Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Seventeen Harvard College students received summer 2015 travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in August, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research environment. Early in the 2016 spring semester, February 4–5, 2016, the students will present their research in a conference that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field:

Neil Alacha

Photo of Neil AlachaWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: The construction of “human rights” in Jordan by interactions between local and international actors.

I spent the majority of the summer in Amman, Jordan conducting interviews for my senior thesis. I spoke to thirty individuals from various agencies including the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United States Agency for International Development, and the World Health Organization, among many others. I also conducted an extensive review of nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports and United Nations (UN) documents and presentations.

Going into the summer, I expected the focus of my thesis to be on the transnational advocacy network—between UN agencies, international NGOs, and local actors—that supports Syrian refugees in Jordan. I was hoping to understand the internal dynamic of that network, and how power is distributed among its various participants. My goal was that this pressing case study would shed light on transnational advocacy networks more generally. Though there has been well-received academic literature on the potential efficacy of transnational advocacy networks when it comes to changing state behavior and promoting human rights (most notably in the work of Margaret Ked, Kathryn Sikkink, and Beth Simmons), the literature has not focused as much on how those networks function internally.

As I began speaking to aid workers in Jordan, I realized that my initial conception of who was acting on behalf of Syrian refugees in Jordan was missing a very important player that shaped the boundaries of the work—the Jordanian government. It became clear that the more interesting story was how the UN and international NGOs, both individually and together, navigated their relationship with the Jordanian government as they sought to expand their operations. Additionally, I learned quite a bit about the potential motivations for the government to publicize its support to refugees, and for even allowing international NGOs and the UN to operate within its borders.

My thesis as it now stands explores the response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan as a case study of the interplay between humanitarian, development, and security concerns in international crises, especially when international legal standards are either murky or nonexistent. Of course, this topic is related to my initial goal of exploring the internal dynamics of the transnational advocacy network, as these three groups of concerns happen to correspond to categories of actors.

For instance, by and large the issue-oriented international NGOs working in Jordan—such as Save the Children or the International Rescue Committee—are more focused on simple, quick, and direct humanitarian response. The United Nations Development Programme, however, was insistent on shifting the response from short-term humanitarian interventions to long-term, development-oriented practices, such as building new housing units or new water pipelines. Distinct from both of those is the Jordanian government and foreign government donors, whose primary attention in the response seems focused on regional security. Framing my question in terms of these differing concerns, however, allows my case study to be more relevant, accessible, and applicable to other potential crises that require international action.

It was incredibly fulfilling to be able to sit at cafés in Amman and connect with people who have dedicated their lives to helping others—it was a privilege to have those people open up to me. I saw the human side of international law and advocacy, and felt that I was able to participate in it myself.

This summer reinforced my desire to attend law school and to pursue a career in international human rights law. Though I have known for quite some time that I want to work in law, my last few years in college and my reflections on world events have allowed me to ruminate on the deeper-seated problems of the world. I was incredibly fortunate to have been born in this country and to have had the opportunities afforded me, and I am glad that I am in a position to do more to help others.

I learned a lot over the summer and now need to pare it down to something manageable and specific. Moreover, I still feel more like a journalist than an academic. The boundaries seem thin at this stage, and I would like to refocus my thinking so that it is more critical and analytical, rather than merely presentational of what I have found. This concern is important to consider when doing interview-based primary research, as one needs to convey not only what interview subjects have expressed, but provide his or her own analysis. I want to ensure that I am thinking as a researcher, and not just a conveyer belt of information.

Matthew Disler

Photo of Matthew DislerWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Government and social movements in contemporary Brazil.

This summer, I traveled to São Paulo to study a case of mass mobilization in Brazil in 2013, which became the largest wave of Brazilian protests since the early 1990s. In early June of that year, a series of small demonstrations centered in São Paulo and organized by the Movimento Passe Livre-SP (Free Fare Movement São Paulo) began in opposition to a proposed hike in bus fares from R$3.00 to R$3.20.

However, instances of harsh police repression covered in the national media provoked a drastic expansion of the protest movement. By June 21, there were more than a million people participating in demonstrations throughout the country, including hundreds of thousands in major cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The demands of protesters became increasingly varied. The bus fare grievance was coupled with widespread claims against corruption, the transportation system, politicians, international soccer tournament spending, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the power of the Public Ministry (PEC 37). Protesters called for improved healthcare and education, political change, and more security.

