Q & A:
D. Larry Sampler
December 15, 2009
Q: What is the biggest surprise someone new to working in a conflict zone would find?
A: Public perceptions of “conflict zones” generate artificially high levels of angst and concern. Our culture concentrates on drama. A television show about police doesn’t convey how boring and routine most of their work days are. In Bosnia, I was responsible for briefing new OSCE staff on safety and security. I’d ask them what they thought the two most important things were that they should do to assure their continued health and safety. Their guesses ranged from “vary your timings and routes” to “never discuss politics with locals.” The correct answer was “Wash your hands and wear your seatbelt.” The greatest killer of relief workers in conflict zones is traffic accidents; the greatest cause of lost hours is due to illness (often intestinal).
Q: What particular skill or set of skills do you think would make someone particularly well-suited to working in a conflict zone?
A: Flexibility and “tolerance of ambiguity” are two things that are absolutely essential in a conflict zone. As the situation changes, so too must our plans. And the changes are often sudden and counterintuitive, not explained. Most guidance to the field will be what I call “constructively ambiguous.” Distilling opaque and less-than-precise guidance from political masters thousands of miles away into detailed operational instructions requires a high level of self-confidence, tempered with humility and an ability to negotiate in good faith with others who interpret the ambiguity differently. It’s important that these differences be resolved in the field. Referring disagreements back to “Headquarters” will weaken the faith of leadership in their field staff, and result in micromanagement from afar.
Q: What’s the single biggest intellectual or perceptual fallacy that you’d like to see addressed?
A: When we fail — as a country but also as the “international community” writ large — to manage expectations about what our assistance or intervention will produce. Projecting the perception of the capacity of a mature democracy and powerful, educated nation-state to make changes onto a fragile nation-state will lead to damaging cycles of disappointment produced by unrealistic expectations. Our responsibility as international observers and mentors is to help governments prevent a moment of crisis and, when it does occur, to cope with both unrealistic and unmet expectations, as well as any nascent insurgency that emerges.
Q: What’s the best thing about working in conflict or post-conflict settings?
A: The people. In my experience, the people who choose to work in the most hellish corners of the Earth form a simply stunning community of practitioners. The emotional intensity of working in these challenging conditions creates bonds that are everlasting, and a shared experience that is unknown to most professionals who’ve not experienced the crucible of a conflict setting.