Flowers Beyond War: Eric Mvukiyehe Cultivates Peace Studying Sub-State Violence

Eric Mvukiyehe tends to his garden at his home
Eric Mvukiyehe tills his home garden in Durham, N.C. (Nya Lichaé McCray / Trinity Communications)

Eric Mvukiyehe shifted in his seat. “Yeah, so that was a little bit traumatic, that day.”

Years before he became an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, he was studying medicine at the University of Kinshasa in The Republic of Zaire. On June 7, 1996, students protested the kleptocracy of President Mobutu Sese Seko on campus. Gunfire from Mobutu’s military scrambled students and a fleeing vehicle crashed into Mvukiyehe, breaking his legs. He was 18-years-old and in critical condition. But things got worse when he arrived at the care clinic.

The Mobutu regime was overseeing the clinic. “I was left to my wounds without any care,” Mvukiyehe remembered. In the days to come, Mvukiyehe experienced painful contractions that the doctors dismissed. A nurse discovered he was developing tetanus. “What is happening?" Mvukiyehe remembered thinking as he was rushed into intensive care. Mvukiyehe returned to the university after extensive rehabilitation, but the protest from the previous year and the challenges he faced receiving medical attention turned him away from medicine and toward studying law. 

By 1999, civil war became so engulfing that Mvukiyehe fled to a United Nations protection camp. “I don't think I had a choice; it was a life-or-death situation,” he said. He was evacuated out of the Congo and relocated to Seattle. 

“He was very much alone,” Jim Harvey remembered. Mvukiyehe did not speak English at that time, but Harvey offered him a job working in his wholesale flower distribution shop. 

Mvukiyehe would arrive early to work in the cooler, bundling flowers into bouquets and picking up English words and phrases along the way. “And every day it was extremely cold, especially coming from a country where we did not experience winters as we do here,” Mvukiyehe said. Harvey promoted him to work on floor arrangements, and then to customer sales. “Some of my customers were my best English teachers,” Mvukiyehe said. 

New familial ties bloomed. Harvey invited Mvukiyehe over for Thanksgiving. His elderly mother taught Mvukiyehe how to drive a car. A customer named Susan grew to treat Mvukiyehe as an adopted son. “This kid! I remember at different times just kind of looking at him and thinking that he is destined for such great things,” Harvey said. 

“People wonder today why I'm so in love with plants,” Mvukiyehe said, looking out the window. 

A close up portrait of Eric Mvukiyehe
Eric Mvukiyehe (Nya Lichaé McCray / Trinity Communications)

After a few years of working, learning and adapting, Mvukiyehe began attending the University of Washington (UW), where he met Erik Wibbels, who was then a member of their faculty. Wibbels became a mentor to Mvukiyehe, encouraging him to consider graduate studies in political science. Wibbels only learned about his remarkable personal story later. “That he could go from seriously injured student activist to talented student of law at the top university in the Congo to a refugee in West Africa to an undergrad at the top university in Washington is still amazing to consider." 

Mvukiyehe went on to receive an award for the best graduating major in political science. “I could barely get the words out about how proud and amazed I was at his drive and joyfulness and curiosity,” said Wibbels, who presented him the award. 

They went separate ways. Mvukiyehe pursued a Ph.D. at Columbia University and Wibbels became an associate professor of political science at Duke. Mvukiyehe’s publications and his consulting work in international development during his doctorate helped position him as a staff economist for the World Bank. “Working for renowned organizations like the United Nations, USAID and the World Bank had been a dream come true for me,” Mvukiyehe remembered.

In 2014, Mvukiyehe helped establish the Evidence for Peace (E4Peace) program at the World Bank to evaluate the impact of aid programs in fragile and conflict zones across the planet. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mvukiyehe’s family still lives, is one of the fifteen countries monitored by E4Peace. 

Mvukiyehe traveled with his team to a small remote village in Burundi, whose borders are only a few hours from his family’s city of Goma, to gather data after a civil war. During the interviews, Mvukiyehe recalled, “some were sharing stories that they held for a very long time and became very emotional. They thanked us for coming to their villages, and said that it showed them that somebody, somewhere in the world, cares about their community.” 

