The Responsibility Collective reached out to Laura Collins to chat about her journey through academia so far, her thoughts on responsibility and her key interest in the Central African Republic.
Laura Collins is a PhD candidate at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in the United States and was a 2019-2020 USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar. Her dissertation, “Guns and Prayers: Religious Organisations and Wartime Violence in the Central African Republic,” uses data gathered across the CAR to examine how religious organisations operate during wartime to shape non-state armed violence against civilians. In addition to her dissertation, Laura works as a Research Assistant at the University of Leeds for the Explaining Non-State Perpetration of Mass Atrocity Crimes project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). She is also an Editor for Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal.
What led you to your current role/and or field of work?
I’ve long been interested in global politics and international affairs. I studied International Relations and French at undergraduate level where I developed a keen interest in different forms of political violence, in understanding why states and armed groups target civilians, and how different actors, specifically those that operate internationally respond (or do not respond, as is often the case, or only in a narrow military sense). For my undergraduate thesis, I studied the cases of Rwanda and Kosovo, and started to more fully appreciate that the category of “civilian,” as it relates to violence, peace, and conflict, is much broader, complex, and diverse.
As I read the works of anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists on different cases and forms of political violence, I noticed that religion was either not discussed in detail or viewed as largely irrelevant and not worth examination. Yet it became clear that the various dimensions of any one religion could manifest in really interesting ways during a conflict, even in cases that were not perceived to be religious. I read what I could find, which – at that time – centred around the role of religion in facilitating democratisation movements around the globe as well as religion and peacebuilding. Much of this early work focused on religion and reconciliation, including the role of religion in reconciling warring parties/states and even whole societies following mass atrocities. Given the emphasis that seemed to be placed on involving these actors as a society began to emerge from conflict, I was keen to know more about what they were actually doing during conflict – during wartime. For my PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, I wanted to understand how religious organisations and their leaders (from priests, imams, and pastors) operate in war, their relationships with armed groups, as well as how and why these actors varyingly aid, constrain, contain, or even redirect violence through their actions. My research in the Central African Republic has underscored that visible interfaith conflict mitigation and peace-orientated actions by national level leaders during wartime can operate in tandem with the more obscure, subnational actions of local leaders.
What are some of the challenges that you have had in your academic career, and how have you tackled them?
Embarking on a PhD and continuing with academia, doing policy-related work, or trying to do a combination of both carries with it various personal and professional challenges. Even prior to the pandemic, research-oriented work always came with a degree of uncertainty, especially in conflict settings. Like most PhD candidates, all the more as an international student studying in the US, I faced funding challenges for my field research. I was ultimately successful at securing funding from my university and from an external institute but that was after several funding proposals had been rejected. When you spend a lot of time developing a research project and a funding proposal or a research article is rejected, that experience can make you question your work or even question if you are good enough to succeed. Sharing rejections with friends and colleagues is just as important as sharing the high of winning a research grant. Doing so normalises rejection and reminds us that every research proposal or article started with a terrible first draft!
Grant writing takes a lot of time, so I find it helpful to be as strategic as possible regarding the grants I apply for. I look at the work of past grant recipients to have a better idea of the projects and general focus of the particular institute. This helps you know how good a fit your research is for the funding organisation. We are all – to an extent – at the mercy of what these institutes view as priority topics. There’s no easy way to change that. Nevertheless, writing research funding proposals is a skill that only improves with practice. I have definitely gained a lot from writing them even when the proposal was unsuccessful, particularly when grant reviewers provide feedback which you can then integrate into your work going forward.
Another challenge I have faced is knowing how to clearly frame the implications and overall importance of my research on religion to policy audiences. I want the research I do to inform policy, but learning how to speak in a language that is accessible to policy makers takes time and practice. Transforming the complexity of your research into digestible information points or even recommendations, as is often requested, is not only difficult but can make junior academics nervous perhaps for fear of being misunderstood or being accused of lacking nuance. I have benefitted from attending workshops on how to write policy pieces and op-eds as well as learning from the experiences of other researchers and academics.
Importantly, any challenges I face are done so as a white scholar from the Global North studying at a university in the Global North. I am in the privileged position of having access to numerous resources including events and workshops held to discuss challenges in academia and those specifically facing PhD candidates. My presence as a researcher at these events and elsewhere in academia is not questioned. While female PhD candidates and more established academics face unique challenges, I nevertheless navigate academic, research and writing, and policy spaces as a white PhD candidate whose first language, English, is the dominant language in many of these settings.
What do you consider to be the most pressing questions related to your discipline and academic interests today? Why?
