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PhD student’s bravery pays off with thesis award

PhD student’s bravery pays off with thesis award

University of Auckland PhD graduate Dr Lina Gonzalez had such a strong desire for the people in her thesis to be heard she interviewed her subjects in parts of her native Colombia still controlled by armed rebels.

Now at just 28-years-old she is one of the youngest people to finish a doctoral thesis at the University, and she has also been awarded a Faculty of Arts Best Thesis Prize 2013.

Her thesis, Policies of Decentralisation in the Context of Armed Conflict: An Analysis of Colombian Local Autonomy, investigated the policy of decentralisation in Colombia, identifying the factors constraining local autonomy in the country, and examining how the elements of decentralisation and armed conflict intersect.

She interviewed more than 90 participants, among them mayors in conflictive areas of Colombia who exposed the difficulties under which they have to exercise power. Her research approach was distinctive and original in that it introduced elite perceptions, particularly those of mayors, to the analysis.

“My research offers important lessons for countries attempting to introduce decentralisation, and contributes to advancing scholarly debates on the complexity of the internal dynamics that characterise decentralisation reforms in a conflictive context.”

“In my thesis I also found significant similarities in the clientelist nature of the strategies that both legal and illegal groups use to intimidate and penetrate local governments, and to gain control over local resources.”

Lina was inspired to her topic back in her native Colombia during her work as an intern in the Colombian Federation of Municipalities. There she had direct contact with different mayors who visited the office. She became interested in their stories and in their perception of the impact that decentralisation reforms have brought to the country.

“I then realised that their narratives needed to be heard and that more studies were necessary to understand decentralisation reforms from the perspectives of local public officials.”

One of the biggest challenges she encountered was during her field work in Colombia.

“I interviewed mayors in areas that were under the influence of illegal armed forces. Colombia is a country where local politics are dominated by males. As a result, I had to use my people skills to build rapport with my participants in order for them to trust and share with me their stories and realities.”

“In addition, the interviews were emotionally intensive because mayors shared memories of upsetting events in their lives due to the Colombian armed conflict. I had to mirror their feelings and provide a comfortable environment where they felt at ease to share those disappointing and distressing emotions that a particular question could bring memories of.”

Other challenges included having writing her PhD in English, a second language to her. And due to the sensitive nature of her research, she had to transcribe more than 75 hours of audio recording collected during her field work. “I learned to appreciate the work of a transcriber after completing more than 720 pages of interview transcriptions.”

Her award was presented to her by the Dean of Arts Professor Robert Greenberg at a ceremony yesterday.

“I felt absolutely honoured to receive such a prestigious recognition.”

She is particularly thankful to her supervisors, Associate Professor Jennifer Curtin in Politics and International Relations, and Dr Kathryn Lehman in the Centre for Latin American Studies.

“They played a fundamental role during my studies. They worked very hard to provide constructive feedback and to challenge my argument and ideas in order to refine my work.”

“I also feel immense gratitude for all the participants of my research, particularly to the numerous Colombian mayors who bravely shared their personal experiences with me. Their narratives made my thesis possible and inspired my research.”

Now Lina is living in Meadowbank and working for the University’s Research Office as a Funds Advisor. She is also part of the National Council of the New Zealand Peace Foundation. At the moment she is promoting the collaboration of the Foundation with Colombian institutions to seek the implementation of their most important peer mediation programme, Cool Schools, in Colombian schools.

“I have been a peace activist all my life and I am committed to support initiatives that promote nonviolence and peace education here in New Zealand and in my native Colombia.”

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