I meant to post this, my critique of the IACM Conference, earlier, but decided to wait until my scholarship finally came. It took three months. It amazed me. To try and become more diverse by awarding such scholarships, but then expect recipients to put up huge sums of their own money towards a conference and then wait so long to get paid back really limits the types of people who can come to such a conference. But it certainly didn’t surprise me, based on my experiences below.

I’m not a social scientist. I’m not getting my PHD, and, most likely, I never will. I just finished a degree that was professional focused – no thesis, little research, instead, a capstone heavily focused on implementation.

Yet, I got this opportunity, so I came. To the International Association for Conflict Management’s (IACM) annual conference.

The location was posh, picturesque, the beautiful town of Stellenbosch. The trendy bistros, quaint bars, and mostly white pedestrians strolled around the old Dutch-style city center. We were even further off, at the Spier conference center nearly 10 KM from town.

Isolation. What better place to change the world from?

I received a scholarship from AC4, the Advanced Consortium on Conflict, Complexity, and Cooperation at Columbia University, for a paper I’d written for a class on Water Development in post-conflict Nepal. It was a policy paper, presenting clear recommendations for the Nepali government’s new Constitution, a legal analysis. It was not, like almost every other paper or presentation at the conference, a methodological research involving simulations and experimental studies.

A single field dominated the conference – Psychology. I never realized that conflict management was a Psychological undertaking. It brought be back to my days as an undergrad at USC. Communication is a unique field in that it is both an humanity and social science, an attempt to bridge together these two disparate fields. After taking classes in both social science and humanities, I quickly began to focus on the latter. The humanitarian approach – where each situation or phenomenon is studied uniquely, though rigorous observation, analysis and inclusions of time and culture specific factors. It is with its flaws, but in our complex, multicultural world, it seemed like a stronger way to understand the multifarious factors that go into something like conflict.

At the IACM conference, I saw how simple definitions are created for complex phenomenon – “high-modenity,” for example, which are then quantified in standardized scales that allow for comparisons to be made which may not exist in reality. There was an overuse of statistics to measure subjective terms. Many studies tried to study the effect of one phenomenon on another – “culture” on “openness in negotiation,” for example, resulting in what was a shallow, two-dimensional analysis.

It reminded me what a Professor at Columbia told me – that when you expand from two variables to there, your conclusions can completely change. Sadly few of the studies I saw took that leap into three dimensional thought.

Because everything was studied at the level of individual phenomenon, there was no criticism of the system – the nation state system – despite what I see as a systematic failure that is the root cause of conflict. All the solutions were within that existing system. But we were in Africa, were faulty colonial borders have been the source of numerous conflicts. South Sudan, anyone?

At a conference where 95% of the attendees were from global north, mostly colonizing states, and where I found only one black South African in attendance, it was a voice that was silent. Nation-state are perceived as natural in Europe. Thus, they must be natural everywhere. Alternative theories, methods that might include non-state centric theories of conflict management, were never voiced even though we were on African soil. Instead, I heard biased, Euro-centric solutions that worked in the Netherlands, but missed the big picture. It merely sustained the system that allowed you to be on top.

If it were not for AC4, and their assistance in bringing more diversity to the conference, it would have only been worse. Us seven scholarship winners represented most of the diversity – I as an Indian-American International Relations scholar, and the winners from developing countries; Tajikistan, India, Nigeria, Cyprus, and Tanzania. But it felt strange, to be in South Africa and be in an more environment with less diversity, less internationalism, than my program at Columbia University. There were more Africans at SIPA than at IACM.

IACM needs to build on what AC4 does, and its home institution, the Earth Institute, and expand its disciplinary horizons.

The highlight of the conference was the keynote given by 2011 Nobel Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. I felt that she was speaking to my concerns, slowly, with conviction, from outside of academia, pausing to look at us, her audience. She needed no powerpoint to prove her point, no figures, no variables, no studies. She was speaking from experience, as a humanitarian, about how complex, how difficult, and how long recovering from conflict takes place.

“Every culture heals differently,” she said. Culture is not a variable, nor it is something that can be changed through education, not it is merely nationality – a childish simplification I saw in several studies. Comparing the difference in reactions between Chinese students and German students in a study does not allow you to see “culture” empirically. The only way to understand and change a culture is through being part of that culture, and patience.

Besides Ms. Gbowee and the other scholarship winners, I saw few examples of that in Stellenbosch.

Unfortunately, from Spier, far away from the townships of South Africa, only accessible through organized, bus tours, we did not even get to see the realities of this country’s great struggle. In our mini-Europe, we could lie in safety with our studies, notwithstanding the experiences of millions so close, yet so far. We listened and cheered to Ms. Gbowee’s powerful speech, but did we really understand?

Luckily, I choose to stay here a month, and got to have a more holistic experience, including visiting Robben Island. Not a single other person at the conference was doing anything similar, to my surprise and disappointment.

The travels, in the end, were the true heart of my journey in Southern Africa. But that, my friends, is another post.

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