Following a presentation about her fieldwork experience in Colombia, Janine Aguilera Mesa tells us how she set up the Conflict Studies panel discussions to share experiences and ideas related to field-based research in conflict zones.
The greatest advances in our modern society have been possible through cooperation between human beings. Development requires new ideas, the willingness to collaborate for progress and a joint effort from various actors with diverse backgrounds. LSE is an international institution that brings together knowledgeable and experienced students from around the world to learn, share their views and make a global impact, thus I seized the opportunity to start a new initiative. The main goal of the project was to share practical knowledge and to create a dynamic network among professionals in conflict management, peacebuilding and development.
Many postgraduate students in our MSc Conflict Studies programme had engaged in fieldwork in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, the United States, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Bangladesh and Armenia, among others. The multicultural group of professionals working in these various environments are focused on researching migration, refugee re-settlement, government and non-government responses to national and international crises, peacebuilding, quantitative and qualitative research, and public policy. I felt that the rich experience of my colleagues was worth sharing to develop our understanding of conflict, and we had the perfect source of practical knowledge right in our own programme. Consequently, the idea of creating the Conflict Studies panel discussions emerged. These spaces provided a context where students contributed as speakers, moderators, audience and staff, with everyone playing an important role in the practical knowledge sharing.
The idea for the initiative originally came at the end of the Michaelmas Term when I was invited to give a presentation at the LSE European Institute about my fieldwork experience in Colombia in a project for reconciliation and trust-building in three of the most conflict-affected areas in the country. After the talk, many of my colleagues approached me to share their own field-based experiences in other conflict zones of the world and we decided to follow these interesting discussions at the pub. I was interested in the insights and challenges of building peace in Asia, and others were interested in the challenges of building trust in Latin America. It was an opportunity to collaborate and exchange best practices, and we needed a more formal setting to meaningfully engage in these discussions.
I presented the idea to my course colleagues and led the initiative by creating groups of speakers according to their specific fieldwork experience. My classmates supported the idea and we held meetings to set the dates, moderators and themes for each session. With the logistics set, I contacted the Department of Government to pitch the programme outline and an accompanying budget. With the support of the department we were able to secure rooms to hold our panels in and catering to help fuel our long discussions. We were also able to extend the invitation to students in other postgraduate programmes and departments.
We planned five sessions in total on the topics: migration and refugees, governmental and non governmental responses to a crisis, quantitative and qualitative research, peacebuilding and public policy in different regions of the world. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we could only hold the first two panels. However, each session had more than fifty attendees from different MSc programmes with great diversity in speakers and moderators. We were able to host students from the University of Sussex and one of our speakers, and LSE alumna, was able to join us virtually to discuss the Venezuelan migration crisis for the UNHCR in Lima, Peru.
It was a joy to sit and listen to the professional experiences of our colleagues, all the while learning new practical skills, understanding the dynamics of working in the field and thinking critically about the challenges for which the academic world has not yet created valid theories. Furthermore, it provided an opportunity to discuss what certain international organisations look like from the inside, how they operate and things to consider if you were to apply for a job there.
Ultimately, these panel discussions provided valuable reflections on migration, its policymaking challenges and the work dynamics within refugee camps on the ground, in particular when one of our speakers discussed her time working in the biggest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
As for crisis response, we understood how international organisations and government agencies like USAID develop specialist programmes and how they are implemented in countries like Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Macedonia, Iraq, Mozambique, Malaysia, Colombia and Central Asia. We gained insights into how multilateral diplomacy works after listening to the experiences of a student who worked for the Norwegian mission to the UN in Geneva in the process of negotiating and adopting the UN Global Compacts for Refugees / UN Global Compact on Migration.
Attendees also gained knowledge on how NGOs contribute to conflict prevention through the usage of field-based research as a tool for advocacy and policymaking at different levels. This was based on the experience of a postgraduate student and former analyst from the International Crisis Group based in Central America and covering El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The Conflict Studies panel discussions were also experiences that made us work together and integrate more as a group. We were able to better understand each other’s perspectives and how our experiences shape us as professionals and critical thinkers. We realised that when we cooperate, regardless of differences in backgrounds, cultures and languages, we can create ideas that contribute to collective intellectual growth. Debating together brought us closer as a group, and has sparked ideas that we know one day will make a global impact.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.