Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field
Twenty-seven Harvard College juniors received summer travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in September, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the resources of the Center's research environment. During the spring 2008 semester, the students will present their research in a conference (February 21–23) that is open to the Harvard community. Six Undergraduate Associates document their experiences in the field, here and in the Photo Essay:
I spent three months in Buenos Aires, Argentina investigating police violence under democratic rule in Latin America. Some scholars have argued that quotidian violence and social inequalities are the defining political problems in Latin America since the end of military rule. Others point to the diminishing rule of law and historically weak states in the region. My thesis will link these two problems by addressing public security and policing in urban areas. The primary case study will be Metropolitan Buenos Aires, and in particular the Federal Police with jurisdiction over the capital. The current scholarly literature, sparse to begin with, lacks a detailed view of the streets and the police institution. The general thrust of my research was to fix this problem: I spent most of my time in the slums and shantytowns (villas miseria) conducting interviews with low-ranking police officers, community organizers, and victims of police brutality.
The deliberate isolation of the villas, beginning with the eradication plans under the Ongañia dictatorship in the 1960s, laid the groundwork for a conflict dynamic between “society” and “villa.” The military and the police launched joint operations to bulldoze entire settlements, and the police continued an operational policy of quarantining the villas to this day. I was given several family photographs, taken by residents of the Villa 11, that show destroyed houses and police vehicles driving through the rubble; these photos date back to 1978, the height of the last dictatorship, and to my knowledge have never been published in the media or any academic study. I also conducted a lengthy interview with a retired police officer who drove a bulldozer in several of these eradication plans; he related details on operational tactics and police-military cooperation that haven’t been documented in English or Spanish. This conflict dynamic extends to public opinion: I am completing an extensive quantitative analysis of crime fears in Latin America which shows that public fears of insecurity are almost entirely class-based.
Argentina has an active civil society and a huge number of grassroots organizations. I worked as a research associate at the Argentine League for the Rights of Man, but I also profited from membership in or research assistance from CORREPI-Sur, the Human Rights Commission of Paraguayans in Argentina, the Human Rights Commission of the Villa 21, and several others. My favorite of these cooperative experiences was with the recently-organized 19th of January Housing Cooperative, led by Bernardo Corrales. The Cooperative is a group of 83 families who were evicted from their homes after an (unconstitutional) attempt to invalidate their contracts by the city government; these families lived in the Plaza de Mayo, in plain view of the presidential mansion, for three months in protest of these policy. Twenty of the members, along with a few other homeless men, worked with me as research assistants during the summer. They accompanied me into the villas for security reasons, helped dig through little-known archives and small used bookstores, and arranged interviews with villa residents and victims of police violence. This cooperation was by far the most valuable part of the summer: besides the obvious benefits to my research, I learned how to tap into these networks to effect real change. It was both humbling and confidence-building. As a Harvard student with an enormous amount of research funding and access to the most important scholarly networks in the world, the best of my research came from twenty homeless Bolivian immigrants and a few old ladies in a shantytown. At the same time, collaborating with these groups—the members of which were among the brightest and most dedicated advocates I’ve met anywhere—gave me the sense that my research might actually be useful in the popular struggle against state brutality. In a related internship, I published a series of human rights reports and journalistic pieces on what I uncovered. Two of these reports have been cited in court cases on police torture, and I’m continuing to work with the League and the Cooperative on related human rights endeavors this year.
Thanks to the grant I received from the Weatherhead Center, I was able to spend ten weeks this past summer conducting thesis research on refugees in Ethiopia. During that time, I worked as an intern for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—the organization charged with the protection of refugees worldwide—in both the Regional Liaison Office in Addis Ababa as well as the Field Office in Jijiga. My days at UNHCR were spent, inter alia, documenting the personal histories of refugees, listening to and following up on refugees’ individual needs and concerns, and liaising between the refugee community, UNHCR officers, and implementing partners. In so doing, I was exposed to the majority of UNHCR’s protection and assistance activities in Ethiopia (including its efforts to promote and facilitate voluntary repatriation) as well as to the internal and external challenges UNHCR faces in the discharge of its mandate. In short, my research took the form of interviews, conversations, documents, and observations, the composite of which has given me as complete an understanding of the situation of refugees—and the state of refugee protection—in Ethiopia as I could have hoped to attain in so brief a sojourn.
