Home › Forums › PCDN Interviews with Key Practitioners and Scholars › PCDN Interview with Simon Robins, Humanitarian practitioner and researcher
July 15, 2016 at 2:37 pm #112586
Simon Robins describes himself as a “humanitarian practitioner and researcher with an interest in transitional justice, humanitarian protection and human rights”. Having consulted for a range of international agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the Institute for Security Studies, Simon has a decade of experience living in and working with post-conflict societies, particularly Timor-Leste, Uganda and most recently Nepal.
Simon is one of those rare people who manages to bridge the notorious scholar-practitioner gap in the field of peacebuilding, as he has translated and theorised about the themes and issues raised in his work in post-conflict contexts in an academic context. He recently completed a PhD from the University of York’s Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, in which he investigated the issue of people ‘disppeared’ during conflict. Using ethnographic research methods, his thesis analysed victims’ attitudes towards transitional justice mechanisms in Nepal and Timor-Leste to determine the effectiveness of these mechanisms in answering victims’ needs. One of Simon’s major conclusions was that current transitional justice mechanisms and practices need to be adapted to specific contexts, rather than being driven by an elite, centralised bureaucracy.
Simon’s research into the issue of the Missing of Nepal and Timor-Leste has been widely published.
PCDN Interview with Simon Robins, Kathmandu, 12 June 2012
1. Can you give us a brief biography about yourself and how got into the field?
After 10 years of professional life, I happened to find myself in Geneva, unemployed and thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was playing football with the Red Cross football team in Geneva, and it got me thinking that it might be something that could be interesting. So I applied to join the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and was accepted. I went to East Timor in 2003 and that’s where I got my initial practice and experience in humanitarian work, in conflict and post-conflict work.
2. What ethics guide your work?
The ICRC works with victims and it emphasises that its work is about proximity to victims. All my work as a humanitarian practitioner has been with victims and for victims. This ideal has really guided the work I have done since: the more academic, research-oriented work and the mixture of research and practice that I have tried to do. So my ethical framework is really driven by asking “How can I work in a way which brings the greatest possible benefit to the victims?” That could be working directly with a family and bringing them something, or it could be writing a paper that changes how people think and practice. More rigorously, you can talk about things like accountability. To whom am I accountable when I do my work? There is accountability to donors because they pay you and if you don’t give them what they want then they won’t give you any more money. But I think it’s really interesting to think about accountability to beneficiaries and victims. What does that mean? I think this is something people who work in post-conflict are only beginning to investigate. How do we make ourselves accountable to the people we are trying to help? How do we let them evaluate if we’re doing a good job or not, if we’re spending the money as we should?
3. How do you maintain a balance between work and personal life?
For the last five years I’ve been doing short-term work and research work, which means that it doesn’t really matter where I live. My partner’s humanitarian work takes her around the world and I live with her part of the time and travel. That’s the work-life balance that I have. I have to go away for weeks or months at a time, and that is the greatest challenge. I don’t think there is any good way to balance it. I can criticise the academics who write extensively about working in conflict but who rarely leave their universities in Europe and North America, but it’s really hard to live a life where you spend your time immersed in the field like some other people do. It’s a real challenge and I think ultimately, people will reach the decision that you prioritise your family and your work is maybe not as good as it could be. But that’s a compromise people need to make.
4. What do you see as the upcoming growth areas in the field in the next 10 years?
I would hope that the critique that I am bringing to bear – it’s not unique, other people are doing it, too – will be something that can be picked up. The understanding that we have a very prescriptive practice – you can read a book, and this is how we ‘do’ transitional justice, this is how we ensure rights after conflict – and I would like to challenge that prescription with the idea that you have to contextualise it and immerse it in the everyday lives of the people who are most affected by the violence and violations. There is now a well-established critique that the global prescriptive forms of Transitional Justice are not adequate, but there’s not really a lot of work around how we move forward. One solution is if you just shrug your shoulders and say, “There is no such thing as Transitional Justice. There is addressing the needs of individuals and communities and societies after conflict and that will be entirely determined by cultural circumstances.” But then you have no practice, you just have anthropologists, essentially, looking at cultures and saying what they need. What I am trying to bring and what I am doing in Nepal right now is also address power relationships as a way of looking at that question, because agency lies with people who have the resources and the money – and not with the victims, who don’t. You can have a practice which is about giving agency to the victims and people at the local level. As they will be the ones driving the process, local and particular approaches will emerge. So, if you like, it’s a methodology of doing Transitional Justice and addressing legacies of conflict but it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t say what you do; it says how you approach it. I’d like to think that this would be something that evolves, but it’s pretty difficult.
