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Proposed Plan of Research

A Home at the End of the War: Communities and Ex-combatants in Colombia


I propose to research the role of NGO-run social projects in facilitating the
reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life in Colombia. In particular, I plan to
explore the challenges of reintegration not just for ex-militants, but also for the
communities to which they return. Reintegration is often the most difficult aspect of
peacebuilding. As Ball and Havely note, disarmament exposes insurgents to severe
financial and psychological distress. Civil wars breed poverty, fear, and elaborate black
markets for weaponry conditions that tempt many ex-fighters back to the front lines
before reintegration even begins. In many communities, relationships between excombatants and civilians are strained by mutual suspicions and legacies of violence.
NGO-sponsored social projects can prove indispensable in overcoming these obstacles to
reintegration. In Colombia, for instance, the NGO Fundacin Social runs literacy
workshops in which ex-child soldiers receive coaching from their civilian classmates,
while Bogot Sin Indiferencia hosts film screenings and soccer games to help excombatants acclimate to communal life. These are two of many examples. Yet despite
anecdotal evidence of their successes, these programs have been all but ignored in the
peacebuilding literature.
Most studies of reintegration evaluate macro-level programs run by national
governments or the United Nations to quantify their impact on the welfare of ex-fighters,
which is usually cast in economic terms. Weinstein and Humphreys, for example, find
that a UN-sponsored peacebuilding initiative in Sierra Leone actually depresses
employment rates among participants and thus hampers reintegration. Blattman, in his
research on Uganda, discovers that although ex-combatants often struggle to find work
even after completing government job training clinics, they tend to be more politically
active than their civilian counterparts. While these studies offer important insights into
the promises and pitfalls of large-scale peacebuilding programs, they ignore the impact of
reintegration on post-war communities themselves. My research is designed to help fill
this gap. Unlike most government projects, NGOs aim not just to ensure the economic
welfare of ex-combatants, but also to repair damaged communities. Insofar as these
projects can help heal cleavages between and among civilians and ex-fighters, they
represent a crucial part of the peacebuilding process.
My study will involve eight specific steps corresponding to two broad phases of
data collection and analysis. As a first, preliminary step, I will pick a small,
representative sample of communities to study using government data on the distribution
of ex-combatants throughout Colombia. Second, I will create a register of all NGOs
currently providing reintegration services in each of my sample communities, compiling
qualitative data on their mandates, organizational structures, and sources of funding.
These data will allow me to compare NGO-run projects with their government
counterparts. Third, I will interview a sample of ex-combatants participating in these
projects. I will distinguish between those enrolled in both NGO and government
programs and those participating only in the former; this distinction will prove important
in my data analysis. My questions will explore both individual and collective outcomes.
How are ex-combatants perceived in their communities? What social skills have they
developed as participants in these projects? Finally, I will conduct interviews with

community members and with ex-combatants participating only in the government


program. This latter group will serve as a control in the second phase of my study.
I will begin my data analysis by comparing reintegration outcomes for excombatants enrolled in different NGO projects. To minimize self-selection bias, I will use
my interviews to match participants with similar backgrounds socioeconomic status,
education, and wartime trauma, for instance. This matching technique will allow me to
isolate the relative impact of each program on individual participants and reduce the
possibility that distinct outcomes resulted from disparate experiences prior to
reintegration. Second, I will contrast the control group from my data collection phase
with ex-combatants enrolled in both NGO and government programs to capture the
marginal effects of NGO projects on individual outcomes. Finally, I will use my
interviews to construct ethnographic profiles for all the communities in my study,
focusing on measures of social change. How has the influx of ex-combatants affected
social institutions and networks, from the atmosphere in markets and schools to the
quality of everyday interactions on the streets? My goal in this important final step is not
to establish lines of causality between reintegration and social transformation, but rather
to draw a richer portrait of post-conflict communities than statistics alone can provide.
I expect that my research will yield valuable contributions to both the theory and
practice of peacebuilding. On the theoretical level, my findings will provide a more
robust understanding of how reintegration works in a context of protracted, ongoing civil
war. Why do some ex-fighters establish friendships across sectarian bounds while others
do not? How does peacebuilding transform communal spaces? How might NGOs prevent
ex-combatants from returning to lives of criminality and war? At the practical level, my
findings will help governments and international donors direct funding to reintegration
programs that promise the most lasting contributions to peace. Finally, I hope my
research will help reorient both the study and practice of reintegration from a focus on
negative peace the absence of violence to positive peace. The notion of positive peace
suggests that communities can grow stronger and more cohesive through post-conflict
reconstruction. Government reintegration programs tend to emphasize negative peace;
they are usually designed to offer ex-combatants the minimum benefits necessary to
thwart recidivism. NGO-run projects, in contrast, often endorse a more positive concept
of peace, encouraging ex-fighters to vote in local elections, to assume leadership roles in
their communities, and to build relationships with their peers. If, as Blattman suggests,
ex-combatants can become civic-minded members of their communities, then the society
that emerges from post-war reconstruction may be more just and more productive than
the one that existed before the war began.
References
Ball, Nicole and Tammy Havely. Making Peace Work: The Role of the International
Development Community. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Blattman, Christopher. From Violence to Voting: War and Political Participation in
Uganda. American Political Science Review. In press.
Humphreys, Macartan and Jeremy M. Weinstein. Demobilization and Reintegration.
Journal of Conflict Resolution 51.4 (2007): 531-567.