No Marathon, But Dissertation Research

Last I left you, dear reader, you were waiting anxiously to hear whether or not I survived the Belfast City Marathon. Did I finish? Can I still use both of my legs? Was I airlifted to the emergency room at mile 13 with dangerous heart palpitations?

Alas, I did not actually run. I got as far as arranging to pick up my bib and racing chip, but then fate mercifully intervened: My running partner bowed out with a knee injury and I decided not to go it alone.

We thought we’d play golf instead.

If this feels a little anticlimactic, I apologize. I should not have led you on like that in my previous blog post. The ugly truth is that I harbored doubts all along about my ability to run 26.2 miles on little to no training. I had a carefully thought-out strategy: avoid running to the extent possible in the weeks leading up to the race so as not to be tired. But I can see how even a well-rested runner could come up short. Might I remind you that Pheidippides, the original marathoner, collapsed and died upon reaching the finish line.

Thankfully it didn’t come to that. But since I don’t have any race-day drama to recount here, I thought I’d share a little bit about my research here at Queen’s University. As a master’s student in the Comparative Ethnic Conflict track of the school of Politics, International Studies, and Philosophy, I’ve been at work on a dissertation that looks at why the massive international state-building effort in South Sudan failed to achieve two of its most important stated goals: building a functional democratic state and preventing a return to open conflict.

The dissertation builds on the more than two-dozen interviews I did with current and former U.S., U.N., and South Sudanese officials for an article I published in Foreign Policy magazine in February. My goal in that piece was to weave together a portrait of the U.S. legacy in South Sudan; what emerged was a troubling account of tensions between and within U.S. administrations that alienated the South Sudanese leadership, reduced American leverage, and blinded U.S. officials to some of the warning signs that South Sudan was headed in the direction of civil war.

The interviews also revealed the extent to which the South Sudanese and their international partners were working at cross-purposes — a revelation that led me to embark on my current dissertation project. The literature on state-building is clear that aligning donor interests with those of local elites is critical to getting the kind of “buy-in” that enables successful institution building. Yet in South Sudan, high-minded donor priorities were constantly flouted by local elites — without much protestation on the part of the donors, who prioritized stability above all else — and routinely leveraged into patronage networks and coercive apparatuses that helped keep them in power. Examining whether and to what extent these divergent interests undercut the state-building process is the main undertaking of my dissertation.

Since my year in Belfast is sadly winding to a close, I’ll share one final photo of Queen’s University looking sunny and spring-like — not, assure you, its usual state. It’s been a wonderful year, though, and I’ll be sad to leave this place behind.

I guess I’ll have to come back next year and actually run the marathon.
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