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.

State violence and historical memory in Rwanda and China

I’m off to spend three weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam today, so blogging will be light aside from a few scheduled posts.   While this isn’t specifically a research-oriented trip, I chose these countries in part because I wanted to see what life looks like in places that had experienced civil wars and are about 20 years farther along in their recovery than the places I study in Africa.  As evinced by a few of my recent posts (here and here), I’ve been trying to get outside of my tendency to focus narrowly on central Africa and work towards doing more cross-regional comparison.  Africa is often discussed as a continent uniquely predisposed to violence, but I’m quite convinced that this isn’t true, and I’m looking forward to beginning to build my familiarity with other areas.

I was recently discussing my rationale for this trip over dinner with a friend who’s also spent some time in Rwanda.  He made the excellent point that if I were interested in looking at the ways in which governments work to shape historical memory of traumatic events, the apt comparison would actually be between Rwanda and China.  In his view, both the scale of the violence (during the genocide in Rwanda and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China) and the degree to which state culpability for these events has been whitewashed and manipulated to suit current political realities seem comparable.

I know very little about Chinese history beyond what I’ve gotten from Wikipedia, and I haven’t really started looking into the implications of this statement yet.  But it’s got me thinking: why doesn’t more literature look for commonalities across categories of political violence rather than within them?  By this I mean that genocides are compared to other genocides (as in this paper by René Lemarchand [PDF]),  civil wars to other civil wars, and terrorism to other cases of terrorism.  My understanding of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution suggests that neither was primarily aimed at the genocidal elimination of ethnic minorities, as occurred in Rwanda in 1994.  And yet all of these episodes were about states using various types of violence to attempt to remake society in their preferred image, be it as an industrialized nation or a nation free of Tutsis and MDR supporters.  Both the Cultural Revolution and the Rwandan genocide were episodes of violence that took place largely in response to political uncertainty among national elites.  And in both cases, the scale of violence was explained in large part by the existence of a relatively strong and centralized state.  (By comparison, there’s a lot of ongoing violence in the DRC today, but it’s perpetrated by a wide range of actors, rather than being state-led.)

Of course, Rwanda and China are incredibly different in most other ways, starting with the fact that Rwanda’s entire population is a rounding error in Chinese statistics.  But maybe there’s something to be said for avoiding the tendency to group like with like – Africa with Africa, civil war with civil war – and see what might be learned from unexpected comparisons.

Against support for rebellions

Edward Carpenter had a hard-hitting post at the Duck of Minerva recently about when it makes sense for the international community to intervene on behalf of rebel groups, and it hasn’t generated nearly the discussion it deserved.  He comes to several conclusions that run strongly against prevailing liberal norms of human rights protection and democratization:

The existing government may not be very good – but the alternative will probably be worse. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi – neither were model leaders by according to the liberal democratic ideal, but life for the majority of Iraqis and Libyans was better under their rule. The same can be said for Bashar al Assad and Nouri al Maliki, although in the latter case especially, “better” is a relative statement, since an average of over 1000 Iraqi civilians have died or been wounded every month as a result of internal violence (bombings, shootings, etc) during his tenure as Prime Minister.

No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm. Mali is a model for this type of intervention, using a Western QRF to buy time for state and regional forces to assemble, a combined effort to eliminate the opposing network, and a planned transition to a UN peacekeeping force as the method to ensure a stable outcome and continued international involvement.

Counterexamples come to mind quickly, of course.  Should the international community have attempted to defeat the RPF and keep the genocidal Habyarimana regime in power in Rwanda after April 1994?  Or come to Mobutu’s aid in 1997 when the old dinosaur was finally chased out of Kinshasa by Laurent Kabila?  These are both extreme cases – Rwanda for the scale of the violence perpetrated against an ethnic minority during the war, and Congo based on the sheer degree to which the state apparatus had been undermined and personalized during Mobutu’s rule.  It’s not clear to me how many similarities these countries share with pre-2003 Iraq or pre-2011 Libya.

Of course, after the rebels won in Rwanda and the DRC, their outcomes have been almost entirely divergent, with a stable, developmental state emerging in Rwanda and a violent, patrimonial status quo holding strong in the Congo.  Setting aside concerns about political repression by the RPF for the moment, the Rwandan example is basically the best-case scenario for the international community – a strong, organized rebel group comes in and puts the country back together after conflict’s end.  To use Carpenter’s metric here, life is probably better for the average Rwandan today than it was before 1994.  The Congolese case is close to the worst scenario, where armed groups continue to violently contest control of territory for years after the official end of the war, and the central state remains weak and corrupt.  For millions of people in eastern DRC, life has definitely gotten worse since the early 1990s, and in most of the rest of the country things have probably changed fairly little since that point.

So how to evaluate Carpenter’s proposal?  For many countries, I think it’s sound.  Violent political transitions can do an incredible amount of damage, and the likelihood that a new government will be substantially more democratic or development-oriented than its predecessor seems pretty low, so trying to keep active conflict to a minimum will probably be the single most helpful thing the international community could do to protect civilians.  But there’s also an obvious need to re-evaluate in the case of of genocidal violence or extreme state weakness.