The academic poseur, in Liberia

This afternoon I’m leaving for Liberia for two weeks. Blog postings will arrive from the field, albeit somewhat irregularly.

I’m heading to Monrovia with my wife (and research partner), Jeannie. We’re going to be sitting down with the youth and internal affairs ministries, helping them think through post-conflict programs like youth employment and peace-building, and how they might track and evaluate their progress. We’ll give some training on evaluation and survey design to UN offices, and talk to the University about building their economics and psychology programs.

If all goes well, we’ll be back in the summer–just in time for the rainiest month in the rainiest country in the world. The average rainfall in July is one meter! If I manage to dry out, we might even head there for the sabbatical year I’m already planning.

I have a love-hate relationship with new field sites. The excitement is palpable (mine, not theirs). And the first week is a pleasurable free fall down the learning curve. But I hate the feeling of being an imposter. The academic poseur.

No academic should be allowed to open their mouth to a policymaker their entire trip if they are reading the Economist Intelligence Unit Country Profile on the way in, frantically searching for the name of the local currency. I’m not quite that bad (I’ve already read the EIU profile!) but I’m not much better. So it is with some alarm that the express purpose of our trip is to give technical advice to ministers and bureaucrats.

My friends at the World bank find my angst quaint and endearing.

Working in Kenya and Uganda for the past six years, I was beginning to feel like an old hand. People treat you differently when you stick around. I remember seeing a familiar village leader after I’d been absent for a year. “You came back!” he exclaimed. “So you are the kind that returns,” said another public official. I knew the history, I had a SIM card full of numbers, I was beginning to get the language, I knew the players, I could get things done.

And here I go again.

I remember my first day in northern Uganda, tailing an aid worker to a displacement camp just to get a sense of what’s going on. Jeannie (yet to be my wife, then my romantic research partner) had been working and living in the north for about seven years. She was my street cred. But she had to travel to southern Sudan within a day or two of our arrival in Uganda.

So here I was, on my own, helping an aid worker count the minutes it took to pump a jerry can full of water in each of the camp wells. “As a PhD in economics,” he said, “the one thing you can do is count, right?”

Sometimes, however, a long history is not a good thing. Walking through the camp that day, I saw a long snaking line of boys and girls holding papers. They were squished so tightly together that each was pressed up against the boy or girl in front and behind. At the head of the line was a slight, middle-aged white woman, sitting and taking notes from each child.

I walked up and introduced myself, hoping to find out what was going on.

“Hello. My name is Els de Temmerman,” she said, ” you have probably heard of me.”

“Um, well…”

“I wrote the book The Aboke Girls.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

I had no idea what she was taking about. I think I had seen the book at the airport — the story of the dozens of elite secondary school girls abducted one night by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I would later learn that the main character is Jeannie’s good friend, the woman who would later translate our survey into Luo.

“You may also know my husband, he is a member of the European Parliament.”

Was this woman for real? Who introduces themselves like this?

“I am interviewing formerly abducted children for my school.”

Her school. Els’ book had done more to raise the profile of the war in northern Uganda than any press release or UN report. The abduction of the girls captured the world’s attention, and had funneled large sums to good works, especially via Els, from fellow Belgians. Hers was a terrific service to the north.

Unfortunately, a large chunk of this money was going to a new school exclusively for youth formerly abducted by the rebel group and now returning from war. Reintegration by segregation?

Our survey and ethnographic findings would later decry the segregated, child-centered assistance that was so common in the north. The Western image of the helpless child soldier returning home a vulnerable pariah would drive millions of aid dollars to programs that risked stigmatizing the youth and missing the most poor and vulnerable–many of whom were not former abductees.

That day was my first exposure to the media, aid and advocacy machine in conflict zones. It won’t be my last.

So sometimes new blood is a good thing.

Els is now Editor-in-Chief of Uganda’s leading (and government-owned) newspaper, the New Vision. After posts like this, I don’t expect to get many op-eds printed there. I like the Vision, but I especially recommend The Independent.

I wonder who I’ll meet my first day in Liberia?