Should student researchers go to conflict zones?

It’s nearing summer and tens of thousands of American and European students are preparing for a month or two abroad to write a senior essay or dissertation. I’ve gotten four or five emails about working in former war zones or with vulnerable populations just in the last week.

I hate writing the same return email every time, and I feel awful about dashing hopes and excitement, but I can’t help but point them to my advice on research in war zones.

Places like northern Uganda and Liberia and Sudan are crowded (literally) with undergraduates and master’s students chasing the same research questions, year after year. Much of this well-intentioned work ends up being very self-serving. I would guess less than one in a hundred ever generate findings worth putting into practice and feed those findings back to the community, government or NGOs.

This would be a mere annoyance for the people affected by war if it weren’t also potentially hazardous. No one should consider interviewing victims of rape and violence, former child soldiers, or other potentially traumatized populations without psychological expertise and the backing of an organization that can provide services for the neediest. People are hardy, and the risk of re-traumatizing someone small, but not zero.

What are some guidelines for doing good work?

  • Avoid the obvious “hotspots” that have become a destination for hundreds of students (hint: if a major celebrity or a hipster documentary crew has visited there in the last three years, it’s out)
  • Avoid vulnerable populations unless you have the right training and supervision, and have the backing of an organization that can help
  • Do your homework, and address a question that has not been addressed a dozen times before
  • To figure out what needs answering, work well in advance to identify organizations who have questions and would appreciate your help
  • It’s really hard to feed back your findings into practice, and takes a lot of work — almost as much work as generating the findings. At least go in with the conviction and time to do more than take away findings
  • Try to intern for an organization
  • Make a longer term commitment to a region than a summer

My full advice piece is here. Related comments on how to avoid being a development tourist here.