Leading E4Peace often meant traveling for half of the year. Mvukiyehe collected a lot of data that was prepared for policy and analysis and academic publication. At its peak, Mvukiyehe oversaw a team that led almost half of the randomized control trials conducted by the E4Peace program. Upon his departure from the World Bank, methodologies and data were incorporated into the organization's Development Impact department, which often partners with faculty and graduate students. He joined Duke in 2021.

“Coming back into academia gave me more space to analyze the wealth of data I have collected with more depth before embarking on new research projects,” Mvukiyehe noted. At Duke, he carries momentum built from years of executive policy program management. “My research interests revolve around substate order and violence in its various forms, as well as the understanding of material and non-material microfoundations of order restoration,” he said. 

There are four branches of Mvukiyehe's research: peacekeeping interventions, public goods provisions, gender roles in the labor market and politics, and employment insecurity. 

Information imbalances between the masses and elites, challenges to voter coordination and social dislocation all conspire to suppress stability in post-conflict and war-torn regions. "My research seeks to address these shortcomings. It also evaluates the effectiveness of third-party interventions, in particular peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations designed to address these constraints, and explores how these interventions interact with pre-existing local institutions and processes to shape socioeconomic and political orders from below."

In fragile regions with limited state capacity, Mvukiyehe studies governance and decentralized public goods provisions. He focuses on accountability and how community-level institutions and local service delivery processes can improve state capacity and address collective action problems.

His third branch of research studies the links between gender norms and spousal dynamics in households as they relate to labor market opportunities and women's political empowerment. Economic insecurity is also linked to levels of institutional trust and state legitimacy, and in this fourth branch, Mvukiyehe studies how interventions to bolster economic opportunity and community service grants can reduce economic insecurity, particularly among at-risk youth.

“The root of violence is poverty and understanding how poverty shapes economic, social and political phenomena and how best to reduce it, if not eradicate it, is key to addressing violence and its consequences,” Mvukiyehe said. “I'm sure some of this is in part due to my own background, as a refugee, having experienced conflict and violence firsthand, since my mid-teens.” 

Eric Mvukiyehe looks down at flowers in his garden
Eric Mvukiyehe (Nya Lichaé McCray / Trinity Communications)

Some of Mvukiyehe’s recent research addresses poverty by studying the effectiveness of various forms of cash transfer strategies to boost economic development. In North Africa and the Middle East, cash-for-work programming that subsidizes employees’ salaries has been found to be more effective when distributed to women who tend to steward the money more responsibly. But constraints in the labor market and the power dynamics of households see these programs limited to short-term benefits. Mvukiyehe and his coauthors setup a randomized experiment in Tunisia to find out if adding men to a training program that guided female partners to steward a cash grant would backfire. It did. Households where male partners participated in the training program saw higher rates of expropriated money and wasteful spending. 

In another study, impoverished islanders on the small Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros often attempt to migrate to a richer nearby island, Mayotte. The World Bank funded a cash-for-work program on Comoros with the primary goal of reducing poverty. Mvukiyehe and his coauthors were interested in whether this program would support border stability or incentivize higher rates of migration to Mayotte. But instead of resulting in incremental economic growth and stability on the archipelago, cash transfers emboldened emigration. 

“What these results tell us is that cash for work programs may be a temporary advantageous solution, but on their own, they are not likely to generate the kind of economic gain needed for long term sustainability and could even have perverse effects.” 

As Mvukiyehe has settled into his faculty role at Duke, colleagues in political science offered to co-teach classes with him to soften the return to coursework planning. “This allowed me to experience teaching and engage with students again, but to develop my own courses at my own pace." 

And his pace has changed. Mvukiyehe’s days still start early in the morning because many of his collaborating researchers are around the world. “Since my undergraduate years, I’ve been described as a workaholic,” Mvukiyehe said. But his days and years are now filled with more than work and travel. “I try to dedicate a part of my afternoon to spending quality time with my daughter,” he said. 

“I've also come to appreciate that my research problems won't be solved in a day. Every summer now, I work in my garden with my daughter.”