12 October 2017

PhD: Can intergroup encounters help reconciliation in Burundi?

On 11 September Anca H. Paducel defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science, titled “Bridging Competing Claims to Victimhood through Intergroup Encounters: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Burundi”, at the Graduate Institute. Assistant Professor Aidan Russell presided the committee, which included Professor Ravi Bhavnani, Thesis Director, and Professor David Backer, Assistant Director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) at the University of Maryland and Visiting Professor at the Institute. Using a randomised field experiment, Ms Paducel evaluated in her research whether and how intergroup encounters may affect competitive victimhood beliefs that are a source of ongoing armed conflict and an impediment to intergroup reconciliation. She answers our questions.

How did you come to study the efficacy of intergroup encounters in reconciliation?

Over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies (in international development and international relations/political science, respectively), and various professional experiences, I developed a deep interest in peacebuilding and reconciliation issues, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Africa. One issue that I became especially intrigued by is whether and how existing efforts to reconcile groups that have engaged in violent conflict against each other work or do not work. What affects whether intergroup reconciliation can be achieved? Can targeted interventions in fact help rebuild positive intergroup relations in conflict-affected settings?

This is an enduring, fundamental issue in contemporary peacebuilding. While most scholars and practitioners agree that, in addition to psychosocial changes, reconciliation requires efforts that address the structural and political causes of conflict, there is limited empirical evidence that can speak to the factors and conditions that may facilitate this process. Empirical evidence is also weak with respect to the efficacy of reconciliation-oriented interventions that are implemented at different levels (micro, meso and macro) of society in intractable conflicts and post-war settings. A prominent type of intervention is intergroup encounters. However, despite the extensive resources currently being invested in such interventions, the number and scope of studies that have systematically evaluated how effective and appropriate they are in contributing to reconciliation is very small. Studies exploring the psychosocial factors and processes underpinning changes in competitive victimhood are even more limited. My thesis begins to address these gaps, using a randomised field experiment in Burundi.

How did you organise your research?

The research was carried out as part of a conflict prevention project entitled “Bumbatira Amahoro – Keeping the Peace: Engaging Youth Leaders to Prevent Conflict in Burundi”, which ran from February 2015 to May 2016. The project was funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau on Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), and was implemented by the international NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) in partnership with a local NGO, the Centre d’encadrement et de développement des anciens combattants (CEDAC). Using a multidimensional approach, the project’s activities prioritised non-violent conflict resolution and management skills, social cohesion, and the economic independence of the participating youth in an effort to prevent political violence in the lead up to, during, and after the 2015 elections. The randomised field experiment, which was comprised of two half-day intergroup encounters spanning a two-week period (one encounter per week), was implemented at the end of April 2015 by the local project’s focal points with a random sample of the project beneficiaries (n=447) in four of the five intervention provinces (Bujumbura rural, Bubanza, Gitega and Ngozi).

What were the findings from these encounters?

The main finding is that intergroup encounters can reduce competitive victimhood by affecting several psychosocial factors, with reduced anxiety being an essential mediator. Of the six measures of competitive victimhood developed for and measured in this research, only one was favourably affected by the intergroup encounters: the belief that victims from one’s ingroup require greater protection than those from the outgroup(s). Given the political tensions and increasing insecurity that characterised the context in which the field experiment was conducted, it is not surprising that the encounters affected this competitive victimhood belief. The study also reveals the possibility of certain common victimhood beliefs (political isolation) to coexist with certain beliefs of competitive victimhood (protection of victims).

Can you tell us about the policy impact of your findings?

The thesis makes two important policy-relevant contributions. First, it demonstrates that randomised field experiments are a rigorous tool that provides invaluable insights into the effectiveness and appropriateness of intergroup encounters, especially when conducted during the lead up to, or at the outset of, such interventions. In most countries affected by armed violence where intergroup contact interventions have been carried out, research has often been carried out years after periods of substantial violence. This approach runs the risk of having a mismatch between the timing of the research and the timing of programmes – and thus the results regarding the effectiveness, efficiency, and appropriateness of intergroup encounters. In the present study, the impact evaluation of reconciliation-oriented intergroup encounters in Burundi was conducted right before the start of the intervention in a climate that was characterised by increasing political violence. With this design, the findings contribute importantly to the evidence regarding the effectiveness and appropriateness of intergroup encounters at different stages of conflict.

Second, the rigorous data gathered makes it possible to engage in public discussions about the use of intergroup encounters as a reconciliation tool in post-war settings, by offering insights into whether, how and why these efforts work (or not), as well as tentative solutions to increasing their effectiveness. Specifically, theory-driven impact evaluations are important for testing the logic and assumptions underpinning reconciliation-oriented intergroup encounters. My study explored, using experimental data, the role of and interplay between different psychosocial factors through mediation analysis. The analysis is an important step towards identifying the key mediators that interventions should target to enhance their effectiveness, such as focusing on components that help reduce intergroup anxiety, which was found to be essential in mediating the effect of the intergroup encounters on the outcome of competitive victimhood pertaining to the protection of victims. On the programmatic side, this study found that competitive victimhood is an impediment to intergroup reconciliation in Burundi and beyond, and thus a legitimate target for intergroup encounters in post-war settings.

How will you remember your doctoral experience?

The PhD has been a life-changing personal and intellectual journey. For the first three years, I had the chance to work as a teaching assistant for the Department of International Relations and Political Science. In my final year, I joined the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland as a visiting scholar with the support of a Doc.Mobility fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. For my research during these years of study, I had the privilege to work with a number of exceptional scholars, in particular my committee members, researchers and professionals in Geneva (Switzerland), Bujumbura (Burundi) and College Park (Maryland, USA). The PhD would not have been possible without their tremendous and unwavering support. Despite the challenges encountered, the fieldwork in Burundi, followed by the data analysis and writing stages, was an enriching experience that has helped me grow both personally and professionally.  

And what are you doing now?

I am currently working as an associate evaluation officer with the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. I intend to publish one or more academic articles derived from my thesis over the course of the coming year.

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Paducel, Anca H. “Bridging Competing Claims to Victimhood through Intergroup Encounters: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Burundi”. PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.