As we emerge from the darkest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, an immediate question for peace and conflict studies revolves around how to resume fieldwork and what fieldwork will look like for qualitative research questions on political violence in conflict-affected, fragile, and violent contexts. Global COVID vaccine inequality has further compounded the power and access disparities that already existed between researchers like me and any future interlocutors such as the many Central Africans who gave their time to speak to me as I travelled the country. Variation in how different governments define “fully vaccinated” will likely create further obstacles for academics and researchers, specifically those from the Global South, to attend in-person only events in Europe and North America. I think hybrid ways of working that combine in-person and remote access should be maintained (and improved) to mitigate their associated challenges.
During the pandemic, many researchers reworked their research designs in creative and innovative ways, doing what they could remotely. In some cases, people had to change their focus entirely. In conflict-affected, fragile, and violent contexts, online interviews are impractical if not impossible. This all raises broader issues around how we do research and who does the research and where. None of these questions have an immediate answer.
What is the most important moral and/or societal responsibility in your career/research going forward?
I think one of my most important responsibilities is to be an ethical researcher. Part of that obligation entails engaging in and promoting responsible fieldwork practices. As a qualitative researcher who examines the dynamics of political violence in a conflict-affected, fragile, and oftentimes violent context, I had and continue to have a responsibility to actively work to dismantle both overt and implicit exploitative and extractive research practices. Although more reflection is occurring on these issues in articles as well as in conversations between researchers, more is needed.
Being more attuned to how I was positioned during field research, as a Global North researcher, and how I positioned myself relative to the diverse array of actors operating in the CAR was essential. Many local Central Africans assumed I had links to or, at a minimum, had easy access to international government/non-governmental organisations linked to humanitarian and development assistance. Within this environment, there was a high chance people would agree to talk to me because of this perceived association and the belief that assistance might follow any meeting with me. We therefore have a responsibility to learn how to clearly explain who we are and why we are in a specific country to potential interviewees, and manage our associations with different actors carefully.
I was genuinely interested in listening to those I spoke to, but also understood that no one was obliged to speak to me (there were people who refused, and some made that very clear!). Fleeting encounters with researchers and journalists can leave people with feelings of being used. I tried to create connections with people I spoke to where appropriate and in a way that was not an added burden to them – we already ask a lot of people we interview, requesting they give up a few hours of their time sometimes on multiple occasions.
Lastly, how we compensate research assistants is a significant issue. I asked many people about this prior to travelling and once in the CAR. I heard examples that not only bordered on exploitation, but that were overtly exploitative. Though budgetary constraints will always be an issue, a small research budget cannot be used as an excuse to exploit those whose assistance helps us reach overall career goals. We have a responsibility to reflect profoundly on how we allocate research funds to ensure we can compensate research assistants appropriately.
What do you consider the most important question related to human responsibility in the world today?
An important (overarching) question for me would be our responsibility to think about how we can more accurately and effectively reflect, acknowledge, and confront disparities around power and access to create more ethical spaces and relationships. These dynamics structure anything from interpersonal relations to the unequal effects some experience from global climatic changes. The burden of this responsibility to reflect, acknowledge, and confront these disparities is not carried equally by everyone. Some of those who have profited from these disparities continue to contribute to their maintenance.
What is your view on the role of religious leaders in peacemaking and why?To what extent does this differ across regions within CAR and why?
The role of religious leaders and their organisations in peacemaking is complex and varied. The same can be said of the role they play with regards to the outbreak of conflict and the escalation of violence. Much of the earlier work on religion and peacemaking from the mid-1990s / early 2000s was a direct response to scholarship at the time that subscribed to the understanding that religion was part of the problem of conflict and violence. Thanks to this earlier work on religion and peacebuilding, however, the notion of the ambivalence of religion toward peace and violence is now a well-established premise – that is, just as religions through their leaders, organisations, and specific texts and verses can permit and support violence so, too, can they reject violence and work towards peace.
In the case of the Central African Republic, national level religious leaders occupied a prominent and visible role. They promoted inter-faith conflict mitigation and peace-oriented actions by appearing together, advocating for a UN peacekeeping mission to be established in the CAR, and calling for armed actors to lay down their weapons and engage in dialogue. Perhaps counterintuitively, the more national level leaders engaged and worked with international/external actors, the more some within their faith communities viewed these leaders as profiting from the conflict to improve their status. Specifically, for some leaders, their actions increased an already existing credibility gap they had within their own religious community. As with any external intervention or outreach, when thinking about how to support religious leaders in peacemaking, external actors have a responsibility to reflect on the potential consequences of their actions and assistance so as not to exacerbate existing tensions that exist within religious communities, particularly at the leadership level.
