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Serving Human Rights and Humanitarian Needs

Leonardo Menchini

Just about any important work benefits from competent, objective data collection and skilled analysis. Humanitarian work is no exception. The need for solid research in the humanitarian realm has always been great, whether it's documenting human-rights violations, measuring child poverty, or planning response strategies to health emergencies in developing countries. Unfortunately, there are not enough job opportunities in humanitarian work for scientists to meet this need. But such jobs, if you can get one, offer harrowing challenges and unique rewards, as the careers of Lars Bromley, Leonardo Menchini, and Rebecca Freeman Grais illustrate.

"I think I have a very rare opportunity to ... do something that is simultaneously motivating, interesting, and [to] conduct work that improves the health of a population which would not necessarily benefit otherwise," says Rebecca Freeman Grais, an epidemiologist at Médecins Sans Frontière's research center Epicentre.

Putting human-rights abuse on the map

What Lars Bromley finds most rewarding in his job as leader of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers) is seeing his work help real people. "Occasionally, you have a positive impact, when someone says, 'You know, the fact that you worked really hard on this probably saved some lives,' " Bromley says. "A lot of the people … in Burma," Bromley says, "feel like the rest of the world is basically ignoring them. … And then you hear that when you released your very boring report analyzing satellite imagery, they had an entire party." They are, Bromley says, "very grateful that someone out there is paying attention to them."

(Courtesy, Lars Bromley )
Lars Bromley

Bromley studied international affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., learning the history, economics, and science behind international environmental and developmental policy. This led to a research internship at AAAS focusing on the relationship between environmental issues and the emergence of violence.

After he obtained his B.A. degree, Bromley was offered an assistant position at AAAS to help compile scientific facts on climate change and other global environmental issues for the public, analyzing large numerical data sets and making maps using computational tools. After the publication of this work in 2000 (as the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment), Bromley stayed on and helped run international research projects on environmental issues in Russia and South America, assisting with data compilation, geographic information systems (GIS), and data analysis.

In 2004, at 29, Bromley entered graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park, to research socioeconomic and environmental issues using GIS tools, while keeping his full-time job. But when the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program obtained a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to apply geospatial technologies to human-rights research, he decided to put his Ph.D. on hold, instead finishing a M.A. in geography. "Once you understand all the misery that takes place at the hands of other humans, there's really no other topic that seems remotely as important. ... I personally don't really feel I have a choice but to work on these sorts of things," Bromley says.

Bromley's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project uses high-resolution commercial satellite imagery and digital mapping resources to corroborate witness statements of human-rights violations. "Supporting those witness statements with any other outside objective information source is very important and very valuable, both for ... gathering evidence and then also for ... doing advocacy work where you get the rest of the world interested in this issue," Bromley says.

Bromley's job is to provide objective and concise evidence; he leaves the advocacy work to the human-rights organizations he collaborates with. "We assist with the development of advocacy, but we don't do advocacy ourselves." Still, working with such organizations affects the kind of science you can do. "A lot of the analysis that we do is very much just 'There was a village here, and then it was destroyed,' " Bromley says. Sometimes, "our analysis does get a little bit more advanced," for example, looking at craters in artillery shelling areas to determine where the artillery shells may have come from.

But human-rights organizations need clear and simple data that they can easily communicate, which results in a "kind of tension," Bromley says: "They don't want you doing a lot of calculus and giving them a very mathematical answer. They want things to be as apparent as possible. So we try not to do things that are so advanced that they're basically useless to the human-rights community. But at the same time, as a science group, we always want to be pushing that limit of what the human-rights community can use."

Bromley also needs to make satellite imagery and analyses "available in a format that the advocacy organization[s can] quickly build in to their Web site[s] and their other advocacy campaigns." One current challenge his team is working on is, "How do you take a lot of reporting on civilian casualties in a certain area and then make it into a map-based Web site that both provides a lot of information and is actually a research tool--but doesn't do it in such a way that you basically scare people away from the issue" because it's too complicated or horrific, Bromley says.

