Updates on Burundi

The attempted coup failed after only 36 hours, and Nkurunziza is back in Bujumbura and in control of the country.  There’s a lot of concern at the moment that the ensuing crackdown will be worse than anything that happened during the pre-coup protests.  Coup leader Godefroid Niyombare is on the run in the expectation that he’ll be killed if caught, and there are reports that soldiers have entered hospitals in the capital and killed patients thought to be involved in the coup.  A Storified sampling of some concerns I saw going around Twitter today:

burundiCara Jones has written a good summary of why tensions might continue to increase in the run-up to the May 26 election.  She’s also put together an Indiegogo campaign to support citizen journalists, who are some of the only people said to be reporting on repression outside Bujumbura.  If you want to track reports in real time, Peace Direct has an interactive map of reported insecurity and election irregularities.  For more regional context, this piece by Daniel Kalinaki is a must-read.

Coup attempted in Burundi

The story, as I understand it at the moment, is that Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for an EAC meeting.  Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, apparently announced that the current government was dissolved shortly after Nkurunziza left the country, and named himself interim president.  What will happen if Nkurunziza tries to return to Bujumbura is anyone’s guess.  Nearly all of Burundi’s previous presidents have been overthrown in coups or assassinated (save Pierre Buyoya), so while this is a disappointing shift away from the idea that the post-Arusha military was committed to staying out of politics, it is true to precedent.

If you read French, your first stop for news should be Iwacu.  The #BurundiCoup hashtag is interesting but largely speculative.  I’m following journalists and policy analysts from Burundi and elsewhere for updates:


Call for chapter contributions: researching violence

Ann Laudati and Althea-Maria Rivas are putting together a new edited volume on researching violence.  Here’s their call for abstracts.


Embedded in the unique spaces of violence and conflict are particular sets of issues that face researchers. These particularities present a rich but difficult terrain of inquiry for scholars attempting to navigate these complex warscapes. A scattering of instructional texts has emerged alongside the reported rise in conflict incidents around the world (HIIK 2014; UCDP 2014), however, attention to the subject of ‘doing research in violent settings’ remains lacking. Rather, the majority of textbooks on conducting research in conflict zones rarely diverges from mainstream texts despite the obvious and overwhelming evidence that the very process of working in conflict regions around the world does not fit current academic guidelines which have no clear guidelines for negotiating with warlords or working with rape survivors.

In this edited volume we aim to draw attention to the process of conducting fieldwork in conflict affected regions. Unlike previous books on the subject of doing conflict fieldwork, this edited volume does not seek to present a traditional handbook on methodologies or delineate a clear how to toolset for undertaking conflict related research.

Our purpose is to offer up a broader lens than the common focus on technical questions of methods and ethics allow. The book aims to deconstruct what it means to ‘do’ research in conflict affected or violent contexts – which we understand to be as much a reflective, emotive, and critical inquiry of the research process as it is a practical one.  This volume thus seeks to go beyond academic-centric conversations about how we can achieve rigour or handle our data collection and rather it aims to draw out the broader implications of such research efforts and our place within it.

The tone of the volume therefore is a reflective one that casts a critical eye (as much as an uncomfortably honest one) on understanding the self and practice in the process of doing research in and on conflict and violence. In this way, this volume seeks to interrogate, as much as, highlight the spaces and experiences that are overlooked in traditional methodology texts. By doing so we hope to present a more nuanced and grounded view of research that is unapologetic and unafraid to demystify and declare the messiness that is inherent in the process of research in/on violence, in order to set forth a new set of sensibilities about approaching fieldwork in conflict settings.

Papers discussing fieldwork experiences from the perspective of different academic disciplines and fields of practice are particularly welcome. Contributions may include (but are not limited to) the following broad themes:

  • The embodied politics and positionality of the researcher
  • Rumors, representations and perceptions
  • The emotive and the emotional in fieldwork
  • Collaborations, collusions, and contradictions
  • Partnerships and working with others
  • Alternative methodologies
  • Naming and negotiating power
  • Understanding the researcher self
  • Claiming and re-examining privilege
  • Race, and racism
  • Gender and identity
  • Sexuality and fieldwork
  • Diaspora and transnational research engagements
  • Fieldwork, arms, weapons and security
  • Covert missions

We especially invite contributions from a diverse suite of researchers including junior scholars, NGO staff and practitioners whom collectively will span a range of different methods, subjects, and localities. Pending funding, all invited authors will be supported to attend a two day workshop at the University of Bath through which the collection of authors will engage with one another’s work and set the groundwork for a collaboratively generated closing chapter.

Please send your abstracts by June 15, 2015 via email to either ann.laudati@bristol.ac.uk or ar826@bath.ac.uk with the subject line “Call for Chapters – Researching Conflict”.