From my perspective, the movement was characterized by profound ambiguity with regards to who was participating and what they wanted, especially as the movement grew. Politicians—whom protesters tasked with crafting policy solutions to their demands—faced significant difficulties in determining what to do. In interviews I conducted with politicians, government officials, and journalists, respondents frequently noted that they and their colleagues were caught “by surprise” by the magnitude and intensity of the protests. Many expressed uncertainty regarding the goals of demonstrators. Given this chaotic backdrop, my questions were: What were the ways in which politicians learned about and responded to the protests? How did they decide which demands were salient, and what did they do?

Answering these questions was more challenging than I anticipated. My first task was to find and speak to interviewees who were well-versed in my topic area. Thankfully, friends and professors at Harvard had given me several contacts, including in the social sciences faculty at the University of São Paulo and politicians in the mayor’s office. I started building my network of interviewees from these connections and then moved on to other academics, government officials, and journalists—especially at one of Brazil’s leading newspapers, the Folha de São Paulo. At the end of my time in Brazil, I had accumulated a collection of interviews that conveyed a variety of perspectives about the events of 2013; they present a sample of views across the entire political spectrum and from various fields.

Early on in my research, I found that my understanding of the 2013 protests had to be significantly updated. Before arriving in Brazil, I had imagined the protests as a series of amorphous mass marches. In fact, however, early on they included specific groups of activists that articulated fairly well-defined demands. Only after several instances of police brutality enraged a broad sector of society did the protests—and the viewpoints they represented—explode, resulting in the confusing, chaotic situation. Yet many of the policy changes that occurred during the protests, even when they responded to the demands of the first stage, occurred in the second stage.

My studies this summer also allowed me to learn more about the politics of São Paulo city (which shares a name with its state). The issue of lowering bus fares—which ignited the protests—is primarily a municipal issue, and the mayor, Fernando Haddad, had recently entered office on a mandate of increasing political participation. Yet Haddad did not want to lower bus fares, and my interviewees indicated that even after meeting with community members, colleagues, and even the president of Brazil, he remained hesitant to do so. Nonetheless, he did lower the fares at the height of the protests. Consequently, my project can't focus solely on the way social movements formulate demands and craft strategies. It must also include how politicians make decisions and craft policies.

All in all, my research this summer was both incredibly helpful for my thesis and personally fulfilling. I was able to stay with a host family who welcomed me into their home and introduced me to all aspects of Brazilian culture, from soccer games to birthday parties and street fairs. I studied the beginning of a period of political upheaval in a country where the tumult has reached its highest peak in years, with single-digit approval ratings for the president and another round of mass protests. And I gained valuable perspective about the challenges involved with governing new democracies and mega-cities.

Andrea Ortiz

Photo of Andrea OrtizWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Class and prospective migrants’ perceptions on migration to the United States from Latin America.

I met a woman in a small rural community outside of Zacatecas, Mexico who told me a story of how she made tennis shoes out of scrap cloth. Her son’s school was having a parade and he was too embarrassed to go to school without shoes. As she watched her seven-year-old son go to bed with tears in his eyes, she stayed up all night sewing together a makeshift pair of Converse shoes from cloth and her husband’s old sneakers. She, along with many more inspiring people I met through my research, made my experience this summer not just productive, but reflective and transformative.

I traveled to Zacatecas to conduct research in rural communities with high migration rates. This was my first time in the area and I had only a few contacts. I stayed with a host family recommended through a Harvard resource and through this family I found a second home in the city of Zacatecas. In the short weeks I was there, I learned more about myself and the complexities of people and institutions than I ever had in a classroom.

My research question centers on how the Mexican matching fund program known as Programa 3x1 had affected social accountability in high migratory communities in Zacatecas. My thesis topic stayed the same throughout my time in Mexico, but my hypothesis and conclusion were completely transformed. I had originally seen this program, which allows migrant organizations to raise funds along with the government to build public works projects in their hometowns, as an innovative way to help the development of rural communities and curb migration. Soon after arriving in Zacatecas, I realized that most communities are actually taken advantage of by the very social programs that were implemented to help them, particularly in the case of hometown associations and Programa 3x1.

Every day I woke up around 6:30 a.m. to prepare for a full day of fieldwork in a different community. A professor at the University of Zacatecas would accompany me to conduct key informant interviews in different communities to try and understand how Programa 3x1, based on collective remittances for local development, was affecting the community.

