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Studying Democracy in West Africa

Students studied democracy and civil society during a May Term in Benin, a West African country that is rarely a destination for off-campus programs.

Earlham students and faculty investigated democracy and civil society firsthand during a May Term course in Benin — a kind of immersive learning that is at the heart of Earlham off campus programs but different from typical international study.

Six students and two professors spent an intense three weeks in the West African nation. Benin is a fledgling democracy than made a successful transition from dictatorship in the early 1990s, after a dictator voluntarily left office, clearing the way for an election. One of the program leaders, Associate Professor of Politics Jennifer Seely, wrote The Legacies of Transition Governments in Africa: The Cases of Benin and Togo comparing the neighboring countries’ attempted transitions to democracy. Seely notes Benin is a fascinating and unusual case.

“Like so many African countries, Benin has a number of coups d'état in its history,” says Seely. “One of the things that separates Benin is that they always left their deposed presidents alive. This tendency meant that the people believed that a peaceful transition was possible. It also meant that when the country was trying to form a new democratic government, those former presidents were available to share their insights and experiences.

“The government in Benin is still very fragile,” says Seely, “But from the perspective of a Western democracy, Benin is doing exactly what we hope new democracies will do.”

The Earlham May Term focused on issues of democracy and civil society by completing individual research projects on topics ranging from street children and child labor to women’s rights. Students conducted interviews with people involved in the issues they were exploring and wrote papers on the topics. Program participants also bolstered their language skills in the French-speaking country.

Professor of French and Francophone Studies Aletha Stahl co-led the program with Seely. Stahl has published extensively on the language and culture of Haiti — a country that has strong historical ties to Benin, due to the West African slave trade. She also has experience leading off-campus program, including semester-long programs in France.

Opportunities for In-Depth Research

For Stefano Valconi ’15, an economics major from the Dominican Republic, the Benin May Term was an ideal opportunity to complete a research project that drew on his academic interests in economics, politics and history while also improving his language skills.

Program participants visited a historical site commemorating the West African slave trade.“I was very eager to work on my French and to engage in deep conversation with people in the context of their own language. I was particularly keen on doing research on grass-roots movements for the alleviation of poverty,” says Valconi.

In Benin, Valconi researched microfinance — a system of small credit loans targeted to people in the lower socio-economic echelons of a society. Like other students, he conducted much of his research by interviewing people who have personal experience with the subject matter. In an email, Valconi described how he explored the outcomes of microfinance, which the government of Benin embraced following an economic collapse in the 1990s.

“I found that while microfinance has not alleviated poverty in Benin to the extent promised, [people appreciate] the relative accessibility and socio-economic opportunities offered by this institution, as well as the political importance of its mere existence,” Valconi comments. “[This suggests] that the institution should continue to influence the country’s political economy but must undergo major modifications more attune with rigorous entrepreneurial training, legal/judicial coherence and economic efficiency.”

Seely says that projects like Valconi’s are perfect preparation for students who are considering graduate school or research opportunities after they graduate.

“These students did real research during this May Term,” says Seely. “This is real practice for those who might want to pursue a Fulbright Grant or Watson Fellowship later.”

Earlham has a strong record for producing graduates who earn prestigious awards for post-graduate research. Eighteen Earlham students or recent alumni have received Fulbright awards in the past 10 years. The Fulbright is a government-sponsored program that sends highly qualified recent college grads to other countries to teach English or conduct research. Earlhamites have also earned nine Watson Fellowships in the past decade. The Watson provides exceptional recent graduates with $25,000 for a post-graduate year of research and travel.

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