PETER UVIN – HENRY LEIR PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN STUDIES AND DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR HUMAN SECURITY
When the horrors of the Rwandan genocide emerged in 1994, the international development community saw itself as totally outside the dynamics that had led to the tragedy. Peter Uvin disagreed. His resulting 1998 book, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda, was a pioneering work that broke open debates still raging today over the purpose of development aid and its potential to be complicit in structural violence, as Uvin argues it was in Rwanda.
“It was a book that was clearly at the beginning of a change in the way development aid operates, of a much greater consciousness of human rights violations and conflict dynamics, as well as a greater willingness to do something about it,” Uvin says of Aiding Violence. “My book fed into a change that people were ready for—a whole change where aid was more political and involved in human rights.”
As a result of his book, Uvin became one of the foremost figures in the up-and-coming field of research on development practices. A significant contribution of the book was the broadening of the development agenda to include a set of issues that until then had been entirely off the radar of development practitioners: concerns with conflict resolution and violence, and concerns with human rights and governance. Uvin has been heralded as the father of both fields, given his extensive academic and operational experience in Burundi and Rwanda. The influence of his work has reached the highest levels of policy-making in countries all over the world.
In the field of conflict resolution, he wrote a basic document for the OECD in 1999 entitled “The Influence of Aid in Situations of Violent Conflict” on how development aid and approaches can be used in such a way so as to decrease conflict and violence in conflict situations. He wrote a number of other articles on the new paradigm of the intersection between development and peace and conflict resolution.
In the field of human rights and governance, Uvin has been conducting extensive fieldwork (especially in Rwanda) involving issues surrounding transition of justice. His book, Human Rights and Development, published by Kumarian Press in 2004, takes a human rights-based approach to examining development practices. “The book tries to go beyond slogans and empty rhetoric, instead outlining a whole typology of activities that can be undertaken by practitioners under constraining circumstances,” says Uvin of the book, which has been called seminal in its field.
In recent years, the regional focus of Uvin’s research has been Burundi, which is considered “a counter-model to Rwanda in some ways.” Though not as internationally visible as Rwanda, Burundi has a similar ethnic makeup and has experienced similar patterns of violence, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people since the early 1990s.
In the academic year 2006-2007, Uvin took a sabbatical from The Fletcher School to conduct research in Burundi as a Guggenheim Fellow. During this period, he conducted interviews with hundreds of ordinary people—including traders, taxi drivers, and demoralized soldiers—in rural and urban Burundi on their perceptions of Burundi after the war. “Burundians had just come out of a decade of civil war. I heard how they perceived issues of conflict resolution and human rights, as I wanted to see whether their dreams and hopes matched the rhetoric of scholars on those issues,” says Uvin. The research culminated in the book Life after War. Peace seen from below in Burundi published by Zed books in 2008.
“Most of what I do is aimed at practitioners,” says Uvin. “I try to influence good practice by using good scholarship.”