Louise Stoddard: Research from the roof of the world

Development Policy08 Sep 2009Louise Stoddard

After a lot of interesting theorising in the first day or so of the conference, I felt the need to stretch my legs a bit and attend something really practical. Little did I know that my quest to hear about the nitty-gritty of development research would lead me to the foothills of the Himalayas… well almost. If I was looking for a trip to another world then I found one in the parallel session with Jeevan Sharma from Tufts University who presented his research on men’s participation in the Maoist conflict in Nepal.

Jeevan’s research examined the local gender dimensions of the Maoist insurgency in a civil war which stretched for over a decade and has in the past two years made significant moves towards peace. Having worked in Nepal during the conflict I was particularly interested to hear how the country had changed and the lessons that other conflict situations across the world could learn from this small nation.

Jeevan talked about the process of reconstruction as an unknown entity. It is very difficult to see what the end result will look like, even with the physical rebuilding of infrastructure. He argued that the same applies to the ex combatants of the People Liberations Army (PLA) and the Young Communist League (YCL) who are now living in cantonments as part of the peace deal. How do you reconstruct a human being?

Jevan’s research focuses mainly on men within the conflict, although women have found a role for themselves within the Maoist ranks too. He described the processes through which fighters join the Maoist ranks – revenge, social conditioning, forced recruitment, others see it simply as a job and accept violence as a way of life. However the Maoists have offered structure and freedom to many who would otherwise have been at the bottom of the caste system in Nepal.

Today however ex-combatants have been living in cantonments for two years, they have lost their role, some have lost their aspiration. There is a bored restlessness and many are starting to leave or run away from the camps. Jeevan sees the process that a lot of these fighters have gone through as a rite of passage. The impression that I got from this session is that since the peace process many Maoists don’t really know where this passage has taken them. I asked Jeevan about other countries in the world which have had similar experiences. He is right when he says that Nepal is rather a unique situation. This is a country where Maoists from the fields took on a King’s army and won. Perhaps Peru’s Shining Path are a similar comparison but I leave the session feeling rather overwhelmed with the research process. Surely every situation is unique, every country, town or village has its own specific realities which are not usually comparable to another setting. The session with Chris Whitty from DFID is still in the back of my mind and I wonder how under Whitty’s proposal it would be possible to award a star grade to Jeevan for his research and how an information service could go about categorising work which is so very specific at the local level.