Kennesaw State University professor of conflict management Volker Franke recently secured $2 million in funding for a project that aims to address prolonged social trauma in a Liberian society shaken by internal conflict.
The project, “Hope for a Better Future: Building Collaborative Resilience for Youth in Liberia,” is a five-year agreement with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) designed to strengthen individual, community and societal self-reliance in the post-conflict country.
Liberia experienced two civil wars at the turn of the 21st century, and though the Second Liberian Civil War ended in 2003, the Carter Center estimates that 40 percent of the country’s citizens currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you have experienced that kind of trauma 20, 30 years ago and you don’t know who around you is safe and who is dangerous, it is difficult to build trust,” Franke said. That level of mistrust makes Franke’s partnerships with organizations already based in Liberia of paramount importance.
The Liberia National Commission of Justice, Peace and Caritas will coordinate and implement all interventions in the Hope for a Better Future initiative, while the Kofi Annan Institute for Conflict Transformation at the University of Liberia will collect field-level data to measure the project’s effectiveness.
Franke will also have assistance from TRENDS Global and Sovereignty First, a partnership that last year helped facilitate an agreement involving educational infrastructure improvements between opposing groups in an Afghan village.
“In Afghanistan, for instance, we all think about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and violence at the state level,” Franke said. “What also affects people on the ground are severe problems in communities that need to be addressed while people worry about resolving larger countrywide problems.”
One key issue for Liberian youth is a lack of educational opportunities. Additionally, youth unemployment in the country is as high as 80 percent in some areas, causing hopelessness, rising drug use, conflict and violence.
Franke’s research group will first conduct a baseline assessment to determine the interests, hopes and fears of Liberian youth in their communities, then examine how to work with existing community structures to raise trauma awareness.
“At the same time, our activities are intended to raise empathy toward others,” Franke said. “In groups, participants learn to recognize and listen to their body sensations and, at the same time, understand what others are feeling and become more empathetic to that. That can reduce feelings of danger in social interactions.”
Trust and empathy can be monitored by measuring social, economic and political cohesion at various points during the project.
The research group will target three counties in Liberia: Maryland County, Grand Gedeh County and Nimba County.
Participants will also develop impulse control by learning how to resist the urge to attack others verbally or physically, while also implementing a moral code to rebuild collaboratively and peacefully their communities traumatized by violence and war.
“We have young people who are traumatized who weren’t even part of the civil war, let alone those community members who fought as child soldiers some 20 years ago who have not been reintegrated into society,” Franke said.
The project’s initial completion date is July 2027, and Franke hopes it can serve as the impetus for an expanded conflict resolution research effort at Kennesaw State.
“My ideal vision for this approach is that we can develop it into a research cluster that will make KSU and the School of Conflict Management a go-to place for students wanting to get a master’s or Ph.D. degree in the areas of conflict resolution, development and peacebuilding,” Franke said.