Hi. I'm John Katsos, Associate Professor at the American University of Sharjah (UAE)

and I'm Jason Miklian, a Senior Researcher at the University of Oslo (Norway).

Together, we're two Americans who research issues of conflict, business and society in world's hardest places. Over the past decade, we’ve ventured into some of the world’s worst crisis zones: Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Venezuela, Liberia, Myanmar, Iraq, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and others. As academics with an insatiable curiosity for how the world really works, we needed to know how people could possibly thrive in those situations, what drives their conflicts, and what (if anything) policymakers and other concerned actors can do to help.

Our research spans academia, policy and popular publications, including this week's Harvard Business Review Big Idea feature on business and crisis, books on the role of the private sector in peacebuilding, scholarly articles on Iraq's new peacebuilders, and even exposes on hidden wars in India and how the world's deadliest storm unleashed a genocide, among others.

The combination of three long-term trends — climate change, globalization, and inequality — has created an unprecedented era of uncertainty for everyone. We're here to talk about how our lessons from the hardest places teach us all about how to make it through our new global environment of constant crisis. We're Two Conflict Researchers Who Work in some of the World's Most Dangerous Places - AMA

We're here to answer any questions about our research, findings, what it's like to do fieldwork in the hard places, how to make it in the cut-throat world of academia, living as global nomads, ethical questions, culture shock, balancing work and life, hairy situations, or anything else that comes to mind. Thanks!!

PROOF: https://ibb.co/QJYzcWR and https://ibb.co/CV1QLqR

Comments: 245 • Responses: 55  • Date: 

ladymouserat197 karma

How has being under constant stress of these conflict zones affected your health? Have you noticed a difference in things outside of the normal aging process?

miklia243 karma

This is a super important question, thanks so much for asking it. Luckily, I have had the deep privilege of spending most of my career working for two organizations (the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the University of Oslo) that prioritize mental health and researcher security a great deal. Because frankly - and especially for younger scholars at the masters or even PhD level - the status quo of 'just go to a hard place and try to do some great research, here's a couple books on fieldwork in conflict zones' can cause tremendous damage, both for the researchers and the communities they research. This can be everything from culture shock and dangerous situations, to the trauma of witnessing atrocities. We need to prepare younger researchers better so that they can do the good that they want to do safely and securely.

But for me personally, I would say that aside from breathing a decade off and on of air in some pretty nasty polluted places, I'm lucky to have no real long-term effects.

FeistyCanoe42 karma


miklia118 karma

Sure, this includes everything from resources for counseling / psychology, to monthly meetings where we can share experiences, to good security insurance and established security protocols, to knowledge-building materials on such issues. Above all else, both of the institutions that I've worked for are places where if I have a problem, I know that it will be taken seriously and supported if I bring it up - that knowledge alone encourages people to raise mental health concerns before they become overwhelming. And being based in a country with high-quality free universal health care certainly helps.

Working in this field can be quite taxing emotionally, we hear stories of war and heartbreaking loss often and have to try to balance our human desire to do everything we can with a recognition of the limitations of our abilities. When those two impulses clash in an irreconcilable way, burnout is another real problem.

Katsos_John151 karma

My first few trips it was ulcers, then I got over it. If you are with people you can trust on the ground, it makes everything easier and less stressful. Also having a routine for pre-travel, travel, and post-travel really helps. I think you also start to get a better sense of when you're in actual danger (and when you're not) the more you travel to these places and especially the more you travel to safer parts of the same countries.

zoidberg00535 karma

Could you provide a summary of red flags that would be a signal of danger? Something any traveler would benefit from, even if they are not purposely traveling to areas of danger.

ChillinInChernobyl46 karma

If the locals start disappearing like ghosts, something is about to happen. Leave. Most threats can be sniffed out with good old fashioned people watching for suspicious behaviors

mikkelmikkelmikkel8 karma

"Absence of the familiar, presence of the unfamiliar" (im sure i butchered that translation) was a common guideline we used for identifying both IEDs and as a general battle-indicator when stationed. Civies dissapearing or a piece of cloth tied to a fence/tree for no reason are big red flags.

miklia3 karma

great comments, both. fully agreed.

rararainbows82 karma

You've been in places all around the world, based on different countries (uae and Norway). And you identify as Americans.

  1. How did you both begin to collaborate together?
  2. What are your perspectives on the rise in democrats vs Republicans in the USA and what would you suggest to the leaders (potus and the congress and senate) in order to reduce this divide to benefit and make America innovative again?
  3. What was your worst conflict you experienced together and how did you lead it to resolution?

Thanks for All you do!!!

miklia151 karma

Thanks much, and great questions!

  1. We'd heard of each other's work but met for the first time in earnest at a meeting of the United Nations Business and Human Rights delegation in Geneva. We bonded over our mutual frustration at speech after speech of lofty promises that seemed to be short on concrete actions to help improve people's lives. So we decided to do something about it together.
  2. Very difficult to answer - with American society undergoing deeper polarization than at any time since the Civil War, it's not something to ignore. We'd reiterate to leaders that growth and innovation are not zero-sum endeavors, but we also focus a lot in our research (such as in the recent HBR piece we link) on how ordinary people can get through this tension too, because pretending that the divisions don't exist only exacerbate the divide.
  3. For me personally, one of the more dangerous settings was in researching a hidden war in India, (https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/08/06/fire-in-the-hole/), especially when confronted by 14 year olds with machetes, guns, and bows and arrows who cared not a bit for the 'rules' of war and the press. But entering war zones is not something to be taken lightly, and it's important to think clearly about what you aim to achieve - and for who - in such settings. Our work there helped raise the profile of the seriousness of the Maoist conflict, but of course no one article or journalist can change everything - we're all part of a community of engaged people who try to expose injustice and hold the powerful to account.

