Helmand Province, Afghanistan. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
As part of a new series of interviews that shed light on the personal experiences of UBC researchers, activists, and analysts, The Envoy had an opportunity to chat with Will Plowright, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He is a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Affairs, and has completed research with armed groups in a number of conflict zones, including work in Uganda, Syria, Palestine, South Sudan, and Myanmar.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Robert Gorwa: Alright Will, thank you so for sitting down with me! If you wouldn’t mind getting us started with some brief background on yourself—where you grew up, where you studied?
Will Plowright: I’m from here. I did my undergrad at UBC, and my masters at the London School of Economics. Came back here to start my PhD. I’ve studied conflict pretty much the whole way through—jumped a bit between politics and history, but my masters was in conflict analysis. I’ve been looking at pretty much the same thing in different ways.
Rob: So a lot of your work now revolves around child soldiers, correct? Are they a core element of your PhD dissertation?
Will: A long time ago, I did work relating to the rehabilitation of child soldiers in central Africa—but now, my PhD work is all about armed groups, and about how they behave. While I use the norm of child soldiers as an example, I don’t really work with child soldiers, and I’m not an expert on child soldiers themselves. My focus is rather on how armed groups interact with the international system.
The easiest way to describe my thesis, is that it’s about how armed groups interact with international actors— and what they really think of international actors. My research is all from their perspective, and is based on qualitative, on-the ground interviews with rebel groups. Trying to get a clearer picture of ‘do they really care’ about what the rest of us think? Does ISIS care what the U.S. government thinks? I argue that they do—and that all armed groups, even the ones we think are truly abhorrent, care deeply about appearing legitimate. Of course, they may have very different notions of what legitimacy is, and that’s a very complex web to unravel, but I argue that it can be done.
Rob: So how did you get into conflict studies, specifically? I know that you’ve done considerable fieldwork—was that all after you finished your undergrad?
Will: I’ve been working and studying for the past ten years and doing both. I actually took 5 years off after high school to travel, so I was a mature student when I started my undergrad (I was 24). I first got involved with a Canadian volunteer organization, and went abroad. That was interesting in some ways, as it was pretty much "voluntourism." And that’s ethically okay, I think, and it can have benefits for everyone involved, provided that you acknowledge that you’re not going there to save people, you’re going there to have a holiday and learn about stuff. If you acknowledge that, it can be fine—it’s not exploitative, you involve people from both sides in decision making, and so forth. It’s just tourism. If you get into the whole thing of ‘yeah, let’s go to Africa for two weeks and save everyone,’ that’s obviously inappropriate. I loved travelling, and loved that kind of work, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t very professional, and that you have to look further, especially if you’re legitimately interested in development.
So eventually when I was finishing my undergrad and starting my masters, and had realized that I was interested in doing more fieldwork, I began to do basic consulting work for organizations in exchange for them kind of showing me around, giving me contacts.
Rob: And then, eventually, you did work with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders), right?
Will: Yeah, just last year. I started to work with them in November, in the south of Afghanistan— a place called Helmand.
Rob: But you traveled a lot after high school, and had been to developing countries before, right? It wasn't like you went straight into conflict zones.
Will: No, it would be a terrible idea to go to a conflict zone without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Some people do that, but generally, if you work for a professional organization you kind of wade your way in. You really don’t want to just take someone who just finished a masters and throw them in something like that. It’s not good for anyone involved.
So if you want to work in the field, you need to be exposed to developing countries. Ease into it, through international service learning trips, training programs, or the like. Because if you're born and raised in a city like Vancouver, and suddenly you're in the middle of a conflict zone, you've got no frame of reference for that. It is shocking. If you're going there to work, you actually need to be able to work effectively in that context. If you find it shocking, you won't be very good at your job.
So with an organization like MSF you start at a very junior level. No matter who you are, or what you’ve done, at MSF you always start on the first step of the ladder. I was at literally the most junior field level possible for international staff, and even getting there was incredibly difficult— you need years of experience and field work.
Rob: What was it like being involved in that organization as someone who wasn't a doctor or a med student?
Will: MSF is interesting, because its public perception is very different from what it really is. Only about 15% of its staff are doctors—maybe 20%. Slightly more than half are non-medical personnel. So in addition to your doctors, nurses, surgeons, and anesthesiologists, you also have your operations management (who oversee everything), administration (who make sure everyone is getting paid, and making sure nobody breaks the law), and logistics (who make sure everything is working, from the generators to the bio-medical equipment). Supply is another huge one—they need to find ways to get all the equipment that is needed there, which is immensely complicated. MSF is built by the supply team—while the medical staff obviously do an amazing job, the organization exists because of the innovations on the supply side of things. They've worked out how to get things into places where it's really difficult to get things.
My job was a bit different. It was a big hospital—around 800 staff— and my role was to help oversee teaching and training in the hospital. The hospital was shared with the government, the Afghan ministry of health. Unfortunately, the Afghan system of schooling isn't quite at the same level as ours. For medical staff that can be a problem, as sometimes their doctors didn’t have enough experience doing certain procedures. So we had a range of training programs, from demonstrating complicated surgical procedures, to the basics—how to put in a catheter or a nasogastric tube. I oversaw the training, and helped oversee the people doing the training—making sure they were prepared properly.