Photo of Andrea Ortiz with othersIn between interviews, I made significant friendships, tried traditional snow cones made from ice blocks, and learned about struggle and resilience. Many of the communities I visited had lost most of their populations to US migration. Those who stayed behind were older and very much dependent on family remittances they received. Yet even with almost stagnant local economies and dwindling populations, these communities had so much life. They all had high levels of community engagement around issues related to education. Many older men and women I spoke to shared their stories of how they did everything possible to send their kids to college so they wouldn’t have to work the fields for the rest of their lives.

My research findings surprised me. The main takeaway from this trip was how institutions are the main obstacle to community development. In each community I visited, the corruption in one branch of the program—whether it was the migrant organization, the municipal government, or community leaders—was the determining factor of why a community was not moving forward. Human capital is precious and present, but when institutions are not given sufficient oversight and accountability mechanisms, the best of the community is taken advantage of. In three communities I witnessed priests who smuggled funds; community leaders who took advantage of other community members; and local politician neglect due to previously held grudges. I realized that migrants abroad could only do so much if leaders and politicians at home weren’t willing to collaborate honestly, transparently, and efficiently.

The greatest challenge of the summer was saying goodbye. I felt I had learned so much—about myself and my culture as well as a newly discovered love for research—but given nothing in return. I have applied for a Fulbright to continue a similar study in two different migrant-sending states in Mexico with the hope that I can continue to work on a cause and for a country I care so deeply about. I hope to revisit these communities one day with something to give back—whether that’s a report that my research was published and it helped inform further implementation of the program, or that I have continued to dedicate my life to promoting the empowerment of community voices. I am thankful for this incredible opportunity of self-discovery and challenge. I only hope that my experiences can serve as continuous motivation and inspiration to work on an issue like migration that is deeply important to me.

Jessie Wyatt

Photo of Jessie WyattWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies; Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard College. Research interests: Muslim community motivations in establishing a counter-narrative to violent extremism.

This summer, I spent three months conducting research on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategies implemented across Britain. Initially, my research intended to focus on efforts of Muslim community leaders to counteract violent extremism in their own communities in relation to strategies implemented by the British government, such as Prevent. However, my thesis evolved after my first meeting with a former Weatherhead Fellow who enlightened my view of CVE strategies in general.

Previous to my research this summer, I read reports and summaries about the British government’s implementation of Prevent. As I began my research trip, I thought I had a general grasp of Prevent. However, I quickly realized that I knew only a portion of the ramifications of this program when I met with the former Weatherhead Fellow. The more I dug around the topic of Prevent, the more I uncovered.

Photo of Jessie Wyatt at ParliamentAfter speaking with members of Parliament and members of community-based organizations, it was clear that many members of the Muslim community want nothing to do with government money—and they actively seek to avoid it. The level of distrust between the British government and the greater Muslim population is shocking. This distrust is created by the fact that CVE programs have been used in the past as a way for the British government to “keep watch” over the Muslim community.

The concept of trust continued to emerge throughout my research. Consequently, my topic evolved to focus on the current push to build mutually trusting relationships between the British government and the British Muslim community. Upon returning to London in the beginning of September, I attended a conference consisting of Muslim community members and the Army, working together to create environments to foster trusting relationships. The ideal environment, they concluded, is a “high-impact, out of postcode” program that takes youth out of their local communities and into the Lake District. These programs are offered to all British citizens, not just the Muslim community. One such program is titled Adventurous Training.

Yet again, my research took another turn. Currently, I am analyzing the focus on trusting relationships between the Muslim community and the British government by using a comparative analysis of Prevent and Adventurous Training, two government-implemented programs. As a joint-concentrator in the Comparative Study of Religion and Social Studies, I will use my training from both fields to answer broader questions such as: Why is trust important between religious communities and the government? And how do religious communities and the government foster mutually trusting relationships?

As I look toward the rest of my research process, I will continue to spend time analyzing my interviews to do my interviewees justice, for it is their words that have transformed my thesis to what it is today. In addition, I will continue to research the significance and ramifications of the ties the British government draws between violent extremism and the Muslim community. My fourth chapter aims to bring out some of those criticisms by using the voices of some of my interviewees from the Muslim community.

The experience of conducting research in London this summer was beyond compare. Because of the material I collected—data from Parliament, interviews with people from various different backgrounds, curricula used by community leaders, and much more—I am able to spend the next few months digging into a topic that I believe is not only important for understanding strategies used by the United Kingdom, but also for strategies that policy makers are developing here in America.

Photo Captions

  1. Andrea Ortiz: Conducting a field visit with a Zacatecas community member and local researcher to learn how migration had transformed their hometown.
  2. Jessie Wyatt: Doing research at the UK Parliament in London.