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Value of research in ‘fragile states’ recognised

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Value of research in ‘fragile states’ recognised

Research that makes a difference to people’s lives cannot always be conducted in safe, well-resourced environments.

So says a Massey University development studies lecturer who has been awarded for his work facilitating research projects in African nations recovering from civil wars.

Dr Gerard Prinsen, based in the School of People, Environment and Planning’s Development Studies programme, has been named an ‘Outstanding Person’ for his role as an external adviser for the Dutch Consortium for Rehabilitation (DCR).

He has worked with the consortium – which comprises four international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), dozens of local partner organisations, and several hundred employees – to assist in the rebuilding of education and health services, micro-credit facilities (small loans to poor borrowers) , and local government in six post-conflict states in Africa (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda).

His award marks the end of the consortium’s current five-year programme, working with a budget of 63 million euro (110 million NZD) for the 2011-2015 period.

Dr Prinsen, who is from the Netherlands, says it is “really humbling to be on a list of names that includes a project manager who carries on local savings and credit schemes in Liberia while Ebola raged, a veterinary doctor in a war zone in Sudan, and a returning refugee turning farmer-extension worker in South Sudan. This makes my day, makes me feel it is possible for one person to be a bridge between different worlds.”

His role as the consortium’s Central Knowledge Network Coordination involved designing, assessing and evaluating research projects by local development workers wanting to assess how best to set up and provide a service for a region or village during the critical post-conflict period.

A recent project was to set up government-funded early childhood education services in Liberia for the first time. This involved determining whether parents were more likely to send their children to public primary schools, private schools or churches for pre-school education.

His over-arching goal in the consortium has been to demystify ideas about research as an esoteric, theoretical exercise, to be carried out in a library or laboratory equipped with the latest technology.

“My aim was to encourage local professionals who know their communities best by instilling trust that they can do research. You don’t have to have a Masters or PhD – but you need to be creative and have the courage to ask the right questions.”

Working in “fragile states” – a term for the instability of nations recovering from long periods of civil war – requires a level of pragmatism, connectedness and adaptability that many outside researchers lack, he says. Seeing their research findings help others through being shared with other aid and development networks has been empowering for local development workers too, he says.

Four Massey University students also worked on internships, both virtually and on the ground in the countries in which the consortium is based. They supported the development of some of the 25 local research projects Dr Prinsen has worked on.

Dr Prinsen completed his PhD at Massey University in local governance and public services in Africa, and has worked in many African countries setting up and managing knowledge networks.

Research on development projects in often dangerous, difficult and unstable post-conflict societies can be challenging, but – as he emphasises to his students – it really matters.

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