For many seniors, a thesis is a rite of passage to graduation—a last accumulation of work that causes all-nighters in Lamont, camaraderie with fellow writers, and the due-date time stamp when so many can start enjoying their senior spring to the fullest. On a happier note, a thesis also represents an incredible opportunity to travel to a new place, immerse oneself in a new culture, and apply knowledge acquired over four years at Harvard to real-world settings.
In that light, I’d like to highlight three senior theses that bring a fresh perspective to different occurrences in the developing world.
Eeke L. de Milliano ’11, a government concentrator, wrote her thesis on the secessionist movements of two provinces—Katanga and Kasai—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her thesis attempts to explain why Katanga continued to fight for independence from 1960 onward while Kasai quietly assimilated to the rest of the DRC. She found that Katanga’s secessionist desire primarily stemmed from the lack of its inter-regional connections. There weren’t as many options for people to have jobs outside of Katanga so the costs of secession were low and the potential benefits were high. To reach her final conclusion about the two provinces, de Milliano conducted 33 elite-level interviews in the capital city Kinshasa, along with those in Kasai and Katanga. She also distributed 200 surveys in the two provinces. “Though not speaking French was a challenge,” she admits, “I was surprised at everyone’s eagerness to talk with me and share his or her story.”
Nearby, Ahmed N. Mabruk ’11, a history concentrator and former Crimson news executive, was collecting his findings on the little known country of Equatorial Guinea. Mabruk had taken courses on Africa and wanted to write a thesis pertaining to a human rights issue, but he stumbled onto the country by chance when studying for an African map quiz. “For whatever reason, I was intrigued enough to Wiki search Equatorial Guinea—Spain’s only former Sub-Saharan African colony, and the only country in Africa whose official language is Spanish. And on that barely edited page, I realized I was onto something that hadn't before been explored.” His thesis investigated how the Claretian missionary group of Spain created conceptions of ethnicity between the Bubi and the Fang, the minority and majority indigenous groups of Equatorial Guinea, respectively. Ultimately, he found that the Claretians effectively gave the Bubi higher socio-economic status and political rank than the Fang throughout the colonial period. The ethnic tension that followed mounted to an alleged genocide against the Bubi by the first President of Equatorial Guinea, a Fang, after the country gained independence in 1968. Being mistaken for a Spanish expatriate, being denied access to Equatorial Guinea archives, and dealing with a disorderly bureaucracy were just a few of the many challenges Mabruk faced when conducting his research. He made some surprising findings: The former president of Equatorial Guinea's Supreme Tribunal told Mabruk in an interview that there could be another ethnic war between the Bubi and the Fang in the next ten years.
Across the world, Kimberly Farrell ’11, a romance languages and literatures concentrator, was in Brazil researching her senior thesis on Brazil’s own World Cup in 2012, along with Olympic planning for 2016. “The purpose of my thesis was to shed light on two things” Farrell says. “First, on the processes that occur at the local level to plan for and execute these events and secondly on how these mega-events are viewed by the host population.” Mega-events have become “hallmarks of development” and “internationally acclaimed”: Clearly, it is important to pay attention to what is going on in Brazil right now. Farrell conducted 16 personal interviews with executives and employees working on World Cup planning, as well as an online public opinion survey that elicited 4,500 responses. She found the population of the Brazilian state Minas Gerais to be extremely excited by the promises of these mega events but very skeptical about their actual benefits due to the tumultuous recent past of their country. “This is a reflection of a history of corruption or let-downs from the government so they don't really trust that they will be able to personally benefit from these events even though they will be beneficial from the city overall,” Farrell concludes.
Writing a thesis about the developing world teaches students about a drastically different place than the one in which we live now, while they produce their own sliver of history. As Mabruk says “Professor [Caroline] Elkins [his thesis advisor] has instilled in me the importance of, getting out of the ivory tower—that is, of deploying knowledge and analysis gained in the classroom to confront real-world challenges in an insightful, well-informed way.” For him, “This credo started with my thesis, and will no doubt animate my professional life.” It should go without saying that before trying to impact underprivileged societies hundreds of miles away we should make the utmost effort to understand those cultures, and a senior thesis on a developing country is one of the most thoughtful, thorough ways to do this.
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.