The Peacebuilding Pracademic

Development Policy18 Feb 2010Marieke Hounjet

The panels that I attended so far confirm that the debate on theory vs policy is definitely on academics’ minds, perhaps much more so than many of us use to think. People from different sub-fields of international studies are all trying to address the debate. One forum for such a discussion was the roundtable on bridging research, policy and practice at the intersections of peacebuilding and development. This field of study is “driven by policy,” as Necla Tschirgi (University of Ottawa/United Nations) expressed it; and Craig Zelizer (Georgetown University) another speaker on this roundtable confirmed this, claiming to more of a ‘pracademic’ instead of an academic.

The speakers were very much concerned with not only the gap between theory and practice, but also what ‘we’ teach the next generation of ‘peacebuilders’; whether they are equipped with the skills to promote better practice; and how there is still a far way to go in terms of the incorporation of Southern perspectives and local success stories into Northern scholarship. However, the impression with which I left this panel, which resonates with other panels on similar topics is that there is still a lot to learn about how policy-making institutions actually work. For example, Erin L. McCandless’ (New School University) revealed that in UN programmes in Liberia, general conflict analysis has not been guiding field operations.

Similarly, Necla Tschirgi shared experiences from a career spent trying to institutionalise some form of knowledge sharing between academics and practitioners. Tschirgi relates to policymakers’ resistance to academic research for reasons that academic research seems to be ‘too contested’ and ‘too complex’; “they rather would like academics to do the work for them”. Hence she places the burden with the academics, as policy decisions will be made regardless and it’s about whether academics want to contribute to their improvements. Tschirgi’s talk illustrated that a lot comes down to the academic’s ability to navigate policy-making institutions and encouraged policy-makers to invite academics to their advisory committees.

This conclusion was also made in another panel where Marla Karlin (former US Pentagon/John Hopkins University) shaped a clear picture of the policy-making environment. Her arguments about how policy-making comes down to a lot of individual stories, and how policy-makers personalities play a large role add another level of complexity to the debate.

Hence, a clear conception of how academics can influence the mysterious world of policy-making remains absent. A point that is recurrently made here is that academic insights need to be re-packaged and translated for policy-makers use. This is not a new message at all, but one strongly resisted by academia, which according to Karlin seems to come out of a “discomfort with writing very short papers”.

A new angle to the discussion is that most policy-makers have gone through the institution of the university, and the emphasis on theory in degree studies arguably disadvantage fresh graduates in the competitive job market. Employers search for individuals with field and programme management experience, according to Zelizer.

Does this therefore mean academia is failing to link with the world out there in multiple ways? Hopefully, some other panels during this conference will contradict this statement.