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The Voice of the People

The Voice of the PeopleWhen The Fletcher School's Peter Uvin set out to write about postwar Burundi, he went straight to the source.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.03.08] In the fields and slums of the tiny Central African nation of Burundi-one of the 10 poorest countries in the world-The Fletcher School's Peter Uvin collected some keen insights into the challenges faced by a developing nation emerging from years of civil conflict. But instead of speaking with other academics in development jargon about conflict resolution, human rights and other heady topics, he spent nine months simply listening to people talk about what their lives were like after the war.

"What I'm essentially doing is holding a mirror of Burundians to themselves," says Uvin, academic dean at The Fletcher School. "But it's a mirror that comes from themselves."

Uvin, who is the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies and director of the Institute for Human Security, traveled to Burundi after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006 to chronicle the country's emergence from a 12-year civil war. The output of his conversations there, a book called "Life After Violence: A People's History of Burundi," will be published Dec. 15 by Zed Books Ltd.

"I basically asked a ton of entirely open-ended questions," says Uvin, whose work was partially funded by the World Bank. "I wanted them not to be responses to my ideas, but just little catalysts to get them going. Questions like, who do you admire? If you were the local mayor, what's the first thing that you would do? How is your life different from the lives of your parents?"

Burundi is a landlocked country about the size of Maryland and is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Colonized first by Germany then by Belgium, since independence in 1959 the country has been plagued by ethnic violence between the Tutsis and Hutus, the same ethnic groups whose conflict resulted in genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Two Fletcher students, Ann Nee and Kim Howe, worked as Uvin's research assistants for part of his time in Burundi, conducting interviews, co-authoring chapters of the book and drafting reports. Uvin also collaborated with Fletcher School colleague Marc Sommers, associate research professor of human security, who embarked on a similar effort in neighboring Rwanda.

As a means of bringing his findings back to the Burundians who had shared their lives with him, Uvin arranged for key parts of the book to be condensed into serialized broadcasts on Radio Publique Africaine, radio providing the best means for reaching a large number of people.

Uvin believes this endeavor-the restitution of research to a people via the radio-is unique to Burundi and perhaps even Africa, and that the World Bank is adapting the technique for other research, as well.

The popular hour-long programs included call-in segments where listeners could respond to the topics at hand. Local hip-hop groups even produced jingles to advertise the show that incorporated quotes from Uvin's research.

lavUvin, who had worked with NGOs in Burundi and other African countries for more than two decades, was no stranger to the region. His previous research had resulted in books including 1998's "Aiding Violence," which explores how development assistance could ease conflict in nations like Rwanda, and 2004's "Human Rights and Development," which addresses strategies for improving human rights efforts in developing nations.

When Uvin went to Burundi in 2006, the people he spoke with were eager for him to provide comparisons between Burundi and the rest of Africa.

"'We never know how we differ from others because we only know our little place,'" they told Uvin. "Because that's what it is to be poor; you just know yourself."

Uvin was able to provide some comparisons. For example, he discovered that Burundians place greater value on education than others in the region do. "The Burundians overwhelmingly and massively described education as the number one dream for their lives and for their children's lives," says Uvin. "Not only that, they did equally for women and for men, which is rare in the third world."

In his interviews, Uvin spoke with a range of people but focused on young men. "They're always seen nowadays as dangerous-potential terrorists," he explains. "I wanted to hear their voices. Some of them were unbelievable-their passion, their intelligence, their fine analysis of the society around them."

Uvin gives the example of peace activist Adrien Tuyaga, who became a close collaborator with Uvin on the project. His shared Tutsi and Hutu heritage has given him the ability to organize youth from both sides together in soccer matches and other community-building activities. Uvin also hired him to produce the radio programs.

By arranging for his findings to be broadcast on the radio and be subject to public debate, Uvin is looking to advance the sense of plurality that came with the end of the civil war.

"In a place like this, the voice of ordinary people is never part of official discourse," says Uvin. "People talk about the poor, but it's never the poor themselves doing so. So, what I wanted to do is to get the voice of ordinary people out there on the radio, [to] try to feed back ordinary Burundians' voices to Burundi and say, 'Here it is, we listened, we organized it a little bit, this is you. Do you agree?' And then they call in and discuss."

One such ordinary Burundian is a young man that Uvin befriended who, despite his poverty, was determined to obtain a university degree. However, the cost of printing his thesis was so prohibitive that he was in danger of not getting his degree.

For Burundians like this man, the goal is not revolution or violence, but just to live a productive life.

"He wants to be part of the system more than anything else," says Uvin. "He doesn't want to overthrow it. He just wants to be in. He worked so hard and got so close, and yet the last step may continue to elude him forever."

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