In hindsight: Former Chairholders on the impact of the tenure on their career and lives. #3: Dr Alcinda Honwana

Professor Honwana was Chairholder from 2007 – 2008 at ISS. Her research focus was on conflict and post-conflict social reintegration in specific regions in Africa. She’s currently Principal Inter-Regional Advisor on social development policy at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) at the United Nations Secretariat in New York.

Professor Alcinda Honwana

A Pleasant Surprise

Before being appointed Chairholder, Alcinda wasn’t aware of the existence of the Prince Claus Chair. “It came as a very pleasant surprise; Louk de la Rive Box (former Rector of ISS and founding partner of the Chair), called to let me know that I had been selected by the Curatorium to be the 2007-8 Prince Claus Chair. I then had a meeting with (then Princess) Queen Máxima (former Chair of the Curatorium), and it was a very special moment when she confirmed my appointment.”

The International conference on Youth and Citizenship

Her work as a Chairholder involved some lecturing at the ISS, talks and seminar presentations at Dutch Universities as well as engagements with Dutch NGOs working on conflict and post-conflict reintegration issues. Some of the highlights of the work as a chair included a talk at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, at a time when the Court was dealing with war crimes cases related to the use of child soldiers; and a discussion with  Dutch Parliamentarians on strategies for protecting girls abused in situations of armed conflicts.  

The international conference ‘Young People in Africa: From Marginalisation to Citizenship’ was the pinnacle of Alcinda’s activities as a Chairholder. This event was organised by her and jointly hosted by the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and the International Development Centre of the Open University in the UK (that she headed at the time). More than 75 participants attended the conference, which consisted of presentations by scholars from various countries in Africa and from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, Colombia and Palestine. Participants at the conference were honoured with the presence of Queen Máxima (then Princess) who opened the event alongside the rector of ISS, Louk de la Rive Box. As Alcinda pointed out: “The conference was a wonderful occasion to learn about current research on youth in Africa and engage in thoughtful and stimulating debates on this important topic.”

Opening doors

Alcinda Honwana mentioned that having been a Prince Claus Chairholder was important and contributed to her career growth. “This prestigious appointment certainly enhanced my position within my own university and facilitated  the acquisition of some resources from the university for the conference I organized with the ISS in the Hague. It also enhanced my convening power as I was able to bring participants from all over the world to a high-level conference in the Netherlands opened by Queen Maxima (then Princess and Chair of the prince Claus Curatorium). The Chair also open doors to new knowledge, new contacts and new collaborations which have impacted my career trajectory”.

“The Chair came at the point in my career that I needed a lift, and that was instrumental to my growth as a scholar, researcher, and policy adviser”.

Expanding the research focus from child soldiers to youth

At a time of her appointment, Alcinda Honwana had just published her third book “Child Soldiers in Africa (2006). However, her research interests were already being expanded to examine youth issues more broadly. As she explains: “By the time I became a Chairholder I was already expanding my research to youth because while child soldiers were an important group to study (given their particular experiences),  I  thought it was equally important to consider the plight of many other young men and women affected by armed conflicts who did not have the child soldier experience, but experience displacement and deprivation in different ways.” The conference on Youth and Citizenship that Alcinda organized at the end of her tenure as Chairholder reflects this shift in her research focus. “The conference allowed me to bring in colleagues who were working on youth more broadly and it was a good platform to further our discussions on these issues”.

Professor Honwana’s research on youth led her to publish in 2012 the book The Time of Youth. Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa based on extensive research conducted between 2008-2011 in Mozambique, South Africa, Senegal, and Tunisia.  She also published in 2013 the book Youth and Revolution in Tunisia following her many trips to Tunisia immediately after the onset of the Arab Spring. “My research which was based on first-hand accounts with young people from diverse social, economic and political background provided important insights about, young people’s grievances, their needs and aspirations”. 

Collaborations with NGOs and policymakers was not new to Alcinda, as she had already done so with her work on child soldiers. She worked at the United Nations Office for Children in Armed Conflict, and collaborated with Save The Children, Christian Children’s Fund, and other NGOs in their efforts to reintegrate war-affected children. However, her engagement with policy making increased with her work on youth, as governments, NGOs, and international organisations continue to grapple with situation of youth, not just in developing countries but also more globally. In most of the world young people represent a large proportion of the population, and they feel marginalised, unfulfilled and have very bleak prospects. Issues of unemployment and lack of decent livelihoods, political disillusionment and other societal factors often drives them to the street to protest. “The challenge is how build a fruitful dialogue between policymakers, academics and practitioners on issues related to this generation. But more importantly, how to establish a dialogue between the youth and their governments? How to establish trust and build government legitimacy? Many young people I interviewed in Africa asserted that their countries were not in the right path, that structural and radical transformations are necessary to develop the economies, establish inclusive politics and promote development that will benefit everyone”.

“For me it is not enough to thrive in academia, it is also important to be cognisant of the world around you and become a serious intellectual who strives to contribute to better the lives of people.”

Receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Utrecht University

One of the things that culminated in part from her tenure ship as Prince Claus Chair was being awarded the Honorary doctorate from Utrecht University in 2021. “It was a big honour for me to receive this doctorate; for the PhD you work for it as a student, but this one is different because it represents a recognition by your peers and community at large of your work and accomplishments”. Indeed, the honorary  doctorate recognised Professor Honwana’s work in bridging academic research with policy making. Apart from being an academic and a researcher she also works for the United Nations as an adviser on social development policies.

Better the lives of other

Alcinda feels that academic and research insights are critical to support strategies for bettering the lives of people. “We should go beyond writing in our beautiful academic jargon, and discussing key issues in a room with fellow academics. We should engage with the world out there and help address the faultlines in our societies, from poverty, to pandemics, climate change, migration, political conflicts and the like”.  

Enjoy the tenureship

For Chairholders Khayaat and Fatima, Alcinda has some encouraging words. “Enjoy it. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Be open to share your own experiences but also to learn as much as you can from the exchanges with Dutch colleagues and Dutch society in general. If we make ourselves a sponge to fully absorb the diversity of experiences offered to us, it helps elevate ourselves and others around us. I hope we’ll have a chance to meet in the future. Have a great Chairholdership!”  

^ The War Child Foundation is committed to supporting children growing up with – and fleeing from – war and violence.

^^ Plan International is a development cooperation organization dedicated to helping vulnerable children in over fifty countries with a special focus on girls and young women. They do this by lifting the disadvantaged position of girls and young women so that they have the same opportunities and rights as boys.