Dr. Adam Branch possesses a rare combination of academic credibility and real world experience – a life spent researching, writing and teaching about life in some of the far-flung locales that his work has led him to.
This past summer, Dr. Branch was appointed as Philomathia Fellow in African Politics at Trinity Hall, in addition to being University Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. We spent some time corresponding with him to learn more about his fascinating background, how he became a leading scholarly expert on the political climate in Africa, and what he hopes to accomplish during his association with the Philomathia Foundation.
Philomathia.org: Tell us a little bit about your early background. Where did you grow up? What were you like as a youth and what sorts of things were you into?
Dr. Branch: I grew up in the US and Europe, moving to San Diego when I was 10. My parents, both of whom were literature professors, have lived there ever since, and I still consider San Diego home – it’s a nice place to be able to call home!
I was something of a math nerd growing up, but the further I got along in high school the more I became interested in the world around me – and so I began spending more and more time backpacking, traveling around the country, and on the Mexican side of the Mexico-US border.
After high school I spent several months living in a trailer near Tecate, Mexico, then a year hitchhiking around North America, then ended up crossing China from Hong Kong to Tajikistan with my best friend – and by the time I reached Harvard for college I had left numbers behind and wanted to know all I could about this overwhelming and baffling world we find ourselves in.
Philomathia.org: That sounds like quite an interesting journey, to say the least. From there, how did you find your way to your career?
Dr. Branch: After college, I spent a couple years doing human rights work. I was in Chiapas, Mexico, at a very exciting moment when the Zapatistas were building autonomous communities in the face of neoliberal capitalism and state violence – building, as they put it, a world in which many worlds fit. Seeing from up-close what these communities were doing, and having the privilege to work with deeply committed people around the Zapatistas, was inspiring and humbling.
I then spent some time working with a humanitarian law NGO in Geneva, and by the end of it all I decided I needed to go back to school, to learn more so that I could engage in a more responsible manner. My plan was to spend a year or two getting a masters degree and then to go to law school. The second part never happened.
Philomathia.org: You’ve spent significant time in the African nation of Uganda. How did that all come about, and what did you learn from that experience?
Dr. Branch: I started graduate work in Political Science at Columbia, and, after my first year, went to Uganda in 2001 to work with a human rights group there. I ended up going to the north of the country, where the war between the government and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was in full swing.
I spent a couple weeks in an internally displaced people’s camp and that experience, I realize now, changed my life. The wretched conditions that people were being forced to live under by their own government – a government that received massive amounts of aid from the US, the World Bank, and Europe – and a counterinsurgency policy that entailed mass forced displacement of an entire population but was being supported by humanitarian aid agencies, these things really shocked me. And all of this in a country lauded as a model of democracy and development.
I realized that the lines of responsibility for the devastation of northern Uganda in this supposedly local, incomprehensible conflict went much further than the country’s borders and were entwined with international and global politics, including the foreign policy of the United States. I wanted to figure out how such an awful state of affairs had come about and was able to continue with the blessing of the self-appointed champions of international human rights and humanitarianism. I decided that this was something I should get involved in, both as an academic – since almost nothing had been written on the war at that point – and an activist.
So that was the start of it. I returned to Uganda in 2003 and then for a good part of every year after that, spending about two years living in the conflict zone until the war ended in 2007. I was based at a small, Ugandan human rights organization where I helped out as I could and conducted my own research as well. That led to my PhD dissertation and my first book, Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda (Oxford, 2011).
I then took a job at San Diego State University and managed to spend a few great years back in my home town. But my work remained focused on Uganda, and so after a couple of years, I took a leave of absence from SDSU and moved to Kampala.
There, I became Senior Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), working with my former adviser from Columbia, Mahmood Mamdani. It was a very exciting time, as we set out to build a PhD program in Social Studies at the Institute, basically from scratch. We got the program up and running, and it has been a real success: at this point, the MISR PhD program has 40 students from across Africa and has attracted a lot of international attention as a novel approach to graduate education for African universities.
After almost four years at MISR, I had the opportunity to join Cambridge’s department of Politics and International Studies – and become the Philomathia Fellow in African Politics at Trinity Hall – and I moved north to accept the position. I’m very fortunate to have been able to find a way to make a living doing the things I think are interesting and important.
Philomathia.org: What led to your specialization in Africa and African politics?
Dr. Branch: I have never really thought of myself as specializing in African studies or African politics – I have always framed my work as being concerned with international politics and political theory (which is what my PhD was in), with human rights, international law, and global justice. As I got involved in what was going on in Northern Uganda, and, later, as I lived in Kampala while working at MISR, my research and writing inevitably came to focus on the places I was living, on the people I was friends with, the dilemmas and struggles and injustices around me every day.
