South Sudan’s Abyei Area, a tiny border region ravaged by war and poverty about a two-hour flight from the capital, Juba, is a place that Sophia Dawkins knows very well.
Not long ago, Dawkins found herself in a location where food aid was being distributed to the local population. Most of those waiting were women who had been standing or sitting for hours under a brutal sun; most had children to worry about. The things that most were talking about while waiting?
“Who was dating whom, what hair style people were going to have, what people were going to do on a Friday night,” she says. “It’s very clichéd to say, ‘well, you know, all human beings are the same,’ but they really are. Peoples’ preferences are very counterintuitive. They care about very similar things to what we might care about whilst relaxing in Fletcher’s Hall of Flags.”
“The message is that you can’t presuppose what people’s preferences or consumption behavior are going to be, or what they enjoy doing because you label them as someone in a conflict zone or because they’re very poor,” she adds. “But that’s what Fletcher taught me in class, you can’t assume that.”
These days, Dawkins (MALD ’11) splits her time between South Sudan, Kenya and the cooler climates of Boston and Britain, working for Conflict Dynamics International. As a program officer in peacebuilding for the well-known nonprofit organization, she finds herself at the cutting edge of policymaking and helping nations like South Sudan transition out of conflict.
Studying as an undergraduate at Oxford, she had fully expected to become a development economist, but she was inspired instead by an international relations professor who had sought to attend Fletcher as a student and who highly recommended the school to her.
“He planted the idea of Fletcher in my mind, that it’s an amazing place and it’s going to fit with your politics, your views and outlook, that this is something you should definitely consider,” she says.
After graduating from Oxford in 2007, she worked for an NGO that delivered technical expertise to strengthen the capacity of legislatures across East and Southern Africa. By the time she arrived at Fletcher in 2009, she was already well acquainted with the research of Professor of International Law Ian Johnstone and Peter Uvin, formerly academic dean and Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Fletcher. While a student, she also became fascinated by the research of Assistant Professor of Development Economics Jenny Aker.
During the summer between her two years at Fletcher, Dawkins interned with Mercy Corps, an Oregon-based NGO which sent her to Abyei for the first time to do a monitoring and evaluation project of humanitarian efforts on the ground. There, frustrated by some of the institutional and political problems undermining the region’s growth, she became much more interested in the peacebuilding and political side of development.
“I was really desperate for field experience and so I jumped at this opportunity,” she says. “And lo and behold, it was a field experience. It was living in a tent, in the middle of a field, in the middle of a quite troubled and hot conflict zone.”
Inspired by her field work, Dawkins returned to Medford for her second year and retooled her research to focus instead on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. She worked with Professor Uvin, who became her advisor, to focus her thesis on how decentralization efforts in South Sudan have shaped conflict outcomes.
“He’s someone who’s not afraid to speak truth to power, and at the same time, he’s also respected as someone who does extremely rigorous research,” she says. “He’s the most extraordinary writer, and he makes his work extremely accessible.”
Dawkins began working for Conflict Dynamics International during her last year at Fletcher and has continued in that role to this day.
“I work specifically to support government, civil society and other policy makers in newly independent South Sudan to explore governance options that can best build mutual conciliation around people’s different interests that could otherwise express themselves violently if there wasn’t a political avenue,” she says.
If it wasn’t for Fletcher, she says, she might have found herself crunching numbers and developing statistical models as an economist somewhere in the United Kingdom.
“It’s such a very extraordinary culture, the institution that is Fletcher, in terms of the community, the sense of ethics and the values that everybody shares,” she says. “The pairing of that extraordinary experience with top rate academic standards is absolutely unparalleled.”
“I was surrounded by the most fascinating selection of people from all walks of life: they came from peace keeping, from the Central Intelligence Agency, they were Olympic figure skaters, fighter pilots, all different ages and from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, and yet we shared a common sense of values, and a common openness,” she says. “And that was truly extraordinary.”
-- Mike Eckel (F13)