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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 29, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 19
SAIS Students Take Flight

Monika Kelemen presents recently elected Haitian President Rene Preval with a SAIS travel clock.
Photo by Jean Claude Mathieu

Groups head to Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The Caribbean nation of Haiti has been plagued by political violence for most of its history and remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet, last May the country's 8.3 million inhabitants saw a glimpse of hope with the inauguration of a democratically elected president, who promised to bring a measure of peace and stability to the region. That effort has begun.

It was at this pivotal juncture in Haiti's history that 16 students from Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies undertook a field trip of the highest order — an up-close and transparent look inside the newly formed government. This month, the SAIS students conducted five days' worth of interviews with government officials and civil society representatives at all levels, ranging from an audience with President Rene Preval himself to meetings with neighborhood leaders in a newly securitized slum.

The Haiti trip, a for-credit experience sponsored by the school's Conflict Management program, was just one of several "academic vacations" taken this winter break by SAIS students, who also headed off to Guatemala, Mexico, China and Saudi Arabia.

I. William Zartman, director of the Conflict Management program and the Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, said that he's organized winter-break trips for years and that recently several other SAIS departments and programs have followed his lead.

Zartman said a trip like the one to Haiti allows students to develop a better understanding of the principles, concepts and specifics they learn in the classroom.

"It just makes a world of difference to hear things on the spot from people who are directly involved with the situation," Zartman said. "There are many sides of the story, and with this one-week experience, [the students] were able to see the conflict in three dimensions and hear many different points of view."

The Conflict Management program also sponsored a trip to Haiti last year, when students studied the platforms of the various presidential candidates. The students' mission each time is to study the underlying causes of the endemic conflict. Currently, the small nation is rife with gang violence, poverty and corruption, Zartman says, and suffers from an overall lack of structure.

SAIS students pose for a snapshot with youth participating in Jovenes Constructores, a community-rebuilding program in Tapachula, Mexico.
Photo by Courtesy of Trine Lunde

"Nothing works in Haiti, and yet everything works there," Zartman said. "Everyone just makes do and tries to find his or her way around a very dysfunctional situation."

Specifically, the SAIS student group toured the overcrowded capital, Port-au-Prince, including its slums at Bel Air; and a provincial town, Jacmel. In addition to the president and prime minister, the students spoke with various other ministers, security and development officials, the special representative of the secretary general of the United Nations, the World Bank representative, UNICEF workers, human rights and disarmament group leaders, anti-corruption figures, a mayor, the U.S. embassy, reporters and health officials. They also spoke with the leaders of the country's two official religions, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Haiti and the Hougun, the chief priest of voodoo.

In November and December, before leaving, the students attended talks in Washington by experts on Haiti, including the country's ambassador, and did research in preparation for the trip.

Each student focused on a particular angle or issue, such as education, economy and the environment. Upon their return, the students were asked to write a 10-page report that described the problem and proposed solutions. Once all the reports are completed, Zartman will write an introduction, bind them in one volume and send copies to officials in Haiti and circulate the document in academic circles.

Ruben Harutunian, student coordinator for the Haiti trip, said that it was an unforgettable experience.

"This was such an incredible opportunity. We got to see what life is like there, to witness some of the misery and poverty firsthand and then also talk with people who are actively trying to make things better," Harutunian said.

The school's grant-sponsored Guatemala trip was organized by the International Development Program and involved 10 students who went to the Central American country for a two-week stay to expand their knowledge of its current economic and social development. During the trip, the students conducted a series of meetings with organizations and individuals working in Guatemala, including USAID, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala and the Inter-American Development Bank.

In addition, five of the students worked with Friendship Bridge, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, to complete a market study on microfinance in the department of El Quiche, and the other five conducted a survey on education in rural Chisec.

Farther north, seven SAIS students from the Western Hemisphere program spent two weeks in Mexico thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The students connected with representatives of various NGOs based in the southern state of Chiapas, who took the group to various areas to better understand issues related to poverty and development, such as indigenous rights, migration, health and education.

Among their activities, students visited bilingual schools, indigenous communities, youth groups, human rights activists, migrant shelters, and a group called Jovenes Constructore, a program in Tapachula through which unemployed youth are brought together to rebuild their communities after Hurricane Stan.

Trine Lunde, a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies and student coordinator for the Mexico trip, said that the students saw and did much. She considered it "a very successful test run."

"This was our first trip there, and we tried to lay some groundwork for future trips," Lunde said. "But overall, it was very interesting and rewarding, definitely for me."

Zartman said that experiential field trips have become part of the academic fabric at SAIS, and he is happy to have played a role.

"The Strategic Studies program takes a trip every year to a battlefield, which is fine. But I thought, Why just go to dead battlefields when you can see live conflicts?" Zartman said. "Our people here at SAIS go on to take some pretty hair-raising jobs, so it's important to show them what it's like mucking around in the Third World and how to behave in the middle of a conflict and avoid getting carried away. If [all these trips] become part of the culture here, so much for the better, as [they're] an essential part of the wonderful training that we give."


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