The SSRC’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum and African Peacebuilding Network recently collaborated with the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker United Nations Office to host the China-Africa Knowledge Project’s Peace and Security Fellows for a two-day event to discuss the fellows’ field research and a forthcoming manuscript. Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo, an APN Individual Research Grant (IRG) Alumnus (2015), of Dilla University, Ethiopia, visited New York for the event, and the APN team was fortunate to sit down with him to discuss the role of the APN in his research and career development. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
APN Team: Thank you so much for being here. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Dr. Debelo: Thank you for inviting me for the interview. I completed my master’s degree in Indigenous Studies at the University of Tromsø in Norway back in 2007. At that time, I was researching the Ethiopian experiment of ethnic federalism and how that affected inter-ethnic relations at the local level. I would say that was when I developed an interest in issues of conflict and peacebuilding in Ethiopia. I then returned to Ethiopia and worked to establish a new institute, the Institute of Indigenous Studies at Dilla University in the southern part of Ethiopia, where I was working and am now an Assistant Professor of Development Studies. In collaboration with colleagues in Norway, we established the Institute, and I worked there for two years as the Head of the Institute. In 2010, I went to Germany for my PhD in Development Studies at the University of Bayreuth. My research was mainly on human–environment relations, particularly in the context of nature conservation. I tried to explore different dimensions of conflict, mainly resource-based conflict and the questions of entitlement to land. After I finished my PhD, I went back to Dilla University, and in 2014, I saw the call for proposals for the APN Individual Research Grant, which I was awarded in 2015. In 2016, I also received a year-long postdoc position at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. I am now back in Ethiopia at the University of Dilla.
What was the focus of your APN-supported research project?
I focused on competing legitimacies and questions of peacebuilding in local communities on the Ethiopia–Kenya border. When I say competing legitimacies, I mean the issue of the different actors involved in conflict and actors involved in peacebuilding, and how those notions of competition among the actors deter or enhance peacebuilding initiatives in the region. Particularly, I conducted research in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, focusing on how and why identities or groups that transcend national boundaries sometimes enter into conflict. I also worked to identify what local peacebuilding initiatives and practices already exist among these groups. With the APN grant, I finished my research for that project and recently had an article published based on my findings.
Congratulations on your publication. Has the Individual Research Grant had any other impact on your research or career?
The APN grant really helped me to broaden my area of engagement in research because my prior research activities were not purely focused on conflict and peacebuilding. I was doing some research in related topics, but my APN-supported research helped me to go further into the details of conflict research and peacebuilding practice.
There is another dimension to the benefits I received from the APN grant, stemming from the two trainings organized by the APN—one in field-based research methodology and the other as a writing up and research results dissemination workshop. These two workshops, conducted by resource persons from several distinguished universities, were very informative and gave me greater insight into the different debates and discourses related to peacebuilding research. This is now the third conference I’ve had the opportunity to participate in because of the APN as well. I presented a paper at a regional policy dialogue forum in Abuja, Nigeria, on transnational security issues, taking into consideration the role of two African Regional Economic Communities (RECs): ECOWAS and IGAD. I also presented a paper, drawing from the findings of my APN-supported project, at the African Studies Association (ASA) conference in Washington, DC in December last year. The current conference has also helped me, first to network with Chinese and other scholars and practitioners working on issues of African peace and security, and to present my paper and receive feedback from them.
It is important to point out that my engagement with the APN didn’t end with the end of the funding of my project; it has continued since then and that has actively helped me hone my research skills, develop my scholarship, and broaden my networks.
What advice would you give early-career researchers that might be considering applying for an APN research grant or otherwise looking to jumpstart their careers?
For those already engaged in research projects with the APN, the issue of dissemination is very important. We, particularly African researchers working on the issues of peacebuilding, conflict, and so on, should try to reflect African perspectives of peacebuilding and disseminate them through different platforms and mechanisms. Publication in international journals is one way to influence knowledge production, discourse, and debates in academia. Other ways are, if possible, publishing very short policy briefs and participating in conferences to disseminate our findings to broader audiences.
For those planning to apply for an APN grant—from my experience I would say the APN is really a very active program or network where African researchers can gain not only financial support for their research, but also networking opportunities and knowledge through the trainings and workshops. So I will say that this is a very important opportunity. Also, with relation to their choice of topics to research, it is critical to mainly focus on the very pressing issues in Africa—particularly those of peace, conflict, peacebuilding and so on—and if possible, to see areas which have rarely or never been emphasized in the dominant academic discourses and policy debates. Those are the areas we should focus on from an African perspective.
Absolutely. To close, could you tell us about what you’re currently researching? Anything you’re particularly excited about?
I have three or so active research projects right now. I have continued expanding my APN-supported project and am trying to develop it further into a book-length manuscript. The second project focuses on extractive industries in Ethiopia. This is an emerging area, particularly regarding mining, where there are different contestations between private, or even government-owned, companies and local communities over access and entitlement to the resources, environmental concerns, and so on, which of course relates to issues of conflict and peacebuilding. The third project is a book chapter contribution, which is also the reason for which I am now here, on the African perspective of Chinese engagement in peacebuilding practices in Africa. I am now planning to pursue research on how the regional and sub-regional African organizations perceive and partner with China in the area of peacebuilding, particularly in peacekeeping and Peace Support Operations.
That is certainly an important perspective to add to the manuscript and the broader conversation that we have been having. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your research.
Dr. Asebe Regassa Debelo completed an interdisciplinary Master’s program in Indigenous Studies at the University of Tromso, Norway. For his Master’s thesis, Dr. Debelo wrote on “Ethnicity and Inter-Ethnic Relations: The Ethiopian Experiment and the Case of Guji and Gedeo,” in which he analyzed the new political order in the country and its implications on inter-ethnic relations. After completion of his Master’s degree, he founded the Institute of Indigenous Studies at Dilla University, Ethiopia, where he served as head of the Institute for two years. From 2008-2010, Dr. Debelo served also as a coordinator of an international project jointly managed by Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Zambia, and Dilla University. Dr. Debelo completed his PhD at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, Germany, in the field of Development Studies in 2014. He has published many articles and book chapters in areas of indigenous peoples’ right, ethnicity and inter-ethnic relations, competing views on conservation, and notions of peace and peacebuilding. Currently, Dr. Debelo serves as researcher with a rank of Assistant Professor at the Institute of Indigenous Studies, Dilla University (Ethiopia) and he is also holder of Fritz Thyssen Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. He is a 2015 recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network’s Individual Research Grant.