Making peace

November 09, 2023

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of months at Harvard and I chose to take a political philosophy course. It was there that I started to learn more about John Rawls, his theory of justice and, in particular, his Veil of Ignorance (VOI) idea. I had been thinking about Rawls' ideas of justice, particularly in relation to prison settings. I started consulting on peace and security and saw how teams on the ground were often unable to put policies into action because they lacked rigorous theoretical models. To say they played a pivotal role in making it all happen is an understatement.

You studied law as an undergraduate. Was that part of a career masterplan? Not at all. I did humanities in high school and it seemed like a logical path. I was always interested in the criminal justice system, why the state is allowed to punish people and how that relates to individuals' rights. I guess I like academia so I thought I may end up teaching. I never saw myself becoming a corporate lawyer.

How did you come across the idea that you would go on to champion? I had the opportunity to spend a couple of months at Harvard and I chose to take a political philosophy course. It was there that I started to learn more about John Rawls, his theory of justice and, in particular, his Veil of Ignorance (VOI) idea.

What exactly is that? Put simply, Rawls imagines that if citizens are able to shed their own characteristics - for example, their gender, age, social and economic status - and talk to each other as if they are behind a 'veil of ignorance', they will choose outcomes that benefit everyone, not just themselves.

The theory made so much sense to me. And it sowed the germ of an idea which led me to apply to Cambridge to do an MPhil at the Institute of Criminology. I wanted to see if I could put the theory into practice.

Had anyone else attempted this before? There have been a few studies which have tested the theory but only in laboratory settings, not involving real people, in real life.

So you jumped right in? I had been thinking about Rawls' ideas of justice, particularly in relation to prison settings. When prisoners first arrive in prison, they are all in the same boat: they have all been deprived of many of their freedoms and they have very few resources they can access.

It seemed like the ideal context in which to test the veil of ignorance theory. I wanted to find out if prisoners could find some principles of justice that would be applicable to all of them, regardless of their crime, the length of their sentence, their ethnicity, their religious background or any other defining characteristics.

I asked prisoners to imagine they were entering prison not knowing what conditions they were going to be living in, how long they would be there for or whether they were going to make friends. Having imagined that, I asked each of them to come up with one idea that would make life better for anyone about to walk through a prison door.

How did that go? I was astonished at how quickly they found consensus on core ideas around autonomy and respect.

And did the process lead to change? At the time, it was still more of a theoretical exercise to see if it would work. But I did use it to make policy recommendations and doing it gave me confidence that it was workable in real-world settings.

Then what? After finishing my MPhil I became involved in humanitarian, development and peace work, initially working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia, dealing with guerrilla leaders and local conflict in rural areas.

I started consulting on peace and security and saw how teams on the ground were often unable to put policies into action because they lacked rigorous theoretical models. The way they evaluated outcomes was also hindering the effectiveness of interventions.

I thought there had to be a better way of doing things - and then it clicked. Why don't we use the VOI idea in small, rural communities to help improve social cohesion, community resilience and wellbeing? That idea essentially turned into my PhD.

That sounds like a very exciting idea but difficult to do, I imagine? Definitely. It was a very ambitious project. As a researcher, you can't just storm into sensitive and violent settings. I knew I was going to need a partner and the odds were not in my favour. I went to a lot of conferences and had a lot of Zoom calls.

How did that go? I felt people were excited and understood the idea and how innovative it was but it was very hard to get anyone to sign up to it.

How did you solve the problem? By getting Cambridge Enterprise (the University's technology transfer arm) involved. To say they played a pivotal role in making it all happen is an understatement. The moment they came on board, everything changed. Instead of asking prospective partners to work with a random researcher, we were asking them to work with the University of Cambridge, which in this case would be represented by me.

I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur until it was pointed out to me that I was essentially creating a start-up.

Having Cambridge Enterprise's backing made all the difference and unlocked funding and support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guinea-Bissau.

UNDP had been working in the country for decades and were aware of two pairs of neighbouring villages, both of which were embroiled in violent confrontations arising from land disputes. In both cases, the violence had led to a number of deaths and everything that entailed: the destruction of positive social relationships, increasing scarcity of resources and, hence, further violence.

The source of this news is from University of Cambridge

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