Abstracts of no more than 450 words (ca. 1 page) should include the title, the author(s)’ name and institutional affiliation and contact details. Abstracts must clearly state the main focus/topic of the paper, the theoretical orientation (as appropriate), the locality and methodology of the fieldwork drawn upon, as well as a few sentences on how the paper fits the theme of the call. The editors will ask the authors of selected papers (max. 6-8000 words or 15-20 pages) to submit their final articles no later than November 30, 2015.


  • Dr. Althea-Maria Rivas, University of Bath, United Kingdom
  • Dr. Ann Laudati, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

Timeline for Contributions:

  •  Deadline for abstracts: 15.06.2015
  •  Selection of abstracts by editors/decisions out: 15.07.2015
  •  Deadline for papers: 30.11.2015

Note: Once papers are submitted they will be reviewed and authors might be asked to revise their submissions in a given period of time.

What counts as “policy relevant evaluation”?

Heather Lanthorn recently wrote a great post about defining “policy relevant evaluation” that really pushed me on my priors on this concept.  As she points out:

just because research is conducted on policy does not automatically make it ‘policy relevant’ — or, more specifically, decision-relevant. it is, indeed, ‘policy adjacent,’ by walking and working alongside a real, live policy to do empirical work and answer interesting questions about whether and why that policy brought about the intended results. but this does not necessarily make it relevant to policymakers and stakeholders trying to make prioritization, programmatic, or policy decisions. in fact, by this point, it may be politically and operationally hard to make major changes to the program or policy, regardless of the evaluation outcome.  …

jeff hammer has pointed out that even though researchers in some form of applied work on development are increasingly doing work on ‘real’ policies and programs, they are not necessarily in a better position to help high-level policymakers choose the best way forward. this needs to be taken seriously, though it is not surprising that a chief minister is asking over-arching allocative questions (invest in transport or infrastructure?) whereas researchers may work with lower-level bureaucrats and NGO managers or even street-level/front-line workers, who have more modest goals of improving workings and (cost-)effectiveness of an existing program or trying something new.

I think this is a great step towards an acknowledgement that different types of research will be useful to policymakers at different levels of government and with different policy goals.  Most of the RCTs I’ve seen operate within a fairly narrow set of parameters that correlate to the types of programming decisions made by senior managers at social welfare ministries, like health or education.  There’s a specific policy goal that someone wants to achieve (improving primary school children’s reading performance), a known segment of the population targeted by the policy (children ages 5 – 16 currently enrolled in school), and a strong sense of the limits of the type of solution that can be proposed, particularly financially (we can afford one hour of tutoring per day by a literate adult, but can’t build fully equipped libraries in every town).  Within these parameters, RCTs can be a great way to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of programs that might meet this policy goal.

That said, if you change any of the parameters, RCTs are often no longer efficient way to make programming decisions.  Outside of social welfare ministries, many important policy choices either can’t be randomized (providing military support to an ally, deciding whether to invest in nuclear power) or don’t need to be (it’s already quite well-documented that expansionary monetary policy leads to inflation).  As Heather noted, RCTs frequently can’t offer much guidance to policymakers making the inherently political choice between different policy goals.  And they often don’t generate new insights effectively when the underlying process that produces a social problem, and the particular segments of the population affected by this process, aren’t known.

This is especially visible in recent RCTs examining the effects of institution-building after civil war.  While people frequently speculate that the combination of poverty, inequality, and unemployed young people increases the risk of civil war, the majority of countries fitting this description don’t ever experience war.  And even among those which do, the question of why some people choose to rebel and what can be done to prevent these people or similar ones from fighting again in the future is basically unanswered.  Virtually every country caught up in civil war has a large population of poor, politically excluded young people, but only a tiny minority of those people will ever join a rebellion, making it very difficult to figure out how to target programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of future conflict.

The point here isn’t that RCTs are useless, but that “policy relevant research” might take very different forms depending on the type of question being answered and the underlying base of knowledge about the issue.

The women of the FARDC

The New York Times is running a remarkable photo essay on Sgt. Madot Dagbinza, who was one of only about 3000 women in the 150,000-strong FARDC before she died in an ambush in 2014.  Absolutely worth a read, along with Maria Eriksson Baaz & Maria Stern’s article on the experiences of female FARDC soldiers.


The NYT piece is also notable for moving past simplistic depictions of the FARDC as an incompetent force that does nothing but rape and steal.  There are still many units who abuse civilians, but it isn’t uniform – others are better trained and better disciplined.  Christoph Vogel consulted with the NYT journalists on this aspect of the story, and has written a very good summary of the FARDC as a “chameleon army.”  Maria Eriksson Baaz’s other work on this subject is also critical reading, such as this paper with Maria Stern on soldiers’ perceptions of violence, and this paper with Judith Verweijen on how the military sometimes solves disputes between civilians in places where civilian courts are inaccessible.

What’s the best way to pay people not to rebel?