Rob: While there are the obvious challenges of integrating and coming to terms with that kind of environment, I've always figured that returning home from a conflict zone, or going back and forth between these ‘different worlds’ would be even more difficult.
Will: I think people generally call it ‘reverse culture shock.’ I was only there for 9 months—so not that long. But when you’re living in compounds, you can’t go and wander in public— it’s not that you will be targeted, but rather, that you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So you stay there everyday, drive to the hospital, work, drive back. Two days after I came back from Afghanistan, I went on a canoeing trip with a bunch of friends to the Yukon. There were these incredibly open spaces—we had total freedom in this stunning environment as we made our way down the river. I probably should've waited a little longer, as it was just a ridiculous contrast. Even here, in Vancouver, it’s so beautiful. You have everything you want—access to the library, great lectures, the freedom to learn anything you want. You meet many people, especially in Afghanistan, who either don't have the means, or are literally prevented from doing what they want. It definitely takes a little time to adjust to the idea of how well off you actually are.
Rob: Do you think that it is important for academics to do fieldwork?
Will: Yes and no. Political Science runs the full gamut, from being completely theoretical to being highly intertwined with policy. So on one side, you meet people who are experts in places they've never been to—and in that case, it’s kind of odd. However, at the same time—the last thing I published was on the ethics of doing research in conflict zones. I was arguing that people shouldn’t be pushed to do fieldwork, and that it is important that they be properly prepared for what they’re doing. There are lots of places—Northern Uganda is one, nowadays— which have almost become circuses for undergrads writing research papers. Which is fine—if they’re properly prepared, but they usually aren't. You need to to make sure that you’re operating ethically, as it’s definitely an exploitative relationship. You’re taking advantage of someone’s suffering for your own personal gain (your grades, research, etc) and probably not really doing anything in return—nevermind the fact that you reopen old wounds.
There is also the problem with people going to conflict zones—for example, like in Syria right now—where people don’t really know what they're getting themselves into. They mean well, but incredibly bad things happen to them. Of course, it’s not about blaming them—but rather, acknowledging that they should have training, that they should have preparation, and that they should have experience in the developing world. It really scares me to think about people that really want to do field research, but aren’t really ready for it, and are taking real risks with themselves and others as a result.
Rob: So how does one become properly prepared, then? What steps did you take? Was it by starting out at a low level in these sorts of organizations?
Will: Pretty much. Get training wherever you can. There is a ton of material online, especially regarding security. You can do many of these courses online, and go through some of the basic procedures regarding security in the field (the UN has a couple). You’ll look at some scenarios. This is what might happen if you come to a checkpoint. This is what might happen if someone pulls a weapon on you. This is what might happen if someone feels threatened. How to react, what to do—it’s very important. Even here at UBC, they have training sessions to prepare you for the field. That's just related to security though—it becomes a lot more difficult to insure that things are done ethically, research-wise. As a PhD student, you have to go in front of a behavioural research ethics board. There are multiple steps that you need to go through, to make sure you're being safe —not just for yourself, but also for others. Unfortunately, lots of people are not.
Rob: You've done so much work in conflict zones. When you were looking for work, what was your strategy? Were you following a certain path, and a certain type of work, or were you more generally just taking advantage of various opportunities as they popped up?
Will: I actually decided a few years ago that I wanted to work for MSF, and I worked towards that for 4 or 5 years. They're the type of organization, that if you want to work for them, you can’t just apply on a whim—it’s a tough organization to get into. I'm not trying to sound self-congratulatory or anything, but the reality is that you have to prepare for years, and have the right experience. In Canada, for non-medical positions, they receive thousands of applications for every person they take.
Of course, it all depends on what exactly you want to do. But if you want to go work for any organization, or any job in general—go to their website, find the job posting, find the criteria, and make sure you can tick off every single box. How you do that depends. For me, it was a combination of time in the field, time working for various organizations, and experience with management. It's okay to start small. I started very small (with groups of UBC volunteers), and worked up from there.
Oddly enough, one way to do that was through bartending. When I had my interview with MSF, they basically looked at my resume, and said something along the lines of ‘it’s pretty clear that you've been in lots of conflict zones, and you know what they're like. So we don't need to ask you too much about that—so let’s talk about your team management. What was the biggest team you ever managed?’
And the biggest team I ever managed was at a bar—10 bartenders, 5 barbacks, 7 bouncers, or whatever. It was relevant experience. It's funny, as I wasn’t expecting that at all. Even going into it, I was thinking that I maybe shouldn't even have put that job on my resume— because I didn't want them looking at it and thinking, ‘oh, he's just a bartender.’ But they look at it and see ‘okay, he's managed a big team, he has experience handling large amounts of money’—which are very useful skills. They even asked me questions about conflict resolution. What do you do when people start fighting at the bar? How do you step in and diffuse the situation? That's relevant experience! Hopefully in the field, everybody isn't drunk all the time, but it’s all relevant in one way or another.