Duke_Newcombe24 karma

Our work there helped raise the profile of the seriousness of the Maoist conflict, but of course no one article or journalist can change everything - we're all part of a community of engaged people who try to expose injustice and hold the powerful to account.

In doing work like this, do you ever find evidence of the saying attributed to Upton Sinclair--“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”?

Furthermore, what is the reaction of those you're trying to convince with your work most of the time: bewilderment (they didn't know this was happening), studied ignorance (they wish not to know it's happening, because, *inconvenient facts), or hostility (stop telling people this stuff is happening)?

miklia27 karma

Great question, and it's really a mix of reactions - sometimes within the same government office building - to information. Much of the time our research outputs are academic in nature, and that process can take 2-3 years from start to finish, and then the audience might be scholars or theorists, so it's not quite as direct.

But when the research crosses over into policy, as the Maoist piece did, then there can be such a variety of reactions. In addition to the reactions you mention, other reactions just from different factions on the Indian government side included relief (they knew it was happening, but they weren't being listened to either and hoped this would help), resignation (they were sad about it but didn't think anything could be done), pride (they wanted more violence), mistrust (who is this American to be snooping around he must be CIA), but also determination (this is not appropriate and it needs to be addressed right away). The final category - rare as it was - made up for the challenges of all the others.

Dingelbert-Scum12 karma


miklia18 karma

Indeed, at the time that article was written we hadn't yet had a chance to communicate with them, no. As that particular piece was more journalistic in nature, it would have helped in order to hear their perspective - and challenge them on how it meshed with their actions - to help understand and present more fully the conflict context.

For this piece, one of the more tangible accomplishments was getting the issue on the agenda of several foreign governments who were then able to discuss with the Indian government about the conflict, offer their help in resolution, and remind that extra-judicial activities tend to be counter-productive in the long term. It also got the conflict in the historical record as a case study, of added value after most of the main individuals that we profiled and interviewed were killed in subsequent years.

SyntaxRex63 karma

Steven Pinker has written that although it might seem like we are living through a very violent period (partially because it's very visible, i.e. media, social media, etc), this is actually the most peaceful era in human existence. Does your experience from the ground square with that determination?

miklia164 karma

Thanks much for this - you've touched on one of the big debates in peace research today. It's largely a question of which sort of time horizon and which datasets that you use to make your case. While Pinker's analysis holds validity in the very long term for the data that he uses (mostly the PRIO-Uppsala materials that prioritize large-scale conflicts between and within states), we have seen a continual upswing in conflict since 2000 with those same datasets.

Moreover, these datasets don't capture as well things like generalized crime and insecurity, which are are major and increasing problems. So while it might be true to say that in terms of per capita risk of death in a war our lives are less violent than in, say, 1820, telling people that things are good in a historical perspective is a bit simplistic and doesn't do enough justice to the struggles that millions of people are facing today.

dan_dares40 karma

What has been the most valuable skill or behaviour you have used/seen used to defuse a hairy situation? how have you best safeguarded yourself whilst in dangerous environments ?

Basically interested in 'tips and tricks' with anecdotes if possible :)

miklia81 karma

A very interesting question, thanks for this Dan. I'll add the caveat to start that I generally do not seek out 'hot zones', nor do I work as a mediator in difficult situations - those people are amazing at what they do and typically train for a decade or more to learn how to defuse tensions for things like kidnappings and the like.

But as a researcher in some such places, we're occasionally in tricky spots. It's of course subjective (and any strategy works until it doesn't), but one technique that has served me moderately well when dealing with angry military, rebels or other armed authority figures questioning or cornering me is to simply act calm and even bored. Sometimes I still get kicked out of places, but this approach can reduce tensions to the point where people are less likely to do irrational things.

But the best approach - by far - is to work with experienced local teams who have a better sense of when things might be about to turn difficult, and to trust them to avoid such situations altogether wherever possible. The first time one is actually in a difficult situation tends to be a great way to relieve oneself of the glamorous/thrillseeking component of the work.

RolaChee8 karma

Wow, that acting bored can be useful! What would be the universal body language to express boredom?

miklia3 karma

pretend you're in line at the DMV. :)

airwaffo37 karma

Hello there!

Are your findings scalable? Is the data only useful for government or state level action, or are there options for the general populace? How about the individual?

Edit: I would like to know how I as an individual can help reduce conflict.

miklia52 karma

Thanks much! I would say that some of our findings are global in scope, like a recent survey we did of 78,000 people in 7 different global cities about how to live through crisis generated by the Covid-19 epidemic. But one of the first things you learn as a conflict researcher is that local context is so key to understanding how any sort of resolution can be achieved.

In terms of what an individual can do, it can depend a bit on where you are and what sorts of conflicts are of deepest concern. A war between countries requires a different approach than tackling the climate crisis or looking at more local conflict. But for those in the USA concerned about violent political conflict, I'd suggest supporting organizations that dedicate themselves to conflict resolution, including (but not at all limited to) International Crisis Group, U.S. Institute of Peace, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, International Alert, and similar.

MrHaydenn35 karma

Who pays you so you can pay your bills? Grants? Universities? Apart from that, I appreciate your work!

miklia50 karma

Thanks! From my side, I get a fair amount of funding from competitive grant applications, often collaborative projects funded by the Norwegian Research Council and occasionally by governments or through NGO research projects. I'm very lucky to be able to work with some exceptional international teams for such projects. I also teach and advise graduate students, which covers the balance of my day job.

robogeek21 karma

How do you know it’s time to go in a dangerous situation on the ground, before you’re risking everything by staying? Are there markers of things like crowd behavior that you’re used to at this point?

miklia44 karma

Great question robogeek, and one that requires first and foremost time in the area to truly know, which is again why having trusted local partners is so essential to working in any conflict or crisis settings. Sometimes to a novice eye everything can look 'fine' on the surface to the uninitiated, and local warning signs can change from country to country or even city to city.

