Lessons from Liberia

The theoretical frameworks and principles of practice that have guided development activities for the past fifty years have not yielded the intended outcomes.

—Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, Director, Institute for Developing Nations

Vol. 11 No. 4
February/March 2009

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Lessons from Liberia
Reconsidering international development, scholarship, and engagement

“The theoretical frameworks and principles of practice that have guided development activities for the past fifty years have not yielded the intended outcomes.”

To go into a post-conflict state that is wrestling with all of this in real time with real-world consequences, was a compelling opportunity. . . . I didn’t have to change who I was to be relevant.”

Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition
The Concept of Vulnerability

Dhondup’s Wisdom
Teaching and learning from Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns

Emory University Strategic Plan Update
What is happening and why we should care


Academic Exchange: Why was the IDN established?

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson: We’re at a moment where there’s a lot of disillusion with development studies and practice. The theoretical frameworks and principles of practice that have guided development activities for the past fifty years have not yielded the intended outcomes. Some see “development” as a neocolonial enterprise dominated by Western expertise and development experts. Others are critical of what has become a development industry, characterized by short-term projects, approaches that overemphasize economics, and a lack of meaningful input from experts and community groups in poor countries. So there is a need to re-think it on multiple levels—the university, non-governmental organizations, policy makers, and the developing countries—in ways that cross-boundaries within the university and beyond. It’s a good moment to engage development at Emory for many reasons: we have scholars from many disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives with on-the-ground research experience in developing countries; our strategic plan envisions a university that is internationally engaged and committed to positive social transformation and courageous inquiry; and we have a unique opportunity with The Carter Center, an internationally respected NGO that focuses on fighting poverty and building a more secure world.

AE: How did the Liberia interest emerge?

SRN: The Carter Center was invited in by the Liberian government to help build rule of law following Liberia’s civil war. The issues raised in this process—the colonial legacy of dual legal systems, building justice systems and state structures with local legitimacy, and identifying social changes that support peace building—engaged a number of Emory scholars. The Carter Center’s program in Liberia confronted issues related to gender-based violence in all aspects of its work, so they invited IDN to organize a working group to help them understand its roots in Liberia and how programs in other parts of the continent address it. Bringing those concerns and that expertise to this new context has shaped the research agendas of several Emory scholars. Faculty who have not previously seen themselves as working on development are finding that they can make important contributions. They find the many challenges for building a more secure society in Liberia compelling and intellectually engaging.

AE: What does that activity look like?

SRN: At an IDN conference on research collaboration, we learned that researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and communities need to work together to conceptualize research problems, determine what outcomes are valuable, and decide how research should be done. For example, I’m talking to several universities in Liberia about collaborating on a curriculum that would address building capacity in NGOs. It might be three or four courses that would bring in some of the academic literature on NGOs, civil society and development, gender issues relevant to the context in Liberia. It would also address proposal writing, project management, evaluation, and assessment. We have to open up our thinking about what outcomes are valued. Top-tier journals are one outlet, but they are one among many. And depending on the agenda of our partners, that all has to be negotiated.

AE: Given the great challenge of this work, can the IDN accept some risk-taking and possibly some failure?

SRN: We have to. It’s three steps forward and two steps back, but this is about long-term engagement. We are part of a broader effort to renegotiate these relationships. I think we’re moving in the right direction by helping Emory as an institution think about this kind of engagement in new ways that will be more transformative. We’re trying to re-imagine development. We begin from the assumption that there are elements of current policy and practice that are working well, but there are serious questions about why they don’t scale up. Why don’t they lead to broader change? We want to re-imagine the process in which we work toward the goal of local realization.

AE: Can you outline the partnership with The Carter Center?

The IDN was the brainchild of President Jimmy Carter and Emory President Jim Wagner. They saw the opportunities for synergy between The Carter Center, with programs in the areas of building democracy, human rights, conflict resolution, and health, and Emory, a top-tier research university with expertise in areas that fall under the rubric of “development.” IDN receives financial support from Emory and The Carter Center and IDN’s Academic Advisory Board includes senior faculty as well as executives from the center. The goal of this partnership is to transform development research, influence policy makers, and change teaching about development.