As the only first-year student on the Baylor University Model United Nations Team some 15 years ago, Laura Seay got the last pick of the available topics, and that meant one thing—Africa.
Charged with tracking refugee movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Seay found herself considering a country where civil war had broken out and tens of thousands of people were fleeing every day. The fluid situation made the project impossible, but her curiosity was piqued.
“It just got me,” she said. “This is a place where there are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered.”
Seay (pronounced “See”), assistant professor of government, has been seeking to answer them ever since, considering the way people organize to survive in the DRC, Rwanda, and Nigeria, and doing extensive on-the-ground research in central Africa, where conflict is all too common. How do people respond, she asks, when government can’t or won’t provide basic services and security?
“It’s actually inspiring,” Seay said of her work. “You’re talking about people who are finding ways to use very limited resources, very limited human capital, and yet continue to keep a school system open, continue to keep a hospital running. And continue to provide—to do the things that government does—when the state is largely absent.”
Her research takes her to some of the continent’s most fragile states, where courage sometimes stands in stark contrast with violence and tragedy. The horrendous violence can be dispiriting, but Seay continues to be fascinated by places where Western rules don’t apply. “What a state is, who interacts with whom, who’s making the decisions, what accountability means—none of it fits in with the things you learn in a standard freshman international relations class,” she said. “You learn it in mine.”
This summer Seay is to do research in four provinces in the DRC, including sites three days’ walk from the nearest road. The question: has a multimillion-dollar program to change the form of governance there succeeded?
This fall a team of students, including graduate students from University of California, Berkeley, and a Colby team that will include Leah Breen ’15 and a to-be-selected incoming Presidential Scholar, will analyze the data collected by the DRC researchers, including some 30 Congolese who will work with Seay to gather information.
“It’s really important to have your facts right and to have the methodological tools and skills,” Seay said, “that whatever career you go out into—a lawyer, an aid worker—you’re going to bring to the table the skills of making smart, evidence-based arguments rather than heartwarming anecdotes. A lot of money has been spent in the past on heartwarming anecdotes, and it hasn’t actually made anybody’s life better.”
Assistant Professor Laura Seay’s next project:
“I’m interested in how advocacy movements in the United States affect U.S. foreign policy in Africa and, in turn, what effect those policies have on the ground.”
The process, Seay has observed, is for an advocacy group to put its name on an issue and to brand the issue, often with a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker. The group spreads the word about its position on the issue and pressures Congress and the White House. The Kony 2012 movement, including the widely seen film, is case in point, she said.
“I’m interested in how that process happens, and who has influence and why, and whether those policies that those groups push for—in this case pushing to capture or kill a warlord—whether that works, what it does to people on the ground, are there unintended consequences.”
The movement to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony in central Africa, was suddenly popularized by the film, and support grew for Western governments to aid in his capture. Noting that Kony’s force has shrunk to a few hundred and his threat has diminished, Seay says the Kony 2012 campaign raises questions. “How many billion dollars do you spend hunting one guy?” she asked. “Is that an effective use of resources?”
Seay said she is aware that her questions may be unsettling to some, including government officials and politicians who have committed to a course of action. “I’ve already made some people uncomfortable,” she said. “I testified about this a couple of years ago, and I got screamed at by some members of Congress.”
One congressman, Seay said, told her, “I don’t care what the facts are. I already made up my mind.”
For more read Laura Seay’s blog, Texas in Africa, and her posts in theatlantic.com, the Christian Science Monitor’s Africa Monitor, and the Washington Post’s blog The Monkey Cage. Follow Seay on Twitter at @texasinafrica.