I'm reminded of the day I moved to Maracaibo, Venezuela, which was then the most violent city on earth, with about 50 murders a weekend in a city of just over a million people. When I arrived I thought it looked 'normal', right up until the point a massive riot with burning cars and gunshots flared up in an instant on the closest street corner that evening. Had I been more experienced, I could have seen the subtle changes in the neighborhood in the hour preceding that might have warned me.

AlexanderHamilton0423 karma

What were the subtle changes in the neighborhood in that hour preceding the riot?? (as specifically as you can explain)
[I understand that the changes in a different place might be very different.]

Thank you both for taking the time and being very clear in your replies. TY

miklia53 karma

In this case, people moving tires / lumber to the side of the road, street vendors making themselves scarce before they normally would, increased yelling and groups of young men around the area. All were things that I had no frame of reference for there because I didn't yet know what 'normal' was.

spinnetrouble18 karma

What's the most important thing we should know about handling conflict that we wouldn't think to ask?

miklia40 karma

Hmm, this is a good one, you've stumped me a bit! I would offer that it's always important to remember that the parties to a conflict quite often do not represent the wishes of the communities that they claim to be fighting for.

NorthStarZero14 karma

My experience in Afghanistan formed the opinion in me that Western states need a new kind of foreign policy agency, a "hard DFAIT/CIDA" whose specialty is failed state reconstruction.

"Hard" in that they are capable of operating in conflict zones and maintaining their own self-defence, but they are not combatants themselves.

People who are experts in helping build governmental services (of all sorts) essentially from scratch, but understand the realities of the country they are in and don't need military escort to move around.

I found military attempts at aiding reconstruction too ham-handed and unsubtle, but the civvie "experts" from CIDA/DFAIT had an unrealistic expectation of how much basic infrastructure there was to build on and a naïve understanding of how much danger they were in.

What are your thoughts on this?

miklia21 karma

Thanks NorthStarZero, I like this concept, and it certainly has echoes in a few of the things that the UN and even EU have tried to do over the years, especially by trying to integrate local populations into the rebuilding and reconstruction process. An organization that you describe that could (1) overcome the 'outside foreigner / savior' critique, (2) build local buy-in from true domestic nation-builders while somehow sidelining local elites looking for a get rich quick scheme, and (3) somehow 'deliver as one' across all the donors certainly has promise. And as you well know, all three of these are exactly as hard as they sound!

Here in Colombia, there is a mechanism that is attempting a somewhat similar endeavor, the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund, which brings about 15 countries together to support peace and reconstruction activities. I really hope it succeeds, and then becomes a model for future conflict / post-conflict states.

NorthStarZero14 karma

Here in Colombia

Most of our CIDA and DFIAT people in Kandahar had experience in Latin America, but that experience seemed to hurt them more than help. Their expected baseline of what a "state" constituted was very much higher than the Afghan ground truth.

I can go on at length about this.....

miklia14 karma

I do not doubt that in the slightest. Figuring out how to extract global lessons from projects that are by definition highly local context-specific remains the biggest (and most rewarding) nut to crack in the peacebuilding space. I'd like to say we're getting closer, but....well, you've seen how close we are firsthand.

crime_master_gugu12 karma

Can you please point out the impact of climate change on the spawning of some of the recent conflicts ?

miklia21 karma

Good question, and thanks for asking it. While causal relationships are difficult to pinpoint, it's perhaps best to think of it like this: any climate crisis or disaster event has a small but real risk of triggering violent conflict, based upon local political and economic situations and how politicians react to them (do they try to help their enemies or harm them further?).

Rapid climate change means that crisis or disaster events are happening more often, are more intense, and are happing in more places. In short, each event is a roll of the dice for a war, and the dice are being rolled more often than ever before.

nakedrickjames12 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA, I just started reading The Ministry for the Future, and this subject matter has been weighing heavily on me lately. I don't think here in America we are prepared for the sheer magnitude of change to everyone's lives that is undoubtedly coming.

How likely do you think the average American will be capable of living what they might consider a 'good' life 10, 30, 50 years from now, assuming we are able to achieve carbon targets that keep us <2°C of warming? (personal opinion / speculation welcome as I know this depends on many many variables)

miklia10 karma

Thanks much for this question, and I agree that the acceleration of trends in inequality and the climate crisis are big red flashing signals for future conflict in the usa.

That said, I might respond to your question with a question - given that we're already experiencing the impacts of these two macro trends, and experiencing their impacts so unevenly - does the average American today think that they are capable of living a 'good life'? I would argue that the change has already begun, and the more we can help people to prepare for it, the better.

nakedrickjames3 karma

I would argue that the change has already begun

Fundamentally agree (FWIW as a Stoic myself, I think the answer to your question is a qualified yes); I think the big difference is, most people lacking in basic needs (driven by inequality and systemic racism, etc.) is mostly self-inflicted; Americans in general haven't really known want in the post-war period; climate change will almost certainly change that, I am curious to hear what your take is on a future in which there may *not* be enough for every man woman and child, rather than us just not distributing it enough.

miklia5 karma

Given how poorly we do at preventing manufactured food scarcity, the thought of a world with actual scarcity is a terrifying one. While we've been able to avoid the worst of the Malthusian scenarios through improvements in technology (and most famines in history were political, not climate-based in origin), I agree that it doesn't mean that we should think it can't happen.

