Kathleen Samuel discusses her work on conflict prevention in Central Asia with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Could you describe for us what the OSCE does?
The OSCE is a security organization which provides early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation. A wide range of security issues such as arms control, human rights protection, democratization, counter-terrorism and economic development must be addressed in order to promote stability.
What do you consider to be the most interesting or creative part of your work?
Since the OSCE is an organization of 56 participating states (members) that works on the principle of consensus, I am involved in frequent negotiations and consultations regarding activities in the region. This process is very unusual among international organizations. Although reaching a political agreement can be somewhat abstract, it can also be rewarding because it means that future disagreement is more unlikely.
Could you describe how an event elsewhere in the world could directly influence your work on Central Asia?
Well, 9-11 is certainly a powerful example. Because of various connections between those terrorists and forces in Afghanistan, the US led a coalition to fight against terrorism and topple the Taliban. Since Afghanistan neighbors Central Asia, there are lots of political, economic, religious, familial and other ties. Thus, when the situation in Afghanistan is calm, the situation in Central Asia is calm. And, the reverse could also be true. If there were instability in Central Asia, there could be a significant impact on Afghanistan. And, as we have unfortunately witnessed, there can be world-wide repercussions.
What internships or programs did you participate in before beginning full-time work?
I took a rather unconventional path to this field of work. During high school and college, I was involved in human rights and peace advocacy organizations. After college, I volunteered to teach English in Eastern Europe (this was right after the fall of the Soviet Union); however, while pursuing this opportunity, I ended up teaching political science to first year college students in Latvia. While in Latvia, I became involved in a local peace organization that promoted human rights as an aspect of conflict prevention. I knew that this was what I wanted to continue doing professionally, so I returned to the US in order to apply for masters degree programs on human rights and conflict prevention. During this time, I did an internship with Amnesty International and then with a small security organization called the British American Security Information Council before going to Columbia University to study human rights.
What inspired you to work in a field like conflict prevention?
It’s hard to single out a particular point of inspiration since, looking back, it seems like everything has been a natural progression. As I became involved in human rights, I learned how violations of basic human rights, particularly when the problems are connected to people’s individual identity, can be a contributing factor towards conflict. Earlier, I focused on individuals. Now, my focus is on politics in order to prevent violations in a systematic manner. While working at the political level is certainly interesting, it is working with people on the individual level that has been my biggest motivator.
Where did you attend university and what did you study there?
I attended the University of Missouri and became involved in a grass-roots peace movement and completed an academic year abroad. All I knew then was that I wanted to “do something internationally.” It was only the week before I graduated that I saw an announcement for a summer institute on international development, which set me on the path towards working with international organizations.
How difficult is it to begin working with conflict prevention organizations?
It can be very competitive to begin working with international organizations or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in this field. One of the most important things you can do at college is to gain some practical experience through an internship or field research. Another way to get your foot in the door would be to volunteer with an organization for six to 12 months after you graduate. Some people begin their international career by joining the Peace Corps, for example.
Are there any unique skills
a person would need for your line of work?
It is important to speak at least one other language in addition to English (if it’s your native tongue). It’s also important to have some international experience since this demonstrates your commitment to the field, shows an ability to adapt to other cultures and environments, and deepens your knowledge about a particular issue. And, although some people are able to find jobs in this field right out of college, it’s usually good to have a master’s degree, or a professional degree such as medicine or law.
Could you share some advice for
students interested in similar
If you’re in college and feel ready, working or studying abroad is the best way to explore what possibilities are out there. However, there is a lot you can do as a high school student to learn more about the field. Meeting foreign exchange students, volunteering for an American organization that works with immigrants or on humanitarian issues, are just a couple of ideas.
Author: Interview conducted by Lawrence Dabney