Peter Uvin

Ten years ago Peter Uvin, academic dean at The Fletcher School, asked if people working in international development were somehow abetting social injustice and perhaps even violence. He wrote a book, which made waves in the development community—and helped change the way development is practiced.

The book—Aiding Violence (Kumarian Press, 1998)—grew out of Uvin’s work for a Swiss non-governmental organization in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide.

“Rwanda had been considered one of the model developing countries. Its economic growth was rather good, and other technical indicators, such as vaccination rates, were excellent,” said Uvin, who holds the Henry J. Leir Chair in Humanitarian Studies. “Yet, the most horrific violence we had ever seen occurred when the genocide took place and up to one million people were killed in three months.

“It made me wonder. What is it about guys like me, who thought we were doing good, but who weren’t remotely aware of what was going on? More broadly, what impact do international development workers have that may unknowingly lead to potential violence?”

Uvin concluded that the traditional methods of development actively contributed to the dynamics of social polarization and social exclusion that, in some cases, led to structural violence. It happened in Rwanda and, he suggested, it may be happening today in Kenya.

“The technical approach to development had to yield to a deeper understanding of conflict and citizenship dynamics, especially in places where people are not permitted to be citizens of their own society,” he said.

He has since written another book—Human Rights and Development (Kumarian Press, 2004)—which outlines strategies that development and human rights organizations can take to reduce conflict and improve human rights outcomes.

Uvin’s ideas have since become mainstream, and that, too, causes him some concern.

The mandate of international development was previously apolitical in nature, he said. While development has become sensitive to the dynamics of conflict, the field now encompasses nearly all aspects of governance, turning it into what Uvin calls “a more interventionist machine.”

To help future development leaders deal with these issues, Uvin teaches two courses, Development and Human Rights and Development and Conflict Resolution (co-taught with Diana Chigas). The goal, in part, is to equip students with the knowledge and analytical tools that will help them minimize unintended negative consequences and maximize positive outcomes.

“We want students to understand how to do the old things differently and learn about new approaches,” he said. “We want them to think about the potential impact of their work and at the very least do no harm. Ideally, we want them to have a positive impact.”

Some students, particularly those with little development experience, are sometimes disappointed to learn that development work can be counter-productive, he said. “They realize that things are far more political, and that being successful sometimes requires new behaviors.”

The Henry J. Leir Chairmanship is one in a network of endowed chairs at Tufts focusing on civil engagement and public service. To build on his work, Uvin, who directs the Institute of Human Security at Tufts, is working with the Feinstein Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy to develop a second Henry J. Leir Chair, this one in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies.

Originally published May 2008