political opinion coming from Kashmiris is not going to lead to any viable solution. It's not sustainable and it's not viable. And it certainly has no credibility.


Yi Ning Wong: So we’ve kind of seen similar patterns across the world in Xingjiang, China, and Rwanda, of like heavy military occupation. Do you think that these places are comparable with what's happening in Kashmir? And if so, what role does foreign policy have to play?


Salwa Shameem: I was going to mention this earlier, but I think if you're really like - it's kind of like the airplane level of what's going on, the 10,000-foot view. If you think about what's playing out in Kashmir and then what's played out in Delhi and will most likely play out in other parts of India, the reason this is so problematic, not just for Indian Muslims or for minorities or the Dalits or  whoever, is that, unfortunately, if you look at the region, we've got terrible success cases. And I say terrible success cases because we look at the Uighurs and China, and we look at the Rohingya in Myanmar. I mean, India saw this play out in two countries and it's worked phenomenally, and you're only further confident that you could push this forward. And so, I guess in terms of a foreign policy point of view, 1) if India is the “world's largest democracy,” what is our definition of a democracy in which this is possible? And then 2) knowing the scale, of just the impact in India, knowing what's happened with the Rohingya and what's happening with the Uighurs, it just makes it that much more real and it sounds eerily familiar to a lot of other right-wing extremists, moments of history in which people are round up. And then God knows what after that. And so that is the impact. If you're someone who is here in America or anywhere else, like why is this relevant to you? Apart from the fact that this is just another example of violence and right-wing extremism, it's that it’s going to be done on a scale that you haven't seen before. And I guess in terms of like being more solution-oriented, like what can U.S. foreign policy do, or what can we as policymakers do, is 1) being more aware of this. Right? Because I think most people have a very particular view of India, which is a very sanitized view, and maybe that's changing and in the last few months or so.


India is kind of portrayed as – you think of like Bollywood and food and culture – and those are all still aspects of Indian identity, but the reality for so many people in that country is otherwise.  And so, from a foreign policy standpoint, or even from a policymaking standpoint, having awareness of 1) what's going on 2) understanding Western complicity. What is Western or American complicity in this all? Because you just had President Trump visit, right? And in the backdrop of him talking about how India is a great place and a great country, you've got the streets literally burning. And interestingly enough, last September during the UN General Assembly, around that time, the Gates Foundation awarded Modi a Goalkeeper award, and that initially was being rewarded as there was a blackout in Kashmir, as there was violence in Kashmir.


You've got like one of the world's biggest philanthropic organizations, shaking hands and patting someone who has blood on his hands for building toilets. And even that initiative, just as a slight digression, even that initiative that he was rewarded for, it’s grossly overestimated, the positive impact of that particular initiative, in which Dalits were actually forced to clean open sewage areas. Again, reinforcing that you're lower than us. And that is actually partially the reason why that initiative was even remotely successful, is because it was on the backs of Dalits. I mean this is what's happening.  And then this man is being rewarded on an international stage for his activities. And that is what I mean by Western complicity. There is even a philanthropic complex. Why are we shaking hands with this individual? Well, part of that is because there's a huge market in India still, and everyone wants a piece of India economically, even in the West, like Silicon Valley has huge interests in India. And so this is what I mean: if we're going to think about being solution-oriented, what is in our control? And from a policymaking standpoint, that is this sort of influence, this economic influence. Like, can we put some pressure on Indian leadership for these actions?


Aishwarya Raje: Now you’ll hear Yi Ning’s conversation with Rohool Banka about his experiences as a student protester.


Rohool Banka: There's a difference – when they entered the library – there’s a difference, because the majority of the policemen in Delhi are in the midst of Muslims, and they have hatred towards Muslim community. So, this hatred, this organization has developed the officer's mind in such a way that they have also actually started beating people with their preferences. Like who is a Muslim, they will beat him wherever you find. Like if they find somebody who is having a long day, they're creating a sort of identity as a Muslim, they will judge him. Preferential treatment towards the certain community is actually gone to the roots, creating a sort of biasness towards these communities. So, we had seen these things already in the English mid-valley where we have sort of military forces everywhere, you are being checked everywhere. It's actually happening there as well, where Muslims, particularly Kashmiris, are also feeling not safe and not able to decide “Should I go back to Delhi for studying or not?” It's creating a sort of question among a lot of youth, a lot of population of Muslims, who are actually reluctant to go back to the institutions where they were studying.


Yi Ning Wong: Right. So local police officers act as a proxy to enforce Modi's ethnonationalistic regime and creating a sense of fear upon Muslim minorities?


Rohool Banka: Definitely, definitely. It's actually going in that way. I mean, it's a creating a sort of, they're creating a sort of otherization towards these communities. I told you last time, if you see most of the Muslims who go to different parts of the country, it's very difficult for them to find even accommodation. Like if I go to Delhi and if I want to stay somewhere in a room, or if I want to book a hotel, I will be checked in a way as if I’m somebody […]. So, this sort of hate mongering and this sort of communal – it is sort of a series of structural violence towards the community.  If you see the Bollywood of India, what you will see most of the villains in the movie will be Muslim.


If there is a terrorist, he’s Muslim. So, I would say like this sort of image has been manufactured in this industry. I mean, it's actually creating a sort of Islamophobia among the general public. So, even if you go to some local person in Delhi and ask him for the accommodation, and if he finds your name, which is a Muslim name, he will be reluctant to give you that accommodation. If somebody wants to go to Delhi and wants to study in a good university, or he has to go there and find a good accommodation where he wants to stay, he will not have easy access for that. So, for him, his good choice is to stay at home. So, because education demands security, you need to think creatively for that, and you need to have a security, which is not there for Muslims. I guess I have faced this problem. I realized it at different levels. Right now, I should have been there in the university, continuing my PhD. But unfortunately, because of this violence, because of this sort of events, what is happening is that people like me are staying at home.


Aishwarya Raje: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict. Special thanks to our interviewers, Yi Ning Wong and Pranjal Chandra and to our guests, Salwa Shameem and Rohool Banka. As always, thank you 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 or follow them on Twitter.


Root of Conflict


Preventing Conflict in Fragile States | Liz Hume

The Global Fragility Act (GFA) was passed by Congress as part of the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act and was signed into law on December 20, 2019. The bill represented a historic victory for the peacebuilding field, which has long advocated for the GFA as a way forward to prevent violent conflict. The Alliance for Peacebuilding, a non-partisan network of over 110 organizations working to build sustainable peace, has been at the forefront of advocating for the GFA. In this episode of Root of Conflict, students speak with Liz Hume, Vice President of Alliance for Peacebuilding. Liz is a conflict expert with over 20 years of experience in leadership positions in multilateral organizations and NGOs. Liz discusses Alliance for Peacebuilding’s role in getting the GFA passed, as well as the importance of research and advocacy in crafting policies that promote peaceful political outcomes.

Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. 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.


Aishwarya Raje: The Global Fragility Act, or the GFA was passed by Congress as part of the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act and signed into law on December 20th, 2019. This bill represents a historic victory for the peacebuilding field, which has long advocated for the GFA as a way forward to prevent and reduce violent conflict. The Alliance for Peacebuilding, a non-partisan network of over 110 organizations working to end conflict and build sustainable peace, has been at the forefront of advocating for the GFA. In this episode of Root of Conflict, we spoke with Liz Hume, Vice President of Alliance for Peacebuilding. Liz is a conflict expert and has more than 20 years of experience in senior leadership positions in the federal government, multilateral institutions, and NGOs. In this interview, we discussed methods for ensuring bi-partisan support for the GFA, as well as the importance of research and advocacy in crafting policies that promote peaceful political outcomes.


Thank you, Liz for joining us. So, to start off, can you just tell us about the work and the mission of Alliance for Peacebuilding, and as Vice President of the organization, what are some of your main roles and responsibilities?


Liz Hume: So, thank you so much for having me. So, who is the Alliance for Peacebuilding? We're a membership-based organization. We have over 120 members working in the peacebuilding field, conflict prevention, in many different areas, Universities, academic institutions, large organizations like Mercy Corps and world vision and Catholic Relief Services and organizations that are doing other work besides just conflict prevention and peacebuilding. And then also smaller organizations, like New Gen Peace Builders, that are working in on education and peacebuilding. The field is in some regards, relatively small because of the funding that goes into the field. So, you're going to have larger organizations embedded in big development, and then you might have smaller organizations working in the field as well.

So, we represent our members both in three buckets that we talk about, which is policy and advocacy, learning and evaluation, and partnerships. So, the policy and advocacy really focuses on how do we work with Congress, the executive branch, multilaterals like the UN, making sure that our organizations, their work, their best practices get into policy, find their way into policy in terms of how do we deal with laws like the Global Fragility Act. So, there's all sorts of ways. we just had a big meeting at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, where we were consulting on the new United Nations Sustaining Peace Platform. Those are just some examples from the policy and advocacy. We also focus in on technical areas and this is where it bleeds into our learning and evaluation program. So, looking at violent extremism, there’s a lot of theories of change out there that say, “If you do this, then violent extremism will be reduced.” But we really go deep in looking at it. What do we know? What don’t we know? What is working? What isn’t working? And what else do we need to do? And that, we work very closely with our L&E team. So, really focusing on that evidence piece, but then also how do we build capacity of our members to be able to do more in the evidence space, in the evaluation space. And then around partnerships and promoting this work, how do we bring people into the sector? We have our conference this year coming up on December 7th, and that really will focus on bringing people into the field. And so, that's a lot of our partnership work as well.


Mwangi Thuita: Honing in on the policy and advocacy aspect of your work. Can you tell us a bit about the Global Fragility Act and what the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s role has been in that process?


Liz Hume: So we have to go back to 2016, a long time ago actually now. We were concerned that the peacebuilding field really came about in the nineties, this theory around peacebuilding, and it wasn't just about support to peace processes. You had to get into other sectors, and the peacebuilding field has grown, conflict prevention has grown. However, in the last two decades, we understand the causes of violence and violent conflict, but we don't have an overarching strategy of how to effectively deal with it in country X, country Y. And we've looked at it at a very projectized basis. And again, the funding that has gone into the peacebuilding field has been quite small.


When you look forward and you start seeing the numbers 2016, 2017 today, where roughly 2 billion people live in countries where development is affected by fragility, conflict and violence, and these numbers are increasing, the number of highly violent conflicts has increased for the first time in years. And it's not traditionally what we looked at. We looked at interstate conflicts that could be resolved by a peace agreement, getting all the actors, bringing them to us, a city in Dayton, Ohio and making them stay there until they came up with an agreement. We're not seeing that. Deaths from organized violence have risen over 230%. I mean, you could go on and on and on with these statistics. So, what we're doing isn't working. And so, sitting down and talking with one of our members from Mercy Corps, and taking a look at this, what does it need? What has to change? And so, we worked very closely with our member Mercy Corps to make this idea become realized around the Global Fragility Act.


We needed an overarching strategy for the U.S. government. We needed to do things differently, and that would mean additional funding. It would mean – there’s many things coming into play, and at an evidence-based, both at the program level, but also at the 30,000 foot, is this country becoming more sustainable from a peace perspective? Are we reducing violence? What is it going to take to do things differently in name, your country? What are we doing wrong? And so that's where the idea came about. And then we had to build a coalition around it. And you know, it's not always easy to do that. A lot of people weren't keen on the idea at first, anything that's new is a little scary. People also are nervous about the U.S. government given its national security strategy. So there's a couple aspects of it, the idea itself, selling the idea, building the coalition and then more importantly, today, more than ever, if anything is going to work, it has to be bipartisan. So, making sure we have Republican and Democrats.


Mwangi Thuita: of Republicans or Democrats, our current political system, at least as it's portrayed through the media is highly fraught between both parties. What are the keys to success and ensuring bipartisan support for the Global Fragility Act and what kind of arguments have you found to be most persuasive with lawmakers?


Liz Hume: It's a great question. In this space, and when you talk to Republicans and Democrats separately or when they're working together, I don't want to say it's obvious, but it's obvious what's happening. What we're doing isn't working. We have the evidence to show that. This is what we need, and these are the things that we could do to make an overarching strategy. And this is what it's going to take. And when we looked at the evidence, one of the things that folks on the Hill have asked us repeatedly, show us where programs have had impact. And in the last few years, we've gotten a lot better at that. Some organizations within our sector have gotten a lot better and we were able to show them and prove that we have been able to reduce violence.


We have been able to say that this program reduced people's perceptions and desires to join an extremist group. It’s horrible to say, but you had this incredible uptick in violence in the world coupled with the fact that the nature of conflict has changed. Again, not this interstate, more focusing on violent extremism, regional conflicts, community level conflicts. It’s not this group against this group, that we needed to do something different. That wasn't a hard sell, both Republicans and Democrats, they get it, they understand it. They have been true partners in this approach. And really, we're the champions on it.


Aishwarya Raje: Can you speak a bit to how the Global Fragility Acts focus on preventative measures, rather than perhaps interventionists measures, has really made a difference in getting strong bi-partisan support and getting the legislation passed? And how is that approach different than maybe other foreign assistance packages or legislations that you've seen in the past couple of years?