AngledLuffa12 karma

I've corresponded with people in Myanmar who use the name Myanmar for both the country and the language. However, there are a lot of people around who still use the words Burma or Burmese. Which word is more appropriate to use? I've been going with the strategy that people currently in the country are calling the country what they want or need to call it.

miklia12 karma

Thanks much for the question, and as you know it's not as easy to answer as it seems, with colonial / post-colonial considerations as well as political legacies. Saying one or the other can be seen a political statement whether intended or not. Personally I use Myanmar as that's the country's official name, but leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have previously said that either is fine. Myanmar is now the most common usage as well.

therealpax949 karma

What is your thoughts on the future of the Indian-Pakisfan conflict given the crisis in February 2019 between the countries that nearly led to war and the Presidential Order against Article 370 that Modi came out with in August of that year?

miklia7 karma

Well, I haven't spent enough time in South Asia recently to be able to make an up-to-date assessment on the future of the conflict, but the question reminds me of the late Steve Cohen's book Shooting for a Century - until the fundamental conditions and structures that created the conflict are resolved, it's hard to be optimistic.

Jayer2448 karma

I'm flying to Madagascar next year for my master's studies to do research on mouse lemurs and I'm working with locals there as well.

What are some things I should pay attention to when speaking with the locals and are there things/topics that I should avoid so I won't offend them?

miklia15 karma

Thanks for this! Having never been to Madagascar myself I wouldn't have anything specific to be able to say, but the more Madagascar experts that you can talk to beforehand (both nationally and regionally), and the more you can read up on the current situation, the better.

For anyone looking to do graduate research in potentially difficult locations, having trusted local contacts is essential, so it's great that you've got that part covered. That said, those contacts don't exist simply to serve you and your needs, so it's good to think about what you can offer to help make your engagement with them as reciprocal and meaningful as possible.

Also, see if your uni has fieldwork ethics courses that you can take beforehand, those can really help you think about asking the right questions and preparing accordingly for a productive and valuable trip. Good luck!

EDIT to say and of course learn as much of the local language as possible before you go, wherever you go!

grassyfield2977 karma

For those of us who live in “developed” countries, what might be the biggest misconceptions we’d hold to about the people living around war zones? Did you have your own misconceptions debunked? What are some of the important lessons we could learn from them?

miklia20 karma

The first time I ever entered a conflict zone - in Kashmir about twenty years ago - I had two big eye-openers. The first was that just because the bullets aren't flying on that particular day doesn't mean that things are 'safe'. The crushing day-to-day tension of trying to live through a place where a bomb can go off or a snap military operation can kick off at any minute is almost incalculable, and very difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't lived through it. That was a life-changing experience for me, and one that sent me on my career path, to try to provide some small help to others living through that.

The second is that often the vast majority of people can't 'just leave' to escape conflict. Sometimes they are forbidden to by authorities. Other times they can't afford it or have nowhere else to go. Sometimes they've spent their lives trying to make their community better and don't want to let the war-mongers win. Civilians in conflict zones are so much braver (and more rational) than they are typically given credit for. And anyone who actually is forced to flee their home does not take that decision lightly, and deserves so much more support from the international community than we can currently offer them.

kiddsilver5 karma

Are the fundamental problems the same in alot of these countries or does each location have a unique issue which requires a unique solution?

For example, if the economy of these countries improved dramatically, would it also erradict problems such inequality or the effects of globalisation... Or are these issues caused by a problem that is specific to the country rather then poverty? For example events in their history.

I read Bottom Billion by Paul Collier which argues poverty is the main cause of conflict, inequality and political instability. Just wanted to hear what you guys think of this.

miklia12 karma

Thanks for this question - it's an important one! One of the strongest empirical findings in peace research is that it's not just inequality, but a specific type of inequality that makes conflict more likely.

Vertical inequality is inequality within a group of people. Think a few rich people and a lot of poor people. This creates bad societies but doesn't necessarily make violent conflict significantly more likely (exceptions apply)

Horizontal inequality is inequality between groups of people. Think Hutus vs. Tutsis in Rwanda, Tamils vs. Sinhala in Sri Lanka, or other major divisions between ethnic or political groups of people. When one group has the population and another has the resources, it becomes a powder keg of instability.

So to answer your question, it's a bit of both. We know the conditions that make conflict more likely, but the context of each specific region or country is important to know in order to understand why conflict might erupt, and what sorts of policies might help make that less likely. I'd also add that over the last decade conflict modeling has gotten increasingly more sophisticated, and the cutting edge of peace research is now much more fine-grained than the country level, which help improve our analysis and predictive tools even further.

Scott_G_Lewis5 karma

Have you written a book or books?

miklia5 karma

thanks for asking! Here's a link to a few collaborative books (2 academic and one popular book that comes out March 2022), and John and I are currently developing a popular book specifically on the business and crisis connection as well.

varishtg5 karma

Have you documented or researched on direct effects of such crises zones on weather, climate and the environment? In such situations do people even care about these issues or are most of their worries socioeconomic and survival oriented in nature?

miklia5 karma

Thanks for this. Most of the research I've done on these issues has been in Bangladesh, where millions of people are becoming climate refugees in a slow-moving disaster.

People care about these issues, but it tends to be more personalized. For example, people coming from coastal Bangladesh don't say 'I had to move because of climate change', they say 'I had to move because my land got too salty to farm on anymore. They might recognize that climate change played a role, but it doesn't get them any closer to finding solutions to their immediate and severe problems.