I’ve never really had much interest in doing research in the abstract; for me, I research and write about what I have a stake in, what matters to me. And so because I lived in Africa, but was myself from the West, much of my work came to concern precisely that question: the question of Western involvement in Africa, of the ways in which Western involvement was closing off possibilities for African communities and peoples to exercise autonomy and self-determination; closing off possibilities for democracy and justice.
At a certain point, I realized that what I was doing in fact looked like African political science from the outside – I suppose it hit me when Cambridge appointed me a lecturer in African Politics! But in my mind, I’m still just writing about the things that are important in my life, a life that admittedly spans a number of continents by now.
Philomathia.org: Many people will recall the massive social media campaign around “Kony 2012.” Its spread was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon — the fastest video ever on the Internet to reach 100 million views. And to this day, for many in the West, it may be their only point of reference as to the situation in Uganda. You were quite vocally critical of the Kony 2012 campaign at the time. Can you explain, in brief, your points of contention with it?
Dr. Branch: Kony 2012 hit home for me in a couple of ways. First, the group behind it, Invisible Children, was from San Diego, and so a number of people involved in their group had been my students at San Diego State. So I knew where they were coming from – quite literally – and sympathized with the sentiment that led many young people to get involved. I had also known the filmmakers from times when they were in northern Uganda, and also from sharing the stage with them at events around the US.
But it also hit home, obviously, because it dealt with an issue that I had spent the last decade of my life working on and trying to find ways through academic and activist channels to make the situation there better somehow. And suddenly the Kony 2012 video comes out and gets tens of millions of views in days and the LRA situation achieved a prominence unimaginable by most causes of its kind.
One would think that this kind of massive public attention for a “forgotten” human rights crisis would be a good thing. But my opinion was that, instead of making the situation in Uganda better, all this attention, this new “awareness,” only made it worse. This is because of the reductive and often disturbing way that the movie presented the situation in Uganda. Much of my academic work explains how Western misunderstandings of Africa – usually boiling down to the tendency to see the whole continent as comprising hopeless, helpless victims in need of Western saviors to come to their rescue – end up guiding Western involvement in the continent, which then ends up being, not surprisingly, counterproductive.
The Kony 2012 video, unfortunately, was a striking example of this. The movie gave us no history, no understanding of the war, no mention of the destructive role the West had played in prolonging the violence and suffering – instead, all we saw were helpless children preyed upon by an evil warlord who needed to be taken out by US military force. This was a recipe for further violence, for militarization, and an invitation for the US to send more special forces, more drones, more contractors to another part of the world that didn’t need them. And that is what has happened, while Kony himself remains at large.
Invisible Children has suffered major setbacks since then – partly because of the backlash against their film – but these same kind of movies, these reductive, harmful representations of Africa, leading to counterproductive Western involvement in the continent, continue to be made every day, unfortunately. And that is why I argued that what is needed is not awareness, but accountability between Africa and the West.
Philomathia.org: Before we wrap up, can you tell us about what you hope to research and accomplish in your new post at Cambridge?
Dr. Branch: The Philomathia Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity to be a member of a global community of researchers and scholars, spanning all parts of the planet (including California!). I am looking forward to exploring possibilities for collaboration and engagement across the disciplines with these scholars over the course of the fellowship.
As to my own work at Cambridge, there are a few dimensions to what I hope to achieve. For one thing, I plan to further build the networks of African scholars and activists with whom I have been working for many years, working to help create a nerve-centre at Cambridge for global debates around some of the most pressing challenges we collectively face today. This will also involve, I hope, bringing more African students here for MPhil and PhD degrees.
I’m also developing two research projects that I will pursue as Philomathia Fellow at Trinity Hall. First, I am extending my research on international criminal justice in Africa, in particular through the controversy provoked by the International Criminal Court’s interventions in the continent. I will be looking especially at the case of Dominic Ongwen, an LRA commander who was arrested at the end of last year and whose trial should begin in January. I will be asking what his trial reveals about the possibilities and limitations of seeking global justice through human rights law today.
Second, I am developing a project on the politics and ethics of resource extraction and climate change in Africa. Africa as a continent is facing particularly acute challenges from today’s global energy economy: it is the region where extraction of natural resources, especially oil, is escalating at unprecedented speeds, and also the region that may face the most dramatic threat from climate change. At present, a security-focused approach has dominated responses to both challenges, leading to militarization, expanding security regimes, and the weakening of democratic institutions. Can climate change be treated as an opportunity for articulating emancipatory common futures instead of being used to impose more security, surveillance, and violent state control? I think we’re facing challenges of a qualitatively different nature today, and so we need new, collaborative experiments in re-thinking the alternatives open to us in the future.
The Philomathia Foundation congratulates Dr. Branch on his appointment and eagerly looks forwards to his contributions.