APSA presentation, Friday August 29

I’m in DC for APSA this week, and will be discussing some of my work with Laura Seay about understanding local governance institutions in the DRC at this 8 am panel on Friday.  We build on this paper by Macartan Humphreys, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra and Peter van der Windt, which finds that community-driven reconstruction programs haven’t done much to change people’s ideas about democratic governance in eastern Congo.  The rest of the panelists are also fabulous, so if you’re in town, you should definitely come!

Travel tips for Berkeley students

Being a PhD student might not pay terribly well, but I’ve discovered a number of benefits offered by UC Berkeley that can substantially offset the cost of travel, and thought I’d share them here.

  • Travel grants: The Graduate Assembly offers travel grants to grad students who are presenting at conferences.  If you’d just like to attend a conference, the Student Opportunity Fund and Academic Opportunity Fund will cover registration and travel costs for both undergrads and grad students – no presentation required.
  • Travel insurance: Students traveling more than 100 miles away from campus for research can get free evacuation insurance through the university.  If you have SHIP and you need medical care while away from campus, your expenditures will be reimbursed through Aetna On Call.
  • Travel health: You will pay exponentially less for prescription medications through the Tang Center travel clinic than you would at any other pharmacy.  With the insurance plan at my last job, I once paid $600 out of pocket for a three-month supply of Malarone, after extensive haggling with the pharmacy to give me more than 30 days’ worth of medication at once.  Tang filled a three-month order with no complications for just $15.

Finally, while this isn’t Berkeley-specific, I’ve found it useful to sign up for Global Entry now that I’m planning frequent international travel out of SFO.  It’s $100 for ten years, and gives you access to an expedited lane for passport control.  Once you’ve been assigned a Known Traveler Number through Global Entry, you can also use this to request access (for free) to TSA Pre-Check expedited security screening for travel on participating airlines within the US.  TSA Pre-Check doesn’t appear to be offered for international flights at this time, but if you’re willing to pay $180 per year, you can skip the security lines for any flight at SFO with CLEAR.

Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Chris Blattman’s lecture notes on what American political scientists know about the connection between poverty and violence.  A quick, thought-provoking slide deck.
  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)

Survey software for mixed methods research

I attended a great course last month on mixed methods evaluation techniques for humanitarian programs at the Harvard Humanitarian Academy.  One of the most useful things I got out of the course (aside from a copy of this primer on mixed methods research designs) was a stronger sense of the types of survey software that are available for mixed-methods research.

The star of the show was definitely KoBoToolbox.  This free software was developed in partnership with researchers at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and consequently is well suited to research in places without steady electricity or internet access.  We played around with the online form builder, which was incredibly easy to use, but surveys can also be designed and deployed to Android devices offline.  Once data has been collected, it can be synced to a local computer running any operating system.  The software also has some very useful functionalities beyond standard survey design, like collection of geospatial data and an option for integrating audio recordings into quantitative questionnaires.  The latter makes it a useful tool for organizing qualitative interviews – you could create a form to automatically track the date and location of the interview, and add other meta questions at the end (like the presence of other people, or whether the respondent seemed comfortable with the questions).

KoBo is one of a number of survey softwares built on Google’s workhorse program Open Data Kit.  ODK is free and open-source (Android only), with many of the same functions as KoBo, but according to other participants in the HHA course, the survey builder isn’t as easy to use.  Other paid services which are also built on ODK include SurveyCTO (which is used by IPA) and Enketo.  I haven’t looked into these options as much, but I believe they offer assistance with tech support and possibly database management.  SurveyCTO is also Android-based, while Enketo is platform independent.

The other two softwares in use at IPA are SurveyBe and Blaise.  These are both paid, Windows-based services.  SurveyBe sounds like it’s pretty similar to the ODK-based programs above, in terms of ease of programming.  Blaise is the heavy hitter of the survey software world.  There’s a very steep learning curve to the programming, but it’s capable of handling more complex survey designs than any of the others here.  (For example, the first project I worked on with IPA used Blaise to preload baseline data on farmers’ fields and crops into the midline questionnaire.  I’m pretty sure none of the other programs here could do that.)

Finally, hardware.  Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s deployed any of the Android-based programs has used Samsung Galaxy tablets for it.  I’ve got the 7″ version, which is quite portable but still large enough to comfortably type on.  The battery life is also good; it can be used for at least eight hours straight without charging.  When I was doing some consulting for a mixed methods evaluation in the DRC earlier this summer, we planned to send the survey teams out with these tablets and 6-watt solar chargers from Voltaic.  The other interesting hardware recommendation that came out of the HHA course was the Livescribe recording pen, which is a functional pen with an audio recorder inside.  A bit specialized for most researchers’ purposes, I think, but the course leader recommended it for qualitative interviews where the presence of a more obvious recording device might make people uncomfortable.  (No comment on its suitability for surreptitiously recording politicians doing shady things.)

Congo Swim

I’m not normally a fan of using sports to raise money for charity – it seems contrived, like an issue only matters if you can run a marathon for it – but I do want to highlight the Congo Swim fundraiser taking place in Lake Tahoe and Oakland later this month.  Proceeds go to a variety of women’s organizations in eastern DRC, and it seems like a good chance to build connections with the Congolese community in northern California.  I’ll be participating in the walk in Oakland – let me know if you’ll be there as well!


Puzzles about FDLR disarmament

Africa Confidential had a very good article recently on possible motives for the FDLR’s upcoming disarmament.  Quoting at length here for readers without a subscription:

Rwandans sceptical about the FDLR’s true intentions believe it is buying time to reorganise and recruit, fending off the threat of the FIB by pretending to surrender while continuing to prepare militarily. The interim report of the UN Group of Experts on Congo-Kinshdsa, dated 25 June but made public on 3 July, says as much: ‘In contrast to claims that it is ready to disarm, FDLR continues to recruit and train combatants, including children.’ It adds that two high-ranking officers, Colonel Hamada Habimana and Lieutenant Col. Ferdinand Nsengiyumva, have returned to the FDLR, having respectively deserted and been arrested by the FARDC. The report also says that, far from seeking political dialogue, the leaders’ objective remains to attack Rwanda.

The mixed and competing ambitions can be partly explained by the fact that the FDLR is far from a coherent, single-minded entity. The loyalties of its fighters are split, fairly evenly, between Byiringiro and Sylvestre Muducumura. Byiringiro is exploring political avenues as a means of achieving his goals while Muducumura, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (which spells his name Mudacamura), remains committed to military action.

The UN Experts’ report shows how the FDLR’s political wing has struck alliances with Rwandan opposition parties in Rwanda and in Belgium. In July 2012, it formed the Front commun pour la libération du Rwanda (FCLR-Ubumwe) with the Parti social Imberakuri (AC Vol 51 No 14, The assassin’s hand). Byiringiro is President of the Front commun. On 1 March, discussions in Brussels led to the formation of the Coalition des partis politiques rwandais pour le changement, consisting of two more Rwandan opposition parties, the Rwanda Dream Initiative-Umugambi Rwanda Rwiza of ex-Premier Faustin Twagiramungu and the Union démocratique rwandaise, as well as FCLR-Ubumwe. Byiringiro is FCLR-Ubumwe’s coalition representative.