2016-17 Americans in the EU

Studying Violence: When Research and the Real World Collide

Helmet and flack jackets of the members of the 1 parachute battalion of the South African contingent of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). 14/Feb/2008. Credit: UN Photo/Marie Frechon.

In late March 2017, United Nations (UN) peacekeepers found the bodies of three UN personnel who were tragically killed in Kasai Central Province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Swedish national Zaida Catalan, American Michael Sharp, and their Congolese translator, Betu Tshintela. The three were part of the UN expert panel investigating conflict and insecurity in the DRC. Four additional Congolese remain missing. In the last few days, two suspects were arrested yet one escaped.

What does this have to do with Fulbright, one might ask? The deaths of Catalan, Sharp, and Tshintela received significant media attention. This is especially true in Sweden, where I currently am based as a Fulbright-Schuman scholar, because Catalan was Swedish. My Fulbright project has aimed to better understand the dynamics and causes of attacks against aid workers, including UN personnel, as well as the role of and costs for peacekeepers in protecting civilians affected by violence.

At times like these, my research unfortunately collides with real-world events. For my Fulbright I have been working together with colleagues at the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute and Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict Research to analyze different datasets that allow us to examine the effects of peacekeeper presence on violence against aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa. These datasets, collected by peacekeepers in one instance and by scholars in another, give us different perspectives on a similar issue, granting us new insights into the causes and dynamics of violence (research still in progress!).

The deaths of Catalan, Sharp, and Tshintela rightly raise questions about the prevalence of attacks on aid workers and UN personnel. The month of March was a particularly brutal one, with six aid workers – four Kenyans and two South Sudanese – murdered in South Sudan on March 26, and a further eight aid workers kidnapped and later released, also in South Sudan. These events do not include constraints on aid worker access to conflict-affected populations in Myanmar or the Turkish government’s decision to revoke permission for one of the largest aid organizations, Mercy Corps, to operate and provide assistance to Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey. Each of these events negatively affects the ability of aid agencies or the UN to provide food, medicine, or other assistance to civilians affected by war and conflict, or to investigate and bear witness to violence.

My and others’ research suggests that the overall numbers of attacks have increased over time for both aid workers and peacekeepers. When compared against their respective numbers, however, the rate of attacks relative to the overall numbers of aid workers has not necessarily increased (see here and here). The same is true for peacekeepers (see also here). Certain countries are exceptions to this. For example, at the moment South Sudan is particularly dangerous for aid workers, and Mali has been one of the most deadly missions for peacekeepers.

Over the past decade, aid agencies have become more sophisticated and effective with the strategies they use to protect their staff. They assess risk and develop contingency plans in case of emergency. They provide training and work with communities and other stakeholders to prevent attacks in the first place. It is not possible to prevent all incidents, however, and working in places of insecurity and violence will always be dangerous.

Attacks against aid workers and UN personnel often serve as reminders of the violence that causes immense suffering and harm to civilians, whether in the DRC, Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. Preventing and understanding the harms to civilians and mitigating their effects is what motivates practitioners like Catalan, Sharp, and Tetu, as well as scholars like me who research and write about real-world events. I’m grateful that the Fulbright program has allowed me the time and space to do so.

Larissa Fast
Fulbright-Schuman Research Scholar
Uppsala University (Sweden) and University of Manchester (UK)
19 April 2017