Saumitra Jha recently gave a fascinating lecture at Berkeley’s comparative colloquium in which he discussed some of his current work on designing financial instruments that can promote political stability. He drew extensively on the case of Japan in the late 1800s, where the government granted bonds to ex-samurai who were opposed to its modernizing reforms, then encouraged the bondholders to invest in the national banking system.  This gave a potentially militant group a significant stake in political stability and financial modernization.  Jha’s description of this process is worth quoting at length:

The government created an innovative, ethnically-delimited asset – the bonds given to samurai — even while eliminating the privileges and obligations that had made this ethnic group distinct. It then took the ex-samurai, one [group] that was the most likely to engage in violence and enhance political risk, and gave them incentives to become local bankowners – a group with arguably the greatest incentives to avoid engaging in violent actions that would raise the political risk of their investments in local ventures (often rice and silk). By aligning the samurai’s interests against political risk, these financial innovations aligned their interests with not only the merchants who were their fellow merchant share-holders but society at large. Since all could benefit, and in fact the samurai had explicit stakes, as bankers, in the nation’s future, they also meant that the samurai could give up their arms and credibly share the gains that modernisation and reduced political risk provided.

This process also produced a truly phenomenal photo of samurai-turned-banker Eiichi Shibusawa, who’s known as the father of Japanese capitalism for his role in founding the Tokyo Stock Exchange and a number of other publicly held companies.

Eiichi_Shibusawa_transformationFrom Wikipedia

What I find fascinating here is the ways in which this process is both similar to and different from current debates about post-conflict power-sharing in Africa.  The idea behind consociationalism is that placing representatives of all contesting groups in power ought to give them a common interest in maintaining the stability of the state.  This appears to have worked out relatively well in Burundi for the last ten years.  Lemarchand is explicit about Bujumbura’s focus on maintaining interethnic stability even at the cost of good governance: “[the administration is] a top-heavy political machinery whose sole purpose is to provide as many jobs as are needed to meet the requirements of political stability.  The government is not meant to govern; its purpose is to offer an attractive alternative to rebellion” (2009, p. 149).  In a sense, then, this is simply a less efficient means of accomplishing what the samurai bonds did in Japan.

However, institutionalized power-sharing has often failed in Africa as well.  The prime case here is obviously the DRC, where the 2002 power-sharing accords got most – but not all – of the major rebel groups durably off the battlefield.  The Nkunda- and Ntaganda-centric set of groups which continually rebelled in the east were largely spurred on by Rwanda, but also presumably believed that they might get a better deal out of some future peace agreement.  Would a different benefit structure for ex-rebels – shares in banks as opposed to positions in the government – have led to a different outcome?  The Congolese central bank has been issuing bonds for several years now, and the banking sector is badly underdeveloped, so promoting investment (and of course concomitant regulatory mechanisms) there might indeed benefit everyone.  If readers have other examples of the strategic use of financial instruments to promote political stability, I’d love to hear about them.

Free resources for studying conflict & governance

The question of whether it’s ethical to charge US$40 for access to a single article in an academic journal is a heated one in Northern academia these days.  I don’t particularly think it is, and it seems that the academic community is slowly taking some steps towards making more journal articles freely available online, but in the meantime there’s a lot of interesting content locked behind paywalls.  In that spirit, here are some of the free resources I’ve found over the years related to the study of conflict and governance in low-income countries.

  • For two days only, beginning February 17, Africa Intelligence is offering free access to more than 100,000 articles on its site.  (Thanks to Ben Radley for the tip about this.)
  • Stability is the gold standard for open-access journals in this field.  All the content is free, peer-reviewed, and generally high quality.  Scott Ross has also pointed me to Cultural Anthropology, another great open-access source.
  • If you’re not already using Google Scholar for your research, you should be.  One particularly nice feature of this service is that it includes links to free versions of articles when they’re available.  Look at the link to the right of the title where it says [PDF].
  • In the US, many scholars upload either draft or finished versions of their papers to SSRN, where they’re often available to download for free.  Working papers on development economics can also be found at BREAD.
  • A lot of great content on conflict and governance is published by think tanks, which often post their discussion papers online for free.  Check out the list of think tanks in the sidebar of this blog to get started.
  • If you’re willing to pay for specialized content, but can’t afford much of it, you might start with the Annual Review of Political Science, which had a good recent edition on civil war.   The Annual Review journals cover every major academic discipline, and provide concise summaries of current research on some of the biggest questions in each field.  It’s a great way to start exploring a new field, and catch up on the latest questions and trends in research.
  • Finally, if you really need a specific article and can’t find a free version anywhere, it never hurts to email the authors directly to ask.  Alternatively, ask a friend at a university if they can download a copy for you.  If you live close to a public university, you may also be able to request temporary access to their library.  (Public institutions seem more likely to offer this since they presumably have some obligations to residents of the state more broadly, even if they’re not enrolled.  It’s been my experience that private universities often won’t let members of the public use their libraries.)

What other open-source resources do you use?