So it all kind of wraps in together, and the key is to make sure that adaptation and resilience solutions (of which Bangladesh can be considered a world leader in many respects) don't simply seek to blame others / outsiders / 'the polluters' for problems but give immediate aid to affected populations that enable them to build new lives.

varishtg4 karma

Follow up to this, pardon me if my wording is wrong, but I'll try and ask anyway. Is there any backlash from the people, in accepting and using these solutions? I'm aware that in my country (India) often times, there is often a huge backlash from people, unless it falls in their narrative. Also in such scenarios, do the governments focus on rehabilitation of people, or development of the country or worse suppression of people?

miklia3 karma

Absolutely - it can be a massive massive challenge to build trust, especially in places where governments aren't exactly known for looking out for their poorest and most vulnerable. Ideally such projects are rehabilitation-oriented, but bad actors have certainly used such projects to their own corrupt ends at times. And as you no doubt know from India, so often it comes down to the question of land, and how those that are displaced can secure new land and who is going to give it to them..

spatchcoq5 karma

My career has been in technology. In the last few years, I've done frontline volunteering (Greece, Libya) with refugees and I've gotten the bug to do more and more humanitarian work. Where do you see the biggest opportunity for technology to bolster the efforts in the broad umbrella of disaster relief, conflict resolution, and humanitarian aid in general? TIA.

miklia4 karma

There's some really interesting / potentially promising things being done in the techdev space, but as I'm sure you've seen it's also populated with more than a few companies who seem to exist only to use the poor as a product and slap a 'peace' label on. We've written a bit about this previously, and one org I really respect in this space is BuildPeace, they have some great resources.

maovian5 karma

How do you find fixers and handlers for these areas?

miklia7 karma

A crucial question, and one that can make all the difference between success and failure. I remember one time in India where I hired someone based on a blind recommendation from a mutual friend. Things started great, he was sharp, competent. But by the 6th or 7th interview, I got suspicious that everyone seemed to be saying the same thing, that everything was going amazing and the government is helping out a ton. I fired him and found out later he worked for the intelligence services. Long story short - fixers can have tremendous influence over the stories that are told!

I've learned from experience that the best way (at least for me) if I'm going to a new area is to seek out scholars or practitioners who have a good deal of experience in the region - either foreign or domestic - and ask them for connections. But nowadays most of my work is in partnership with local institutes, so I just work with them directly.

swampmilkweed5 karma

  1. How did you decide to get into this line of work?

  2. What was your first experience like going into a conflict zone?

  3. How do you protect yourselves and stay safe?

  4. What are the logistics of going into a conflict zone - who do you have to contact, who has to know from the host country (for lack of a better term), do you have guides? How does that whole process work? How long do you usually stay for?

  5. How do people who live in conflict zones thrive in these situations - what kind of community-level trauma have you seen, and how do they heal from it?

  6. Do you have a partner or are married, and if so, what it is like for them being partnered/married to someone that does work that is dangerous and takes them away from home (maybe a similar experience would be married to someone in the military...)? Or if you're not partnered/married, is one reason why because of doing this work?

Sorry for too many questions!

miklia14 karma

No problem! Thanks for the great questions.

1+2) The Kashmir experience upthread was my moment. Before that, I'd flunked out of an engineering program at the University of Minnesota and was a club DJ and investment banker (sorry), looking for a more meaningful career after I wrapped up an Asia tour. Most in this field go through a journey of idealism (I'm going to help change the world!) followed by disillusionment (nothing we're doing matters) to determination (a few small things we do actually matter, so let's do everything we can to make them matter). I feel lucky to have gotten to the determination stage.

3+4) It can vary a lot from location to location and project to project, but I tend to try to avoid going anywhere that I haven't done at least a month or two of background research on, and in collaboration with a trusted project partner who can undertake the research together. Some trips have been as short as a week or two, but most of the more extensive research involves 3-6 months of research, usually in 2-3 trips. As John mentioned above, there's usually safe and dangerous parts of the same country, for example here in Colombia where Bogotá is secure but many rural parts of the country are not.

5) Creating structures to help communities heal from trauma individually and collectively is an essential part of true peacebuilding, as it doesn't just happen and if ignored can trigger future conflicts, sometime a generation later. This is part of the 'hidden' tasks that chronically underfunded peace and reconciliation projects help to support.

6) Thankfully I'm married to someone who shares many of the same interests and motivations, and is in a similar line of work. Once we had kids, my risk tolerance did diminish though, and I'm less likely to undertake significant research in a completely insecure location.

mulberrybushes4 karma

Are you connected in any way with Humanitarian Outcomes and if not, what can you say about their work as opposed to yours?

miklia5 karma

Thanks! Not formally connected at the moment, although I have done a small bit of work on aid worker attacks and we've been exploring collaboration opportunities with Abby Stoddard at HO for a little bit now. I have nothing but fantastic things to say about HO and the essential and unique work that they are doing.

toolateforausername4 karma

Hello! I am currently doing my Master's in a related field in London and I am greatly interested in your work! Actually, I am very interested in working in your field. I want to know, what path did you take to reach your current position, and do you have any recommendations for anyone getting started in the field? I have looked before but I lacked any graduate work, which has led me to my current degree program. Any tips? And is there any place I can read your academic articles?

miklia7 karma

Thanks, great question! I did my masters at LSE, with very fond memories.

My path is one that was equal parts determination and luck, as one needs to gain access to any hyper competitive field where there's maybe 100 interested students for one actual job. My first big break was when I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin and hoping to get an internship at a Washington DC think tank to help me get into grad school.

I sent out a bunch of applications, never really got any replies or offers, but then a funny thing happened. Gmail had just been launched in beta, and the only way you could get it was from an invite, it was a hot ticket. I happened to have a friend give me one, and I gave it to the office manager at International Crisis Group. Then I emailed him on his new gmail account every week asking for the internship until he finally gave me one. He later said it was the only reason he picked me.

