Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

graduate education on conflict and peacemaking

The United States Institute of Peace recently published a report by Nike Carstarphen, Craig Zelizer, Robert Harris, and David J. Smith on graduate education and professional practice in international peace and conflict. It is quite critical of the way most graduate programs prepare students for future careers in this area:

  • Graduate-level academic institutions are not adequately preparing students for careers in international peace and conflict management. Curricula need to incorporate more applied skills, cross-sectoral coursework, and field-experience opportunities.
  • Unlike most faculty, students, and alumni, employers see substantial room for improvement in preparing students for the field.
  • Overseas experience is, for employers, the most valuable asset.
  • General project management skills—program planning and design, monitoring and evaluation, computer literacy, report writing skills, budgeting, staff management, research skills, grant writing, and knowledge of the funding and policy world—and cross-cultural competencies and language skills are critical.
  • International peace and conflict management practices increasingly overlap with more traditional work, such as human rights, humanitarian issues, and development programming.
  • Employers want candidates who have a holistic understanding of international conflict work, specialized knowledge and skills, practical know-how, and political savvy, yet often fail to grasp what academic programs are in fact teaching students to prepare them for the field.
  • Academic programs need to strengthen their outreach and interaction with employers and to market the value of their programs.
  • To better prepare themselves for the field, recent graduates and alumni are seeking to increase their applied education, field experience, project management skills, mentoring, and career guidance.

As a university-based educator, I could reply that universities aren’t necessarily about teaching job-related skills, but also about broadening minds, encouraging critical and analytical thought, honing research and writing skills, and so forth. However, while that is undoubtedly true, I also tend to agree with much of the thrust of the report, especially its emphasis on acquiring field and other outside-the-classroom experience. I always encourage students to pursue internship and similar opportunities. Indeed, to slip in a plug for my own institution, the lower cost of Canadian tuition fees compared to comparable US or UK schools (for non-Brits) means that what you save on tuition would pretty much enable you to go anywhere in the world for a year as a volunteer during or after your academic program.

While simulation can in no way substitute for field experience, it does provide a form of experiential-based learning that potentially addresses some of the shortcoming that the USIP report identifies. In particular, it can be a good way of addressing what the authors refer to as the “theory vs practice” problem:

Several employers felt that students came out of graduate programs filled with theories about the sources and dynamics of conflicts, but not knowing how to translate their knowledge to real-world practice. One practitioner remarked that recent graduates often don’t realize that in the field in choosing how to respond to conflict situations, that there is often no ideal response, only the need to choose “the least worst option.”

I don’t think that theory and practice are polar opposites—on the contrary, theory that does a poor job describing, explaining, and predicting actual behaviour is bad theory to begin with. However, simulation exercises coupled with effective debrief sessions can be a very useful way of exploring these tensions, and how broad generalizations embedded in theory necessarily interact with specific contextual realities.

The report also highlights the value of “political savvy” as a skill, and notes the useful role of case-study based teaching as a way to develop this:

Academic programs that use case studies, that familiarize students with government policies and strategies, and that focus on the role of power and personal, organizational, and national interests better prepare students to understand both “what is” and strategies for “what can/should be.” An increasing emphasis on conflict advocacy and knowledge of the field and key players is essential in this area.

That being said, I have some doubts as to how much political savvy can be learned at school. If it could, political scientists would be especially skilled at politics too—and anyone who knows us knows that certainly isn’t the case!

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