Since the end of the cold war, refugee policy has become less and less about protecting and providing refuge to those forced to flee their homes, and more and more about preventing, containing, and reversing refugee flows. Indeed, based on my experience in Ethiopia, I would go so far as to say that repatriation has become the singular end toward which refugee policy is oriented, with the protection of refugees often becoming an afterthought or secondary consideration. Working for UNHCR, I couldn’t help but notice that the "right to return" has eclipsed the "right to asylum" as its guiding principle, nor could I ignore the fact that UNHCR has become far more preoccupied with encouraging refugees to return home than it is with encouraging the Ethiopian government to meet its basic protection obligations or to improve the dismal conditions of camp life in Ethiopia.
Having already spent a summer working in IDP camps in northern Uganda, I was spared the shock that inevitably comes when visiting East Africa—and its refugee camps—for the first time. I spent most of my time living in Addis Ababa, a sprawling city of five million with (what felt like) as many street-sleepers as house-dwellers. The city is also home to roughly 1,200 urban refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and the Great Lakes Region. I also had the opportunity to visit other parts of Ethiopia, the most memorable of which was a road trip from Addis to Jijiga, near the Somali border. Overall, the time I spent in Ethiopia was both unforgettable and invaluable, which is why I find it difficult to describe my experience with the sincerity and profundity that it deserves.
What I found most striking about working with refugees was how warm and munificent they were despite everything they had endured. What I found most striking about working for UNHCR was how paternalistic and distrustful it was of the very people it was charged to protect. Rather than empower refugees, it was my impression that UNHCR helped perpetuate their dependence, though perhaps not on purpose. From the beginning, I was deeply uncomfortable with the relationship between UNHCR staff and refugees, and even more so with just how quickly I adapted to the role of the former. This relationship is premised upon the vast incongruity—in power, wealth, education, et cetera—that exists between aid workers and refugees, and is an inevitable part of life for both. UNHCR is limited in its ability to help refugees for a variety of reasons (a lack of resources being perhaps the most obvious), and thus even the most wellintentioned of its staff must detach themselves emotionally from refugees in order to ease the frustration that comes with not being able to assist them. I found myself doing just that.
I chose to research my thesis in Ghana because election campaigns (elections to be held in December 2008) were in full swing this summer and because Ghana had recently discovered oil off of the coast of Western Region, which will lead to a significant economic transformation over the next few years. Oil has been a curse for many African countries, and Ghanaians were particularly concerned that the oil discovery could lead to ethno-political tensions since the issue of regional resource-revenue sharing was especially contentious.
To quantify the effect of political, social, and economic stimuli on ethnic identification, I employed a survey methodology, supplemented with a series of qualitative interviews. Given time constraints, I focused on skilled and unskilled formal-sector workers at Ghana’s two largest ports: Tema and Takoradi. The ports are located in urban areas with much ethnic mixing, and, especially given the oil discovery, are expecting to see large revenue increases over the next few years, possibly leading to increased labor demand.
The first survey question presented a hypothetical situation in which a few co-workers of the respondent, who were of the same ethnic group, failed to receive a promotion for which they were qualified. Respondents were given no other information about the situation. They were then asked to rank how angry they would feel about this situation on a provided scale. Because of variation in "angriness standards" between respondents, I incorporated a series of hypothetical vignettes that respondents then answered, which gave me a better idea for what each individual considered "very angry" or not. I also included questions and vignettes related to respondents’ perceptions of economic prospects regarding the oil find as well as their political and social habits. Control-variable questions for ethnic group, religion, political party, etc. were also included.
I was assisted by a team of three research assistants, one of whom was hired from the University of Ghana and the other two provided gratis by the Takoradi port administration. Because of time constrains, surveys were written in English but with the consultation of the research assistants to ensure the language, and associated connotations, would be understood by the respondents. In addition to assisting with survey distribution and collection (and ensuring that I got neither lost nor abducted), my research assistants also acted as interpreters during the numerous interviews conducted.
Going to Ghana was undoubtedly the best—and most adventurous—summer I have ever had. I learned and experienced so much on the ground beyond the graphs and charts of my economics classes—and saw more of the human story not revealed by the statistics, development targets and poverty-reduction strategies. Walking around, little children would run after me crying "obruni, obruni!" (white man, white man!), and most were genuinely fascinated with me and curious about what I was doing in their village. I certainly witnessed a lot of poverty during my travels, but, somewhat unexpectedly, I saw that the people were very happy and optimistic despite their economic conditions. Much of that had to do with the fervent religious beliefs just about everyone held—it was not atypical for people to go to church every day or spend almost all of Sunday at worship. I was truly astounded at the intensity of religious belief that most people had, and I believe that that played a major role in how they viewed their own conditions. Religion even seems to be a unifying force between ethnic groups rather than a dividing force.