That internship got me admitted into LSE. The LSE degree got me a position at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, which was again the only place that replied from some 50 places I reached out to after my degree, and they said that degree was the reason. Once I made it through those weed-out periods things got easier to progress, but success requires a lot of hard work, doggedness, and some serious luck to make happen. Best of luck on your journey!

Links to some more of my articles here, thanks for your interest! Feel free to DM if you're having trouble accessing any of them.

JusikSikrata4 karma

How do you finance such endeavours, which is not free from conflict itself because maybe often, what you find does not fit the narrative of the world media?! So asked otherwise how do you get funds to survive yourselves in such areas?

miklia5 karma

Thanks, this is a great question, and it can be an issue. Even apolitical funding agencies (or those who profess to be so) have priorities and even unconscious biases that lead certain types of things to be funded over others, and certain types of positions to be more attractive for funding than others.

Thankfully, most of my engagements on the funding side are with organizations that prioritize impartiality, and as long as the findings that I and my colleagues release are evidence-based, we have institutional support when critiques come. And critiques are a natural part of the job. Conflict can be subjective, with winners and losers, so when outsiders come with assessments they can be targeted. All the more reason to make sure the data and analysis is as right as it can be.

alreadyburnt4 karma

Do you use any specialized communication tools in these dangerous environments and if so, which ones?

miklia6 karma

Thanks for the important question. Over the years it's been a mix, everything from sat phones and Signal to hand-written notes and exchanging communiques via courier. By far the most important thing is to make sure that the information that you gather from vulnerable persons has the lowest possible likelihood of being intercepted by those who would do them harm.

With rapid changes in technology and monitoring capacity this challenge is only growing, especially as some countries further develop sophisticated 'monitoring' tools - and then sell those resources to authoritarian regimes who would never have been able to develop them on their own.

alreadyburnt5 karma

Thanks! I work on some of these (privacy-enhancing)technologies and it's very helpful to get feedback from people who use them in the field.

miklia4 karma

Oh I'd love to hear more about that and/or good resources. There seems to be so many new products out there (esp. in the blockchain/devtech space) that I'm frankly bewildered and have no idea which ones are legit and which are simply government fronts..

alreadyburnt6 karma

Yeah it can be pretty difficult to navigate this space, there's a lot of stuff that's just research concepts, there's some stuff that's just borderline charlatanry, there's some stuff that's downright malicious, there's some stuff that's good at what it's doing but too complicated for most folks to use. My biggest area of concern is usability and user experience so I'm working pretty hard on that right now, but for now the project I work on(I2P, see r/i2p and geti2p.net) is still largely in category 4. Making progress though.

Signal tends to be a pretty good choice for most people but I'm fairly sure it's easy for regimes to spot Signal users on the network, which could be a bad thing if Signal is associated with activism in the area you're in. Then you start to get into the weeds and need to model your threats against your circumstances. A reasonably trustworthy VPN provider(Such as Mullvad or Mozilla VPN), or better yet, a "secret" VPN hosted by a cooperative org like a news org or a university would be a relatively simple solution which would prevent your connection to Moxie's server from being visible to the network and prevent much of the danger. There's also Psiphon, which is VPN-Like and free, and focused on circumvention so it will connect in many hostile networks: https://psiphon.ca/ https://psiphon.ca/en/download.html

Signal over Tor would also hide the connection to Moxies server, but adds the complication of configuring Orbot and Tor. Snowflake could hide the Tor connection by shaping it to look like WebRTC(Which is a browser-to-browser peer-to-peer protocol used in apps like Zoom, Jitsi Meet), and pretty much complete the package, but again, another layer of complication.

One issue we sometimes have is that the developers of these tools mostly live in places where we're relatively safe to develop them. Heck I even got a grant once. That is an enormous benefit to us, but it limits our experience with the real-world instrumentation of oppressive tools to research projects, leaks, user reports and understanding the news.

There are some pretty decent sites out there with more information, https://privacyguides.org/ is one of the best, they also have a subreddit r/privacyguides, but it's still more general privacy. It's important to understand the tools they promote, but they do promote very solid tools.

Please don't ever hesitate to DM me here on reddit if you have any questions, or reach out to me by e-mail at hankhill19580 at gmail dot com, my PGP key fingerprint is: 96F9655531B77E370BB2A2712FF909D2A72703A5

miklia3 karma

This is exceptionally useful, thanks so much for sharing it! Deeply appreciated.

grouchos_tache4 karma

How much of "conflict" do you think is unavoidable human nature and how much is destabilisation by third party actors who benefit from instability? I am referring as much here to American healthcare and its relationship to political polarisation as I am to, say, coltan mining and the balance of power in Nord Kivu.

miklia4 karma

I'm a firm believer in the argument that any organized violent conflict - especially violent political conflict - can be transformed into non-violent negotiation, if there is enough political will behind the process. But conflicts peppered with actors that have more to gain from continued or increased conflict than peace can be exceptionally difficult to secure lasting resolution.

myproblemsforreddit4 karma

A big question but is there any expectation for the violence in Mexico to settle down in the short-term (with the decade)? It just seems to be getting worse and worse but I'm not too informed to make any sort of predictions on the matter.

What would it take? I've heard many people suggest that the decriminalization/legalization of drugs in the U.S. would help, but at this point they have a grip over many industries in Mexico and probably bring in money through other means such as extortion that would still keep them around in some capacity.

miklia3 karma

Thanks much for the question, and I wish I had the answer myself. Most of us conflict researchers learn very early on that it can take years of study to build up enough knowledge about a particular conflict, and my Mexico experience is paltry at best. I would suggest here for some good initial reading though.