But the greatest difficulty he faces is looking human-rights violations in the eyes every day without letting it get to him. "Ultimately, ... you want your final analysis to be as solid and scientific as possible, but what's actually going on in your head is probably a lot different," Bromley says. "You can distance yourself for the analysis that you're doing, but the actual things that you're reading [in the witness reports] ... there is no way not to be very affected by those," Bromley adds. "I actually have nightmares about my databases."

Policy changes typically have many causes, Bromley says, but "we are playing a role and having an impact." For example, when, a couple of years ago, the Ethiopian military occupied insurgent villages in remote parts of the country, "really it got quite brutal. And the only way that Human Rights Watch, which was our partner on that project, was able to ... document attacks within that area was via the satellite imagery." Human Rights Watch advocacy prompted the Ethiopian government to release a report admitting that something was going. "The nature of the conflict did change and was less brutal to civilians," Bromley says.

"Have we ended all war and human suffering forever? No, we have not. That's the frustrating part," Bromley says. But in "human-rights work, you tend to just really chip away ... so really any gain whatsoever is viewed as a good gain."

Giving numbers to child poverty


Read more about careers in humanitarian science

- Introduction and resources

- Increasing the Food Supply in the Developing World

Born in Tuscany, an Italian region with a long tradition of social movements, Leonardo Menchini (pictured at top) traces his interest in equity issues to high school. "My dream was to do something to improve the situation of people," Menchini says. Today a researcher at the United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF's)Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Menchini, 35, is using his training in political and socioeconomic science to fight child poverty. "Children are the most vulnerable subject in economic processes," Menchini says.

Menchini obtained a 4-year Laurea degree in political science, with a specialization in international development studies (equivalent to a master's degree), from the University of Florence. He then joined the Innocenti Research Centre, initially for a 3-month contract analyzing data on the relationships among AIDS, public policy, and child well-being in Africa, and on the effect of globalization on children's well-being.

Menchini then received a Ph.D. in the politics and economics of developing countries, looking at the impact of demography, employment imbalances, and economic policy on the Egyptian labor market. He took a string of part-time UNICEF contracts during his first two graduate years, and when those came to an end he served as a teaching assistant for a course on developmental cooperation and poverty reduction in his university's economics department.

After graduating, Menchini was offered a 2-year staff position with UNICEF as a research specialist, starting in September 2005. He spent that August as a volunteer in Burkina Faso helping a cooperative of women produce textiles; however, there was an epidemic of cholera at that time, so he went to visit health facilities as well. He wanted to see "what the challenges were for the health system, at the same time trying to help the [cooperation] project and to understand and learn" more about developing countries, he says. When he returned to the Innocenti Centre, he focused on child poverty, economic development, and social policies.

In the socioeconomic policy analysis unit, "our work is the work of statisticians and economists," Menchini says. But the projects he works on are all applied research; the goal is to impact policy in ways that improve the situation of children. UNICEF is "an environment where we look at the data and try to give them a human dimension," Menchini says. It is "not only a matter of doing the right calculations and understand[ing] the relation between values but also to understand the implications" in terms of the challenges to address on the ground.

The research results are passed on to and discussed with the advocacy department at UNICEF. "The research is neutral, but [UNICEF's] approach is the human-rights approach," Menchini says. "Equity is important, and it is important that the problems that we have shown are addressed. The objective is to relieve the pain. We are providing the elements that help them develop the policy proposal."

Such a job is challenging. For one thing, the research itself tackles complex questions, and finding answers can be tricky, especially when the research takes place in developing countries. It also requires a constant dialog with other U.N. offices, academics, nongovernmental organizations, and policymakers. It is necessary "to select the relevant message and communicate it in a clear manner," Menchini says. "There is always the risk to stress some aspects which are less relevant for the research or quite difficult or impossible" to communicate to the target audience.

Occasionally, Menchini offers scientific support to other organizations. Last year, he went to the State Statistical Office of the Republic of Macedonia to discuss child poverty measurement tools and data. Other times, he has been called upon to describe socioeconomic trends and their policy implications to government delegations. "It has been really exciting and stimulating," Menchini says.

