Moving Forward, Postconflict

Anthropology professor Bruce Knauft lays out what's next for the States at Regional Risk program as it transitions to a recovery project.

By Lola Pak

In 2003 the civil war in Liberia—its second in as many decades—finally had ended. After years of coups d’état, rigged presidential elections, and approximately 250,000 dead, Liberians and international organizations set about establishing security for the fragile state and those around it. 

By all measures, it was a task easier said than done. According to a 2011 report by the International Crisis Group, humanitarian groups struggled to meet the immediate needs of the estimated 10,000 refugees and more than a million internally displaced persons throughout the entire Mano River region (comprising Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire). More pressingly, mercenaries and the proliferation of arms still posed a threat, particularly as Côte d’Ivoire descended into violence following the 2010 presidential election (the defeated leader, Laurent Gbagbo, reportedly recruited Liberian mercenaries to terrorize citizens who generally supported the new president, Alassane Ouattara).

How could such a region, with crippled governments and corrupt leaders, get on the path to recovery and sustainable peace? How should international organizations work with local groups to bring lasting change? 

Bruce Knauft is not a political scientist or a seasoned humanitarian. As an anthropologist, however, what he saw in the Mano River and other conflicted regions around the world was the need for a collective dialogue between policymakers, humanitarians, scholars, and other groups to help find a sustainable solution for these states at risk. With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Emory’s Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology formed the States at Regional Risk Project (SARR) in 2008 to jump-start this much-needed conversation in conflicted regions around the world. 

He realized that the local governments, international organizations, and civil groups worked more or less on the same issues in postconflict countries, but didn’t necessarily discuss them with one another. As a result, little progress was being made. 

Knauft explains, “We looked within the core country of policymakers, civil society leaders, and scholarly experts and put them in dialogue that they weren’t having under the auspices of the United Nations [UN] or other kinds of organizations,” he says. “We’re a neutral organization, so we don’t have a vested interest in a certain outcome, whereas the government is seen to have a vested interest, and even NGOs or the UN have their mandates and are trying to achieve very specific objectives.” 

Emphasizing a regional perspective on the conflicts that often spread across countries, SARR has held conferences in each of its five concentration regions—West Africa, Central East Africa, the Northern Andes, Central Asia, the Himalayas—during the past four years. Each has created a forum to discuss a number of pressing issues for countries recovering from war or other forms of instability, such as postsocialist economic development and divisive political ideology. The gatherings have led to multilingual research publications and even an official declaration of human rights for Himalayan Buddhists. 

“In a place like the Congo, you can’t solve a situation there without looking at Burundi or Rwanda or Uganda,” Knauft says. “Or, in the case of Liberia, the war went across three to four countries. It’s impossible to see it with respect to only one country.” 

Now with SARR coming to a close this spring, the program is in the process of transitioning into the Comparative Post-Conflict Recovery Project (CPRP). With an award of nearly $300,000 from Carnegie’s “States in Transition” grant program, Knauft plans to narrow the focus of CPRP to state-building and peace-building, particularly in Asia and Africa. 

“The goal of the project is to facilitate peace-building in relationship to state-building,” Knauft says. “We identify people from different world areas based on previous work and make new visits to find case examples of positive change even in difficult situations.”

Although much of the foundation already has been created through SARR, plenty of questions still remain for entire regions, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, that are seeking to rebuild and move forward. 

The situation in Liberia was not an isolated one. In the Northern Andes, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia recently endured a tense political climate over a range of issues: competing influences from the United States and Venezuela regarding oil resources, drug trafficking, production of cocaine, and several other longstanding problems. 

“The Andes is a region where state-related processes have been, to a considerable degree, up for grabs,” says David Nugent, a professor of anthropology at Emory, who co-organized the 2010 SARR conference in Quito, Ecuador. He refers to the “pink tide,” a commonly used term to describe the recent shift of several Latin American countries from a hard-lined Leftist, or “red,” position, to a more moderate stance. 

“Ecuador has debated, for an example, a form of country that would feature a number of independent nationalities, each of which would determine its own affairs in an autonomous manner,” explains Nugent, who is also director of the Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program at Emory. “The idea was to look at what the dynamics are of the region that lead states to do what they do and lead them to be stable or unstable, and to look at the relationship to democracy and the process to democratization.” 

Through the years Knauft and a team of Emory professors and postdoctoral fellows reached out through their personal networks in each world region to explore how they could set up the conferences, review submission papers, and bring together people who often don’t engage in dialogue into a single conversation. 

The first conference was held in Monrovia, Liberia, over two days in January 2009. Titled “Mano River Region at Risk? Post-Conflict Conversations within and across Borders,” the conference brought together local policymakers, activists, and even a head of state—President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first elected female leader of an African country—to discuss the overwhelming task of rebuilding the West African region postcivil war. 