Liz Hume: Well, there haven't been a lot of legislative packages in the last couple of year, focusing on these issues. You know, we've seen them a lot in the health sector PEPFAR, the malaria fund, the PMI program. And I have to say in early discussions, thinking about this as a PEPFAR for violence, that when we would say that you would see people get very nervous. Looking back at about 2015, 2016, one of the things that people talk about all the time is “How can you prove that you prevented violence?” That's a huge question that we had to overcome. And that’s where I think a lot of the evidence that has started to come out in the last couple of years has been very critical for this.


But we started looking at specific countries in terms of what we were doing. And I always use Bangladesh as a perfect example. And this is not to say Bangladesh should be a GFA country, because you could pick any country and it will look like this in terms of U.S. government funding. So, if you look at the U.S. government strategy for Bangladesh it talks about how important it is. It talks about wants to address violent extremism. It continues on about governance issues, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What we know in Bangladesh is that the funding levels for development sectors, agriculture are incredibly high, and no one's saying, “Don't do that work.” But at the same time, the U.S. government reports, their conflict assessments, talk about what we need in Bangladesh to address violent extremism, conflict prevention really focuses on a governance approach.


But then when you look at the funding levels, the governance sector, the conflict prevention funding is a blip on the radar screen. It's so tiny. And so, what you're saying is “This is what we want to do.” And our own experts are saying, “This is what it's going to take.” And we know that instability and violence indicators are rising in Bangladesh, but let's just continue doing what we're doing, you know? And so, when you talk about that example, and I've done that at institutions with U.S. government folks sitting there, I had one U.S. government person lean over to me and say, “Good job, nicely done.” It shows – I don’t want to say the ridiculousness of it, these are great people trying to do great things. I worked at USAID, but we need some significant policy shifts. And that, I think when you talk about it and you present the evidence in terms of what we're doing, what isn't working, that violent conflict is going up, that we are able to start proving that these programs are working, it's kind of a game changer. And we're at that tipping point, I think right now.


Mwangi Thuita: You’ve talked a lot about evidence and we're at the Harris School of Public Policy, which places a strong premium on evidence-based approaches to policy, especially through quantitative analysis. While this is a vital piece of creating policy can you speak to the importance of combining the important elements of research and analysis with advocacy, outreach and communications? So how do advocacy-based approaches factor into your work?


Liz Hume: So again, great question. And I've had meetings all morning where we've been talking about this. In our sector, we've gotten away for a long time with not showing evidence, not even showing even unintended consequences, you know, seeing if this program worked, but did it have any impact overall? And again, that's changing, and there are some organizations that are doing a great job looking at this and making sure that this evidence comes into play. But we have to do better and we have to do a lot better. So, we have to publicize when we learn something. It's hard to do a lot of times, because again, a lot of programs aren't doing it, they're doing a lot of focus on outputs. That’s what the donor wants. We spent the money the way we said we were going to spend it, but they don't say this is the impact that we had. These are the unintended consequences that we had.


So, I think that's a big problem. There's a competition. There's not a lot of funding in this field. So, any really good learnings are kept because it's a competitive advantage. And then also, you are working in conflict-affected and fragile states. I was running a conflict governance program in Ethiopia for four years and the government – we weren't supposed to be running that program. So, the government, anything that went out, the government would look at. So, we did not release a lot of our reports. They went to the donor, but they didn't go farther than that.


But there are ways that we can sanitize that information and be able to get it out, even if you're working in a very restricted environment. So, there's some things on us that we need to do as a field, in terms of the evidence piece. So those are the problems with our evidence base. How do we then get the evidence into advocacy? And why is it important? Because 1) people on the Hill have told us, Congress, if you can't prove it, why are we funding this? How do we know what's working and what isn't working? People just keep proposing some of the same programs over and over again. We have no evidence to say they worked or not. So, one of the things AFP has done is, let's say, we've looked at countering violent extremism, that sub-sector, and go down in that. People have areas of change that they treat as gospel. And some of them have even been put out by the U.S. government in the peacebuilding sector.


So, we've looked at them. Do we even have evidence on this theory of change? Does it work? Does it not work? And what more do we need to know? So, we are systematically going through a lot of sub-sector reviews, working with our different partners to say, “Please stop just throwing this theory of change out there.” Even if it's on some government list somewhere. Make sure that you do the literature review, make sure that you know what's out there, what isn't out there. And then, once you do good work, we need to publicize it and we need to understand, “How do we put that back into a package that can be put into a policy document?” One that's no more than two pages because nobody reads in Washington more than two pages. And make sure your recommendations are clear and concise.


And even if you said, “Okay, this didn't work.” But what is the next theory? Okay. If this didn't work, why don't we then look at this? One of the examples I was talking about earlier today was, we have some anecdotal evidence on trauma and mental health in this field, that if you attach some psychosocial programming to other programs that are running, that that actually might that might be more helpful. So, people think they're coming in for this, but they're actually getting a little bit more here. So, we have some anecdotal information from people who have received that programming that has been helpful. Okay. And we've heard about it in other places. So, let's test that theory. But don't just assume that it works, but test it and say,
“Hey, we have this theory,” but what happens a lot of times is that people then just go off and do it and start treating it as gospel.


Aishwarya Raje: So going back to the GFA, you had talked about how many different sectors have to intersect in terms of actually putting the legislation together. But I'm curious as to how you see the potential of the GFA in touching other parts of society around the world beyond just maybe countering violent extremism, which of course is the main kind of crux of this legislation. But parts, society and development like health system, strengthening migration, gender equality, it seems like the GFA can really have a huge impact on all of these different pieces. So how hopeful are you that this legislation can actually do that?


Liz Hume: So two points well, a couple of points. I could talk all day about this. Just to go back really quickly on what you're talking about in terms of prevention and I don't think I answered that question completely:


Why the GFA is so important is because it really is for the first time talking about prevention and peacebuilding, and I think that is the critical piece of it. Now it says of five countries or regions, two at least have to be prevention countries. And that was something that in the end, when we knew it was going to come on the appropriations bill, that we really wanted to hold the line on, because we wanted to see this work in prevention countries and more than one, because we wanted to have a bit of a cross sector. So that's really, I think one of the key pieces of the GFA. On the second side, and what's so key about that is, it is really hard to get donors and the international community to focus on a prevention country. Because when things are blowing up all over the world, where does your attention go? Coupled with the fact of “How do you get people to pay attention?” when there's so much violent conflict, how do you decide where those resources go?


And so that, by far, I think is one of the most important aspects of it. On the issue of bringing in other sectors, this will not work if you don't. So again, I go back to Bangladesh as an example. You have the bulk of the funding that's going in there, education, health, agriculture. If those programs are not part of this design and are not focusing on their work from a conflict-sensitive approach, and that is beyond “do no harm” – the first thing, we want to make sure no program is doing harm – it’s got to be more than that. And it's got to say, “Okay, first, do no harm. Secondly, how is this sector, program, activity helping to reduce violence and build sustainable peace?”


