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Alumna’s African research nets top honour

October 21, 2011

To truly invest in peace, you need to go beyond food, water and shelter for refugees.

That's what Royal Roads University Masters in Human Security and Peacebuilding alumna Jane Lawson knows after spending time in Africa researching refugee camp peace programs for her thesis. The work, which has garnered attention from the United Nations, earned her the 2011 Governor General's Gold Medal for the most outstanding thesis work at fall 2011 convocation.

Lawson went to Africa to answer a seemingly simple question: do the conflict resolution skills taught in refugee camp peace programs have long-term effects on promoting peace? The answer was a resounding yes and Lawson is confident in her recommendation that stronger policy support for the programs is needed to help refugee populations once their immediate survival needs are met.

"It helps people towards working on their own, it brings out their self-reliance" she says. "I don't think money (towards basic needs) is good enough for the future development of refugees. Their psychosocial development, which is not a programming priority, is also extremely important. Peace programs help bridge this gap."

Over seven months in 2010 she worked with refugees at the 50-year-old Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda and with repatriated former refugees in Monrovia, Liberia to find out the long-term impact of peace programs. She witnessed the positive impact on communities through trauma healing while in the camps and how they helped people reintegrate into life outside the camps. The programs focus on communication, self esteem, conflict resolution and other skills, she says.

The work Lawson undertook was groundbreaking and addressed a real gap in research, says Ken Christie, Royal Roads Human Security and Peacebuilding program head and Lawson's thesis supervisor.

"Jane embodies what human security and peace building is about," he says. "She chose to work with refugees, which is one of the most difficult things to do as they are the most vulnerable."

Her thesis will be shared with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, as well as the Ugandan and Liberian governments. More research is needed, but it is clear to Lawson that peace programs help empower people to deal with conflict better.

Aid in refugee camps is very focused on the needs of people today - food, water, shelter and health care topping the list. These are vital services, but you can't discount the person's long-term needs, Lawson says. When people are spending on average 12 years in a refugee camp they lose out on opportunities for higher education and careers, placing them at a disadvantage when they are repatriated.

"The 15 to 30 year olds, they become the lost generation," she says. "We focus on the children and many of the older people already had some sort of training prior to becoming a refugee. (The people in between) are the people who lose out."

Since returning home Lawson has focused her attention on helping people give in a sustainable way to support immediate needs without negatively impacting local economies or creating dependencies. Thanks to a Calgary business's support, and Lawson's insights, five Liberian students will have four years of tuition at the University of Monrovia covered through scholarship. She is also a member of the Consortium of Peace Studies at the University of Calgary which is working on starting a post graduate diploma program in peace studies.  

"I would love to work with businesses and corporations and help them learn how to corporate give in a different way so that it is a long-term investment," she says. "We have to rethink how we give. Giving is a good thing, but mindful giving is how we have to do it."