Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Melanie Meinzer

-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Political Science Department here at UConn, and a 2016-17 Draper Dissertation Fellow at UCHI. I earned my B.A. in Political Science from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and spent two years studying and working abroad in Norway. I then served as Deputy Head of Political Affairs at The British Consulate-General in Boston, where I covered Middle Eastern politics and developed public diplomacy projects with Boston-area Arab-American and Jewish-American civic groups. I delved further into Middle Eastern politics in my graduate coursework at UConn in international relations and comparative politics. I also began learning Arabic and studied in Morocco on a 2014 U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship. My primary research focus is critical international relations theory, which is informed by my research on civil society and social movements in the Middle East.

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am writing my dissertation, entitled “Contested Consciousness: Foreign Aid and Education in the West Bank,” which discusses how Palestinian civic organizations use community-based education to cultivate Palestinian identity as a basis for mobilization. Critical international relations (IR) theory and many studies on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) in the global south maintain that aid-reliant civic groups are beholden to donors, rather than the communities they serve. The general argument is that foreign aid saps civil society’s agency and depoliticizes development. But, I contend that we must also consider that foreign aid for informal education can strengthen communities’ sense of identity, which is essential for political mobilization to occur. My dissertation is based on 43 original in-depth interviews with Palestinian NGO and CBO practitioners, donors, government officials, and 240 original surveys from Palestinians ages 18+ living in the West Bank. I gathered this data during eleven months of field research in 2014 and 2015-16, supported by a 2015 Boren Fellowship and grants from UConn’s Department of Political Science, the Multicultural Scholars Program and the HRI.

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I came to my dissertation topic through my coursework in Political Science. I took a fascinating class with Dr. Jennifer Sterling-Folker (my main adviser) on International Organization & Law, where we discussed the role of non-state actors like NGOs in global governance. When I conducted the pilot study for this project, I was amazed by how the Palestinian civic organizations I interviewed depended on foreign funding, yet were still able to address the concerns of their communities. After that, I designed my larger study to encompass different types of civic organizations (NGOs and CBOs), and assess their impact on Palestinian students. My goal was to theorize NGO and CBO agency at the local level, and to see how these organizations influenced students’ political awareness.

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

My project demonstrates that NGOs and CBOs are not merely servants of donor interests, but can retain their grassroots connections through community-based education. Theorizing aid recipients’ agency shows that international intervention can both constrain and empower political action in the global south. Understanding these nuances will help us improve donor-supported development practices meant to build democracy through civil society. More broadly, my project shows that even under repressive conditions, community-based education can empower marginalized groups. The Palestinian case speaks to other contexts across the global south where civic groups rely on external funding, and education plays a key role in group identity and empowerment, including in ethnic communities in the U.S.