And I will say this, and the education sector has done a lot of work in this area, but it is hard to crack a lot of these other development sectors. And health has been one of the hardest ones. And so, I think what happened, what you just saw happen in DRC, not too long ago, with the Ebola clinics, there was a lot of mistrust around them. The health clinics, violence was sparked. Some were burned down. It is a good time to talk to the health sector, and we've started to say, “1) How do we do no harm?” Clearly harm was done there, but this was an opportunity to help reduce violence and build sustainable peace. And you have to be better at it. And you have to be working in that space. You can't just say we're saving lives, and we don't have time, because that argument doesn't work anymore, coupled with the fact that you're missing a huge opportunity to help in terms of building sustainable peace.

So, that's just an example, but at the same time, the field has to compromise. We have to use the language that they're using. If they don't want to talk about conflict because they want to be more neutral, okay, let's talk about risk then. We have to also simplify this conflict sensitivity so that you don't need a PhD to understand it. We have to help and give them the resources and the technical expertise to build in a practical way, but they also have to be open to it and understand their role in this conflict dynamic.


Mwangi Thuita: So, as you look forward towards the rest of the year, and also the coming couple of years, what are some conflicts that you're keeping an eye on? Are there any countries or regions that you think are being overlooked as potential hotspots for conflict?


Liz Hume: This is just such a hard question because there are so many out there. If you look on one of my favorite sites, the Fund for Peace Conflict, the Fragile State Index, you'll see a lot of countries sitting in the warning site. Ethiopia again is another example. It’s always hovered in the last even probably two decades around number 19, or 20. But you also have to go in and see the conflict dynamics, those indicators are flashing, but what's the flip side? What's holding it back? What's the resiliency side of it there? And so, that, I think, is a bit more complicated than just going in and looking at the grievances and the conflict dynamics that are very targeted into what's wrong. So, in that regard, you have to look at it as more of a holistic approach. And I think we forget to do that a lot of times.


And also, one more aspect of it is that what sparks it, something's got to really spark it. I don’t think anybody predicted what happened with the Arab Spring. You know, if you go down into Tunisia, what was the cause? It was somebody who got fed up and tired. He was told to move his stall, his livelihood. And that was a major spark. I always say it's not an exact science and, and it just isn't, because you're dealing with also human beings that can be very irrational, and they don't do what you think they're going to do. That being said, we have some good examples of, if you look at Burkina Faso right now, a year or two years ago, we had great indicators that there were serious problems in Burkina Faso. And we didn't focus on conflict prevention there. We are now, but the problem is the government has lost swaths of areas where they have no control.


It isn't just violent extremism. You have a security problem with many different issues in terms of splinter groups, some of it criminal. So, what do you do now with Burkina Faso? So, I have people coming up to me all the time. Somebody came up to me after I was talking about Burkina Faso at a State Department conference came up and said, “You just described what's happening on Cameroon.” And right now, Ethiopia is a perfect example. Again, everybody is so excited about this political reform. We just put out a report that says, “You're having great political reforms, and these are the challenges.” And this is again, the Fund for Peace in 2020, we'll most likely say it's one of the worsened states in terms of conflict dynamics. But you had this great political reform. In order to get into the Fund for Peace side or any other conflict watchlist and take those top countries and go in, but then also looking at what is that resiliency factor.


And a good way to look at it is also elections. We know elections are a big spark for violence. So, and again, Ethiopia, right now, it keeps postponing its elections, but right now they're set for August. So those are some of the things that, looking at, and I will tell you, one thing that I am incredibly nervous about is Afghanistan right now. I think it's pretty clear what the U.S. government wants to do there, mainly get out. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in Afghanistan now, for the last almost 20 years, staying there or going back there and recognizing that this all will be coming to an end soon with an agreement that in the past, or in the recent past, has not been inclusive with safeguards and monitoring set up in terms of any agreement that is decided with the Taliban.


Aishwarya Raje: Well, thank you Liz so much for your time and for your tireless work in creating a more peaceful world.


Liz Hume: Thank you so much. This has been a pleasure talking with you, and also thank the Harris School for its role in producing evidence. I am a big fan of it, and I talk about it and make sure it gets in every strategy, document, law that’s being proposed right now, because we have to do more of it.


Mwangi Thuita: Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Liz Hume, Vice President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. Special thanks to UC3P and the Pearson Institute for their continued support of this series. Your interviewers today were Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita. Aishwarya Raje also produced this episode. Mwangi Thuita edited and engineered. For more information about The Pearson Institute, research and events, visit and follow them on Twitter.



Root of Conflict


Coping With the Global Refugee Crisis | Cindy Huang

There are currently over 70 million people displaced by war, conflict, and persecution worldwide (more than the population of Thailand). The vast majority of them are in low- and middle-income countries without adequate resources to support and resettle them. On this episode, Pearson Fellows Sonnet Frisbie and Mwangi Thuita spoke to Dr. Cindy Huang, vice president of strategic outreach at Refugees International and a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, about policy initiatives that can improve protection and outcomes for displaced people. They engage in a wide-ranging conversation about the politics of refugee resettlement, weaving together narrative and evidence for policymakers, how refugee policy can be integrated into our support for host countries’ development agendas, and “Me Too” in the development community.

Root of Conflict Interviewers: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Sonnet Frisbie: I'm Sonnet Frisbie.


Mwangi Thuita: I’m Mwangi Thuita.


Sonnet Frisbie: And you're listening to Root of Conflict. So, our guest today was Cindy Huang, the Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Refugees International. She's also a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development. She develops and leads initiatives to build support for improved protection for refugees and displaced people in the United States, but also around the world. So, she really has a vast depository of experience on these issues. She also has been a senior executive in government and of course, nonprofit, and has led major policy initiatives on forced displacement, food security and conflict prevention. While she was in government, she served as the Deputy Vice-President for Sector Operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, but also a Director of Policy of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and a Senior Advisor at the State Department.


So, she really has a lot of experience. She had a lot of what I thought were fresh different insights and real evidence-based policy proposals related to refugees. So, Mwangi, I'm really excited about the guests that we have on today. Listening to the news in the last few years, you probably have heard about the refugee crisis, 70.8 million people, more than the population of Thailand, displaced by war conflict and persecution, tens of millions more displaced by climate events and natural disasters. And of course, it's a human issue, but it's also a political issue, with governments either capitalizing on it as a wedge issue with voters or struggling with how they should respond on a humanitarian basis. And there's a lot of misperceptions about refugees.


Mwangi Thuita: And one of those misperceptions about refugees is that they're going to be in a host country for a short while, and then go back home. But increasingly, we're seeing that protracted periods of displacement are becoming more common. And another thing is that living in a developed country as we do, we may be tempted to think that hosting refugees is a rich world issue, but the burden has mostly been shouldered by low- and middle-income countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Jordan and Lebanon.


