In this article, Gabriel Neely-Streit interviews Professor Paul Jackson who heads the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Read more of our Impact Interviews.
Armed conflict, particularly in the domestic sphere, can have devastating effects not only in direct physical harms to individuals, but in its effects on poverty, health and in a range of related areas. When the fighting stops, an often precarious period of reconstruction ensues, involving also the re-integration of armed non-state groups into society. Over the past three years, conflict and reconstruction expert Prof. Paul Jackson has been advising authorities in Nepal on integrating some 20,000 Maoist former guerrillas into the Nepali Army or civilian life. Here, he discusses the challenges and rewards of his direct-impact work in Nepal and elsewhere, and how it has affected and been shaped by his academic research.
Q: How were you first approached about going to Nepal and what was your initial reaction?
I was a bit nervous mainly because I didn’t know very much about Nepal and I knew that the situation was sensitive. I was initially contacted by a couple of former students of mine who were involved in the peace process. They were both Nepali and had heard me talking about my work in Africa at some of the short courses we run at the university in security sector reform. One had been brought to the UK for a Chevening [scholarship] programme and the other for an SSR course. One of them worked for Saferworld at that time in Nepal and the other for a civil society organisation called Nepal Institute of Policy Studies (NIPS).
They invited me to come to Nepal because I could be regarded as neutral. The fact that I was an academic, that I was invited by the Nepalis themselves, and that I knew nothing about Nepal were all regarded as advantages in terms of being neutral.
Q: How did you prepare for your first trip?
Well, I read a pile of reports and published papers to try and get a handle on the historical development of the Maoist movement and the context of the war. Since then I think I have read pretty much everything written in English on Nepal, including poetry, history and politics. I also try to read Nepali papers to follow some of the main developments. Twitter is also useful in this in terms of sending me updates on Nepali news.
I should also point out that I also rely on my friends in Nepal. Geja Sharma Wagle in particular is a good friend of mine as well as a work colleague, and I trust his judgement absolutely. This close relationship has been invaluable.
Q: What sorts of work did you do or meetings did you have after you arrived?
There was a series of meetings set up to discuss my role. I started as the international adviser to the Secretariat of the Special Committee on the rehabilitation and integration of the Maoist combatants. This then morphed in to a technical committee, which consisted of technical appointees of political parties who were tasked with presenting the politicians with solutions. My role was to act as an independent arbiter, and I spent much of my time talking about examples from elsewhere, interpreting the international language used and liaising with the international community.
We devised a method of holding meetings over weekends at retreats where we could take people away to hotels where we would meet and stay with each other for a few days. This allowed members of the committee to get to know each other and build trust.
Over the course of two years we went from the situation where the Maoists distrusted everyone and would not really say anything, to meetings where there was very open discussion about the issues and even friendship across political boundaries. The informality of the weekend meetings was important in this.
Q: What do you see as the main obstacles to the integration of Maoist militants?
I think it depends on who you are talking about. In my view I don’t see many of the officers wanting to integrate. Many of them already have other roles either within the party or within society more broadly.
The rank and file are very mixed. Like every insurgent army, there is a hard core of seasoned fighters, and it should not be forgotten that the Maoists held back the police and military for ten years, emerging from the war undefeated. In the early days I kept having to remind the military of this, since they had determined not take any of this ‘rag tag’ of rebels. In some areas, the Maoists were very competent, including intelligence and ambush. There are some excellent soldiers here – something that the military has recognised.
The main obstacle to integration itself is whether the Maoists can cope with a regular military life. At the same time, the Nepali military is depoliticised, so mixing the Maoists with the rest is very important. There were a lot of discussions about keeping some of the Maoists together as a group, but this was regarded as dangerous because they could become a separate force within the army (and the whole idea was to reduce the number of alternative forces in Nepal).
There are also some specific issues, not least the fact that many of the Maoists do not conform to the recruitment norms of the Nepal army, but also that there are a large number of Maoists (anything up to 20%) who are women, and gender issues are critical in all of this.
Q: How does the situation in Nepal compare to those you have encountered in your previous work in Africa?
The first thing to say is that I cannot imagine any post-conflict situation in Africa where the rebels would stay peacefully in camps for so long with such a low level of violence. This is down to the discipline of the Maoists but also the power of their ideology.
The other main difference is the discipline and structure of society more broadly, which is very regulated and organised. This has advantages but also disadvantages in terms of changing some of the norms. However, the Maoists have managed to bring about some of their social changes – many laws in support of women’s rights, mixed caste marriages, etc.
At the same time, whilst Nepal might be more disciplined, there are still some features that remain very unhealthy, including extra-judicial killings, impunity of certain families and castes, gender bias and grinding poverty. Nepal is one of the most unequal societies in South Asia — only Afghanistan is worse — so those who fought for the Maoists have a long way to go.
Q: Describe the progress made during your last visit to Nepal
Well, we had changed control of the Maoist army to the Government. We had agreed the conditions by which Maoist combatants could be integrated, and we had agreed on how those who chose to leave would be treated. The main problem was that the international community seemed to think that they would all go for rehabilitation, but this was never going to happen. After five years in camps they were not going to opt for more training. The problem was that for most of international community, this is what they wanted to do – not what was best for the Nepalis. In the end hardly any opted for rehabilitation.
