Thea Hilhorst studies humanitarian aid in conflict areas, sometimes putting her own life at risk. “I spend a large part of my time seeing whether I can make my research slightly less adventurous.”

Suddenly they started shooting. To start with, she didn’t realise what was going on. The Philippino military and the demonstrators had been facing each other, albeit without the usual rolls of barbed wire to create a buffer zone. But suddenly they stepped forward and opened fire. “Everyone started to run, it was very frightening. People were being trodden underfoot. I saw someone fall into a well and no one was able to stop and pull him out. I still have no idea whether the man disappeared into the sewer.”

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Thea Hilhorst

For the series Cowboys in Science, Geert Maarse interviews researchers who go that bit further than their colleagues. Thea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS). She studied development sociology in Wageningen and has worked in many conflict regions over the past few decades. She posts daily on Twitter about humanitarian aid, reconstruction and the work in conflict areas. This summer, she moved to Erasmus University.

It’s the early 1980s in the Philippines. She was still a student when twenty demonstrators were shot dead right in front of her. “I’d never considered that this might go wrong and wasn’t prepared for it at all. Everyone was going to the demonstration, so I went along too. I didn’t think about calling my landlady to tell I was all right. She was in a total panic when I arrived home.”

Thea Hilhorst encountered the risks associated with working in volatile regions early on in her career. As Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction, she studies the role which aid plays in natural disasters and conflicts. These are complex situations involving numerous NGOs, local organisations and often a poorly functioning government. And by definition, they are no-go areas. Angola, Congo, Lebanon, Rwanda, Afghanistan – you name it and Hilhorst has been there in recent decades.

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In Afghanistan, next to Peter van Uhm, Chief of Defence of the Armed forces of the Netherlands (2007, photo Thea Hilhorst).

When you travel abroad, do you check the travel advice issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

“I look at it but if I was influenced by it, I couldn’t actually do any research. In most of the areas I work in, there’s an orange or red code in place. That means that I have to consider the risks for myself. A few years ago, I was in South Kivu, in Congo. It had been quiet for a while, but then the M23 rebels suddenly took Goma, the capital of North Kivu seventy kilometres away.

“In such a situation, I go to the biggest hotel in the city where I know there’ll be lots of foreigners on a Sunday and check with NGOs, and people from the UN. And you must always have a plan, also for the people at home. They always know my flight numbers and where I’m staying. And I also had my blood group tested, just because I often find myself in these kinds of situations.”

What is the biggest risk?

“Road traffic accidents. And health: malaria, things like that. After that, only risks related to dangerous situations.”

You recently published an instruction manual for researchers involved in dangerous fieldwork. Why is that necessary?

“Everyone who does field work must know the risks and how to protect yourself from them. In Wageningen, where I used to work, we had an office manager who was also a security coordinator. She ensured that all the contact information was up to date, but also that we had our First Aid kits with us. At Erasmus University, that all had to be developed. Now researchers travel to a conflict area at their own risk (or even undercovered.).”

“In Congo, one of my PhD students was kidnapped. Luckily only for a few hours, but it took days before she got back the civilised world. By chance, I knew people at Artsen Zonder Grenzen who had experience in such situations and they were able to help her when she came to the Netherlands. Within an hour of her arrival, she was with a crisis specialist.

“Luckily everything turned out fine, but actually a situation like that should never be dependent on the professor in question coincidentally having the right contacts. As a university, you need to have a policy, just as you have an Emergency Response structure.”

Do you follow your own instructions?

“Not always. It’s not a very good idea but I still often get on the back of a motorcycle taxi. In African countries, as a fifty year old I’m a respected lady – a mamma – and I’m always yelling at the driver to go slower. But it’s still dangerous.”

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South Sudan, looking for a refugee camp that’s supposedly along this road (2011) Image credit: Thea Hilhorst

Has anything ever gone really wrong?

“Things always turn out OK in the end. But I’m aware of my vulnerability. As a researcher, you make a risk plan for your fieldwork, but you must also be prepared to look at yourself: are you a risk taker or a risk avoider? I’m not really a risk taker but I’ve got great faith in things always ending up all right. Completely misplaced of course.”

For example?

“In 2002, I was in Angola. Peace had just returned. I had to cross over the border from Namibia, but it was Saturday evening and on Sunday the border would be closed. The two countries are joined by a long bridge. The customs official said: we won’t let you go, because you won’t get into the country when you reach the other side. I said: I think I’ve got another ten minutes.

“I had some really heavy luggage with me, because I was carrying a car wheel for an NGO. So when I arrived on the other side, it was too late and they said: wait until Monday. I could have got through by waving some dollars at them, but I didn’t want to do that. So I told the man: I see you have a Bible there. What Christian would leave a woman lying on the bridge? And I was allowed through.

The fact that I got in was partly down to experience, but there was also a bit of luck involved. In the evening, I met a couple of missionaries who had apparently given the Customs official that Bible when they crossed that afternoon. It was a really lovely one, with gold lettering and a leather cover. Apparently, they gave one as a gift at each border crossing. Their reasoning was: the word of God can never be a bribe.”

As a scientist, don’t you have a special status if something does go wrong?

“No, I have a normal passport. But it makes a difference that I’m integrated. In Rwanda, I sometimes had my bag stolen. The dean of the local university would then go to the police to make a statement.”

Zijn er ook plekken waar u extra gevaar loopt juist omdat u wetenschapper bent?

“People sometimes thought that I was a spy. Because I ask questions. And they think that you’re rich, so you’re more likely to be attacked in some areas.”

In your work, you see a lot of terrible situations. Does that ever get easier?

“Not really. What makes it more difficult is that I think there are now situations in the world which are more hopeless than a few years ago. Like arriving at a refugee camp in Lebanon, full of Palestinians who used to be in a camp in Syria, but who have had to leave because of the bombing.

“You can’t resolve that in just two years. Or a village in Congo where a woman with thirteen children has to survive on a small piece of land where the banana trees are diseased and only two children can go to school because it’s too expensive.”

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Palestinian children stuck in a Lebanese refugee camp because their camp in Syria has been destroyed (2016) Image credit: Thea Hilhorst

“You see that institutions which have been painstakingly built up in recent years – aimed at less inequality, more peace, more sustainability – are rapidly being broken down. Take democracy, for example. Power is increasingly in the hands of big capitalists who operate far beyond the reach of any government. And democratic institutions are being demolished from the inside by populists. These trends are a great cause for concern: Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the US. All you can do is keep working, keep your head down and continue.”

That sounds optimistic.

“Yes. But that’s a choice, not a trait. Who am I to be cynical when there are people who are just trying to survive or offer help, day in day out?”

Because you see that – despite those good intentions – it makes no difference at all?

“You can mainly be cynical about the politics involved. About the bureaucracy and sluggishness of the United Nations. But when you consider the alternative – abolishing the UN, everyone waging war for themselves – I say: the system is fundamentally good. The question is how to improve it.”

When we look back in fifty years’ time, what will your research have contributed?

“It isn’t very complicated to portray the world as you want it to be. That’s a fairer, more sustainable and safer world. We’re getting increasingly good at responding to natural disasters and conflicts. Look at Rwanda: it’s certainly no paradise, but since the genocide twenty years ago, there hasn’t been a new outbreak of large scale violence. That’s partly thanks to international interventions which are partly formed by knowledge and research in my field of work.”