Menchini is motivated by the prospect of seeing his research have an impact on the everyday realities of children. "Results are not immediate," Menchini says, and "we cannot alone resolve the problem." But he feels he's contributing. "Recently, we published data on child mortality. Values have decreased in the last years, and UNICEF had a role in that. I feel part of a big thing."

Responding to health emergencies

Rebecca Freeman Grais is interested in conducting research "that no other group would be doing," she says. Grais is scientist at Epicentre, a nonprofit health and epidemiology research center in Paris set up by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to guide its health-care interventions in developing countries.

In one of her projects, Grais and her colleagues used field studies and mathematical modeling to show that what's known about the well-studied dynamics of measles in the Western world doesn't apply fully to sub-Saharan Africa. "These studies had an impact in terms of policy," Grais says, leading to a change in World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

That was a success--but when working on global health issues, you need to get accustomed to failure to succeed, Grais says. "You may propose to do a project or start a research project in a context, and it might be canceled or delayed either due to a conflict or instability in the country, or to a change in the minister of health or administration," she says. "Instead of viewing this as failure and an end to the study, this is a learning process and even more of a reason to continue."

Grais did all of her training at a single institution--Johns Hopkins University in her native United States--yet she has accumulated an unusual breadth of experience. "I have always been interested in dealing with public health and public policy," Grais says. "I was simply lucky that ... I was surrounded by people that believed that I was capable of dealing with a range of subject areas."

After obtaining a bachelor of arts degree, Grais spent 2 years as a research assistant in the university's Division of Toxicology, comparing European and American regulations for the use of animal models and alternatives in safety tests. She then spent 3 years in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, assessing the impact of global climate change on human health. Grais went on to work jointly with the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology for a year, where she designed a real-time surveillance system for the spread of biological agents via air travel, in collaboration with government and industry researchers.

This string of research experiences earned Grais a master's degree in public policy in 1997, a master's degree in science in 1999, and then a Ph.D. based on a mathematical forecast of travel-enhanced spread of infectious diseases in 2003.

After that, Grais squeezed in a postdoc on the spatial spread of influenza at the Fogarty International Center (part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health) in collaboration with the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research. She then held a range of short-term positions at institutions like Epicentre, the Organization of American States, human vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur, and WHO.

Grais joined Epicentre in 2005 as an epidemiologist, first to model infectious disease dynamics and later to oversee the methodological research unit. In 2008, she was appointed director for epidemiology and population health. Today, Grais, 36, coordinates a team of epidemiologists in Paris and a field research base in Niger on nutrition, mental health, diarrheal disease, and vaccination. She spends about a third of her time traveling. Being a mother of two, this requires a lot of organization and backup plans for childcare, she says.

"I think I have a very rare opportunity to ... do something that is simultaneously motivating, interesting, and [to] conduct work that improves the health of a population which would not necessarily benefit otherwise," Grais says. One of the main challenges is to adapt to change quickly, using failure to plan better future projects when one project doesn't pan out.

Grais celebrates even the smaller of her team's accomplishments, like the completion of a field survey or the publication of an epidemiologist's first peer-reviewed article. "I view almost everything we do from beginning to end as a big success," Grais says--"just the fact that we are able to carry out high-quality studies in a context where it's difficult to do that. By pursuing research, we ideally bring the spotlight onto populations which don't exist in the public record."

Most of MSF's actions, and hence its research, take place in countries with complex health emergencies, often in a context of conflict, even war. But Grais is quick to brush away the risks. "I detest when people ask, 'What do you do?,' " Grais says, because when she tells them, "they put their hands over their hearts and say, 'That's so great.' " But "that we are doing something heroic ... is not how it should be interpreted."

Rather, "I view it as a social responsibility" to conduct research where it is needed. "Perhaps it's dangerous," she adds. But "the majority of the time it isn't. ... People use that as an excuse." Doing your part for society, she notes, "shouldn't be a rare event."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

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