Emory Report
November 3, 2008
Volume 61, Number 10



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November 3
, 2008
Institute for Developing Nations battling poverty in new ways

By kim urquhart

The Institute for Developing Nations has been harnessing the experience and passion of Emory’s faculty and students, and the strengths and leverage of the University’s networks, to address issues related to understanding and alleviating the underlying causes of poverty in the developing world.

In its relatively short existence, the University-wide research institute, founded in 2006 in partnership with The Carter Center, is already making quite an impact.

The IDN has formed a working group on Liberia to identify ways to reduce gender violence, funded five research workshops for Emory faculty to develop action-oriented research proposals in partnership with in-country researchers, provided 18 scholarships for undergraduate students to study development issues abroad, partnered on capacity-building projects with Mexico’s Centro Fox and Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University, and held a groundbreaking academic conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

“For all of IDN’s projects, working in mutually beneficial partnerships with local experts is a very high priority,” says Director Sita Ranchod-Nilsson.

“Working in partnership works against unequal relationships where U.S. institutions have the expertise and knowledge to ‘fix’ African development challenges with money or technology. Working in partnership prioritizes local knowledge and local solutions. It also helps us to have a better understanding of what is important to the communities with which we work.”

That view of partnership is part of the IDN’s unique approach to development. By bringing together Emory’s academic resources, the experience of nongovernmental organizations, and strategic partnerships with scholars, policy makers and research institutes in the developing world, the IDN is also in a unique position to design and promote new strategies to improve the lives of those living in poverty.

The IDN is building collaborative relations with The Carter Center and plans to reach out to other NGOs, like CARE, where the IDN’s new associate director Colin Beckwith worked for more than 20 years prior to joining the staff in August.

Despite the “tremendous resources” that have been poured into development work over the years, progress has been limited and uneven, says Ranchod-Nilsson. The IDN draws from the interdisciplinary scholarship undertaken at Emory to offer nontraditional approaches to development issues, and bring new voices to the conversation.

The IDN is creating one such conversation in post-conflict Liberia, where gender-based violence threatens to subvert the rule of law. A working group of faculty from across the University and staff from The Carter Center traveled to Liberia last spring to begin multi-disciplinary research in partnership with local scholars and experts (see First Person essay, p. 7). This kind of working group is one way the IDN is encouraging faculty and graduate students to engage in action-oriented research.

Pamela Scully, a member of the IDN’s academic advisory board, said the trip to Liberia led her to rethink how to approach the issue of women’s human rights in post-conflict societies. “The IDN has been absolutely pivotal both in terms of reorienting my research and has liberated me to become an engaged scholar,” says Scully, associate professor of women’s studies and African studies.

Scully has now received seed funding from the IDN to host a research workshop this spring on women, gender and justice in post-conflict societies with the goal of developing research that will result in real change. “I want to ask hard intellectual questions, through conversations with people who are doing work with NGOs and on the ground, and partner in a way that builds new bridges between academia and practice,” she says.

Among the other Emory faculty working with the IDN to develop action-oriented research on Liberia is Paul Zwier, professor of law and director of Emory Law’s Advocacy Skills Program.

“IDN helps in being able to think about how to do a project well and do it in a way that’s going to be most useful to the Liberians,” says Zwier, whose research initiative explores the effectiveness of Liberia’s formal judicial systems, particularly in cases of gender-based violence.

The IDN’s work is not without challenges.

“We are working against a history of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Trying to build partnerships out of that history is a real challenge, but I also think the rewards of working that way make that challenge not only worthwhile, but absolutely necessary,” says Ranchod-Nilsson. “And out of this will come a re-imagining of development theory and practice. If we can play a role with our partners in that re-imagining, then we’re doing good work.”