Duke_Newcombe3 karma

Do you find any challenges in resolving conflict in the unusual areas (non developing countries) vs. say, in developed nations? Are there any differences in how you'd go about conflict resolution with say, factions in the US vs. say, Iraq?

miklia3 karma

Thanks much for this very difficult question. At the most basic level, I would say that it often boils down to an issue of capacity and infrastructure. If there's no functioning state at all, and no way to reliably build capacity through the government - even one that legitimately wants peace - then it makes the job of conflict resolution that much more complex, with a much higher risk of failure for reasons typically outside the control of conflict resolution teams.

WharfRat83 karma

As a student studying journalism who dreams of one day working in the journalism field in crisis zones, I wonder if you have any advice? I don’t know what draws me to it, but I guess I’m fearless/stupid and have always wanted to get out there! Thanks guys, be safe!!

miklia8 karma

Thanks for asking this, it's a valuable discussion that deserves a thoughtful reply, and caveat that I'm not a journalist so these are my outsider perceptions.

First, I think that it's ok to feel the allure of conflict / warzone journalism. It's romanticized in popular culture to be sexy, dangerous, and meaningful by doing things like exposing dictators for their atrocities. Who wouldn't find that alluring? It's also pitched with equal parts "look at this crazy stuff I'm doing" as "look at this crazy thing that's happening", which reinforces this notion that one can just parachute around conflict areas in a gonzo / Vice style, deliver some mindblowing copy, and be a celebrity that is also saving the world. Again, the stuff of great daydreams.

Of course, the reality is far from the movies. The conflict journalists I know do everything they can to reduce their risk, not seek it out. They don't try to make themselves part of the story - the best ones are not at all household names. And like conflict researchers, they know that deep local knowledge, built up over months or even years, is the only way to really know the story.

I'm reminded of when the Syria conflict first started, there were several stories of inexperienced well-meaning foreign journalists jumping in - either for the thrill or more often because they felt they had to take the risk to stand out in a cutthroat field - and getting killed. It doesn't do anyone any good, and even more concerning it makes the job of local journalists - men and women who are already in tremendous risk - that much harder.

So, my humble advice would be to have a good think about your motivations about what's drawing you to that sort of position, about how you can deliver value above and beyond that of what local journalists are already doing in such places (if any), and if there might be another way to deliver on these interests. If your school has respected alumni in the field who are doing this sort of work now, reaching out to them for a chat could make for a valuable discussion.

Now, what John and I do is a bit different. Even though it might be in some of the same countries / settings, it's not on the front lines if we can help it. There's a few reasons for that:

1) Going in the hottest conflict battles is typically a terrible place to gather research. Not really possible to talk with the local community while embedded inside a Humvee, after all. And people in the middle of a hot war have much more pressing concerns than having a half hour chat with a researcher.

2) Similar, such places are good for gathering breaking news, but our research might be released months or years from that moment, when any sort of news element has long since passed. Better to talk with the same people in a lull.

3) More fundamentally, journalism in such places often works to answer the 'what' questions (e.g. what is happening, what are people fighting over), and our work is more often focused on the 'why' or 'how' (e.g. why are these groups fighting now, how can we learn from this conflict to better understand effective resolution strategies)

Of course, all of the above over-simplifies things quite a bit (it's more of a grey area than this), but we hope this helps give a bit of context into the work. Good luck!

Moncient3 karma

  1. How do you manage yourselves when it comes to putting your conflict resolution theories in practice?

  2. During your research, have your stress and emotional responses improved over time? If so, how?

  3. Are there certain mindsets and techniques you use in order to keep a level head; during conflict resolution in high stress situations? Or is it just an experience thing?

miklia5 karma

hehe, well I can't speak for John but I would certainly say that I could always get better at emotional regulation and stress reduction, especially with two small boys running around!

More seriously, your question reminds me of a great book that my friend Scott Carney wrote on just this topic called The Wedge - check it out!

The_Woman_S3 karma

How has your gender impacted your experiences and your research in these areas? As two male researchers you are often afforded a different level of respect, safety, etc. than a female researcher might experience within these context. Does your research take the differences in female and male owned and operated businesses or is it more generalized?

Second question: how would you define entrepreneurship?

miklia6 karma

Thanks for this valuable question - and I'm a bit surprised it wasn't asked earlier. In short, yes, absolutely it makes a big difference in many facets of the research. It's part of a more reflexive turn in peace and conflict studies in general, placing more emphasis on positionality and how who the researcher is can influence the research itself. This has been standard practice in fields like anthropology for a generation, but is slowly (and rightly) coming to fields like political science now too.

As white, male, foreign researchers, John and I enjoy a series of advantages in many places in terms of our ability, security and access, and can more rarely in other places can be a target for that reason. I can give a hypothetical example of the former. Let's say we're working in Nepal with a female Nepali colleague on a project looking at community perceptions of peace. Just by virtue of our position, John and I could more or less walk up to a minister's office unannounced and probably talk our way into a meeting. Next to impossible for our Nepali colleague.

However, if we go to a rural village and want to talk frankly with the community about sensitive issues, John and I might need to spend weeks in the village building trust with skeptical people who are maybe used to seeing fly-by-night foreign researchers, perhaps even needing multiple trips, to get information that still isn't as rich as what our colleague may be able to obtain on the first day.

This is just a generic example, but one based in experiences, and I'm glad that our field is beginning to make these sorts of associations and unique advantages / drawbacks of gender, race and nationality more explicit in research design. At the end of the day, the more deeply that these issues are considered, the better the research is.

The_test_is_me3 karma

How has your (and other's you've studied with) GI health been?

miklia6 karma

Oof yeah there's been moments for sure. Usually it's worst in the bigger cities in warm places with bad sanitation, rural areas/villages tend to be better actually.

