ConDev Capstone Success in the DRC.

The Bush School of Government and Public Service has partnered with Conflict and Development on a Capstone Project between November and May 2014. This Capstone Project is a step to establish a foundation for long-term cooperation between the Bush School and ConDev with institutions in the DRC and other fragile and conflict-affected nations.

This collaborative project is a first of its kind – sending graduate students to a conflict-affected country and having great success. The students were involved with the planning, execution, and analysis of this project. Their thoughts and experiences will be shared throughout a series of blog posts. This is the tenth and final post in the blog series.

Written by Jerry Kenney

The United States Agency for International Development and and the wider development community has tasked Conflict and Development (ConDev) at Texas A&M University with transforming development programs and policies for fragile and conflict-affected countries.  Achieving this goal requires ConDev to pursue initiatives that have the potential to transform data collection, accessibility, and utilization, prepare the next generation of humanitarian response and development practitioners, and more fully integrate local institutions in conflict-affected situations through research and program partnerships.  The 2014 Conflict and Development Capstone Project has been an exciting experiment in applied research, student engagement, and institutional collaboration, a critical first step that offers promising possibilities for what may lie ahead.

The success of the 2014 Capstone project has been motivated by a bold and relentless pursuit of pushing the boundaries forward.  Let’s not just write a desk study about the challenges facing communities in Eastern Congo, let’s go see for ourselves.  Let’s not just travel to North Kivu, let’s work collaboratively with an established university partner.  Let’s not just work in partnership with local institutions, have our partners identify key development programs that are important to the local community and let’s assist with research methodologies to evaluate how well these programs are achieving their intended impacts.   Capstone 2014 is undoubtedly the product of persistently reflective and ambitious problem solving.

However, Capstone 2014 has faced numerous challenges, not least of which has been doubt, skepticism, and, understandably, risk aversion.  The initial obstacle has been to demonstrate that even in, and especially in, the most difficult operating environments and in service to the most vulnerable populations, a student-led collaborative initiative can safely and efficiently generate research that has clear recommendations for improving development interventions.  Due to the hard work of students at Texas A&M University and the Catholic University of Graben in North Kivu, the brave support of faculty, staff and administrators, and the push for innovation by USAID and fellow members of the Higher Education Solutions Network, Capstone 2014 has set a precedent for experiential student engagement and research collaboration with institutions in fragile and conflict-affected environments.

So what’s next?  How can we, universities as well as other stakeholders in the larger development community, replicate and improve the Capstone model?  Below I offer a few ideas.

First, trust great students to deliver great results.  Universities are reservoirs of passion and talent looking for opportunities to address important global challenges.  Unfortunately, this potential is often untapped.  Students from across the spectrum, at large universities like Texas A&M University as well as those from institutions in fragile and conflict-affected countries, have a role to play and should be given more chances to make an impact.  This will yield real benefits now and prepare better leaders and professionals for the future.

Second, build upon established success and trust.  The 2014 Capstone Project is not a new concept.  Every student that graduates from the Bush School of Government and Public Service participates in a Capstone Project in his or her final year of graduate study.  Additionally, ConDev has established an effective working relationship with Bush School faculty by after working together on three successful Capstone Projects in the past four years.  Capstone 2014 is unique for its aspiration and scale rather than for its internal partnership structure.  Instead of creating a new program from scratch, ConDev is charting new paths in institutional collaboration and student engagement by providing strategic support that leverages the capacities of existing partnerships.

Third, take it to the field and answer development questions that are important to local partners and communities.  Drafting an isolated report achieves little for intended beneficiaries or for the wider development community.  Though it requires significant investments in time and resources, more applied and collaborative research with local institutions develops capacity and delivers results that matter.

The 2014 Capstone Project has established a precedent for student engagement, applied research collaboration, and institutional partnership.  By relentlessly asking big questions and building upon key lessons, ConDev and its partners will continue to transform how the wider development community operates in fragile and conflict-affected situations.

(reprint from - 23 April 2013)