On the eve of a new academic year with students returning to campus to begin new courses and degree programs, there is a renewed effort to identify the need for state-of-the-art teaching techniques to address some of the world’s ongoing social, economic and environmental challenges. The Earth Institute at Columbia University hosted a two-day workshop that brought together practitioners, trainers and academics to explore innovative approaches to teaching and training on natural resources management in fragile states and peacebuilding contexts. We asked participants if the currently available teaching and training programs were providing the sufficient competencies and skill sets for graduates. The group also discussed if graduates of these programs entered the workforce with the optimal skills to address the complex multi-sectoral issues in the nexus of environment, natural resource management, conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
This workshop follows the high-level launch of a new six- volume series titled Strengthening Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Through Natural Resource Management, which is re-invigorating the research and practitioner communities facing these challenges. The workshop reviewed teaching and learning tools at three different levels – degree-granting academic programs, single-semester academic courses and practitioner training programs – in each case identifying strengths and weaknesses, prioritizing gaps and brainstorming promising approaches to moving forward. It generated recommendations on how to best prepare new teaching material and how to best organize ongoing activities to ensure optimal integration of case study material into teaching and training programs.
As part of the workshop, participating practitioners revealed their wish list for the characteristics of an ideal employee; these fell into three categories: technical, managerial, and interpersonal. On the technical front, skills include knowledge of conflict assessment frameworks, natural resource governance, sustainable livelihood strategies, environmental science, writing skills, statistics, program design and foreign language capabilities. From a management perspective, practitioners should have an entrepreneurial ability to make ideas actionable; they should also be willing to take risks. Flexibility and comfort with failure are also valued qualities. Finally, interpersonal skills include creativity, cultural sensitivity and the ability to work well in teams.
In light of these skills, the workshop discussed whether or not current practitioner training programs and graduate programs provided adequate training for these needs. Training courses for practitioners revealed that none of them adequately addresses the topic of managing natural resources for peacebuilding. The material they cover tends to be very general. A majority of programs focus on the role of natural resources in conflict, or mitigating conflict over natural resources, which leaves room to create a rigorous, in-depth training course that addresses how natural resources can be used to support peacebuilding priorities. A similar review of graduate academic programs revealed that programs rarely address natural resource connections to conflict and peacebuilding in full courses. Only a few offer a limited selection of courses and do not cover the entire range of issues related to natural resources. The focus also tends to be on environmental security, environment and development, and conflict and development rather than on post-conflict natural resource management.
Therefore, there is room to create academic programs that produce well-rounded individuals who can directly engage in the field of natural resource management for peacebuilding in post-conflict settings.
Through the workshop, participants set priorities for how to have an impact. The top priority was to create a training program that can be rapidly customized. Another priority was to create modules using the material that can be used in multiple courses. These would be designed for both students and practitioners. A third idea was to use simulations to give students a sense of what it is like to grapple with maintaining peace in a post-conflict country. Simulations also provide an opportunity for collaboration, with participants engaging each other all over the world, while still learning in a structured environment. Additionally, they provide students with an opportunity to put theory into practice, often creating visceral reactions.
The short-term goal is to focus attention to the multi-disciplinary subjects quickly and integrate the topic into existing programs, since that seems to be the low-hanging fruit. Integrating the material from the case studies into an existing program is an opportunity to reach a broad range of students, many approaching the topic from different points of interest but facing the same challenges. It also presents a chance to first determine whether there is a demand for the topic; second, evaluate what teaching methods are most appropriate for the content – lectures, seminars or simulations. And third, it offers a chance to obtain feedback from professors on how they have adapted the material to fit their own context.
The workshop concluded with a clear statement: current academic and training programs do not provide a coherent satisfactory methodology for students and practitioners to adequately face the challenges posed by the confluence of natural resources, conflict and peacebuilding. At the very least, we must begin to create awareness on these issues, and their importance in supporting peacebuilding priorities. The significance of the role of natural resources in post-conflict development needs to be integrated into academic programs focusing on international development – they should not be an afterthought.
This article is one in a series emerging from the conference, “Identifying Lessons for Natural Resource Management in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding,” held at Columbia University April 25, 2012, and co-hosted by the Earth Institute and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), UNEP, ELI, the University of Tokyo, and McGill University; in cooperation with the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. For more information about the conference and the book series, go to http://environmentalpeacebuilding.org/.