5. What gaps do you think need to be addressed in the peacebuilding and development fields?
I won’t say much about development; it’s not something I am terribly immersed in. Peacebuilding is a narrative that has been imposed on almost every context I have worked in and what I think is missing from narratives of peacebuilding is politics. It’s something you can do a Masters in now; it has become a technical area in which you can specialise that presents itself as apolitical, that peacebuilding is just a technical thing. It’s interesting to me that, despite the failure of central planning, the West with its liberal triumphalism, can come to another society and instruct them how to reconstruct themselves after conflict from the top-down. It’s easy to be an academic and criticise this practice but the people in international institutions and the states that fund them are doing exactly what they always did, largely unaffected by such critiques, The other issue I think is interesting is that we talk about peacebuilding but we don’t talk as much about warmaking. If you look at contemporary conflict, Libya for example: the people who bombed Libya and drove regime change externally are the same people who are now putting in the dollars into peacebuilding and NGOs there. So how do we relate to that? If peacebuilding, like warmaking, is something that the rich North does to the poor South, then we have to deal with it. And that, I think, is the political connection. The politics of why Colonel Gadafi is a bad thing and Karzai is a good thing, it’s a political question. It’s the role of politics in peacebuilding and in warmaking, too.
6. What challenges do you face in your work and at your organisation?
Talking about my own work: to work on your own independently, as I do a lot for my research, means I can do my own research and follow my own agenda, but I don’t have the resources I did when I worked at the ICRC. That’s why my collaboration with the ICRC is great as I do my own research with an institution behind me. There’s also the credibility issue. If I go to a regional police chief or a tribal leader somewhere and say I’m with the ICRC, they would probably know the ICRC. If I say “Hello, my name’s Simon and I’m a researcher and I’ve got some academic affiliation,” it’s like, “So what?” So there are those challenges. But again, I do consulting work where I’m immersed on a daily basis in a structure or a project I don’t necessarily have a lot of control over, where I might be advancing agendas which are exactly those I’ve just been critiquing. So that’s one tension. To engage constructively with that practice, I think it’s important to critique it. Maybe I can justify it that way. Then there’s the ethical question; I am criticising their practice and that they’re spending lots of money, but some of that money is spent on me in a generous consulting fee. So that’s an ethical issue. Personally, I live with myself by doing a lot of work with victims, such as I’m doing in Nepal, which is essentially unpaid. I cover my expenses and I come for free. That’s one way of ethically coming to terms with it; it’s not perfect.
7. What makes your organisation unique? What kind of frameworks do you normally use?
Again, talking about me, not an organisation: I would say that precisely not using a framework to engage with conflict in a community is important. I come with questions that are narrated in terms they can understand: “What are your expectations? What are your needs? What process are you contemplating? What are the impacts of the conflict, of violence, of violations, that you have experienced and how do you see yourself overcoming them?” Which is precisely contrary to saying, “What sort of Truth Commission would you like?” which is what a lot of people ask because they have come with a framework that needs to be globally validated somehow. Part of that is the language you use, and I mostly work in frameworks of human rights. Here in Nepal, for example, I discovered very quickly that people have no idea what human rights are, which means you cannot go to people and say “How can we best support your rights claims?” It’s just a meaningless question. So that’s why the participatory approaches I try to use mean that when composing a questionnaire, you do it together with representatives of the population you’re working with and you spend some time getting to know them and their needs and you produce something that uses their language – and not just linguistically but conceptually – rather than approaches which we choose to import and impose.
8. There has been a shift towards improvement of collaboration and information sharing between organisations and across sectors. How does your organisation collaborate with other organisations that are working on similar efforts?
