As a humanitarian, conflict and security researcher, consultant and author, Benedetta Berti studies armed groups and internal wars, analyzing the impact of insecurity on civilians.
She is a TED Senior Fellow, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), as well as a Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). In addition, Benedetta has a security and humanitarian consulting practice, where she partners with governments, NGOs and international organizations working on violence prevention, disarmament, protection of vulnerable groups and delivery of humanitarian assistance, among other issues. In 2015 the Italian government awarded her the Order of the Star of Italy (order of Knighthood) in recognition of her outstanding achievements.
Benedetta holds a BA in Oriental Studies from the University of Bologna, an MA and PhD in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and two post-doctorates in International Relations and Political Science from Hebrew University and Ben Gurion University.
Fun-fact: One of the things I took away from living in Chiapas, Mexico, is a rather inexplicable love of traditional ‘ranchera’ music (a 5-minute google search will elucidate why I use the word ‘inexplicable’ here)
FPI: How would you explain your expertise to a third grader?
I am a conflict and security researcher, consultant and author. I study armed groups and internal conflicts, analyzing the impact of insecurity on civilians. I rely on that research to help mitigate the impact of violence on communities affected by war. My work is interdisciplinary: I combine academic research and teaching with policy analysis and field-based work. So, for example, I do research and write books on security and conflict and I design policies and brief decision-makers on those issues. I also have my own security and humanitarian consulting practice, where I partner with governments, NGOs and international organizations on specific projects. In that capacity I have worked on violence prevention, disarmament, protection of vulnerable groups and delivery of humanitarian assistance, among others. My work focuses on the Middle East, but I have been involved in projects all around the world, from Burundi to Mexico.
FPI: You’ve written so much on armed conflict across the Middle East. Can you give us a short diagnosis and prognosis on the state of affairs in Libya, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and beyond?
Wow—It is virtually impossible to offer a short answer to this question and to find one common tread in these vastly different countries/contexts (which is why–shameless plug — I am completing a book about the changing nature of warfare, governance and non-state armed groups and the broader impact of these trends on the ‘Middle East’).
One of the trends I focus on is the relationship between state weakness, poor governance, foreign intervention and insecurity. Looking at the broader Middle East at the moment, the lesson is clear: when governments are ineffective, unable to secure their territory and to respond to the needs of the citizen, the vacuum left by the state will be filled by non-state actors. Some of these non-state actors may be local communities, NGOs or civil society; it may be groups that have both the motivations and the means to make a positive change in their local realities. In other cases, it may be violent actors, some of whom may have very different agendas. In an environment of weakness and ineffectiveness, violent groups—including insurgent organizations—can more easily rise and more speedily grow. If we think of the development of a group like ISIS, the link with the state’s inability to function is especially clear: the ‘Islamic State project’ took root in post-2003 Iraq, a country marked by a deeply misguided foreign intervention as well as a dysfunctional post-regime change state-building process, plagued with ineffectiveness, corruption as well as exclusion and discrimination. The group was then able to further thrive in the chaos and absolute break-down of central control brought forward by the Syrian civil war.
When we start looking at the roots of violence and insecurity, we often find politics. This has clear implications when we think of the ‘day after’: if groups like ISIS have been able to rise and thrive because of weakness, poor governance and instability in both Iraq and Syria, then crippling the civilian infrastructure and the local economy to destroy them may, in the long term, create more insecurity on the ground, leading yet again to a vicious circle of violence and extremism, all whilst the civilian population pays the highest price.
FPI: Is there an aspect of armed conflict that you feel is consistently overlooked by the international community and the media?
I don’t think most media accounts of warfare manage to explain and explore the broad issue of civilian life in times of war. All too often we read simplified accounts that reduce civilians and communities affected by war as solely victims or pawns in larger strategic and geopolitical games.
It is abundantly clear that civilians suffer greatly in times of war. I have spent the past decade looking at these dynamics; as well as the past few years directly witnessing the horrific toll of the Syrian civil war on ordinary citizens. Yet, it is important not to over-simplify and underestimate the agency of civilians, the resilience and resistance of ordinary people affected by war. We need to better study and understand the choices ordinary people make in wartime and we need to better document and support acts of civilians resistance and self-governance in times of conflict. Concretely, in the context of Syria, this means focusing more on telling the stories and understanding the paths of the many (many!) civil society leaders and communities organizing to cope with conflict and fighting daily to preserve cohesion and shared humanity in a country whose social fabric has been torn apart by politics and geopolitics.
Also, we need to focus more on how virtually all templates of humanitarian assistance we have developed in the past decades don’t work anymore and fall short of coping with the many protracted political crises of our times. Finally, we really need to stop looking at the Middle East in overly simplistic binary terms (‘Sunni vs. Shiite’; ‘Secular vs. Religious’…it is so much more complicated than that!)
FPI: Any reading recommendations for those interested in diving into the issues more?
Three books I have re-read and used a lot lately are:
- Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
- David Killcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
- Kelly M. Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, (Cornell University Press: 2010)
They are a bit heavy on the academic side; but read together they definitely offer some food for thought on the changing nature of warfare and the international order.
FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interruptors?
I teach a couple of courses on civil wars and internal conflicts and, in that capacity, I often do sit down with young women who are considering pursuing a career in foreign policy, security or humanitarian affairs. One (quite modest) piece of advice I find myself giving time and time again to students wanting to enter the international affairs world is to take some time to explore the field. Instead of worrying right away about getting the ‘right’ job with a big organization or government or about how to balance work and family (a concern too many young women in their early
20s seem to have, prematurely), devote time to traveling and to take [paid] internships or short-term jobs in areas/places/organizations that offer an opportunity to learn something new about the world and themselves.
In other words: I tell them to feed their inner explorer, to take (sensible) risks, to make mistakes and not to be too hard on themselves. This last piece of advice seems to be especially needed when talking to highly motivated young women!
Also, I think it is important to find a tribe of like-minded women to help and support them along their way: it takes a village to raise the next generation of foreign policy, humanitarian and security leaders. Mentorship is important, but so is having a network of colleagues, peers and friends to rely on when the going gets tough.