This past academic year, David Backer was appointed Research Director at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and Research Professor at the School of Public Policy (SPP) after spending several years working at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) and the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.
1. What attracted you to come work at CISSM and SPP?
The appeal to me reflected an ideal combination of familiarity and fit with CISSM’s mission. I have been on the faculty at the University of Maryland since March 2012, most recently as a Research Professor in the Department of Government & Politics, the Associate Director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), and the Director of the Minor in International Development and Conflict Management (MIDCM) undergraduate program. These roles resulted in regular interactions with colleagues at CISSM and in SPP, due to closely allied interests. CISSM and CIDCM can be viewed as “cousin” units on campus in that both centers are fundamentally international in orientation and concentrate on major global challenges with security dimensions. My research activities increasingly emphasized applications to policy and practice that are central to SPP’s mission. Dr. Nancy Gallagher, the Director of CISSM, generously offered an opportunity to serve as the Research Director, to contribute to overall strategic direction and build out the portfolio on human security. Dean Robert Orr and other leadership of SPP also embraced the chance to capitalize on my experience via supporting individual faculty and broader initiatives that seek to enhance research productivity and the pursuit of external sources of funding for projects.
2. Tell us about your educational and professional background?
My background is interdisciplinary by nature and spans a diversity of professional contexts. As an undergraduate student at Amherst College, I completed both an Economics major and a self-designed interdisciplinary major on the topic of Social Change & Political Economy. The latter major in part was a vehicle to write a senior honors thesis examining the genesis, implementation and consequences of the series of political, economic and social reforms made to the apartheid system in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. After graduating, I spent four years in consulting at National Economic Research Associates, working on a variety of legal, regulatory, and policy cases involving pricing, technology, patent infringement, bid rigging, and healthcare reform issues. Along the way, I secured a Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa and spent a year enrolled at the University of Cape Town, completing coursework requirements for a Master’s program in South African & African Studies, and observing initial stages of the political transition in 1994. Then I continued with further graduate studies at the University of Michigan, receiving MA and PhD degrees in Political Science. My dissertation analyzed responses of victims of apartheid-era violations to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. After graduating, I spent a year as a Lecturer at the University of Michigan, teaching courses on comparative democratization, African politics, and human rights as. Subsequently, I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at the College of William & Mary from 2005-2010. During this period, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (2005-2006) and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (2009-2010). Next, I left academia for the United States Institute of Peace in Washington DC, serving as a Senior Program Officer. In this capacity, I oversaw a strategic priorities grant program and multiple lessons learned initiatives, as well as working on the annual grant competition.
3. What are your current research interests and what are you working on at CISSM and SPP?
My latest work is devoted to forecasting risks of child acute malnutrition in settings affected by climate and conflict shocks. An ambition is to improve capabilities of early warning that can facilitate more timely and effective anticipatory action by humanitarian stakeholders. This work continues a line of projects over the years that involve using predictive analytics to assess the potential of emergent and persistent challenges with significant development and security implications. In the same vein, I am currently mentoring a team of student interns who are part of the Research for Intelligence & Security Challenges (RISC) Initiative of UMD’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS), on a project using machine-learning algorithms to project violent protests in South and Central Asia. Meanwhile, I am conducting analyses and developing publications from other existing studies. In particular, transitional justice remains an enduring interest of mine. I have led a novel comparative project that aims to document and examine relationships among (1) the wide array of harms suffered by conflict-affected populations, (2) the nature of their priorities and preferences in regards to addressing these harms, (3) their experiences with formal and informal measures of transitional justice, and (4) their agency as political actors amid the evolving post-conflict context. For this purpose, extensive primary data collection was undertaken using multiple methods (focus groups, large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews) in four West African countries (Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone), which exhibit differing characteristics, histories of conflict, and processes of transitional justice. In addition, I have been assisting teams at CISSM, the Civic Innovation Center (CivIC) and the Center for Governance and Technology (GoTech) on the identification of funding sources and the conceptualization and design of projects leading to the development and submission of major funding proposals to US Government agencies and private foundations, as well as initiatives internal to UMD such as the Grand Challenges Grant Program.
4. What do you hope to achieve during your time at CISSM and SPP?
Advancing my active research projects represents a key item on the agenda. A number of the projects have products in progress that I intend to complete and disseminate. Being based at CISSM, in SPP, provides a platform to steer these products in certain different directions and to reach new audiences that I might not have pursued without my recent shift of positions. Collaborating to advance the overall research enterprises of CISSM and SPP is equally high on my agenda. In conjunction, I am keen to advance educational and community engagement programming, along paths connected to relevant research and funding development activities. At this point in my career, building on my background and expertise as strong foundations, aspiring to craft and implement visions on a larger scale is especially compelling.