Importantly, to fully understand the role of religious leaders in peacemaking, it is essential to also examine what these actors are doing subnationally. The actions of local level religious leaders may mirror those at the national level, or they may even undermine them. Local leaders can change how they operate and engage with conflict actors. Open communication, facilitated by a shared religious identity, can exist between religious authorities and armed actors, which religious leaders can use as an entry point to mediate disputes between and within armed groups. In some cases, armed group leaders seek out religious authorities to mediate internal conflicts. Although religious leaders have played a role in managing CAR’s increasingly local patchwork of conflicts, as mediators and parties to local peace and stabilization processes, their influence and role varies. It became increasingly more challenging for local religious authorities to work across religious lines, as religious difference became a more prominent feature of the conflict. Relatedly, local religious leaders in the CAR often preferred to work discreetly with other leaders of the same faith, particularly when they share a religious identity with armed groups whose intergroup violence and targeting of civilians negatively affects their faith community. Some armed groups in the CAR viewed the Catholic Church as increasingly partial because they perceived church officials to be providing sanctuary to the members of other armed groups.
Can you see religious leaders being useful for conflict stability and peacemaking becoming more or less prevalent in the next 10 years? Would it have the same impact in other African states or is religious leadership used in CAR because it is a local, internally-influenced initiative
Religious leaders have always been and will continue to be a relevant actor to study and engage to develop more locally attuned conflict stability and peacemaking strategies. To be sure, their influence varies from one conflict-affected environment to the next. Their influence can even fluctuate during the course of a conflict and religious communities are not immune to internal disputes and divisions, particularly among their leaders. Prominent female authorities within a religious community can also be marginalised. Accessing these women is often mediated by men. Nevertheless, the promotion of sustainable peace in the Central African Republic, as in many other places, requires that attempts to de-escalate violence and break cycles of armed conflict are informed by realistic understandings of local politics, violence, and impediments to peace. Within many countries the religious sector is an integral element of local dynamics that should not be overlooked, side-lined, or shunned for actors more favoured under the Western-state centric liberal peacebuilding approach.
It would be my hope that future efforts to support religious leaders in their peacemaking attempts is premised on collaborations with a diverse group of religious leaders from a conflict-affected country. This must include women and be approached creatively, including a range of fora that recognise the existing local expertise of these authority figures. Such collaborations must avoid tokenism and recognize the risk for external support to exacerbate existing divisions, especially if approached without adequate religious literacy among policymakers or a full appreciation of the internal dynamics of a given faith community at the leadership level.
What, ultimately, do you consider to be the most important steps that need to occur in order to move forward with decreased levels of violence and conflict in the Central African Republic? Whose responsibility is it to help implement these steps?
That’s a great question and one we need to ask Central Africans more. Addressing the impunity gap that exists for serious crimes, including alleged atrocity crimes in CAR is one essential element. The CAR took an important step forward last month in that direct. The first trial before the Special Criminal Court in the country’s capital, Bangui, for war crimes and crimes against humanity began. However, further efforts should be made by international actors to support the ongoing work of the International Criminal Court, as it relates to the CAR, as well as the work of the Special Criminal Court. The 2015 Bangui Forum that brought together hundreds of delegates from a cross-section of Central African society from political representatives, civil society organisations, armed groups, and community associations emphasised the need for justice. All of these actors have a role to play in moving CAR forward in the direction of stability. Central Africans have experienced profound material and personal losses due to repeated and interconnected cycles of violence. For many, a blank amnesty provision would only serve to undermine any attempts at sustainable peace by helping to facilitate future conflicts.
International actors should likely think twice about supporting or facilitating the creation of a strong, centralised state as a vehicle through which to create stability. The Central African state and elites have and will likely continue to play a complex role related to dynamics of violence throughout the country. Equally, superficial attempts at decentralising governance and fostering a state accountable to its citizenry may only serve to reignite longstanding grievances around neglect and exclusion felt by those in CAR’s peripheral areas and, particularly among Muslims throughout CAR.
Laura’s published work includes
The Central African Republic and the Responsibility to Protect. European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P), University of Leeds. (leeds.ac.uk)
Central African Republic: A Role of Religious Leaders in Calming Conflict? United States Institute for Peace, Washington DC. (usip.org)
Her co-authored article (with Dr. Gino Vlavonou), “A State of (Dis)unity and Uncertain Belonging: The Central African Republic and the Muslim Minority,” is forthcoming in spring 2022 in a special issue edition of Islamic Africa on Muslim minorities in sub-Saharan Africa.