Lots of bacterial bugs running through me, I've had everything from girardia and e coli to salmonella, malaria and typhoid and a whole bunch of other stuff in between. The illnesses are one problem, and the constant use of things like cipro to take care of them can really wear down the immune system over time. Colleagues who have had bad luck with illnesses have certainly had longer term health challenges.

The_test_is_me3 karma

Thanks for answering.

Do you feel as if the constant stress is a factor?

miklia5 karma

For many of these absolutely, if the body's stressed from many different angles it's certainly more susceptible to other illnesses. For others like e coli, it's probably best to try to avoid it where possible. I could also be more cautious, but sometimes things like Kathmandu street momos are too amazing to pass up, even if I know they'll get me sick every time...

johnCreilly3 karma

Hello, thank you for doing this AMA!

Do you have any personal stories of a group which has successfully recovered/is recovering from a conflict? Or, conversely, groups which tried and failed to recover?

Specifically, I am curious about how economic, social, and psychological rebuilding strategies actually work, and how they play out in the real world.

miklia4 karma

Very much our pleasure! It's an interesting question too. If we are talking about insurgent groups / actors, there's a number of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) processes that have been successful.

I'm a novice in this space, but one challenge can be is how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks, especially informal members or other conflict actors not covered by such agreements. If too many members are unserved and/or the opportunities are weak or not supported by actors in power, it can cause splinter groups and re-ignite conflict. Both the processes I have experienced similar to this (the Maoists in Nepal and FARC in Colombia) have a series of activities that fall along this spectrum. And most would agree with you that economic, social and psychological components are all key pillars to any durable peacebuilding.

Brentrance3 karma

Do you believe that all contentious issues between people (both at the individual level and at group levels, such as between countries) are solvable? Are there any key things that make it more likely a problem will be overcome? What about when people are so stubborn they can't bring themselves to see other perspectives?

miklia3 karma

Thanks for the questions! While they're a bit beyond my ability to speak definitely in such broad strokes, I will say that while conflict is an essential part of the human experience, we needn't accept that violent conflict has to be as well.

Defiant-Outside3363 karma

Do you see any possibility of another world war?

What do you think the world will be like in 50 years? 100 years?

Thank you for all you do!

miklia5 karma

Thanks! While we've made improvements as a field in our ability to predict internal conflicts, major global conflict between states of the type that will create a world war is unfortunately still notoriously difficult to predict. And it can be triggered in the most unlikely places, like in 1971 when the USA and USSR almost started World War III over East Pakistan, a place they cared little about the year before. And many think that the next great war won't be fought with nukes, but viruses (the 11010001001100 kind).

That said, I'm not a doomsdayer - we have to learn from our mistakes and close calls from the past if we hope to talk ourselves down from the ledge in the future. I choose to remain an optimist about our future.

1990ebayseller3 karma

Does the age of the political leaders have anything to do with their military decisions? I can imagine someone over 60+ years old trying to start a war because his life might be over soon anyway.

miklia3 karma

That's a really interesting question - I don't know! If a study hasn't already been done on it, it would make for a great article or Master's thesis.

Ragonkowski2 karma

How many beers have you had with Robert Young Pelton? I haven’t quite made it through Worlds Most Dangerous Places but you two sure check off the big ones. Looking forward to reading The Vortex.

miklia2 karma

Haha, zero, and that doesn't seem to be nearly enough! Thanks much for the kind words and support.

RHigh992 karma

The tie between climate change and the rise in conflicts in areas that are most vulnerable seems very strong. Have you come across any companies that have had to address the two areas (climate change, local "hot" conflict") together? If so, what were some of their strategies? If not, could you extrapolate, based on your research, what strategies could be successful for a business trying to tackle these issues in duel fashion?

miklia6 karma

Oh this is a really interesting question - thanks for this. I haven't yet researched a 'perfect' example of a company working through both at the same time as you mention, but there's certainly quite a few cases I can think of of climate-induced vulnerabilities exacerbating conflicts that businesses have to work through - or such vulnerabilities helping to create conflicts between businesses and communities.

Generally, companies that spend the investment in working with their community to be able to work through things like the climate crisis together are better placed when the event actually comes, like a hurricane, flooding, or similar. Our research suggests that companies who see community engagement as insurance to cover catastrophic social risk tended to be better prepared and more likely to emerge stronger after crisis.

That said, I'd also add that effective response also depends a great deal on how politicians are responding to the crisis, and if they are in fact using the climate-induced disaster to make conflict worse. One of the most horrific examples of this is in the Great Bhola Cyclone, a storm that killed half a million people and precipitated a genocide.

Regardless, this is a fascinating and essential forward research area, and I know a lot of great scholars that are trying to better understand just the sorts of links you're talking about. It's a race against time, so hopefully we can deliver solid enough research and guidance in time to support informed decisions.

replayzero2 karma

What is the highest risk profession in the highest risk zone? And who is the most proficient?

miklia2 karma

from what I remember reading a long time ago, it's things like loggers, not academics, even ones in this field...

FaisalAli_912 karma

Do you have any tips for how to overcome stress and anxiety and focus on doing your work in stressful situations?

miklia5 karma

Great question - I'm just as novice as anyone else on the topic, but I thought that this podcast on the topic was insightful.

umayanan2 karma

How bad is your PTSD?

miklia3 karma

Thankfully little to none. See my comment upthread on mental health resources that I have access too, noting again that I'm one of the lucky ones to have this resource available.

stadchic1 karma

Do you also research conflict and gender?

If so: What are the biggest drivers of inter-gender conflict? And perhaps how have the changing international gender equality/inequality landscapes effected conflict?

miklia2 karma

Thanks! I don't personally, but I know many of the scholars at the PRIO Centre for Gender, Peace and Security - they do absolutely outstanding work on the issues that you're addressing and have a great resource base.