Sonnet Frisbie: That's absolutely right Mwangi. and not only do we often think that the rich world is shouldering the majority of the burden in terms of numbers, but also, we think of the wealthy world, in particular, the United States as being a real leader in this area. and it's true that the U.S. used to accept, I think it was more than all other countries combined, which is no longer the case, but it's also instructive if you look at it relative terms to population and those trends are really shifting. So, our guest talked quite a bit to that point.


Mwangi Thuita:  Another thing that she mentioned that I thought was interesting was that 40% of displaced people today are actually IDPs, that's internally displaced persons. And that means that they're not subject to international conventions and protocols that were designed to protect refugees, who are people who've sought sanctuary in a different country. So, I think the issue of internally displaced people is something that listeners will benefit from hearing about. We also sort of solicited her advice for aspiring development professionals and future managers in nonprofit and government.


Sonnet Frisbie: All right. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. We're really excited to talk to you. So, as we mentioned, currently 70.8 million people are displaced by war conflict and persecution. Can you contextualize that number for us in terms of the last hundred years or so, maybe some of the bigger trends, and how does that look different today, from a hundred years ago?


Cindy Huang: Yep. The number has been on the rise. and so, you'll often hear, and it's the case that this is the largest number of displaced people. At the same time, it's important to then get down to the next level of detail where more than 40 million of those people are internally displaced in their own countries, and about 25 million plus have fled to another country. Another piece of information that's really important is the absolute number compared with the global population. And so, there have been times in history, I think we're kind of reaching parity with the level of displacement, for example, after World War II, as a percentage of population, I will say that it's important to think about those absolute numbers. At the same time, we also know that it's almost less about the numbers and more about our approach to including refugees, because sometimes people hear the number and they feel really overwhelmed and think about what we can do, but there have been times where we have accepted globally, a large number of refugees without the negative political backlash that we're seeing today.


Sonnet Frisbie: Hmm. And what are some common misperceptions about refugees and displaced people? And I mean that both on the part of policymakers, and let's say the public, the average Joe?


Cindy Huang: So, one of the misperceptions is that people flee and after, one or a couple of years, they're able to return home. But the average length of displacement is 10 years, and for those people who are displaced in protracted situations for five years or more, they're displaced for more like 20 years. And I think that makes a huge difference, I think both from the perspective of the public and policymakers, which means that a lot of the solutions that we've come up with, like providing food, water, and shelter for refugees, that makes sense if they're displaced for a short period of time, but think about 10, 20, 30 years, we need more sustainable solutions.


Sonnet Frisbie: And it's interesting because I think one of the misconceptions that I've heard is often that, well, they don't actually want to go home and they're actually economic migrants. And during the recent refugee crisis in the EU, for example, there was a lot of conflating of economic migration and refugees. So, I'd be interested to hear how you describe the distinction between the two and then how should the policies be differentiated for the two groups?


Cindy Huang: Yes. So, for refugees who are fleeing violence, war and persecution, we have international protocols to deal with them. And so, I think it is important to separate them from economic migrants who may also be fleeing circumstances that are very dire, but at the same time, aren't suffering from that same level of lack of safety, and that really is what the international protection regime is about. From a policy perspective. I think that means that we do have to be clear that that system for seeking asylum and providing refugee protection is really critical. At the same time, I understand that some of the confusion in the public mind, because there are cases of people who seek asylum who don't win their case. It turns out that they were trying to use a channel that they don't qualify for. I think people have a lot of empathy for refugees. And I think the issue is that we need systems that are transparent and function well.


Sonnet Frisbie: And I'm curious, what do you see as the United States role in the refugee process? I know a few years ago, I would hear it often touted that we accepted more refugees than any other country, but I know that that was only an absolute term since we already talked about absolute versus proportions. So, how do you see the U.S.’s role?


Cindy Huang: Historically, the U.S. has anchored the refugee resettlement process. And for those of you listeners who aren't as familiar with refugee resettlement, those are refugees who have fled to another country and they aren't able to find safety in their new host country, and therefore, UNHCR and that system identifies them for resettlement to a third country like the United States or Canada or the UK. Historically. we used to resettle as many refugees as the rest of the world combined. And so, it was a very big commitment. However, more recently, Canada has accepted more refugees than the United States. Canada is a much smaller country. So, the role of the U.S. has been not only in accepting refugees, but really in upholding the principles of international protection. And as we've seen U.S. leadership roll back, we are seeing global retrenchment of support for these principles. And it's not always only up to the U.S. but we were an anchor of that system.


Sonnet Frisbie: So, you mention the principles of international protection of refugees? And it strikes me that you also mentioned internally displaced people, IDPs, a moment ago. So, can you talk about where IDPs maybe fall through the cracks in that system, and perhaps where maybe they have advantages? I'd be interested in how those groups differ.


Cindy Huang: Of course, the situations between various refugees and IDPs differ among themselves. So, it's really important to have responses that are locally contextualized. It is very different in terms of legal status in particular. So, I work a lot on access to jobs for refugees, and once you've crossed a border, you are facing a lot of constraints where host countries don't allow refugees to work. If you are an IDP, you're still a citizen of that country. So, in theory, you still have access to services and access to jobs in practice. Often times, people who are displaced internally don't have that access. So, I would say, I think it's, well, there are significant differences. I think it's important to also look at the practical barriers that people are facing, whether they're IDPs or refugees, and try to overcome them. I'll just put in one final plug: there's a new high-level panel of the UN that's looking at IDPs, and we all can be rightly skeptical of high-level panels and what is implemented at the end of the process; however, I do see it as a very positive sign of the attention that's being paid to the unique situation of IDPs and what more the international community can do.


Mwangi Thuita:  And you just spoke about labor market access. So, I'd like to talk to you more about that and about some other policies that benefit refugees and how you, at Refugees International approach measuring the evidence for the success of policies. So, living in a Western country, as we do, with a constant stream of news about refugees over the last few years, you would think that most refugees and displaced people are actively seeking sanctuary in Europe or North America. But as we know, most of these people actually end up in low- and middle-income countries in the Middle East and Africa and Asia, and these countries face significant challenges in providing resources. Some of these challenges are material. Some of them are political. There's a fear in many of these countries that allowing refugees to work or have an education or even allowing them access to national safety nets act will act as a pull factor and lead to more refugees, who will stay for longer periods of time. What does the research actually say about these concerns?


