Category Archives: Academia

More Academic in tone

Policymakers, we need you! ….to pay attention to the evidence.

by Chen Reis

Last week Nicholas Kristof*, the popular NYT columnist, created a storm on twitter and facebook with his column “Professors, We Need You! “ which, among other points, decried the irrelevance of much social science research to policy-making. There have been a number of responses from academics on Twitter, Facebook, and in blogs with many pointing out that they and a significant number of their colleagues are actively working to produce policy relevant research.

Kristof makes some valid points about the obscurity of much social science research and the inaccessibility of the jargon. But he does not mention an important reality:  that even relevant, good quality, and well communicated research often fails to have much impact on public dialog and policy.  Some of the challenges may be inherent to the nature of policy-making itself, but the discrepancy is often seen when research findings do not conform to preconceived notions or agenda of  policymakers. When research demonstrates that pre-existing ’solutions’ are not applicable, it is likely to be ignored as well. This too is true both in the US national system and internationally.  For example, even though  the data suggest that most of the gender-based violence even in humanitarian settings is perpetrated by intimate partners, most of the focus in processes aimed at ending impunity and preventing violence remains on combatant perpetrated sexual violence.

Even in areas for which there is more of an evidence base, it is not clear how and whether the evidence is used. ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, is working to identify the quality and use of evidence available for the humanitarian sector.

The problem is not only that existing evidence is often ignored, but also that there is also little recognition or mention of the need for data on what works, even in key high level statements and commitments. The lack of evidence about what works speaks to not only the complexity of research in crisis settings but also to the lack of resources available for robust program monitoring and evaluation.  When it comes to prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict, and to evaluation of humanitarian programming in general, it is only fairly recently that there has been a move to identify  evidence of what works. Humanitarian non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are working with academic institutions to evaluate interventions for sexual violence in humanitarian settings. There are also initiatives to support the generation of evidence for action, such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative of the ELRHA.

It will be interesting to see whether this push for evidence-based action is reflected in the UK hosted Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict scheduled for this June.  I hope that support for building the evidence base and for using the evidence to inform policy and programming plays a greater and more integrated part of the global efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in humanitarian settings.

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* Kristof’s own work and actions related to sexual violence have been critiqued  as uninformed /naïve and potentially harmful.

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Welcome to the Cassandra Complexity

This is a place for independent ideas, opinions, views, and discussions related to gender-based violence (GBV) – and especially sexual violence – in populations affected by humanitarian crises.  We are a global online forum for practitioners, advocates, and researchers.  We aim to look a little further and probe a little deeper than other sites that are focused on technical support, advocacy, or research.

The name of this blog reflects the Cassandra metaphor and its relationship to the complexity of the issues surrounding gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts.

The Cassandra metaphor[1] is a term applied in situations in which valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy.  After a series of events and catastrophes, Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions. We who work on gender-based violence have experienced Cassandra’s dilemma over and over again.

As practitioners, advocates and researchers, we have also been dissatisfied by a lack of space for open, honest, and independent discussion among people working on these issues from diverse organizations or professional perspectives. As there has been increased international attention to the issues of GBV in humanitarian settings, there has also been a silencing of divergent voices and a notable lack of interdisciplinary discussion. We therefore started this blog to fill this gap and enable the sharing of views and debates that have no other forum for publication.

We are most interested in focusing on violence against women and girls in humanitarian contexts, but we will not exclude postings about GBV against men or boys.

We want your contributions and hope this blog will become a lively place for sharing and discussion of views that we cannot easily find in other places.  Jargon-free and humorous writing will be most welcome. Contributors are free to post under their own name or, if they wish, to maintain anonymity by posting under the pseudonym Cassandra.  As the gender-based violence world is small, we wish to offer opportunities for publishing opinions anonymously. This will allow freedom to express unpopular opinions or critique institutions without fear of being censored or blacklisted in the community.

We want to move past institutional views and professional silos and hope that you will join us.

Sarah Martin     Chen Reis     Beth Vann


[1] Variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’. Definition here is adapted from http://cassandrasyndrome.blogspot.com