I should point out that one reason why I got on with all sides was that my position was very much one of giving individual Maoists a choice about what to do. For the Nepali army this meant that people were choosing to join and not being forced to, and for the Maoists this meant a genuine choice.
Q: How do you envision Nepal changing in the next 5 years? What will your role be going forward? How will it change?
I don’t really have an official role going forward, although I have bid for funding to do some tracing of former combatants to see where they end up and what they are doing. This is usually the least well done bit of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration). The aim is to take 300 former combatants and create a database of narratives of return to civilian lives.
The main challenges to Nepal are political really. Even issues with the police and justice are primarily political. The next five years will be dominated by what happens to the Maoist party, whether it can stay together and how it functions politically. Factionalism is a danger as is the main bugbear of Nepali politics – personal agendas.
However, the other political parties are not strong. The UML (Unified Marxist-Leninist party) has suffered from the Maoists eroding their traditional base, whilst the Nepali Congress has some good people but they all want to be leader and there is not a clear sense of direction or programme of reform. The NC is also handicapped by being regarded as close to the historical ruling class, which it is.
Politically, therefore, Nepal has a difficult landscape, further complicated by the social convulsions accompanying modernisation of what amounted to a feudal state.
Q: How well equipped did you feel as an academic for pursuing this sort of impact work – at the high levels of government, with a great deal at stake?
When I started, not at all. I have now being doing this for twenty years, and so I am more used to it and am probably regarded as someone who has opinions that are reasonably well founded on academic grounds, but also on practical experience. I find that I have a credibility with many people I work with because I have worked in many of the places I talk about, and that cannot be said for all of my colleagues. I also don’t tend to criticise things and then stop there – that’s easy. What is more difficult is developing ways forward, and I have always regarded my role as doing both rather than just carping from the sidelines.
Having said that, I am and have been critical of some approaches to state building, for example. The same can be said for the role of democracy and the way in which the international community operates democracy – goes in, intervenes, holds an election and then goes home. My criticism is not that democracy or the liberal state is wrong, but that you can’t just create a democracy in five years or less. Liberal states rely on underlying assumptions that do not hold in most of the world, but there are also real risks in alternatives to liberal approaches, [that is], there are lots of critics of liberal democracy, but just think about the alternatives. It is also worth pointing out that many of those critics benefit by living in liberal democracies.
I also have lots of moments where I sit back and think ‘what am I doing here?’ I have never been trained as a diplomat, but then again, whilst I draw on some similar skills and I work with diplomats, my role is to be an academic, and therefore to try to be as objective as possible.
Q: What lessons might you want to share with other academics who would be open to or interested in pursuing similar impact and outreach efforts?
I think I would always tell people to go for it if they are interested, but there are some things that academics might need to know:
* Policy makers do not all read academic papers. Find a way to translate complex ideas in accessible ways. This is not as easy as it sounds.
* It is immediate – you don’t have months to produce papers or reports. Learn to write quickly and concisely. I actually find this is a great discipline for clarity of ideas.
* I have never been told what to put in a report or had the experience of someone changing the wording, but this is partly because I avoid some things, not least compromising individuals whose jobs may be a risk. Depersonalise when you criticise and if you do criticise be willing to engage in discussion and defend your position. Policy makers might not all agree with you, but they are usually able and willing to engage in processes of improving approaches.
* Theory is not what policymakers want, but never forget that it is important. More than once I have stood up and explained aspects of Foucault to army officers. If you can explain why it is relevant (and do it in accessible English) then ideas remain really powerful. I have learned to do things like explain an idea and then only tell people afterwards that the idea is from a theorist.
* One invaluable aspect of doing his work is that I have access to more immediate and frequently more accurate information than most researchers. If I was a researcher then the chances of some of these people talking to me are remote. However, as someone who is an insider – as long as I use the information reasonably – then I get access to confidential information that is up to date, as well as the people actually engaged in this. What I mean by being reasonable is, for example, my promise to the Maoists that as long as the process was ongoing, then I wouldn’t write about them — but now they have said that they would like me to. This is about to allow me to write about them having spent a significant amount of time with the Maoist hierarchy and also the rank and file, which otherwise I would not have been able to do.
I think it might be difficult for someone to have the same career trajectory as me, particularly with the REF (Research Excellence Framework) system in the UK, but there are opportunities to engage. [The UK government allocates funding to universities in part based on the results of an assessment and ranking of their research produced, conducted about every six years.]
Q: Do you intend to pursue further your research into the effects of Glenfiddich on peace brokering?
There is always room for studying Glenfiddich! [Noted in a blog Prof. Jackson posted on his experiences in Nepal]
This came about because Nepalis drink whisky (usually bad whisky) in tumblers and they dilute it, i.e. they put in one finger of whisky and then fill the glass to the top with water. I used to take a different single malt for every meeting, and we would share it out. I banned them from using water and it made a great icebreaker!