Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

“Police are generally reviled in Liberia if they’re known at all. They’re viewed as inaccessible and irrelevant or as predatory and corrupt.”

Rob Blair

Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

Restoring Trust in the Police and Government Institutions after Civil War

November 30th, 2015

Serendipitousis how Rob Blair describes his career path.

The Joukowsky Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, new to the Brown faculty this fall, focuses his work on peacebuilding and statebuilding after civil war, with an emphasis on rule of law and security institutions,and is currently teaching a seminar, Post-Conflict Politics.

As an undergraduate at Brown, where he concentrated on Education Studies, Comparative Literature, and Creative Writing, he seemed to be heading in a different direction. After graduation in 2006, a Fulbright Fellowship took him to Colombia to work on a teacher-training project involving new curriculum for children affected by the violence between Colombian armed forces and rebel groups. Halfway through the Fulbright he realized that he could complete a masters degree at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá as part of the Fellowship. It came down to a coin tossbetween two one-year programs: Journalism and Resolution of Armed Conflicts. He chose the latter, but I did not envision this as a long-term trajectory for me,he says.

In the Mines

Fast forward to Yale (the program that his advisor in Colombia had recommended), where he spent the next six years as a Political Science PhD student and Post Doc. Most of his fieldwork during that time took place in Liberia. That was also very serendipitous,he says. He worked as a research assistant for development economist Chris Blattman, and that first summer, Blattman asked him to work on a project he was evaluating in Liberia on reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life. A lot of these guys remained in networks that had been established during the Liberian Civil War, 1998 to 2003,Blair says. Many were working in artisanal diamond and gold mines. Its such hopeless work,he says. A tin of rice is their daily wage, plus a cut of anything they find, but its so rare for them to find anything.Because the work was so low-paying and transient and because these ex-soldiers were living in groups, they were easily recruited as mercenaries for conflicts across the border in Cote dIvoire. The idea behind this NGO-initiated program was to get them out of the mines and into more stable employment.

Although Blair had previously traveled in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and East Africa, he found Liberia a bewildering place. I left with infinite questions,he says. It seemed ideal as a place to do dissertation research because I felt that I could really spend the next four or five years trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this country that I find I really dont understand at all.

Since then, Blair has returned to Liberia numerous times. All told, hes spent about a year and a half there, including weeks at a time hanging out with ex-soldiers in the mines. They would teach me, heres how you jig for diamonds,he says. They were all laughing, lets show this white dude what we do.’” Some of his research took him way out in the bush to small villages—“places where you would drive for seven hours, then take a motorbike for an hour, then walk for two hours.A paper published in 2014 (with Chris Blattman and Alexandra Hartman) in American Political Science Review evaluated a UN program aimed at strengthening legal informal institutions for resolving disputes. Other methods include trial by ordeal, which Blair says is now illegal, though still common in rural areas: If youre accused of a crime,he says, a medicine man will heat up a machete and press it next to your skin. If you burn, youre guilty, if you dont, youre innocent.The paper concluded that while the program greatly helped mediate problems like land disputes, it had the adverse effect of increasing reliance on trial by ordeal and other forms of extrajudicial punishment.

Perceptions of the Police

This result encouraged Blair to examine the flip side of the project: working with the police. He is currently evaluating a Liberian government program called Confidence Patrolsthats getting officers out into rural areas that havent ever had a police presence. Police are generally reviled in Liberia if theyre known at all,he says. Theyre viewed as inaccessible and irrelevant or as predatory and corrupt.The officers go into villages for whats essentially a meet and greet, explaining what they do, then return to the same village several more times. For a lot of people theres not even a sense of what function they serve,says Blair. Though the data isnt in yet, transcripts from the meetings show a softening of resistance to the police over time. He predicts that due to the program therell be less crime, less domestic violence, and less reliance on institutions like trial by ordeal. But he doesnt know for sure. He says he prefers evaluating programs when Its not obvious that all the effects are going to be positive.”  

His trips to Liberia are shorter now (Ive definitely done my time,he says. I ran out of steam for that kind of fieldwork.). Now his research is shifting back to Colombia, to remote, off-the-grid areas previously controlled by rebel groups, where the distrust of police is even higher than in Liberia. My experience is very circular in a lot of ways,he says. Im sort of returning to the same themes, in slightly different ways, and to the same places.The program hes evaluating involves police inspectorshired by the government to act as liaisons between these communities and the police in an attempt to win peoples trust and change their perceptions.

Its interesting because political scientists really dont study the police as an institution,he says. Weve sort of ceded that to criminologists. But we all know that this institution really matters.restoring trust in the police is a key part of the post-conflict, peacebuilding process, but we just dont really touch it. Thats whats been really exciting about it, forging under-explored territory for political science.


                                                                                                                Leslie Weeden