Cindy Huang: So, as you noted, the vast majority of refugees live in other developing countries, and that figure right now is around 85%. So, it's really important to challenge some of the misperceptions about who is doing what in this world around refugee protection. I will say that the evidence generation around the sets of questions that you asked is relatively new. And I think it's great. Now we have new actors like the World Bank starting to dig into these questions. My understanding and assessment of the evidence is that, when people are first displaced, those policy conditions that you talked about, like, “Oh, can I have access to the social safety net system? Can I get an education?” When they're fleeing violence war and persecution, people are not really carefully weighing those factors, because – I most recently did a study in Bangladesh and, the Rohingya were fleeing massive war crimes and that, that wasn't really a factor.


So, I think it does depend on the various push and pull factors that are in place. I think we have evidence from a number of cases that shows that other policies beyond the kinds of benefits you can get are far more influential. So, I mentioned some push factors, like what people are fleeing from, also when countries close the border, and that just has a much larger impact. So, I think one other, as you said, rightly, many governments are concerned about the pull factor. I've now, in talking to government representatives around the world, I've heard more about the “stay factor,” meaning that there's concern that by providing these services, refugees won't want to return, even when the conditions in their home country have improved. There is evidence around that that shows it really is mixed. It depends on the policy conditions in the hosting country and the country of origin. And there are examples of people who, when they have access to livelihoods, when they are able to make a living, they might be more likely to return home because they have education and they have assets that they're able to return to their country to rebuild. And that really goes to one of the hearts of the question, which is the vast majority of refugees say, “If my country is safe, I would like to return home.”


Mwangi Thuita: And there are some of these low- and middle-income countries that are increasingly allowing some provisions for refugees to work. I think maybe Jordan, Turkey, Colombia, correct me if I'm wrong. What are some effective ways of convincing these governments, that it is actually beneficial both to them and to the refugee populations?


Cindy Huang: So, there has been movement, you rightly note, and also in Ethiopia where there’s been positive laws that are passed. And then we have some stalwarts like Uganda, which have always had really excellent policies on the inclusion front. So, one of the ways that the international community has been thinking about this question is what are the resources that we can offer to align interests, such that it makes sense for both refugees, host communities and national development to allow refugees to work and increase their self-reliance? And in cases like Jordan, we've seen that the international community has come together to offer Jordan assistance, in particular, this development-led assistance where we as the international community can make investments in their health system, for example, so that their health system can include refugees, as opposed to the traditional model of having a totally parallel system go on for years and years.


And I think it's really important to do that around economic growth more generally, because in all of these countries, you have vulnerable host populations saying, “Oh, it's wonderful for refugees to get assistance, but what about our situation?” And so, I think being able to design packages, which are not about conditionality, not “We'll give you a bridge or a road here if you'll give rights to refugees,” it's really about how can we use these new resources to align interests so that we can overall grow the pie. And people have been so creative there in the Jordan case, there were trade concessions with the European Union. There have been discussions of ways to catalyze private sector investment. I don't want to oversimplify, because the devil's in the details and implementation is really tough, but I really appreciate the creative and new thinking around bringing humanitarian and development objectives together.


Mwangi Thuita:  And some of these models for international partnership are relatively new. What can we say so far about how they've been implemented and the successes that they've had?


Cindy Huang: So, I've looked most closely at the compact in Jordan that was around jobs and economic growth. And the one in Ethiopia is quite new, I will say, as you said, this process really started in 2016 or so, and in development terms, that's quite a short period of time. But I do see some bright spots and I'll give two or three examples. So, one is that there's really been learning in the implementation process. So, in the case of Jordan, there was at first a significant focus on refugees being employed in industrial zones and in factories. But when the program was starting to be implemented, people found – well, refugees, that's a long way to travel. They were afraid to leave their families. You've just fled another country. There was fear, there were the costs around traveling to the workplace, there was no childcare. And I think people really did take a step back and say, “Okay, well, how can we improve this system, but not lose the spirit of wanting greater access to the labor market?”


So, there have been changes, like a new regulation that allows Syrians to have home-based businesses, which allows more women to have catering businesses or sewing businesses. So, I think there has been that learning spirit. At the same time, there's still a long ways to go. And I think one of the tricks in all of this will be, how can we implement these projects and compacts in a way where we're seeing positive benefit and therefore there's momentum to do more and more, versus, feeling like there's going to be a backlash because people haven't really seen the benefits that we've promised?


Sonnet Frisbie: There’s a big role for the private sector as well. How do you see – and you mentioned a little bit with like home-based businesses – how do you see the private sector, maybe, companies that want to hire refugees, how have you seen them also influencing the policy process?


Cindy Huang: Yes, I think they they've played a really important role and I want to call out the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which is a coalition of companies that want to do more, both in the U.S. and around the world. And it's been really important to have Tent and groups like Tent at the table and the companies that are in their coalition to make specific commitments around the hiring and the investment that they would make if policy changes were implemented. Because it's very nice in theory to say, “Please make these policy changes and you're going to see these benefits,” but, the countries which are under pressure, they want to know that there's something at the end of that policy change process, which can be quite difficult at times. And I know that in Colombia where there's a more progressive policy around labor market access, there've been conferences and really requests for companies to come in and increase the overall pie.


Mwangi Thuita: You spoke of the differences between cultures of welcome in countries like Uganda, which have historically been very open to having refugees work and be integrated in the social safety system and provided for social services. Obviously, that's a bit simplifying it a little bit. But what do you think are some major determining factors in how open and welcoming a country is to refugee populations?


Cindy Huang: One major one is the previous experience with displacement, and that's the case in Uganda, and now you see in Colombia. So, for, during the civil war in Colombia, Venezuela hosted a lot of Colombians. And so now, as we see the flow moving in the opposite direction, there is a feeling that, we were welcomed and now it's our turn to welcome our neighbors. So, I think historical experience is an important determining factor. There have been studies about the cultural closeness of the displaced and host populations being a factor. And now, there’s new research as well, that's looking into both the economic and the perception of the economic effects of hosting refugees. So, I'm working with a fantastic researcher, Thomas Ginn, at the Center for Global Development, who's looking at how welcome changes when host communities know or don't know that part of the benefits they're receiving are because they're hosting refugees. And actually, that experiment is in Uganda, where now it's quite common, and I think it's a very good thing that is part of a humanitarian response, a certain percentage of the funds should be invested in the host community. So, then there's a question of, does that change people's perceptions and the sense of welcome?


Sonnet Frisbie: So, you had mentioned the Rohingya earlier, and I know that you actually gave testimony to Congress in July of 2019 on that topic. And you talked about among other things, encouraging U.S. to increase international pressure on Myanmar to ensure participation of the Rohingya in the response, and to increase support for Bangladesh as they grapple with the refugee crisis. I would love to hear how you calibrate your message when you're called on to give testimony before Congress, maybe how that experience was for you and how the aftermath has been as far as seeing impact.


