Robert Blair

Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affrairs
Robert Blair
Assistant Professor of Political Science
A government’s mandate to govern is usually among the casualties of a civil war. Robert Blair is studying how public trust can be rebuilt among the citizenry. That requires a lot more than the passage of time.

When the gunfire has stopped and the dead have been buried at the end of a civil war, trust must somehow be rebuilt for the state to govern again. Robert Blair, assistant professor of political science and international affairs, focuses on a crucial part of that problem: the restoration of the rule of law via policing.

“All of my work has basically been trying to understand the different mechanisms that might allow governments to regain that lost trust,” Blair said. “I’ve been focusing increasingly on the police because that’s often the face of the state in people’s everyday lives.”

His studies, often based on experimentation rather than mere observation or description, have brought him to places like Liberia. There, before Ebola, the population suffered two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that killed about 250,000 people. Ever since, the democratic central government has struggled to expand the rule of law in many communities where police have either never been or are bitterly remembered as predatory, rather than protective.

“The Liberian government is creating these new deployments of police officers accompanied by court officials and they are sending them out to hub towns,” he said. “The idea is that from some of these hub towns, the police are going to be reaching out into different communities, including ones that are very far flung. You drive in a Land Cruiser for five hours and then you get out and you take a motorbike for an hour and then you walk for another 45 minutes and you are there.”

Working with the government, Blair has been running a randomized controlled trial among communities to test approaches for this outreach. Over the last year – with notable interruption from the Ebola pandemic – the police have been visiting some of the outlying villages three or four times. A Liberian research assistant is observing the interactions to gather data for the study. Meanwhile, some communities have remained unvisited, for now, as controls. A key measure is whether the “confidence patrols” do harm or good for rebuilding the value villagers see in the state.

Blair, who earned his Ph.D. at Yale earlier this year, now brings the ongoing project (as well as a book idea) to Brown. Meanwhile, he is planning with colleagues to begin a similar trial in Colombia, which is also recovering from years of violence between the central government and insurgents who had dominated the countryside.

Both Brown and Colombia are beloved places for Blair. He earned an A.B. at Brown in education studies, comparative literature, and creative writing in 2006. On a Fulbright fellowship, he traveled to Colombia where he worked with local psychology researchers on ways to teach children who had affected by years of war.

“I loved Colombia and really didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I needed to find something that would let me stay.”

The Fulbright program would continue to pay his way for another year if he enrolled as a full-time graduate student. One of the few options with his preferred timing was a master’s program in resolution of armed conflict at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

“It turns out that I really liked that,” he said. His contacts in Colombia recommended that the best place for further study would be Yale.

Now he’s looking forward to launching his faculty career back at Brown, where as a prospective student he had applied early decision.

“Brown was always my top choice,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.”