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Not Giving Peace (Institute) a Chance

February 21, 2011

Caroline Hartzell followed the House of Representatives debate on the budget last week, as best she could, from a small town in Colombia. A professor of political science at Gettysburg College, Hartzell is a fellow this year at the U.S. Institute of Peace, investigating the factors that lead some countries experiencing civil war or other conflicts to reach agreements that result in more economic growth than do others. The idea of looking at "who gets what" at the end of a conflict is to explore factors that may encourage both peace and prosperity going forward. Via e-mail, she said she was "very concerned" about the House vote to eliminate all federal support for the institute.

Hartzell is among a number of scholars whose current work or previous projects (or dissertations) received support from the institute, a relatively small federal agency that ended up on the House hit list. While the Senate may be unlikely to go along, these scholars are worried that in the horse trading that will be needed to get any budget through Congress, the institute may be vulnerable. It lacks the national name recognition of agencies like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Further, unlike many of the budget cut proposals that had only Republican backing, this one had a Democratic co-sponsor, Representative Anthony Weiner of New York.

Weiner and another co-sponsor, Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week, in which they argued that other agencies or private groups could pick up any valuable work performed by the peace institute. And although the sums being eliminated are very small ($34 million in operating support last year) in the context of the entire federal budget, they noted that the institute has received $720 million in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1985. "[T]he organization's value is not in question -- only its need for taxpayer funding is. Similar organizations manage to do good work without taxpayer money," wrote Chaffetz and Weiner. The amendment leaves open the possibility that the institute could continue to function if it can raise entirely private funds to do so.

The USIP (as it calls itself) supports scholarly work in several ways: a fellowship program for established scholars, dissertation fellowships for doctoral students, and research grants for specific projects. Most of the grants are relatively modest ($100,000 would support several years of research, many grants are for half of that, and dissertation grants are much smaller). Grant recipients say that it is true that there are other agencies that support related academic work in some fields, but they say that USIP priorities aren't shared by other agencies, and that much work supported by the agency might not find funds elsewhere.

Mike Lebson is currently in Jordan, where he is doing work with a $20,000 dissertation grant from USIP for his Ph.D. in government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park. Reached in Amman, Lebson said that he is studying the way refugees maintain ties to their countries of origin and to the places they live. He is in Jordan to do interviews with Palestinians (who have been there for a long time) and Iraqis (more recent arrivals). "It makes for a good comparative case study," he said.

The topic is significant, he said, because it deals with issues that may make eventual resolutions of conflicts more or less likely to last. Lebson said that while the grant from USIP isn't paying all of his research costs, it has made the difference between being able to develop a research plan based on time in Jordan and one without that time. He is doing in-depth interviews in 100 Palestinian households and 50 Iraqi households, and also meeting with various experts.

He said that there are very few fellowships for doctoral students with his interests, and fewer still that support field research abroad. "The American interest in promoting peace and stability throughout the world is contingent on understanding those conflicts and the factors that lead to conflict and the factors that can ameliorate conflict," he said. "I think it's a pretty good deal for the federal government."

Tracey Holland, a visiting assistant professor of education at Vassar College, received a peace institute grant in 2009 to begin a study of the effectiveness of human rights education in "post-conflict" countries. Holland said that while there are many efforts to promote human rights education, very little research has been done on its effectiveness, and on which strategies should be shared for use elsewhere. "This is about prevention of future conflicts, by understanding how human rights education can work," she said.

Holland said that, in her field, she does not see foundations or government agencies supporting such research. "USIP has taken a bold move in supporting this kind of work," she said. "I can't think of anywhere else I would turn."

Ronald R. Krebs, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, agreed that USIP is supporting research projects that would be unlikely to receive support elsewhere. While the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department support social science research, Krebs said that their support tends to be for quantitative studies in specific disciplines, while USIP has supported qualitative work that is interdisciplinary.

Krebs has a grant from USIP for a project called "Liberty's Trial: International Conflict and the Health of Democracy," which he hopes to turn into a book. Krebs said that scholars have long known that civil liberties tend to contract during wartime, but that there is much debate about what happens after wartime. He is studying ways in which wartime experience may have positive impacts (over the long run) on democracies, either through expanded rights or through "expanding the scope of democratic contestation" (the issues open for political debate). He is using the funds from USIP for research assistants, and for travel for on-site research in India and Israel.

To cut off federal funds for the institute, Krebs said, "is to say that the study of international peace and security doesn't matter to our foreign policy. To those who say they want a strong America, to defund USIP is just self defeating." He added that he was particularly concerned about the potential loss of dissertation support (which he received earlier in his career). "We're at a time that graduate study and fellowships are under assault and being cut," he said, making programs like the graduate student scholarships all the more important.

Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, said he hoped that "these important funds can be restored," adding that "strong social sciences are in the national interest in all areas, and a prime example is their applications to work for peace."

Randall Amster, a professor of peace and justice studies at Prescott College and executive director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, said that even if peace studies scholars can apply to other agencies, there is value in having one funding source "with a specific mandate and mission to support projects that foster peace-making and peace-building around the world."

All the federal funds going to this research are "just a drop in the bucket" of the federal budget, he said, such that the damage done by removing federal support for the institute will hardly eliminate the deficit. "Why would the House go after something like this?"

 

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