Cindy Huang: So, we talked earlier about the fact that U.S. leadership has waned a bit on refugee issues. I will say even with that change, the U.S. is still such an important voice in the international community, and in the case of Bangladesh and hosting Rohingya, the U.S. is by far the largest donor. And you can say that about a number of crises. So, I took that duty and opportunity very seriously because speaking to members of Congress who hold the purse strings, who are leaders on policy in many respects, it was a really great and humbling experience to be able to share my ideas. What impressed me most about it was the level of engagement. As your listeners and you may have noticed, there's just a lot going on in our country now and a lot going on in Congress. So, I thought, “Okay, well, some people will show up and ask some general questions,” and that was not the case at all.


There was a large, maybe even a dozen members who came in at different points in the hearing, extremely well-informed questions, even things like, “What's the curriculum that Rohingya children are being offered?” People who just know a lot about what's going on. And that honestly gave me a lot of hope in our democracy and the fact that it's not perfect, but people were taking time to understand the issues and understand where U.S. pressure and engagement could make a difference. In terms of follow-up, there has been progress on the Burma Act. It hasn't been passed, but that includes a number of measures that I referenced such as greater accountability and individual and business sanctions on Myanmar. I think you can't ever attribute anything, one individual thing to what you've said in front of Congress, but I do think the chorus of voices really matters. And that's something I would say to those who are listening, who have very bright futures in policy and practice, is that it's really about the ecosystem of change. And I think the more you can understand where the pressure points are, and how you can build alliances, including with people who you don't agree with a hundred percent, or even 50%, it's really important. And I, again, was heartened by the bipartisan nature of support and interest in the issues.


Mwangi Thuita:  I'd love to hear about what kind of arguments, in your long experience in both the nonprofit sector and the government, what kind of arguments do you find to be most effective in swaying policymakers? There’s moral arguments that appeal to our values as a nation, or perhaps, human rights and refugee rights based arguments, or perhaps and how to take into account strategic considerations, given it's the U.S. government that you're trying to appeal to?


Cindy Huang: Yeah. It's important. It's a lot of work and it's so important to tailor the message and lift up. We always want to be extremely evidence-based and there are always opportunities, depending on who you're engaging to lift up different aspects of the arguments. One thing that I found in my work, which previously focused more heavily on the economic aspects, is that even with the ministries of finance and the more economic actors, that it is still a combination of factors. And so, I'll give an example, which is that when we were talking to stakeholders in Jordan and we were focused on the potential economic benefits of giving greater rights, we learned that making the argument that increased labor market access in many cases would reduce child marriage and child labor was compelling, because these are issues in places like Jordan and in Bangladesh that the government has been working on and paying attention, even aside of the refugee crisis.


These are issues that they've been working on. So, I think to the extent you can really look at shared interests and make an argument that has many pillars, especially when it comes to policy makers. It's important. And then the last thing I'll say is more of my recent research has been on narrative shift and communications. And it's really important for everyone to remember that policy makers are people too, meaning that stories and human beings, contact with human beings, also makes a big difference. So, for example, I think even though you won't have an RCT to show the evidence around congressional delegations, where you bring members of Congress to different countries, or to refugee resettlement offices in the U.S., I can just tell you from experience, it really makes a difference. And so, how do you combine that in a way that, that uses your time and resources wisely, and those of other members of the coalition? To me, that's the art and science of change, policy change, social change that I love to engage in.


Sonnet Frisbie: Kind of an off-the-wall question, but you've had a really fascinating career, and a lot of it in areas where I would say you have to be somewhat of an idealist to keep your optimism. Is there a book or a person who has had a big influence on you and your ideals and morals surrounding your work?


Cindy Huang: Yeah, there are a number of influential figures in my academic life and just reading through the years, hopefully this doesn't sound overly macabre, but I will never forget reading Victor Frankel's Man’s Search for Meaning, which is about how he survived. He's a psychologist and an intellectual, and also just lived through so much during the Holocaust. And that's that it has been a touchstone for me in terms of, without ever being too harsh on ourselves, to say, what other people who have been through the worst of the worst are able to find in terms of meaning in life, and finding hope? I've just had so much luck and privilege in my life and to be able to use that to try to better the conditions of humanity, I see, as not just a responsibility, but a privilege.


Sonnet Frisbie: So, shifting gears a little bit, we're here at the Harris School of Public Policy, and we have hundreds of classmates who are going to go out into the world after graduation, some of whom have already worked in policy, but definitely will work in organizations, many of them in development, let's say, or NGOs. What are two or three things your experience has taught you about working within organizations like NGOs and government – I know you've also had experience there – and what type of advice would you give to those students?


Cindy Huang: So, the first will be extremely boring, which is that management and bureaucracy can be your friend. I did a PhD in anthropology, so I got in intensive interaction with a variety of academics, and I think it's always wonderful to have time to be free to think and write and reflect. I will say, having worked in larger organizations, that you can do so much, with the leverage and power of a team and a bureaucracy behind you, that is change and opportunity at scale. And there is no brilliant idea out there that is adopted just because it's great and brilliant. There is so much blood, sweat, and tears that goes into getting it adopted and scaled and adopted. So, make that investment, it is hard.


Every year, when it comes time to do annual performance reviews, I think, “Oh my gosh, I don't have time to do this.” But ultimately those are the resources that I have to affect change in the world. So that is one thing that I've learned. I would say it's probably not my natural tendency. So, it's one that I've had to work on. The second is that the world out there is big, but actually this community, and the community that you will work in probably is relatively small. The golden rule, when I first went to the State Department, I saw how some people came in, and maybe they're political appointees for the first time, and they were just a little bit too big for their britches, you know? And I said, “Oh, well, that's going to be the same person.” That desk officer you weren't nice to is going to be your boss and you’re going to interact with them at some important meeting.


And I know again, it sounds pretty basic, but really going in with that spirit that we're in a community that is trying to work together is really important. And then the third piece, which is linked to the first two, is as you move up in the world and I know Harris School students, and anyone else listening will move up in the world. Like how can you also create space to go back to first principles? So, I came into all of this as an anthropologist, really believing that refugees, other affected populations have to be at the heart of what we do. That becomes harder as you move up, because there are a lot more meetings so that you can get to scale and have bigger influence, but how do you maintain that connection? And also, it's just good for the soul, because you're being reminded of why you wanted to embark on this journey in the first place.


Mwangi Thuita:  That was fantastic. Thank you so much. And in line with that management and bureaucracy and administration are often things that are underlooked. Policy research and analysis is a little fancier and more attractive. But when you look at the vast landscape of humanitarian aid organizations doing good work to alleviate poverty and suffering around the world, what are some things that you think the industry as a whole could be doing better? Is it greater transparency? Is it more evidence-based approaches? Are there any kind of structural or systemic issues that you think they could improve on?