It’s interesting because my work moves from hard-core humanitarian work and humanitarian protection right over to discussion of social and economic rights in developing contexts, so I’ve engaged with a lot of people who have occupied some place in that spectrum. I collaborate conceptually if not physically with the people at ICTJ, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, who I have done work for in a number of contexts. Even though I’m quite critical of how they work, I like to think that when I’ve worked for them I have pulled them towards a more participatory, more grassroots-oriented approach. I work with lots of people, for example here in Nepal, with the human rights’ agencies whose work I am quite critical of. I am polite when I see them, but what I write and what they read is clearly very critical. That’s quite a difficult relationship.
9. What other organisation or practitioner’s work do you look up to and why?
There are lots of academics doing interesting fieldwork in ways that are very anthropological and driven by local priorities, and there are fewer organisations doing that, I would say. The ICRC is obviously an organisation I have an intimate connection with and I very much appreciate that. In the ICRC, the actors in the field make the decisions and tell the people in the capital who tell headquarters in Geneva how much money will be spent and what the priorities are. In almost every other organisation, somebody in the capital draws up a budget or a guideline or a spreadsheet and that filters down to the people who have to fit into it. So this sort of bottom-up approach is great. ICRC has budget constraints and action that comes from the top, but they are much more permissive of doing things from the bottom than other agencies which send things down from on high.
10. What book(s) is a must-read for people interested in this field?
Again, as somebody who wants to challenge prescription, I would say it’s better to look at a few contexts written about by people who know those contexts very well; ideally, people who have lived and travelled in those contexts, people who have an anthropological perspective from which you can understand what people need and how global discourses can relate to those needs, rather than reading Transitional Justice textbooks that outline what the mechanism is and what it does. Now Transitional Justice is something that you can do a Masters in and presumably lots of practitioners access the texts, then you go to the field with your toolbox and your toolbox says “OK, we can have a trial, we can have a Truth Commission, we can have a reparations scheme” and you try and mould that to your context. I think it’s much better to understand a context and see how those mechanisms might be entirely inappropriate for some. So that’s the extreme interpretation of my anti-prescriptive approach, I suppose.
11. In your opinion, what traits and skills make someone in this field successful?
I think the most important thing is to understand that people have priorities; you need to understand what people want. You need to understand how they live their lives, and that’s about listening and empathy. Human rights practitioners who talk to illiterate peasant women in rural Nepal sometimes tell them what Transitional Justice is, and tell them why they should prioritise calls for impunity rather than listening to what they want. It’s easier as an academic to talk about these issues in an anthropological way: we interview people and understand what they want, then wrap a theory around it and publish it. If your goal is to change a law or governance in a state, maybe you’re less liable to listen. I love listening to people tell me how they see something that I already have a conception – a pre-conception – of. […] Wherever I’ve worked, I’m always surprised; however much reading I have done before and however well I think I know the culture, I’m always surprised what you can learn when you go in with an open question and an open mind.
12. Do you have any advice for people or students who want to pursue a career in the field?
I know that the world has changed and you need a Masters to get any sort of job these days, so everyone who wants to get into the field does a Masters and then looks for a job. But I would say try and get field experience, whatever that means. It could be interning or volunteering, but go somewhere that’s different from what you know. Go somewhere you’re interested in. If you’re interested in conflict and post-conflict, go somewhere relevant to that – whatever stage of your career you’re at but particularly before you do too much studying, because then you’re more likely to understand that the people and the circumstances are as important – in fact, much more important – than the theory and the textbooks. I did my PhD after seven or eight years of field practice and I wouldn’t have brought anything like what I did to that if I just done research, and I think that’s always true even if you’re just doing a Masters. If you spend a year in the field beforehand, you bring a different perspective to your work. And most people don’t; people just go straight through because they know they can’t do anything – maybe they can’t even get an internship – without the Masters. But I would say, as a priority try and get some work in the field.
13. The overarching conclusion of your research into the needs of the families of the Missing in Nepal seems to suggest that traditional discourses of Transitional Justice are inadequate. The majority of victims do not only seek retribution and prosecution of the perpetrators; rather, they want to know the truth about the disappearances and they want to be given the financial means to compensate for the loss of the person who was often the family’s main breadwinner. How do you think Transitional Justice mechanisms need to be adapted to integrate the findings of your research? Have you worked with human rights organisations here to try and initiate this change?