I was also surprised with the openness with which people were willing to talk about ethnicity in daily life. From what I had seen on the news about Africa my entire life, I thought this would be a rather sensitive subject, but Ghanaians were very open about it, even to a foreigner. Interviewing people from all walks of life about their thoughts on ethnic relations taught me more than any book or paper could about how ethnicity is used in modern, everyday life—and many people even pointed me towards areas where I had not thought of looking, such as buying and developing real estate (almost all land in Ghana is owned by the tribal chiefs, making economic expansion a bit tricky, to say the least). These discussions I had with the local population greatly helped me in connecting everyday reality with ideas from many disciplines—I was able to look at daily problems, like property rights, and think about them from economic, political, and anthropological perspectives.
It is certainly very difficult for me to choose an experience or memory that I value the most, but I will have to say that I value most the connections and friendships I made while I was there. I did not appreciate it as much as I should have at the time, but looking back, I now realize just what kind of sacrifice numerous people made to ensure that my project went well. One official from the ports ministry took off an entire day to guide me around Tema and introduce me to the right people—and he even ensured that I got home safely on the, rather nerve-wracking, local minibuses. My research assistants were all spectacular, and the two provided by the port spent numerous hours with me each day for two weeks helping to administer and collect surveys. Without their inside knowledge, I do not know how I would have navigated around the port area, let alone maintain random sampling My research assistant from the university was absolutely indispensable, and he provided much assistance with language clarification, interviews, and sample stratification.
When I decided to study French laïcité, I knew I had big shoes to fill. A core value of French republicanism since the revolution, laïcité has become an almost untouchable tenet of the country’s constitution and the French staunchly defend their state/church neutrality against any reproach from abroad. But in recent years, I have sensed some national tensions on the role of laïcité, exemplified in part with a reaffirmation on the part of president Sarkozy of France’s Christian heritage. Though Sarkozy’s comments were met with a fair amount of criticism, they exposed increasing doubts in France about whether the country’s attitude towards religion is perhaps too combative, rather than neutral and cognizant of the country’s religious roots. This interior debate is also influenced by the European Union. As the EU tries to solidify its identity, it has recently turned to the idea of a Christian heritage as a unifying value. There is no denying that Christianity has been an important part of Europe’s history since the Roman Empire, but does this attachment to religion persist? If it does, this can become a means to exclude Turkey from possible accession through explicit or implicit religious arguments. But the use of religion in debates against Turkey, a country that prides itself in its laïcité, is risky for France as it undermines its own commitment to laïcité.
To compare viewpoints on laïcité, I also spent some time researching in Turkey and meeting with people there. As I have devoted most of my college career to studies of France and the European Union, my knowledge on Turkish history was more limited. However, I was able to organize interviews with the advisers to both the president and prime minister on European affairs and with several experts on laïcité and European integration. The Turkish had a completely different perspective on the question of laïcité. There was no doubt for them that their country is laïc, though they admitted national tensions on how that principle should be applied. For them, the possibility of accession to the EU would serve as an example to other countries reflecting the ability of a Muslim country to modernize and separate church from state. More importantly, they could not understand why France, a country they see as their brother in state neutrality towards religion, is so vehemently opposed to their accession to the EU, an organization which they see as democratic and laïc.
Though laïcité has become a hot topic across Europe, in Turkey especially, the question I am studying had been particularly contentious throughout the last year. While I was there, the country was on the verge of a coup d’état as the Turkish Supreme Court prepared to render its decision on whether to ban the current ruling party because it had violated the principle of laïcité by seeking to allow headscarves in universities. Understandably, the political climate was tense and current government officials seemed uncertain about their future. While I was in Istanbul, a large terrorist explosion rocked the city. Though the Supreme Court eventually voted narrowly not to ban the party, the debate about its decision exposed the tensions in Turkey between laïcité (which has historically been authoritative) and democracy.
The exciting events taking place during my research abroad intensified my experiences and allowed me to reflect more deeply on my subject among the very people it affects. I rediscovered Europe from a new perspective and reevaluated what I consider European. I looked at the Parisian landscape with a new eye, judging every monument and every person’s behavior in the context of my thesis. Similarly, in Turkey, I found myself making mental lists contrasting the country’s history with its modern struggles to preserve secular democracy, as I tried to dissect its complicated present as it seeks entrance into the European Union.