Cindy Huang: I think in the basket of just do no harm and do basic right by people. I think there's a lot more work that could be done. We've seen a number of cases where, NGOs haven't done the basics to make sure that there is a safe workplace or that beneficiaries aren't exploited or abused in some way. So, I think that is important, and that is linked to a broader issue of transparency and accountability. And I do think it's easy again, to put off some of those issues as less about the core policy, new idea or programs, but we've seen some organizations where really it becomes an existential threat to doing your work if you lose your credibility. So, I think that's one area that's really important.


Another area is, after development, we've tried to grapple with this, but I think we still have a long way to go, which is just really, saying the serenity prayer and saying, “”We outside NGO government, we cannot drive or really do development in a country.” It really is about the people living in that country. And it's really hard to hold on to that humility because there are big problems and there are ways that we can help. So, I think having that, there’s a lot of great both rhetoric and starting to be some practice around “What does it mean to include these populations in the design and execution of projects? What does it mean to really work more closely with governments, while still holding them accountable when they are perpetrators of injustice?”


So, I think that's another big area of work. And finally, just because it's one that's really close to my heart, is bridging what I referenced before, in terms of there being a divide between different sectors, humanitarian and development, or you can look across any number of sectors, of really siloed approaches. And just coming back to that reality that people are whole people who live in communities. So, while we know we need different kinds of technical expertise, what can we do to have a more holistic picture of where indicators can be improved, and also including people in the process of setting those indicators?


Sonnet Frisbie: So, it's a difficult question, but to the point of systemic issues and aid, you recently penned an opinion piece along with a couple of other authors in the Oregonian about the sexual scandal involving the founder of Mercy Corps, Ellsworth Culver, and in it, you and your co-authors posit that the rash of abuse scandals in the development community is actually symptomatic of a broader issue and not simply one-offs. So, I feel like I'd be remiss after what you just said if I didn't ask you about that and what you think the future is in the industry and where you think the fixes are?


Cindy Huang: Yeah. I do stand by what we wrote in terms of it. I think it is often too easy to say, “Oh, well, that was just one bad apple, you know? Oh, okay, well, we didn't catch it that time, but now we have this gold standard policy in place.” I think it is about the development community, but it goes much broader. And we see this in the Me Too movement. And we are working against thousands plus years of patriarchy. So, it's going to be a long journey and we should accept that and take from that, that really nothing can be too much in terms of paying attention to these issues and the investments that we need to make. So, I think it, as with all systemic change issues, we need both the policy change and then we need culture change.


And I think we're at a place now where a lot of organizations, partly in response to the scandals at Mercy Corps and Oxfam and Save the Children, they do have the gold standard policies. So, I do feel we're now at a point where it's really about how we set a tone and a set of values to start changing the culture and also make sure that leadership is resourcing those. We need independent audit functions, independent reporting. We need that to become part of the system. And what does that speak to in the broader picture? I think, in addition to just the general power dynamics across the world, I also think we have to be very attentive to the specific power dynamics when it comes to development and humanitarian programs, which is that we are talking about extremely vulnerable people, in the case of refugees, who have fled their country out of absolute necessity who don't have their belongings, whose family members have been targeted and killed. So, I mean, what do we take into that? We have to understand that good intentions are not enough. Those power dynamics are there, and we do need safeguarding. We need systems in place to mitigate the harm, intentional or unintentional, that can be done in those situations.


Mwangi Thuita:  I want to close with two quickfire questions. So, first, how does your background – you said you had a PhD in cultural anthropology – how does your background shape your approach to policy research and implementing interventions?


Cindy Huang: I’d be remiss if I didn't mention that I also did do a Master's in Public Policy.


Mwangi Thuita: Yes, at Princeton, at the Woodrow Wilson School! [laughter]


Cindy Huang: Also an excellent school, alongside Harris. [laughter]


Sonnet Frisbie: That was the right answer. [laughter]


Cindy Huang: So how that affects my approach, and you may have heard it in some of my responses, is that we have to put people at the center, and anthropology still has among the most trenchant critiques of why development programs don't work, because there was a cultural insight or a power dynamic that really put things off kilter. And I will say, that's great, and we're asking tough questions, and now the charge to the next generation is how do we do that in a way that also allows us to make the maximum contribution we can to supporting people in their journeys of development?


Mwangi Thuita: Okay. And the final question is about refugee camps. Having visited refugee camps yourself, and seeing the conditions that people live in there, do you think that they're a necessary evil or something we can realistically work to make obsolete in the near future?


Cindy Huang: I think in the near future, it will still be a mix. And I think that does get the point of what are the tailored solutions that are needed. So, there is evidence that shows that, for some groups of people, camps are really helpful because housing costs are too high elsewhere, and they're not able to work. And so, I think what I would love to see is not the camps where we have generations of people growing up without opportunities, but camps as part of a safety net system, where it does make sense for certain vulnerable populations, but that are really a launching pad for new and better opportunities now and in the future.


Mwangi Thuita:  Thank you so much, Dr. Cindy Huang. Thank you. Thank you for listening to this episode of Root of Conflict, featuring Dr. Cindy Huang. Special thanks to Yi Ning Wong for engineering this episode, and Aishwarya Raje for editing. Your interviewers were Sonnet Frisbee, and Mwangi Thuita. We’d like to thank 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


Police Violence in America | Sam Sinyangwe

For the last several years, police violence in America has come to the forefront of public consciousness. It is an issue that can polarize the country, but for years, there lacked a data-driven analysis of police violence on a national level, and concrete policy recommendations on the issue were hard to come by. On this episode of Root of Conflict, Pearson Fellows Sonnet Frisbie and Mwangi Thuita speak with Sam Sinyangwe, activist, data scientist, and co-founder of Mapping Police Violence, the most comprehensive database of people killed by police. Sam discusses the evidence-based approaches to measuring police violence in America, and the importance of conveying the data, to the public and to policymakers, in a way that can affect real policy change.

University of Chicago Introducer: This is Susan Kraken and you're listening to University of Chicago Public Policy Podcast.


Aishwarya Raje and Mwangi Thuita: You're listening to Root of Conflict, a podcast about violent conflict around the world and the people, societies and policy issues it affects. You'll hear from experts and practitioners can 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.


Aishwarya Raje: For the last several years, police violence in America has come to the forefront of public consciousness. It's an issue that can polarize the country, but for years, there lacked a data-driven analysis of police violence on a national level, and concrete policy recommendations on the issue were hard to come by. On this episode of route of conflict, Pearson Fellows, Sonnet Frisbie, and Mwangi Thuita speak with Sam Sinyangwe, activist, data scientist, and Co-Founder of Mapping Police Violence, which is the most comprehensive database of people killed by police. Sam discusses the evidence-based approaches to measuring police violence in America, and the importance of conveying the data to the public and to policy makers in a way that can affect real policy change.