Joanna Davidson, now an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, was a fellow with SARR from 2008 to 2011. She was attracted to the project not only for its alignment with her previous research in Guinea-Bissau but also for its aim to bring in people who normally wouldn’t sit together to discuss these issues. 

“The advantage of doing a conference in a place like Liberia is that the people working on it have spent many years in West Africa, so they weren’t unfamiliar with what it takes to put on a conference,” she says. With participants such as Sirleaf, the directors of nongovernmental organizations, and the local leaders, answers to questions such as “What would you do with ‘no strings attached’ donor funding?” and “Can international institutions engage in locally relevant regional networks in a meaningful way?” were freely discussed. 

“The goal is to get as relational as you can in a society,” Davidson says. “Keeping connected to the various aspects of life is the best solution for understanding any problem in a society, and a big part of it is studying on the ground.”

In addition to the local media buzz, an important feature of the Liberia conference was the implementation of the Chatham House Rule, which allowed the press to quote UN and other government officials, but on the condition they would go unnamed in order to facilitate honesty. 

“It was really important to learn the perspective of the other parties in a more neutral format,” Knauft says. "They didn't have to make a formal statement for the press and police."

Since then, the conferences in Burundi, Ecuador, Mongolia, and Nepal have maintained a similar pattern of openness in discussing topics such as political instability, cultural identity, and economic aspiration. But it was the subject of peace-building and state-building that compelled Knauft to embark on a new project to address states at risk further. 

Last year the Carnegie Corporation—the primary source of funding for SARR and CPRP—shifted its program’s emphasis from “States at Risk” to “States in Transition.” 

“They’ve replaced the notion of states at risk—which emphasized failure of the state or at least their lack of effective governance—with a more progressive notion of how states can change,” Knauft says. “This way, it had more of a positive emphasis.” 

Traditionally, a large component in resolving the problems of states at risk has involved increased activity of national—and in some cases, international—military and police. The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, defines state-building (a term often interchangeable with nation-building) as involving “the use of armed forces as part of a broader effort to promote political and economic reforms with the objective of transforming a society emerging from conflict into one at peace with itself and its neighbors.” 

While part of CPRP’s objectives align with this definition, military action in postconflict development holds little prominence in the project’s scope, chiefly because it hasn’t always provided a long-term solution. 

“In some cases, you have an outside military force [come into the country], but after that, the roads need to be rebuilt and the schools are destroyed and people don’t have health care,” Knauft says. 

Other times international aid rushes in to fill the humanitarian needs, but again, only for a limited term. “It’s not their job to keep a country afloat or organize it for decades or longer. They’re supposed to satisfy humanitarian needs, withdraw, and let the country recover on its own terms,” he says. This remains a struggle in the Mano River region where the UN continues to manage refugee operations in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, largely without a set end date. 

Instead, Knauft thinks about state-building in concrete terms, asking practical questions such as how the state can rebuild a road or washed-out bridges. 

“The idea is that it’s not simply a case of having peacekeepers there to make sure people aren’t killing each other,” he says. “It’s the process of building positive alternatives to conflict through education, economic development, public works, and infrastructure.” 

The peace-building concept is meant to fill in some of these gaps—and what can be done to counteract them. 

“The focus of CPRP is on the relationship of state-building in a way that also in tandem builds peaceful development,” he says. “How to link together building a state, which also facilitates the peaceful development of a society as a whole, is something that is not as well understood.” 

The project ultimately will culminate in “South-South” workshops and conferences, including one anticipated at Emory next year, that will bring together state-builders and peace-builders across Africa and Asia. By inviting scholars, policymakers, and other key players—many from the SARR conferences—Knauft hopes the project will emphasize learning across developing countries that have endured similar circumstances. 

“It’s not really for us to decide how exactly a country should develop, but we can facilitate learning so that key young and other professionals can be exposed to points of view and understanding that will help them strategize and develop their careers as humanitarian professionals,” Knauft says.

As a cultural anthropologist, Knauft is an anomaly among the usual cadre of academics that deal with politically charged topics like state-building. But lending an anthropological perspective, a way of thinking outside the political frame, has proven beneficial. 

“SARR itself was a more engaged form of anthropology, not strictly academic,” says Nugent. “Bruce brought together a group of people who had one foot in both the academic world and the engaged world to talk about how we might have these two worlds speak to each other more effectively.” 

Knauft anticipates a seamless transition from SARR to CPRP, which now with a solid four years of productive international conferences will serve to strengthen the project’s trajectory. 

“The ultimate goal is to empower local people to be able to institute sustainable ways of maintaining good governance and peaceful development,” he says. “The goal is not for us to institute, but to help the people who really would know better than us how the local conditions can be shaped and to help them do that.” 

Lola Pak is communications coordinator for Emory's Office of International Affairs and The Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning.

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