Made it to Geneva and ready to start interviews!

Made it to Geneva and ready to start interviews!

By McKenzie Johnson

If you have been following the DHRC@FHI Summer Research Fellows this summer in any capacity you may have noticed that while the other students have filled their pages with wonderful stories of adventure and learning, one page has remained blank to date. I was supposed to travel to Geneva in early August to conduct interviews with a number of individuals working within the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform on issues related to environmental peacebuilding. My dissertation focuses on environmental governance in post-conflict countries, and I am traveling to Geneva to interview people working to integrate environmental issues into peacebuilding and humanitarian activities. My all-star lineup included individuals from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Red Cross, Zoï Environment Network, and Interpeace. After completing my interviews in Geneva, I was to begin work on my Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad project in Sierra Leone.


About the time I was preparing to go to Geneva and Sierra Leone, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa started making headlines in the US. I had been keeping an eye on the outbreak since March 2014, but considered myself low risk because I would not be working in hospitals or with medical personnel. My advisor, Erika Weinthal, started asking if I should reassess my risk level in early August as the number of cases in Sierra Leone began to rapidly increase. No stranger to difficult country contexts (I worked in Afghanistan from 2007-2010), I told her that I still thought my research was feasible and I would reconsider if I thought things were becoming significantly worse. Not two days later, the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers out of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, and the WHO announced that the epidemic was spiraling out of control.


As a result, my Summer Research Fellowship is starting just now at the beginning of the Fall semester. As everyone else returns to classes and the normal school year routine, I will be figuring out how to deal with a new country context and significant changes to my research plan. My experiences in the last few weeks exemplify the issues that I am trying to bring to the forefront in my research. How does one think about governing natural resources in a context where uncertainty is the only rule? How can governments build trust with communities when access to and benefits from natural resource use and exploitation are a constant source of friction? How does one recover from years of conflict when Ebola (or any number of other difficult issues) comes knocking – threatening to destabilize every aspect of life?


The academic literature on environmental peacebuilding argues that we can use environmental governance and natural resource management to help build peace after conflict. Although a number of linkages are specified, I am focusing on the idea that natural resource exploitation theoretically creates opportunities for growth and development, as well as economic diversification. This argument is based on the assumption that our governance measures are adequate to deliver benefits to a diverse range of people with even more diverse interests. Such stellar governance has proven difficult in the best of times. It may be near impossible in the worst of times. The Ebola epidemic, in particular, highlights difficulties associated with governing the social-ecological nexus, and the potential devastation that can occur when our efforts fail. My research in Geneva will engage experts on these issues to better understand how we approach environmental governance and its consequences for peacebuilding in conflict-affected contexts.


My all-star interview team in Geneva graciously accommodated my need to rearrange my research schedule and I am heading off to interview about 15 experts in the field of environment and peacebuilding. I hope to come away with a better understanding of how these individuals approach environmental governance, how they plan interventions and projects, and what they hope to accomplish in post-conflict countries struggling to rebuild.