In a poor society, if you ask people what they want, in my experience in every low-income state I’ve worked in, people talk about their economic level and their livelihood. And one could criticise that and say that’s not Transitional Justice, because you’re asking poor people if they would rather not be poor. And that’s true to some extent. Families of the disappeared have lost a breadwinner – fathers, husbands – who used to bring money in and that’s true, but if you put the victim at the centre of your practice instead of the violation or the perpetrator which is what a prosecutorial framework does, you understand that people have a ‘basket’, a range of needs, and to ignore one of them because they were poor before the violation kind of misses the point. The idea that Transitional Justice is a restitutive process can’t just return people to the poverty and exclusion that precipitated the conflict. We want a transformative justice, a process that promises a life better than the one that led to conflict. Nepal is a good example, because the majority of the population of the country is desperately poor and excluded from all elements of social, political and economic life – and there will be another conflict unless that issue is addressed. The impact of the violations is always much greater in many ways on the poor. And then looking at the truth issue and relating to what you said about working with human rights orgnisations: a Truth Commission is a way of writing a history of a conflict but the people I’m talking to, the truth they want is not a public truth. They know what has happened to them, they know who died, they know how they were treated during the conflict. What they want is to know where is my son, my brother, my husband? They want a private truth and a Truth Commission doesn’t deliver that. […] Truth Commissions can do a very good job of demonstrating the scale and extent of the violence, and narrowing the space in which lies can be told about it, but it can’t replace a process of identifying a gravesite or exhuming a body or doing a DNA test to confirm if a person was killed in this place and to return the body to loved ones. So even though I work with a lot of human rights groups, there is not a lot of interest in really taking a victim-centred approach despite the rhetoric people use. The global prescription is very strong, and reinforced by the fact that money comes from donors who use the language international NGOs use. It’s a very hard battle to change […] but it’s worth trying.
14. TJ has been largely ignored in Nepal in recent months as Constitution drafting has taken precedence over everything else. Given the current situation in which Nepal has neither a Constitution nor a governing body, it seems likely that TJ will not be a high priority in the immediate future, either. Do you have advice as to what victims and human rights organisations can do in the meantime?
The core of human rights activity, here and elsewhere, particularly after conflict and during conflict, is advocacy: you make as much noise as you can in the hope that it changes the behaviour of the authorities, law, governance, whatever. The target of that advocacy no longer exists in Nepal because the legislature has disappeared. There is no obvious power, interested in dealing with such issues. So for me it’s a very interesting time to be working because organisations can say “Hang on. Why is it that all our work is state-centric?” […] Now that there is no functioning institution, maybe we can ask ourselves how to work with victims. If they had had a practice over the last five years that was driven by the grassroots and affected communities, they still might have failed to produce their institutional mechanisms but they might well have transformed thousands of victims’ lives. And, for me, this would be a good time to think about that.
15. Can you please give your opinion on what options you see for Nepal’s future?
I would go back to my understanding of Nepal and its conflict: it’s about how there is a narrow elite running things. The democratic changes of the early 1990s instituted liberal democracy but changed nothing because the power relations remained in place and indigenous and marginalised people got to elect Brahmins to parliament and nothing changed. The People’s War changed that. The rhetoric that came out of the Peace Agreement in 2006 was one of inclusion above anything else. And the issue that goes to the heart of that is ethnic federalism. […]I’m concerned there is a move to an explicitly post-ideological ethnic politics rather than the non-ideological politics which we’ve had for the last four years and I think that’s really, really negative because that means that everyone has an interest in heightening ethnic differences and instrumentalising them for their own personal gain. I’m rather pessimistic. I don’t think there’s going to be a magical solution where in a few weeks the parties decide they can agree on what they couldn’t agree on last month. There will be an election, not in November but sometime early next year, and that might be the first ethnic election in the event that there will be parties for ethnic federalism and parties against it, and more than that there will be lots and lots of parties divided explicitly along ethnic lines.
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